The meaning of disaster fictions

Eva Horn is a cul­tur­al stud­ies schol­ar and uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Ger­man lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na. Her new book „The Future as a Dis­as­ter” will be pub­lished in June 2014. She was one of our experts at the SURPRISE FACTORS SYMPOSIUM 2014 in Gmunden and illu­mi­nat­ed, from her cul­tur­al stud­ies per­spec­tive, how our soci­ety deals with pos­si­ble future and dis­as­ter sce­nar­ios and how this is reflect­ed in our lit­er­a­ture and movies. She also spoke about why we like to imag­ine future visions, how seri­ous one can take such fic­tions and which func­tions these sce­nar­ios could have for today’s politics.

The role of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nar­ios we see more and more often in books and movies is com­plex. Mankind has always told such sto­ries — old­er exam­ples would be the Rev­e­la­tion of John in the Chris­t­ian New Tes­ta­ment or the Ger­man­ic twi­light of the Gods. Today, almost no week goes by with­out a new apoc­a­lyp­tic movie in the the­aters. The sim­pler per­cep­tions of a gen­er­al threat in the past have shift­ed to a sit­u­a­tion in which we are afraid of many pos­si­ble future crises but do not know which one will become real­i­ty. In this sit­u­a­tion, fic­tions in books and films can help:

  • In fic­tions we can explore a spe­cif­ic dis­as­ter or cri­sis sce­nario and fig­ure out, what would hap­pen if it became real.
  • Fic­tions give us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to find out, which dif­fer­ent types of fear we have.
  • Fic­tions pro­vide images of a pos­si­ble future and tell us: If we don’t do some­thing or are not vig­i­lant, this could be how it will turn out.
  • Fic­tions can be used as instru­ments to dis­cuss eth­i­cal con­flicts. For exam­ple one ques­tion that often aris­es dur­ing a dis­as­ter is: who should be helped first?
  • Fic­tions ask dif­fi­cult ques­tions: What are our val­ues? Which strate­gies could offer the great­est chances of survival?

Even sci­en­tist who are try­ing to build up more resilient struc­tures, are prac­tic­ing in invent­ing pos­si­ble future sce­nar­ios. It is mere­ly a grad­u­al­ly dif­fer­ent kind of fic­tion than we find in literature.

The Dark Side of Humanity

View­ing such dis­as­ter-nar­ra­tives from a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, it becomes obvi­ous that they always reflect both the worst fears of their era and its state of infor­ma­tion. In these fic­tions most­ly a dark pic­ture of human­i­ty is reflected:

  • Man is weak
  • One can­not count on others
  • Sol­i­dar­i­ty is very rare
  • If the infra­struc­ture shat­ters, the dark side of peo­ple is revealed

The Good Side of Humanity

But there are also counter-exam­ples. E.g. in com­put­er games there is an emerg­ing trend of games which require the coop­er­a­tion of play­ers. These inter­net games (in short: MMOGs — mas­sive­ly mul­ti­play­er online games), where hun­dreds of play­ers have to coop­er­ate to achieve a goal, can be seen as big social exper­i­ments whose out­come is not yet clear.
In these fic­tions one can see which char­ac­ter­is­tics real heroes or lead­ers need. Fic­tion­al heroes are per­sons who show us how to stay humane in an envi­ron­ment that actu­al­ly does­n’t allow that. These heroes have three abilities:

  • They have enough insight to fore­see what will come — they have a prophet­ic or prog­nos­tic function.
  • They enable coop­er­a­tion instead of self­ish­ness i.e. they show how we can coop­er­ate in a sur­round­ing where self­ish­ness would be the first intuition.
  • Heroes are the cat­a­lyst that helps to go beyond your own borders.


  • „You need a cer­tain degree of moral indif­fer­ence to enjoy those movies.”
  • „We do not know what will hap­pen — that’s why we only have our imagination.”
  • „We are wit­ness­ing a shift of our fears from a sim­ple world to one in which more com­plex fac­tors are at work.”
  • „Com­put­er games show a grow­ing phe­nom­e­non, name­ly that coop­er­a­tion in fic­tion­al set­tings is possible.”
  • „Fic­tions pro­vide images that say: If we do noth­ing, the world will once become like this.”

Connecting factors for ACADEMIA SUPERIOR

Points for fur­ther discussion

  • What qual­i­ties should pol­i­cy mak­ers have?
  • Are there already some real­is­tic future sce­nar­ios to be found in literature?
  • What can we learn from these scenarios?
  • Which etchi­cal deci­sions are made in these fictions?

Tools for development

  • Devel­op­ing strate­gies that enable coop­er­a­tion in a cri­sis situation
  • Data­base of pos­si­ble real­is­tic future sce­nar­ios from lit­er­a­ture and film