Yesterday, another huge tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, brushing terrifyingly close to the home of my friend and occasional collaborator Mel Odom. After a few tense hours we finally heard through Facebook that he’d managed to text a friend and let her know that he and his family were safe—everyone who knows him breathed a sigh of relief.
This storm, along with Hurricane Sandy and others, remind us that though humans can sometimes team up to have a big effect on the world from pollution to climate change to over-population, to radiation leakage, oil spills, the list goes on . . . still, we’re pretty small, pretty fragile creatures against the backdrop of a giant planet that sometimes makes some big moves without the slightest regard for the little creatures scurrying about on its surface.
Unlike disasters like the BP oil spill or that massive explosion in Texas, no one is to blame for a tornado. I grew up in the Midwest where the tornado siren was tested every Tuesday morning at 10:00 a.m., and we had tornado drills at school. This tornado yesterday, like every other tornado, was not political in nature. No one left the wind machine on. No one used it as a weapon of terror, like those pressure-cooker bombs in Boston. This stuff just happens.
At the risk of sounding as though I’m capitalizing on this or any other catastrophe, I’ll ask the question: What can a science fiction/fantasy author learn from a natural disaster?
All too often, especially in fantasy, everything that happens is someone’s fault. Magic could give someone the ability to conjure up a tornado or a hurricane or an earthquake. Even Dungeons & Dragons has spells like ice storm, call lightning, and earthquake. Science fiction has imagined world-busting super-weapons like the Death Star, or weapons that cause destructive solar flares like Traveller’s Star Trigger. I’ve spoken and written on the subject of villain motivation because I think it’s absolutely essential for good storytelling, but what about the things that are nobody’s fault?
I used to think about this a lot in my capacity as Forgotten Realms line editor for Wizards of the Coast, and kept looking at the map of Faerûn with an eye toward natural disasters. Disasters in the Forgotten Realms world, like most fantasy worlds, tend to come from the dastardly acts of some kind of very powerful wizard. The phaerimm conjured a crop blight and drought that created the desert of Anauroch, for instance. But if Faerûn is a truly living world then what about the truly natural disaster? Surely this is a planet that experiences damaging storms, earthquakes, and so on.
It was with that in mind that when we were revising the setting for D&D 4th Edition, I kept an eye open for opportunities to inflict a little bit of realistic natural damage to the world. The only victim ended up being the otherwise inconsequential city of Gildenglade in Turmish, which I buried under a volcanic eruption. Sorry, Gildenglade. It’s nobody’s fault.
I’ve been playing and working on Traveller recently and I’ll apologize if I might seem overly dependant on it for examples, but here comes another one.
The Traveller animal encounter tables have always included “events,” and I always thought that was pretty cool. Along with the various indigenous beasties you might encounter on one of the setting’s thousands of alien planets, you might just run into an earthquake, a solar flare, a landslide, or some other environmental force that might impact your plans, if not your life.
As you’re building your world and your plot, are you keeping this in mind? An earthquake all of a sudden for no apparent reason may seem a bit forced, but then when has there been an earthquake that’s occurred that didn’t happen all of a sudden and for no apparent reason? I rode out the 2001 Nisqually earthquake at the Wizards of the Coast offices in Renton, Washington, and trust me, there was no warning, and there was no one to blame.
When we talk about science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding and storytelling we talk about creating a “living” world—and that ends up being, and still mostly should be, about people and what they want, why they want it, and what they’re willing to do to get it than about weather or geology, but can your world really come alive if it’s a perfect, climate-controlled static space?
Like monsters, which often take on the role of a force of nature, natural disasters can bring out the good and evil in the people effected. We’re irresistibly drawn to the stories of post-disaster heroism—neighbors helping neighbors, trained dogs sniffing out buried victims, survivors managing to hang on for days against all odds—but we’re also confronted by things like the gang rapes at the New Orleans Superdome following Hurricane Katrina, looting, and insurance scams. A natural disaster shakes people out of their normal routine, and some of us rise to the occasion, and some of us don’t. A hurricane can be as effective a trigger for good vs. evil/hero vs. villain as a zombie apocalypse.
Mostly, we just complain about the weather, because most of the time it’s only causing us a minor inconvenience, but then sometimes this world—even the universe around us—puts us in our place.