This Saturday I started Wordstock off cheerily with a panel on The End Of The World. Three writers met to discuss their novels with an apocalyptic setting and the theme in general. They were:
Portland's own Daniel H. Wilson, a science fiction writer who holds a PhD in robotics. His career started with a small series of surprise bestselling novelty books, How to Survive A Robot Uprising, et al, which eventually morphed into full blown novel writing. His bestselling novel Robopocalypse, is being turned into a movie by Steven Fucking Spielberg.
Kaite Kacvinsky, an educator and YA author whose novel Awaken is set in a world where life is lived largely by remote. People socialize, learn, date, and exist in private hovels of digital connectedness. The protagonist is a girl who enjoys playing soccer, one of the few physical activities she participates in. And through soccer, she meets a boy, and shit goes down. Dudes:
We ruin everything.
Peter Heller is a well-rounded writer. He contributes to National Geographic Adventure, Men's Journal, and more. He mostly writes nonfiction books but this last year he published The Dog Stars, set in a world where a flu has wiped out 99.7% of the population. He has a plane, a dog, and a off-kilter neighbor who owns a bunch of guns. It's equal turns poetic, exciting, grim, wistful. It sounds pretty good.
Moderating was David Oates.
The panel began with everyone reading part of their novels. Awaken sounded interesting. The concepts are a little half baked, but the voice is earnest and well imagined. It's more of a dystopia than an apocalypse. Peter Heller chose a passage to specifically refute a review that called his book "cozy." Wilson read the part of his book where the machines turn murderously sentient. It sounds like it will look awesome as a movie. I'm a little disappointed there's no one with an environmental disaster book on the panel.
The first question asked was: "How you find an emotional storytelling component in a post-apocalyptic setting? When all hope is gone, how do you motivate the characters?"
Daniel H. Wilson says he doesn't worry about it. "I think humans are really badass, and that we're really good at surviving." Then he talks about how survival is our species' specialty, and how technology aids that. "Nature would kill us in a night without technology." And how this informs his themes. "That's why I cast technology as the bad guy. The robots are projections of our weakness, and then the humans fight them. And they win! And then walk away!" (All quotes are approximations.)
Katie Kacvinsky is more intimidated by technology. Awaken was inspired by moving to the Northwest and loving its natural beauty, but then being alarmed by our dependance on and obsession with technology. She thinks our world is already a dystopia (this concept will develop as the talk goes on). When she walks into a classroom and asks kids if they know anyone with an internet addiction, everyone laughs and raises their hands. They all think it's really funny. But she's concerned with the way we develop so quickly, the way we live and communicate changing so fast, and that we need to keep it in check.
Peter Heller laughs and talks about a scientist friend of his (he has lots of scientist friends) who just got to drive the Mars Rover for a day. Not like, take a cruise with it, he had to listen to the scientists, but he got to man the controls. And he was so excited, saying things like, There was an avalanche and a mountain range and I was right there! Then Peter Heller chuckles and moves on to his other scientist friend who studies extinction. From a biocentric POV, the earth is experiencing a shitty time. "The mass extinction is now! This is the sixth mass extinction!" It bothers him, and it should bother people. When he asks his friend, who is so fascinated by catastrophe, why he's not more worried about his wife and friends and child, his friends says "Don't be so high maintenance." The point is that we can navigate this stuff, but we really have to get to it. Like now.
Daniel H. Wilson thinks we will find a new way. "Once everything blows up, you have to see where the pieces land and go from there." He mentions he is currently working on a sequel to Robopocalypse that deals with exactly this concept, finding a way forward after destruction.
An audience member asked the group what they thought of the current fixation on dystopian settings, particularly in young adult fiction. The panel mostly agreed that it was the hot topic of the moment, and a trend.
DHW says that kids like dystopian books because it levels the playing field and it gives characters a chance to be heroes
Katie thinks people are working out their fears. She also is not sure why The Hunger Games is so popular because she thinks kids killing each other is kind of messed up. She says, "Things change fast and people sense that."
Daniel H. Wilson makes a final point that it wasn't so long ago that people saw the first picture of Earth from space and realized how small our planet was and that we could actually harm it. That it causes us to feel immense power and fear.
The moderator closes with a fun fact: the first printed book with images was Durer's illustrations of the end of the world.