Monday, June 24, 2013

In the Valley of the Shadow

Fiction seems to be on a higher order than non-fiction. Gilgamesh, Hamlet, Gatsby: we marvel at them in large part because they benefit from the construct of fiction.  Yet looking ahead to this fall, I cannot help but be reminded of the great non-fiction of a generation.

In a decade, 9/11 seems to have become a flash of images.  CNN broadcasting the first tower on fire.  The second hit.  A prescient talking head saying that twice means it isn't a mistake.  Collapse.  Ruin.  An ineffective man becoming, for a time, Our President.  Waking up the next morning to check that the world was still there.

I don't mean to linger on that day--how could I, who personally lost nothing, add a valuable contribution?  Instead, I'd like to make two brief stops on how that day of profound realness informed fiction.

I was not aware of the notion of "post-9/11 fiction" until I heard about it from Ron Moore, the developer/producer/showrunner of the modern Battlestar Galactica.  In the miniseries which launches the reboot, it is revealed that "the enemy" of robot Cylons have now made themselves to look (and feel) human.  They attack the twelve colonies of humanity, visiting nuclear holocaust upon the species and reducing it to 40,000 without a homeland.  The Biblical correlation is apparent, of course (and left over from the 1970s version of the show).  That the great, horrible, attacking enemy appears to be an "us" with a zealotous agenda is the point.  That we don't know what all of them look like as the series proper starts is a larger point: the enemy can be among us as sleeper agents, saboteurs, or suicide bombers.  That the series continues to push the two sides together, blurring what it means to be an enemy is the largest point of all.

Another example used, I would argue, the visceral feelings post-9/11 as its starting point, but building upon and away from it quickly.  I refer to Lost, whose breathtaking opening scene is famously that of the crash of Flight 815.  How could the chaos in that scene not be informed by 9/11?  Strangers thrown together, death next to life, and unmitigated, oppressive tragedy.  For me, there is one moment early on that captures so perfectly the shared feeling that we had almost ten years ago.  We see the yet-unintroduced Shannon, standing amidst the fiery debris, screaming.  She is unable to help those around her; she is unable to run away from the danger around her; she is unable to tap into the basic animal drive to live.  She is, despite character flaws that we would learn about later in the series, drowning under the supreme, elemental wrongness of what is around her.

Shannon finds herself unable to escape the day when a plane fell out of the sky.  The crew of Galactica finds themselves forever changed by a single day's unimaginable loss.  Non-fiction is the less glamorous topic for writing, reading and thinking, but post-9/11 fiction serves as a reminder that the most engaging stories across time and space are often rooted in a very real world.

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