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The arts and September 11, 2001

How should the arts respond to the events of September 11?

This question is being asked from Broadway to Hollywood, from the studios of artists to the rehearsal halls of theatres to the offices of authors.

It’s even being asked by practitioners of my own art form, written science fiction. After all, in many ways, what we saw on our TV screens mimicked fictional disasters from science fiction books over the last 50 years. New York–indeed, the entire world–has been destroyed in any number of imaginative ways, from nuclear war to alien attack to flooding from global warming. But dare we continue to imagine such things in the face of the awful reality? Did we somehow help make this disaster a reality by imagining such things in the first place?

Gary K. Wolfe, writing in Locus Online, says, “Catastrophe is no longer an off-the-shelf narrative commodity. The historical processes that we may have assumed were defining the 21st century may still be in place, but there are other historical processes at work, too, and ones that we can no longer ignore. The future isn’t what it used to be, and now it’s coming at us from a part of the world that we know more from Kipling than from SF. A big chunk of SF doesn’t belong to SF anymore, I thought. What are we supposed to do now?”

To which I reply, do what we’ve always done: write. Imagine the futures that could arise from this present and dramatize them; get people thinking about the consequences of actions taken today, or actions that may be taken tomorrow.

What has struck me as odd throughout the past few weeks is the number of people who seemed almost unable to comprehend that these attacks were real, as if it had never crossed their minds that such a thing was possible.

To me, accustomed to reading science fiction and the raw materials of science fiction–articles about future possibilities–the attacks were a shock, yes, but certainly not unbelievable. Through books, I’ve already lived in versions of the future where such things take place. In fact, I’ve lived in versions of the future where much worse things take place.

I’ve often thought that the greatest value of science fiction (and I’m including near-future thrillers like some of Tom Clancy’s work in that category) is that it prepares people for change; not for specific changes, necessarily (science fiction isn’t intended to be predictive, though it occasionally turns out to be), but for change in general.

Change, after all, is what has distinguished the past couple of centuries from all the centuries that came before. In the dark and middle ages, centuries passed without much change beyond the occasional redrawing of borders. But beginning with the Renaissance and then picking up speed, science and its handmaiden, technology, have remade our world many times over.

Science fiction ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, like every other art form, but the one constant theme within it is that tomorrow will not be like today; that our current situation, what ever it may be, is temporary, subject to forces often beyond our control. Nor does science fiction insist that all change is beneficial; probably more science fiction has been written about the unintended negative consequences of scientific and technological discoveries than about the benefits of such discoveries, simply because that tends to make for more interesting stories.

So should science fiction draw back from imagining catastrophes like the attack on the World Trade Center? No. Imagining future catastrophes may help us prevent them. At the very least, it may help us deal with them when they happen, to accept them as real and move on more quickly to recovery and rebuilding.

And the same thing holds true of other art forms, I believe. Release the movies held back because of subject matter. Mount the exhibits of artwork featuring the twin towers, and create new art dealing directly with the terrorist attacks. Write poetry and books dealing with every aspect of the attacks.

The futures imagined by the writers of science fiction, and the work of artists in all other fields, will–must–change to reflect the events of September 11, but the creating of art, whether deeply reflective or purely entertaining, has certainly not been rendered irrelevant, any more than it was rendered irrelevant by the events of the Second World War, or Vietnam, or the Cold War, or the AIDS epidemic, or any of the other thousand-and-one terrible things that have happened in the past few decades–or, for that matter, by the discovery of insulin, the landing on the moon, the eradication of smallpox, or any of the other thousand-and-one wonderful things that have happened.

Disaster and achievement, loss and victory, good and bad, are all inextricably mixed together in our lives on scales ranging from the very personal to the national, and all should be reflected in the creative arts.

How should the arts respond to the events of September 11?

By absorbing them, incorporating them, and helping us think about them–just as the arts have always done.

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