One of the reasons I enjoy science fiction is that one is transported to world different from the one I live in. Over the years, book authors and movie writers have gravitated to scenarios their generations have found to be most appealing or frightening.
The trend for today’s generation appears to be zombies, with everything from pocket books to television series to movies dealing with a bleak world engulfed by hordes of re-animated dead. Apart from avoiding their bite, survivors need to set up a safe base of operations and scrounge for food to survive.
The rise of the Marvel and DC universes is a more positive alternative to the dark world occupied by zombies. In the world of comics, super heroes still live in the cities you and I currently occupy. High rise buildings, abundant food supplies, and even healthy populations thrive in a universe where evil super-powered beings plot their demise and destruction.
How Was Science Fiction Then?
During my time, which is what I would characterize as probably being the tail end of the golden age of science fiction, the world that occupied our collective consciousness was a world of minimal human life. Widespread deaths due to famine, pestilence, or the aftereffects of a nuclear war was the trend. In these alternative worlds, cities would still be standing, but in a state of decay due to the lack of people maintaining them.
Food would be scarce because farmland, as well as the farmers tilling them, would be ravaged and decimated. The only way the few remaining people could survive would be to scrounge around for canned food. These long-lasting sources of sustenance can be tucked behind the shelves of a city grocery store emptied years before; they can be found in abandoned suburban homes; and they can even be piled up in underground bunkers scattered beyond the suburbs.
Apart from searching for food, the remaining humans would have to deal with mutated animals, mostly giant insects and highly aggressive and oversized rats. Weapons would initially be composed of pistols and rifles that would have been modified over time with whatever could be found. Barrels would be replaced with small water pipes or air conditioning tubes. Rifle stocks and pistol grips would be made of wooden chairs and even strips of leather. And these would all be put together with rolls of duct tape. In the end, it would be the ancient weapons that would dominate – knives, slingshots, as well as bows and arrows.
The movies back then, all in black and white, reflected the bleakness of such a negative future. Every shadow might be cast by a giant ant; curtains of webbing could hide enormous spiders; the near-silent sound of rustling leaves could indicate the movement of the vines of a man-eating plant; quick tapping and scraping might mean that gigantic armored cockroaches were roaming; and high pitched whines could signal the presence of highly aggressive mammals hunting in packs.
As a kid with an active imagination, I remember playing games that would sometimes reflect these bleak scenarios. Whether it was running around trees in the garden or hiding under wooden boxes inside the house, everything became a threat, including the pet dogs we had.
As I began to move into high school, the pall of living under the cold war continued to prevail. Amassing a small amount of survival gear, these saw practical use in camping and hiking over a decade or so.
How Was Reality Then?
Perhaps the first time when the thought of surviving became real was during the bombardment of Camps Aguinaldo and Crame during the first EDSA revolution covering February 22 to 25, 1986. The frames of our windows would rattle every time the bombs released by planes detonated.
At this point, the festive mood of the crowd occupying EDSA was still unimaginable. From a survival point of view, it was as bad as it got for the metropolitan city’s population. Catching people by surprise, we never had the opportunity to stock up on vital supplies like food, water, gasoline, LPG, and yes, even toilet paper. A news blackout was put in place, but Radio Veritas was around to help people understand what was going on. Thankfully, those uncertain days ended in a bloodless revolution.
How are Science Fiction and Reality Now?
The recent announcement of a Luzon-wide quarantine had me momentarily look back at my younger days. Expanding from Metropolitan Manila to the rest of the Philippines’ largest island meant travel would be limited, companies would be closed, and people would be prevented from congregating in large groups.
And unlike previous situations, the rise of the internet has contributed to the spread of information, real or fake. And while the established news organizations continue to be operational to spread official information, the internet is abuzz with “advanced information.” This has led to long queues at groceries, drugstores, and supermarkets days before any official announcements were made.
I cannot help but look at today’s situation through the eyes of science fiction of yesterday. What is happening now is that the very people who are trying to survive serve as carriers of the virus threatening to kill them. If that doesn’t scream science fiction, I don’t know what else does!
So, what happens next?
My days of worrying about the apocalypse have long since passed. Having lived through the cold war, worldwide recession of the early 1970s and late 1980s, eruption of Mount Pinatubo, end of the Mayan calendar, the Y2K scare, water and power shortages, financial crisis of the late 2000s, has ended in my selling or giving away my camping gear. The overall stability of the Philippines, and even the rest of the world, also contributed to my comparatively relaxed attitude towards the future.
But now that a new threat has surfaced, I cannot help but recall the books and movies I have consumed over the years once more. And while the endings have resulted in either the survival or mass extinction of mankind, I do believe humanity’s effort today will yield a positive conclusion yet again.
You’re probably arguing that everything I watched and read is pure fiction, making my optimism falsely founded. True, the situations, characters, and even behavior of the viruses are either non-existent or exaggerated. But then, you may be surprised that governments and the medical community around the world have reacted in similar ways to their fictional counterparts – quarantining people, closing borders, preventing contact with others, shutting down businesses, keeping vital services running, providing continuous news updates, and attempting to develop a vaccine.
It is only upon accepting who the real enemy is – we are it – that humanity will overcome. We are the true threat because we ourselves are the carriers. It is not the air, it is not the water, it is not the bite of an animal, and it is not radiation. According to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, it is believed to be transmitted person-to-person and via the miniscule droplets of liquid that we cough or sneeze out. These droplets can then settle on the skin or on surfaces that people come into contract with.
By altering our actions and habits to conform to those recommended by the scientific and medical communities, the transmission of the virus may be slowed down. This should minimize taxing our limited medical resources and buy more time for our scientists to develop a vaccine.
So, has the future of science fiction finally arrived? It sure looks that way. But just like in the books and movies, I believe that a positive outcome can be achieved through the alteration of human behavior.