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Disaster Advice from Science Fiction and Fantasy

NYC FloodingNatural disasters are something that all of us live with regardless of location. Hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes…it’s a really long list of the things that could go wrong very quickly and there isn’t anything we small humans can do about it. Sure there are things we can do to mitigate the effect of a major storm surge, but as soon as someone says that something is “wave-proof” or some other silly hubris fueled declaration of infallibility, nature cracks her knuckles and says, “Challenge accepted.”

Since we live under the threat of a big disaster just about everywhere, this gets reflected a bit in how we see crisis management in our science fiction and fantasy as well. Granted natural disasters tend to be the purvey of B-grade science fiction popcorn flicks, but there’s a little bit of useful advice to be had in portraying crisis management in fiction. This has not gone unnoticed by such official organizations as the Center for Disease Control who have a zombie preparedness page.

The following is advice gleaned from fantasy and science fiction on how to survive after a disaster hits.

Don’t panic and keep your towel with you. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams)
Nothing ever gets solved with panicking. Panicking will make things worse. Towels are useful in so many different ways and in so many different situations that it really is silly not to have a big soft fluffy one in your emergency kit.

Cardio (Zombieland)
Being fit enough to keep going for long periods of time is useful for more things than just outrunning zombies. If you are flooded out with limited gas, a row boat or kayak will become the means of ferrying things. Lots of tall buildings with no power? Lots of stairs. Blocked roads? Deploy the feet. Also, being at least a little fit means that you are capable to help those who are stuck for whatever reason.

Cracked Highway, Portage, Alaska: Steinbrugge Collection, Earthquake Engineering Research Center, UC BerkeleyStick together. (Scream)
Okay, horror movies are always more of a study of what not to do when a disaster or a masked axe murder strikes, but having a buddy (or two or three or a dozen) to help carry messages to others, point out where someone is stuck, look out for potential hazards, distribute supplies or offer a hug is useful.

Always have an exit plan. (Q from the James Bond films)
The first rule of rescuing one person is to not make two victims. Having a place to retreat to is a really good idea in all emergencies. Remember what I said earlier about nature taking hubris as a challenge? Have a plan B.

Be determined, but not stupid. (Alien)
Yes, there are going to be physical or logistical obstacles in the way. There are ways around them, like the way to tell a xenomorph to bugger off is when you have a big power suit around you.

Don’t blink. (Doctor Who)
Pay attention to what’s going on around you. It doesn’t matter if you are dealing with quantum locked monsters or downed power lines.

Things can be replaced, lives can’t. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
Yes we know that the Holy Grail and your iPhone 5 are RIGHT THERE, but the time to pick them up is not when you are dangling over a precipice moments away from safety or a sudden splatter death. If it doesn’t look like you are in eminent danger of a terrifying demise, then grab what you need in a prompt manner and get out.

Be brave, take things as they come, and try to stay optimistic. (Dorothy Gale from the Oz books, L. Frank Baum)
The girl went through a tornado, got swept overboard in a storm at sea, swallowed underground by an earthquake and then had her family’s farm foreclosed on. She did what she could when she could and kept hoping that tomorrow would bring her a little closer to a better situation. And she got out of all of it to get back to her family.

Little things count. (The Hobbit, Redshirts, Coraline and too many other things to name)
So you retreated at the first call to do so and are the among the first into a shelter point. No one has arrived to take charge yet. What do you do? Well, you and the people with you clearly need to start organizing things like making sure the families with dogs aren’t right next to the families with cats and that the families with pet allergies can be away from the critters and setting up a check in so someone knows who is there. There are lots of little things that need to be done and every little bit helps.

No Critter Left Behind (Toto, The Cat from Coraline)
Our pets provide us with a lot of comfort. Have an emergency plan that includes their food, a carrier (or leash) and a few toys. Even tropical fish should not be left behind to die by cold salt water shock or be boiled alive (for them an emergency kit involves an air pump and a bucket).

Yellowstone Forest Fire by Jim PeacoPhone home. (ET the Extra Terrestrial)
I’ve been in emergency situations. My family has been in emergencies where I was way too far away to do anything but pace circles into the carpet. The time between the call saying, “We need to evacuate, what do you want saved?” and “We’re safe and out of immediate danger, but the air is orange.” (true story) is not particularly fun. Granted, having to evacuate oneself isn’t any fun either, but when evacuating what you have to do is pretty straightforward. Don’t let your loved ones think that you’ve been crushed under a tree or burned to a crisp or a squished by a pancaked highway or eaten by a sudden rampaging horde of brain eating zombies.

Deal with disaster now, figure out who to blame it on later. (Lamentation, Ken Scholes)
When you need to get people fed, dry and warm, that’s what needs to happen first. There will be time to throttle the idiot who added a new stinky pile of manure to a crappy situation later.

Disaster means displacement. (Karavans, Jennifer Robeson)
Well this one is depressing but true for more than just disasters of the natural sort. Houses burn, get flattened, become flooded, you end up in a forest that eats people. In some areas the courses of rivers change or you find out that the mountain with the lovely view of the ocean is a volcano. In any case, sometimes the insurance payout isn’t what you thought it was going to be. It sucks, but as far as life on a geologically and meteorologically active planet goes, it’s also completely normal for everything that respirates. Recovery tends to be a long, slow process and things are never quite the same afterwards…even though we would like to axe that whole “long and slow” business in favor of “right this second” and there’s always someone who wants things to go back to what they were.

Tornado by Zachary CaronBe a decent human being. (Boneshaker, Cherie Priest)
A lot of stories featuring disasters like to assume that everyone will suddenly be out for themselves, that chaos will reign like Sauron over the orcs. Yes you sometimes get a bunch of people acting like three year olds who’ve been given an espresso or five and then told that they aren’t getting any presents for {insert gift giving holiday of choice}… but then some realize that having a tantrum or looting is the equivalent of a monkey throwing feces and so they decide to set up desk and a sign that says “Want to help? Volunteer here!” and the people who have a maturity age greater than their shoe size eventually find it and things start to get cleaned up. Then they start to expand out and find other like minded groups of people to collaborate with such things as running food and water to the trapped, disabled and rescue personnel, distributing food and blankets, and other such things to preserve society after broad sweeping disaster.

There are still plenty of people who are more than willing to be the evil inventor happily taking advantage of a zombie plague for their own purposes. But as it turns out, there are quite a few people who are in fact decent human beings even under pressure. They are awesome. They are the ones who help put things back together afterwards. They are the ones who help make stressful times a little bit better, if only for a moment.

– – –

It should be noted that at the time of this publication that disasters have ongoing effects that can last for decades afterwards, just look at the building codes in California and Japan or how many blocks in New Orleans are still largely abandoned. Or look at how many cities are built on top of the ruins of what used to be there and how those previous settlements met their demise. Routine natural disasters should have a place in SFF worldbuilding. After all, dealing with them leaves plenty of room for character development and growth.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that we can find ways to deal with massive collective upheaval in speculative fiction. It’s something that everyone might have to deal with someday.

Title image Storm In The Mountains by Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902).

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