Riding the coat tails of tragedy
I’ve been on the periphery of two major events. Both continue to affect the lives of thousands of people. And both, I’m ashamed to say, have been exploited callously by science fiction movies.
My 9/11 story is inconsequential. About a week before the tragedy, I had an interview in Grosvenor Square, London – just next to the American Embassy – with a major oil producing company. They wanted me to document their work in a way that would talk up their environmental credentials and reshape public opinion. If I accepted the role, I’d attend a series of briefings in a month’s time, in their New York offices in the World Trade Center.
I deliberated hard about whether I wanted to write promotional materials for an old world polluter. I was probably going to take the assignment, simply because I love New York. But in the event, of course, it never happened.
Like millions of people, I watched the events unfold at Ground Zero. I felt every moment of that obscenity, and mourned those three thousand lost lives. Nothing, certainly not time, can alleviate the horror of that day.
Since then, science fiction movies have restaged 9/11 many times over. One of the first was Cloverfield (2008), whose giant monster toppled buildings at will, and where the dazed kids staggered coughing through the dust clouds with their mobile phones held aloft, documenting who knows what for who knows who.
This year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier upped the ante with shots of a vast, floating aircraft carrier crashing into a tower. Of course, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) did it bigger, but this felt more personal – more of an affront to the victims and all they left behind.
The second tragedy was the offshore earthquake that struck the Tohoku region of Japan one bright cold afternoon in March 2011 and claimed the lives of 18,000 people.
I was in Tokyo where I live, 300 kilometers from the epicenter. The worst that happened to me, after the shocks had settled down, was having to walk home across the city under unreal skies squally with rain. When I finally got to embrace my wife and baby son, we sat to watch the tsunami gulping and burning and battering its way across the coast to the north of us, sweeping away cities and people with alacrity. Those images, too, are seared on my mind forever.
We then endured the slowly unfolding nightmare at the Fukushima nuclear power station (240 kilometers from Tokyo). While TEPCO management and the Diet vacillated, obstructed, and spread wanton misinformation, workers struggled to contain the radiation.
As many as 100,000 people in this overcrowded country were told to leave their homes (a 30km radius evacuation zone). They’ve never been allowed to return, except for fleeting visits to collect mementoes and bury the starved corpses of their pets. This is a coast of refugees, all up its length.
It was inevitable that science fiction movies would exploit the Tohoku disaster, too. This came recently in the form of Gareth Edwards’s ugly remake of Godzilla, which did its best to be insensitive to as many people as possible.
The tale begins with a leak at a Japanese nuclear power station and the evacuation of the surrounding area. A little later the coast is battered by a tsunami.
Like Cloverfield, the incomprehensibility of real life events are personified into the forms of giant monsters. You could argue this was always the case with Godzilla, originally a grim warning but long since descended into comic-book farce. But that hardly excuses Edwards’s distasteful ride on the coat tails of tragedy. Like me, you were probably waiting for a plane to crash into a tower and for buildings to come tumbling down. Yes, that happened too.
Tohoku seems personal to me, for obvious reasons. Japan is my home, and these are my people. It hurts that all this pain has been turned into mainstream entertainment.
Of course, war movies and crime thrillers have always traded on human misery. But I’d argue that science fiction movies are different. They’re rarely intended to make political arguments, to honor quietly heroic actions, or to vilify the perpetrators of real-life atrocities. (Cartoon villains don’t count.) They’re intended to entertain.
With that in mind, then, do directors like Edwards feel they’ve somehow raised the bar when they make references to genuine tragedies? If so, it’s not nearly high enough. It merely shows how little science fiction has progressed in the century of its existence. And there’s a bitter irony in that.
Small people populate my own books. Ordinary people, like the firefighters of New York and the nuclear workers of Fukushima, swept up in tragedies of a personal scale. They’re not Hollywood heroes. They’re not invincible. They don’t wisecrack through the crisis, and swagger away from it unaffected.
In my novel Biome, my lead character Ruth Shannon is traumatized by the events she lives through. She’s paralyzed with shock. She knows only that she must survive, as we all do in similar circumstances.
My characters work to rebuild their lives, as the courageous survivors of New York and Tohoku have done. I don’t envisage even one of them going to see a movie as distasteful as Godzilla.
Imagine sitting there, watching a crassly fictionalized version of your deepest horror up on the big screen, with cola in your mouth and popcorn on your knee, and kids squealing their delight all around you in the stalls. Is this really the best that mainstream science fiction can do?