9/11 and Science Fiction

Glenn Reynolds (prompted by a post by Andrew Fox) muses on the absence of 9/11 (and by extension the War on Terror) from science fiction, which Fox speculates is a taboo subject.

Carl and I started writing In the Shadow of Ares one week before 9/11, so the genesis of the book spans the world before and the world after, in a way. Yet we consciously avoided making reference to the event or to the War on Terror and its various manifestations in the backstory to the novel. Is it because the subject is taboo? (It wasn’t when we began, quite the opposite.) Is it because we chose to be politically correct? (Hardly – if it had been unacceptably politically incorrect to talk about it, that would have been motivation in itself to work something in.)

No: it’s because the matter isn’t settled. It’s hard to extrapolate a likely future from current events when those events are so volatile and unpredictable. Five years or even one year later, any future history based around certain seemingly-likely developments of current conditions could be overtaken by events in the real world, rendering it not merely inaccurate, but wholly or even absurdly wrong. Just look at near-future science fiction from the late-1990s which understandably failed to anticipate 9/11 itself. For that matter, who would have expected from reading science fiction prior to 9/10/01 that the singular historical event of 2001 would have been a major terrorist attack rather than the discovery of an alien-built monolith?

Predicting the future by hewing closely to current trends is asking for trouble, so, we decided to simply gloss over the next two decades and begin our future with the first mission to Mars (and a nearly-simultaneous asteroid impact in the Atlantic) in 2025.

We do touch on Islamic terrorism in a couple of little ways, however. We refer several times to a settlement named “New Tel Aviv” — we haven’t had reason to include the backstory yet, but there is a reason for the “New” part. In the sequel, which we are writing now, terrorism is a key element of one character’s backstory as well as and element of the overall plot — but is played so as to illustrate that it is a dead practice, long abandoned even by radicals much as anarchist bombings and assassinations were all the rage in the three decades leading up to WWI. Indeed, the younger characters, when confronted with what appears to be terrorism, don’t know what to make of it any more than a teenager today would know what to make of “propaganda of the deed”.

I don’t for a second doubt that there are writers (and editors and publishers) who shy away from anything to do with Islamic radicalism or terrorism in science fiction since 9/11. Islam certainly wasn’t taboo before 9/11 given books like Terra and Jitterbug and short stories like Juhani Appleseed (note that in film, the producers of The Sum of All Fears have explained that they changed the villains from Arab nationalists to neo-Nazis well before 9/11 because the former had become cliche…while the latter had, apparently, not), but one would expect that the same political correctness which has made criticism or even insufficiently positive portrayals off limits in other areas of the arts to have done its damage in science fiction as well.

If you read carefully, however, you will find one small but poignant reference to 9/11 buried in In the Shadow of Ares. It has to do with the diggers, and anyone who watched the on-the-street video during and after the collapses streaming throughout the day on 9/11 itself should immediately recognize it.