'The Absence of 9-11 from Science Fiction'

Author Andrew Fox asks, “Have the events of 9-11-2001 and the sociopolitical changes they spawned been mostly absent from science fiction? Or have they been present, even prevalent, but disguised?”


Five stories and seven novels, of which only three stories and one novel deal directly with the events of 9-11-2001. This seems like a vanishingly small number, particularly given the enormous volume of fiction published from 2002 on.  Locus Magazine calculates in their February, 2011 issue that, in the nine years from 2002 to 2010, 9,420 new (non-reprint) speculative fiction novels (encompassing science fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal romance but excluding media-related works of fiction) were published in the United States; of these, 2,242 were science fiction novels. Far fewer speculative fiction novels were published during the decades following the invention of atomic weapons, the beginning of the Cold War, the assassination of President Kennedy, the social changes of the late 1960s, or America’s military involvement in Vietnam.

By way of comparison, a relative plethora of mainstream or literary novels have been published in the past decade which engage directly with 9-11. The first of these, Pattern Recognition (2003), was written by an author who gained notoriety as a science fiction writer, William Gibson, but Pattern Recognition is pointedly not science fiction, reflecting Gibson’s view that “reality has replaced science fiction.” Critic D. G. Myers counts more than thirty mainstream novels as having focused on the events of 9-11, notable titles including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007), and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006).

Why the discrepancy? Have the themes of 9-11 and its aftermath simply resonated more strongly with mainstream and literary novelists than they have with science fiction and fantasy novelists? Yet considering all the author’s tools that sit within the toolboxes of speculative fiction writers — “what if?” “if this goes on…” and alternate history and alternative realities — it would seem the science fiction and fantasy writers would likely have more to say regarding the attacks of 9-11-2001 and the events of the Global War on Terror than mainstream fiction writers would. Most of the mainstream novels described in D. G. Myers’ list focus on psychological accounts of the aftermath of the attacks or the moral ambiguities raised by the War on Terror. Science fiction authors can do this as well, of course, but they can potentially do so much more: focus on the Clash of Civilizations between reactionary Islamicism and Western modernity, perhaps on ways this clash can be elided or lessened; perform thought experiments regarding potential future evolutions of the Islamic world; and extrapolate potential future tools of combat and civil defense particularly appropriate to asymmetrical warfare.


Although a remarkable 2007 article (particularly given the venue in which it appears) on the “Truther” film Loose Change, notes its origins were in just that sort of classic sci-fi “what if” form. (Plenty of foul language here, but stick with it — and then click over to read the whole thing):

He sat down and started writing a FICTIONAL SCREENPLAY about he and his buddies finding out 9/11 was a government conspiracy. Fictional. Sort of an The X-Files episode. Avery mentions this in every interview he does.

Since he had no money to film his own movie, he started cutting together video and photos off the internet, creatively editing them to make them scary and ominous, cutting the visuals to fit the story, making a fake documentary. Like Spinal Tap, only about mass murder.

* * * * *

Now obviously, hundreds of people were in the Pentagon that day, dozens of witnesses saw a plane crash, hundreds of people cleaned up airplane parts and charred bodies, air traffic controllers saw the plane fly in on radar, pairs of light poles more than 20 feet apart were knocked over when the massive wings of the airliner mowed them down like grass. But that’s okay. He’s just making a fictional movie, it’s all in fun.

So he does the whole video like that. He cuts sound bites in half, saving the part where a flight instructor says something like, “I met the hijacker and he was a bad pilot,” and deleting the part where the same guy says, “but you don’t exactly have to be fucking Chuck Yeager to crash a plane into a building.” Without that second part, it sounds like the guy is saying the hijacker couldn’t have done the flying. He has literally edited the words to make the guy say the opposite of what he said.

But again, it’s just fiction, a “what if” movie, a “War of the Worlds” broadcast. It was supposed to be a student film, his resume for the world, a viral video that would get his name out there. I have to admit, it was a great idea.

