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The value (and danger) of fiction

As large as life, and twice as natural

-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-glass

Think of a disaster exercise that you have participated in, envisioned, or even designed. Participants are thrust into roles and situations that are hardly imaginable, yet we believe, we play, and we analyze. As real as real gets. Like reality, but bigger and badder. The title of this blog, from an author who epitomizes fiction -- made-up worlds (Wonderland), with made-up creatures (jabberwocky), and even made-up laws of physics:

“Well in our country,” Alice said, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time. As we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country,” said the Queen. “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you have to run at least twice as fast as that.”

In a way, fiction is the basis of disaster preparedness. The empirical, rational, objective reality of fiction. Whaaa???

One aspect of this is the realization of the prevalence of fiction as a teaching tool in disaster preparedness. Another is the value fiction has as a means of producing knowledge, but selective knowledge, promoting some ideologies over others. And last is the focus and direction it gives to disaster preparedness activities (spoiler: it isn’t quite to improve our response to a “real” disaster).


Ever thought that the US government is perhaps the biggest supporter of fiction in the world? Not in education, alas, but in emergency preparedness. 9/11 came to be criticized as a ‘failure of imagination’, and the response was to imagine more, and to elevate the official endorsement of imagination. So science fiction writers were consulted to help create scenarios for disaster training, Zombie Apocalypse materials were published, and “imagining threats [became] equivalent to knowing about threats" (Thomas, Introduction.). And fiction is endorsed, implicitly, as the basis of emergency preparedness. When you consider the billions of dollars poured into preparedness and ‘homeland security’, consider how much of it is directed at developing, enacting, and analyzing fictional narratives—simulations, models, etc. “U.S. national security agencies and organizations utilize this mode of knowledge production as the cornerstone of the national security paradigm known as preparedness” (Thomas, Introduction.).


We all know it's hard to get good research out of disasters. There are pragmatic and ethical concerns regarding participants, challenges with data collection, even concerns about the safety of researchers (SAMHSA). So we make up disasters to study. Safer. Less expensive. Easier to schedule. But is there any evidence that can come from a fictional event? Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the greatest fiction authors of all time, described doing ‘research’ about a fictional world as a similar process to historical, that is nonfictional, research. It’s a way of learning, a way of knowing. “Storytellers’ stories, like scientific theories, are explorations, excursions into the tremendous gap between almost knowing and knowing.” (Tales from Earthsea, Afterword).

We’ve all, at some point (maybe forgotten in childhood), learned from fiction. Been inspired, enlightened, changed, or empowered by a story, a movie, or an imaginary friend. Not in a facts and figures kind of way. Deeper than that. Fiction can give us “know-how,” “skills,” and “training”, serving as “spiritual exercises”, and “spaces for prolonged and active encounters that serve, over time, to hone our abilities and thus, in the end, to help us become who we are.” (Thomas, citing Joshua Landy, a professor of comparative literature).

Selective knowledge

But we may also be led, by fiction, to learn what someone wants us to learn. Fiction is a powerful medium for advancing an agenda. That agenda might be systemic racism, xenophobia, or militarization.

“Fiction is valuable for preparedness because it teaches people to think otherwise, to imagine what hasn’t happened, to consider new possibilities and ways of being” (Thomas).  That  seems good and noble. But it isn’t, automatically or inherently, beneficent and enlightening. The U.S. government’s “use of fiction is not necessarily progressive, radical, or critical. Imagining new possibilities can be used to constrain political action just as easily as it can be used to encourage it” (Thomas, Epilogue.). And probably not unique to the United States of America.

It seems like disaster science is fighting against the idea that disasters are inevitable and unstoppable, beyond our control and comprehension. Will we ever get past the roots of the word—unlucky, ill-starred? And just when we think we’ve changed perception a little, we see some subversive way to blame disasters on the heavens, or at least, on someone else.

One example is the “plot” of counterterrorism that is perpetuated by US national security, and beyond. Recall the last time you were in an airport, at least one in Canada or the US. How many times were you reminded to keep your eyes open for an abandoned backpack, an unattended box, or someone looking at you funny? And report these things. Certain objects and behaviours (backpacks, hoodies, researching the Islamic state on the internet) have come to symbolize the terrorist “detached from this figure yet nonetheless bearing its trace,” allowing preparedness materials to focus on the object, not the person, relying on “implied racial markers” supposedly free from racism or discrimination“ (Thomas, Ch 5.).

"...a society “trained” in this way will blame victims, engage in racial profiling, and regard the lives that national security takes as collateral damage” (Clapp).

Purpose of preparedness

A potential downside to preparedness activities is to shift the focus away from issues that matter most. Preparedness under the umbrella of national security (American, at least) “works to leave unaddressed the increasing vulnerability and insecurity of everyday American life” (Thomas, citing Masco). But this is not solely an American issue. Vulnerability is at the heart of disaster science and response is usually preferred over preparation everywhere.

An author shows us their fictional world. We see what they allow us to see. We see a barren moonscape, or a lush forest, or smoking post-apocalyptic ruins. If a hot air balloon is floating by, it’s not likely to enter our consciousness unless the author shows it to us. Our imagination might fill in some details, but the landscape is painted for us. Similarly, in the narrative of disaster preparedness, we see certain things and not others. We see hurricanes as a security threat. We see terrorism all around us. We see a personal responsibility for disaster preparedness:

“Your town was torn apart by a hurricane and your power was out for months? Preparedness training materials tell you to make sure that next time you have enough water and food to last two weeks. There was another “active-shooter event” at a school? Preparedness training materials tell you to teach students to hide in a closet. Preparedness training does not address the systemic nature of these disasters or teach people how to understand, for example, the changing climate at the root of the increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms or the white supremacy and misogyny at the root of many mass shootings. It is not designed to teach people to consider the political solutions to these political problems. Instead, it is designed to make such problems seem beyond the realm of politics altogether“ (Thomas, Introduction.).

Of course I’m not saying not to scrap your disaster training agenda. Nor am I saying to scrap fiction. Far from it! “Fictional disasters, like scientific models, are tools of knowledge acquisition” (Thomas, Ch 1.). But we can think more deeply about how we prepare for disasters. To question assumptions, traditions, and dogma. To continue to work at the underlying problems that create and perpetuate vulnerability.

“The unreal is more powerful than the real. Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because its only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on. If you can change the way people think. The way they see themselves. The way they see the world. You can change the way people live their lives. That's the only lasting thing you can create.”

― Chuck Palahniuk, Choke


*1. Thomas L. Training for catastrophe: fictions of national security after 9/11. U of Minnesota Press; 2021 Mar 16.

2. SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center Supplemental Research Bulletin: Challenges and Considerations in Disaster Research. Jan 2016.

3. Le Guin UK. Tales from earthsea. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2012.

*4. Clapp J. Lindsay Thomas, Training for Catastrophe: Fictions of National Security after 9/11. ALHIST_34_4_New.indd (

*While Thomas' entire book is immensely interesting, it is dense. Not typical reading for those of us who are not philosophers or professors of literature. Clapp's review of her book is a lighter read, without compromising any ideas.

Image credits

Alice and the Queen. Image by Prawny from Pixabay

Mad Hatter. Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Image by 51581 from Pixabay

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