Fiction is powerful

This week’s revelation that anti-vaccine activists have been citing a plot point from 2007’s I Am Legend serves as a good reminder of fiction’s ability to shape our understanding of reality.

Fiction is powerful
Image: Village Roadshow

Happy Friday!

It's been a quiet week here: lots of behind-the-scenes work on a bunch of different projects, along with a sick kid who's been home from daycare for a couple of days. (Hence, this week's late email, apologies.)

There's been a lot of chatter about the surge of the Delta variant across the US and world, and there was a weird intersection with genre fiction this week. (Also, please get vaccinated if you haven't already. It's safe!)

Image: Andrew Liptak

Don't discount the power that fiction holds

Last week, The New York Times took a look at Metro Optics Eyewear, a company that's been struggling to get all of its employees vaccinated: it's got six holdouts, and the article serves as a useful reminder that while we've got a safe and effective vaccine that's been used millions of times, there are still people reluctant to take it. There are some of the familiar arguments here: people are concerned about safety, conspiracy theories, and one that I didn't expect: the 2007 film I Am Legend.

In that film (based on Richard Matheson's 1954 novel), we're introduced to Robert Nevill (played by Will Smith), who's been surviving alone with his dog Sam in New York City amidst a zombie apocalypse. We soon learn that the outbreak was an accident: scientists had attempted to find a cure for cancer by genetically modifying the measles virus. The virus mutated and those it didn't kill turned into a sort of zombie vampire. According to the Times, that film has served as a bit of an inspiration for anti-vaccine activists.

On the face of it, it sounds ridiculous, and the film's screenwriter, Akiva Goldman wrote on Twitter that "it's a movie. I made that up. It's. Not. Real." There's been plenty of mocking takes on this on Twitter and elsewhere, and while it is worth a laugh and roll of the eyes that a 14-year-old movie might stop someone from getting a life-saving vaccine / is holding back the country from getting fully vaccinated, it's also a good demonstration about the power that storytelling holds for folks.

Science fiction is in a unique position here, because its creators are often dealing with stories and characters that brush up closely with science and technology, often dealing with concepts that are pretty complicated. The audience has a level of trust that the authors know something of what they're talking about.

And certainly, there are authors who are knowledgable in this subject matter: Gregory Benford is an astrophysicist with a PhD from the University of California in San Diego; Larry Niven studied mathematics at the University of California in Los Angeles; Timothy Zahn was on track to get his PhD in Physics at the University of Illinois before his advisor died and he turned to writing; Vandana Singh has a PhD in theoretical particle physics from Louisiana State University; Joe Haldeman earned a degree in physics and astronomy, and the list goes on. Those authors have all incorporated their education into their stories over the years, and some of that knowledge gets passed along to their readers, some of whom go on to learn more, either casually, or with a formal education. Haldeman's The Forever War is a useful book to understand time dilation, and Andy Weir's The Martian is a fun story that takes a pretty realistic look at what survival on Mars might look like — with some necessary caveats.

But while science fiction is good for imparting some of the basics, it's also good at getting things wrong. Enter the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, a boot camp for writers that crams in a semester's worth of astronomy knowledge into your head in a week's time. Run by author and professor Mike Brotherton, Jim D. Verley, and Christian Ready, its goal is to instruct authors on how the universe really works.

The idea running behind the scenes is that we learn quite a bit of inaccurate information about astronomy and physics from Hollywood, which often has to take some shortcuts for story reasons. Warp drives, hyperspace, artificial gravity, interstellar communication, and the like are all durable science fiction tropes, but which don't — as of our current understanding of the world — actually exist. It's one thing to sort of know that in the back of your head, but these ideas are pretty powerful, and as such, they can skew our sense of what's possible in space.

When I attended in 2014, I learned a lot of things: how orbital mechanics worked, the sheer scale of the universe and how things like red/blue shift work. We took a short trip up to a radio observatory (WIRO) to look at distant objects, and learned about citizen science initiatives to sift through data to discover new planets. I don't specifically remember every lesson (I'm sure my notes are squirreled away somewhere), but what I did come away with was a better understanding of how the world worked, and it's something that's informed my work as a journalist and as a fiction writer. Plus, I made some great friends there that I still keep in touch with.

The reason that Launchpad exists is because fiction can a powerful tool in shaping our views and opinions of how the world exists. Some of that is based in reality: art isn't a thing that exists in a vacuum, but carries with it elements, opinions, and worldviews of its creators. Sometimes, that goes unnoticed by most — look at some of the criticisms of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and how she depicts people, for example — or which the author's intentions and messaging is presented front and center, such as in N.K. Jemisin's The City We Became. Sometimes, it turns out that a plot device that a screenwriter used for their blockbuster film turns out to give people the wrong idea of what medical research is like.

It's not entirely surprising that the film has come up in the larger discourse of COVID; last year, 2011's Contagion became a bit of a viral because it deals with a deadly, world-wide pandemic (and some conspiracies). We often turn to fiction (here's a list that I published back in the early weeks of the pandemic) as a way to deal with the realities of the day, and bad-faith actors trying to drive a wedge in the midst of society can endlessly mine from bad depictions of science to peddle to a public that just doesn't know to question or understand the realities of the situation that we're in.

I'm not mocking those folks: it's easy to be convinced someone of false information. I just hope that they soon recognize it for what it is.  

Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently reading

I've been reading two books this week: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark and Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby. Both are excellent: The Unbroken is a fascinating anti-colonialist story following a conscripted soldier and a princess who's working to reform her nation.

Blacktop Wasteland is a really fun thriller that I've had my eye on for a while, about a former getaway driver who got out of the life years ago, but who's sucked back in when a big job comes his way. I haven't been able to put this one down.

After that, I've got a couple of other books on the shelves: The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman, Victories Greater than Death by Charlie Jane Anders, and a couple of others.

This week's stories

Comics in your email

Newsletter platform Substack announced a while back that it was exploring comics on its platform, and now, it's made some big acquisitions from the comics world. It's hired James Tynion IV, Saladin Ahmed, Molly Knox Ostertag, and Scott Snyder, who've each kicked off projects this week. There are apparently some additional writers on the way as well.

Polygon and The New York Times have some additional longer reads about the initiative, but the gist here is that they'll launch subscription comic publications, and Substack will pay them through its Substack Pro program, which is designed to help writers build up their followings with support from the company in exchange for an advance and cut of the revenue.

This seems like a really good move for Substack — I think it's a company that's really pushing some neat experimental angles in publishing, and it'll be interesting to see if it'll work for each of those authors, especially in an age of online creators being pushed to create more and more and more.

I should note that I left Substack earlier this year over concerns about their stance on content and taking care of the health of their platform. But hey, if it works for these comic writers? I think that's a net gain.

Disappearing Dune

In case you missed it, earlier this week I wrote about an audiobook narrator that was scammed into narrating a new edition of Frank Herbert's Dune, only to discover that the person who commissioned it didn't have the rights to do so, and saw it taken down: he now has a lengthy audiobook that he can't sell or do anything with (presumably until 2060, when Dune becomes public domain.)  

This was a story that hit a bunch of buttons for me: the tech / platform angle, how a scammer seemed to have manipulated Audible's ACX platform, and of course, the Dune component. To me, this is less about a guy getting scammed (that's pretty bad though), and more about how easy it is for the freelance narrators to get scammed out of their time and work. It seems like a thing that Audible should put some thought into.    

Elizabeth Bonesteel's Survival Tactics

I didn't know about this book when the August book list went out, but let me tell you about it now. Elizabeth Bonesteel has a new collection of her short fiction out now, Survival Tactics. I've enjoyed her Central Corps novels (here are my reviews for The Cold Between, Remnants of Trust, and Breach of Containment) which introduce a really great space opera world. They're certainly books that have flown under the radar, and I'd highly recommend picking them up if you're looking for a good read.

When I was at The Verge, we set up a big fiction anthology, Better Worlds, and Elizabeth was one of the authors that immediately sprang to mind for it. She provided "Overlay" for the project, and it was one that I really enjoyed. That's one of the stories in this new collection, and I'm looking forward to checking out the rest.

Fan service

Writing for The New York Times Opinion section, Annalee Newitz talks about the role fandom plays in the modern media ecosystem, with some excellent observations:

"Call it the age of fan service. Pop culture will never be the same, but maybe that’s a good thing. As online fandom transforms storytelling, it is also revealing a fundamental truth: The lone writer in a garret, disconnected from the world, was always a myth. No one creates in a vacuum, untouched by the demands of the marketplace and the cultural conversation of the moment. From tales told and retold around fires to those filmed, spun off and rebooted in Hollywood, storytelling has always been a communal process."


Brianna Wu was a central figure in the GamerGate scandal, and The Washington Post profiled her recently about how she's been having some of her former abusers come out of the woodwork to apologize and ask for forgiveness, something that she's done in every case.

This is something that I've spoken about with a friend and former editor: how do we build and move on after these sorts of scandals, especially in an age where folks are canceled. There needs to be a mechanism for folks to grow and recognize where they've been wrong.

Last Dangerous Visions

J. Michael Straczynski has announced that he's completed his work on Harlan Ellison's long-unfinished science fiction anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions. I wrote about the anthology's complicated backstory for subscribers last fall (I unlocked it for everyone at the end of the year), and it's picked up some traction on Twitter today.

Pay your writers

Over on The Guardian, Sam Thielman has a familiar story for the superhero industry: for decades, comic book companies like DC and Marvel have attracted thousands of writers and creators, but now that those companies are adapting their works, they're getting very little recognition and more importantly, compensation for their work.

At the heart of this, it's a story about the relationship of the writers with the ownership of the IP they create. DC and Marvel are infamous for hiring their writers under work-for-hire arrangements, in which they sign over ownership of their work to those companies. While Marvel and DC have made billions for their adaptations, that money doesn't trickle down to those creators.

In another, somewhat related story, Feven Merid writes for The Columbia Journalism Review about how some media companies are forcing their writers to negotiate for the possibility of expanding their articles (which are also typically under a work for hire arrangement) into books — something that's long been practice in the industry, but which is not threatened.

This is the same sort of thing: writers have seen their feature articles flipped by their publications over into other mediums like film and TV, and under those arrangements, aren't always allowed compensation from those projects. By expanding it into a book, they retain that right.

That's all for this week. I've got a couple of interviews in the works, which will hopefully be out in the next couple of weeks, if all goes well. As always — thank you so much for reading, and let me know what you're reading / writing / enjoying.

Have a good weekend,