A thresher can rip your arm off, but a cell phone can give you brain cancer: Old Fear versus New Fear

Earlier this week, I found out our local Books a Million was closing, so I went to pick up a few good deals. Fortunately, the whole chain isn’t closing, which meant for me, unfortunately, the books weren’t at closing sale prices. 20% off the whole store, and it closed today. So, um, sorry about that if you didn’t know.

But I still got a few heck-of-a-good-deals, and one of my favorite purchases is a book I’ve been glued to this evening. Fringe Science, edited by Kevin R. Grazier, is a completely unauthorized collection of essays about one of my favorite shows. Fringe. In case you were unsure.

This show basically fulfills all of my science fiction needs. It’s talking about my favorite science fiction show while discussing its real possibilities, literary and historical roots, and my favorite thing, SCIENCE, in a way that someone with a non-SCIENCE background can understand.

However, the first essay in this book is what got me started thinking about a blog post for tonight. Written by David Dylan Thomas and entitled “Paranormal is the New Normal,” it discusses the idea that we are now more afraid of our own advanced technology than we are of the supernatural/paranormal. Vampires are passe, werewolves are common, even zombies are the New Thing now. While they’re still scary, they aren’t Scary like they used to be. They’re now often the hero rather than the villain.

Now, we’re afraid of technology. Because it has advanced at such a rapid pace, we don’t know its limits. The general public uses technology because it’s there and it does what we want it to – not because we understand it. It doesn’t even have to be purposeful villainy, really. Your laptop can become the unwitting enemy when it doesn’t connect to the Internet. Scary!  We’re now living in a world so dependent upon technology that even small hiccups in the fabric of our technological existence cause us to practically go into meltdown mode.

Thomas says at one point that if you open a car, you see what the parts do. But if you open an iPod, you just see more boxes. Unless you know what each box does, it just looks like a bunch of things. The same could be said for cars, at some length, but at least those parts look different. To the average person, popular technology tends to look the same on the inside. We don’t understand how it does what it does – we just know that it does it. We’re content with our ignorance. I know I am. I don’t need to know how my iPhone works. I just need it to call my friends and send my emails and let me play Cut the Rope and Fruit Ninja every day.

But think, if you were to take this technology and use it for personal gain and to further your own cause. Let’s not say someone’s using it for evil, because a real villain never uses his or her powers for evil. He or she uses what’s been given to him or her in order to advance a cause he or she believes in. Look at that on a global scale. Isn’t that terrifying?

And not only is it about our technology. It’s the way we use our technology.

Another quote of Thomas’s is the one I used in the header – “A thresher can rip your arm off, but a cell phone can give you brain cancer.” Yeah, both will probably kill you, but which one is ultimately more terrifying? For me, it’s brain cancer. An invisible disease that destroys you from the inside out? And you may not even know about it until you have only weeks to go? No, thanks. Thresher can have my arm any day (but preferably neither of these, please).

Medicine has advanced so far that now one of our greatest fears is biological warfare rather than old-fashioned armies. It’s quicker, quieter, and easier every day – as an attacker, who wouldn’t prefer it? Even this weekend, one of the most-hyped movies is Contagion, a film that proposes the spread of an epidemic. Most people I know left that movie saying they were never going to touch anyone or anything again. Of course that’s hyperbole, but at the same time, it obviously affected them. We’ve come so far in our study of the human body and the way the world works that we’ve now realized exactly how much we can do to ourselves – and how little we can usually do to stop the Big Bads of disease.

This is something that is both old and new to science fiction. Fear of disease is nothing new – it’s been around for centuries. People get sick and die. It’s just a fact.

But now, many times when people get sick and die, we’re able to understand it. And maybe we know what caused it. And maybe, just maybe, something that we did caused it. Maybe we did something decades, years, days, hours ago, that caused this to happen, and we didn’t know until now that it’s our fault.

How scary is that? For a science fiction writer, it’s inexhaustibly thrilling. Our knowledge of the body and of disease is now so vast that practically anything is possible. And if it isn’t – it probably is in another universe. And even if it is set in a totally made-up place, we now have the words and research to make our ideas sound plausible. Unnamed, mystery diseases are no longer the major culprit in a bio warfare story. We’ve become our own enemies. We’ve come so far in our technology that it’s entirely possible that we’ve given ourselves the keys to unlock the most dangerous things in the universe – and we don’t even know it yet.

And that, friends, makes for a truly terrifying story.

This post is not brought to you by SCIENCE. It’s brought to you by me, a graduate with an English degree who watches a ton of television and loves science fiction. If you know more than I do, I’d love to hear it.


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