But then…

Conspiracy buff Phillip Jayhan ambles into Dylan’s life, waving around a sweaty wad of money. Jayhan, by the way, says the world is run by a massive satanic cult that enslaves prominent politicians by delivering kidnapped boys for them to molest and then blackmailing them about it later.

Okay, that’s probably true. But the point is Jayhan offered to pay for Avery to get his little film off the ground. Only, the thing is, Jayhan didn’t think it was fiction. Jayhan, who believed in every available conspiracy prior to 9/11, believes that the WTC planes had missiles on them that were fired at the towers and that’s why they fell down. Oh, and also there were bombs in the towers. Or something.

Avery, realizing now that the financial future of his film and his dreams of fame and fortune lie entirely in selling Loose Change as a factual documentary, miraculously discovers that, in fact, the plot behind 9/11 is real.

After all, which is going to have a bigger impact on you:

A friend who comes to work and says, “dude, I totally sat down and wrote a ghost story last night, wanna read it?”


The same friend running up in a panic and saying, “DUDE, A FUCKIN’ GHOST SHOWED UP IN MY HOUSE LAST NIGHT!!!”

You’re going to get the same story either way. But it’s a much bigger impact if he presents it as fact. Now, if his goal is just to be creative, he’ll have no problem admitting it’s fiction and letting people criticize it as such, even if it means the work goes unnoticed. But if he’s Dylan Avery, and his goal is to become famous, he’ll do the one that he knows will get him noticed. From that point on, Loose Change was a “documentary.”


And one with a giant ready-made audience, ready to believe. (Kind of like the guys in Ghostbusters, but without Bill Murray’s ironic self-awareness.) Particularly since it allowed them to transfer their anger from radical chic terrorists more or less grandfathered in by multiculturalism, over to a president with whom they were furious over since November of 2000. “For activist and professional Democrats, the most ignominious day in their collective political lives” wasn’t 9/11, but had only just recently occurred in the previous year, Daniel Henninger recently noted at the Wall Street Journal: the Florida presidential recount. “The 2000 election ended only when the Supreme Court resolved it in favor of George Bush. Republican and independent voters moved on, but many Democrats never did; they were now being governed by an illegitimate president.”

And they carried an anger towards him stewing ever more venomous while polite society required it to be bottled up in the weeks and months after 9/11. But the pressure cooker was ready to burst, to borrow Charles Krauthammer’s 2004 metaphor, and Loose Change, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (3.5 stars from Gore/Kerry/Obama-supporting Roger Ebert and conspicuous approval from Senate Democrats, and two former presidents) were waiting to fill the vacuum, along with plenty of assassination porn, to boot.


Of course, note the irony of something like Loose Change readily available on the Web, as Mark Steyn wrote in 2006:

When I was on the Rush Limbaugh show a couple of months back, a listener called up to insist that 9/11 was an inside job. I asked him whether that meant Bali and Madrid and London and Istanbul were also inside jobs. Because that’s one expensive operation to hide even in the great sucking maw of the federal budget. But the Toronto blogger Kathy Shaidle made a much sharper point:

“I wonder if the nuts even believe what they are saying. Because if something like 9/11 happened in Canada, and I believed with all my heart that, say, Stephen Harper was involved, I don’t think I could still live here. I’m not sure I could stop myself from running screaming to another country. How can you believe that your President killed 2,000 people, and in between bitching about this, just carry on buying your vente latte and so forth?”

Over to you, Col. de Grand Pre, and Charlie Sheen, and Alan Colmes.

So we’ve had at least one Twilight Zone-style 9/11 sci-fi freakout run amok. (Oh how Paul Verhoeven must hate himself for releasing Starship Troopers while Bill Clinton was still in office. Another decade, and Ebert would have absolutely adored it.)

Update: “Classy… Truthers Chant ‘9-11 Was an Inside Job’ Outside Ground Zero Memorial,” Jim Hoft notes with photos, including a shot of someone holding a “Google: Jews control the USA!” in front of Trinity Cathedral.



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