Observing the New Normal Through the Lens of Science Fiction

A while back, I wrote a post stating that all I needed to know about tech writing I learned from science fiction. While that might be a wee bit of a stretch, SF helped me develop the right mindset for approaching unfamiliar content and situations. In my free time, I’ve been reading a lot of SF lately, and it’s helping me respond to our “new normal” in the midst of a pandemic. 

Living in a Science Fictional Environment

Of the types of SF I highlighted previously, sociological and detective SF stories are most relevant to our current situation. In those types of stories, a protagonist is placed into an unusual social environment and must learn to act based on new social, legal, political, or other mores. Beyond a doubt, we are all living in an unusual social environment, at least compared to what we were used to. Instead of an active, mobile, busy, and crowded living, working, and socializing environment, here in Orlando, Florida, USA, I am now living in a society where people are living, working (where possible), and socializing from home.

Sociological SF also enables readers to think about the social and ethical implications of the technologies they describe. In the current situation, we’re facing the social and ethical implications of policies put in place to contain a viral pandemic.

Differences in “Worlds”

The differences between life before and after the onset of the pandemic come across for me most clearly at the grocery store, which is about the only place where I interact with other people on a regular basis anymore.

  • I now enter my local Publix through one set of doors only where both sets of doors used to be available for entering or exiting. The reason for this is that now the clerks are now cleaning/sanitizing carts and putting them into the “pen” to ensure customers are only handling clean carts when they start shopping.
  • Signs on the doors ask customers to observe “social distancing” and to maintain six feet (1.8 meters) of distance from each other. Regularly spaced stickers on the floors in front of the checkout registers prompt people for the correct distance.
  • Signs with arrows and Xes on the floor now direct customers so that they shop the aisles in one direction only. Like many customers used to going either direction, I’m still adjusting to this new way of doing things–the habits of 49+ years are hard to break.
  • What’s most curious is the differences in personal protective equipment (PPE). The employees are wearing masks. Customer practices range from mask and gloves to mask only to no PPE whatsoever.

Thinking Science Fictionally About Real Life

If I were reading a SF story featuring people demonstrating these behaviors, I’d be a bit confused or asking the following questions: Is the virus a threat or isn’t it? The store has guidelines posted for distancing, why don’t they don’t have anything posted about PPE? Are people uncertain about what to do? Is the PPE optional? Are there no rules/laws/regulations regarding this practice? Or are people just doing whatever they darn well please? Or is the author just forgetful/sloppy?

Anyone watching the American media or reading its social media sites can attest to the fact that the answers to all of those questions vary a great deal. Lacking consistent guidance (or enforcement), individuals are guessing, more or less.

In a SF context, one might expect this confusion of rules to create the essential plot tension. In our real-world context, the confusion or inconsistency likely will have real and potentially deadly consequences. However, the scientific and medical communities are in still learning about the virus, how it spreads, and how deadly it is. Results and data vary by country, province/state/region, city, neighborhood, and patient. A neighbor of mine was diagnosed with the virus, but so far (3-4 weeks later) I have no symptoms. The ongoing mystery and confusion might make for exciting or even nail-biting fiction; they don’t make for comfortable living. Authors, after all, have the luxury of knowing whether things will turn out well.

All this said, it’s still worth your time to consider SF as a useful lens for viewing the world or workplace around you. SF is all about consequences and the choices individuals make in the face of unfamiliar scientific or technological problems. Therefore, it’s worth reading and learning as much and as carefully as you can so that your personal story will have a happy ending.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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