I recently watched Contagion, a film about a pandemic sweeping around the world. Inspired by Folding Ideas’ moving video essay on watching the film during lockdown, I wanted to go through that experience, to see what insight or catharsis an imagined pandemic could bring.
Like watching real reactions to the pandemic, it was a strange mix of alarming and comforting. It certainly felt more real in the light of recent events. R numbers, social distancing, face masks, the difficulties of making a vaccine – many things that have become all too familiar in 2020 are present in this 2011 film. But there was one thing that was notably absent – people being reasonable.
There’s been a lot of alarming and selfish behaviour around covid-19, from hoarding to anti-lockdown protests to attacks on telephone masts. There have also been dramatic examples of selfless, generous, even heroic behaviour, from the long hours worked by medical staff to the armies of volunteers feeding and supporting their communities. But what I’ve seen the most of, in between the clickbait headlines, is people being calmly and undramatically reasonable. Following the rules, both in their letter and their spirit. Finding ways to stay sane while they can’t get out. Rebuilding their social support structures online to get through the constant, low-level mental health grind that is living in strained circumstances.
The reality of covid-19 has been Zoom meetings, online pub quizzes, extended video calls with family and friends. It’s been waiting for hours to get a delivery slot for groceries so that you don’t go out and risk spreading the infection. It’s been everything from wine tasting to book clubs to entire business departments going virtual with a lot of ingenuity and very little complaint.
It’s not dramatic, and perhaps that’s why these reasonable moments are missing from Contagion. Or perhaps its creators couldn’t predict that this was how most human beings would behave under pressure – not moving to extremes of selfish or selfless acts, but simply, quietly, cooperatively finding ways to get on with life.
Have you noticed how often Christianity equals Catholicism in science fiction and fantasy? Think about it – when was the last time the religious side of the story was represented by a Presbyterian, a Methodist or someone of Eastern Orthodox faith? But look at Daredevil – both in comics and on screen – The Sage of the Exiles, The Sparrow, or many other sf+f works – you’ll see Catholicism all over the shop.
I don’t think it’s because there are more Catholic writers than ones of other denominations in sf+f. After all, Protestantism is bigger both in the UK and the USA, the sources of most of my reading and viewing.
I don’t think it’s because Catholic beliefs are any more interesting to extrapolate from. If I was looking for a faith that does something unusual then I’d turn to the liberal Quakers, with their decisions by consensus, their evolving book of faith and their soothing/eery (depending on your perspective) silent meetings. And if I was looking for something full of angels, demons and holy warfare then I could pick pretty much any old school interpretation of any faith.
I think the reason may be that Catholicism provides a bunch of handy story-telling tools. The focus on sin and guilt creates obvious internal conflict for characters. The confessional provides an excuse for characters to say things out loud that would otherwise remain internal. The heavy use of ostentatious imagery and symbolic ritual creates striking visuals for television, comics and film – Quaker meetings are cool and all, but they usually look like a bunch of ordinary people sitting in a plain room, and much Protestantism looks like Catholicism light.
I’m not saying that the use of Catholicism in sf+f is necessarily shallow – far from it, Julian May built a whole universe around the dissident theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But I don’t think it’s generally chosen for its depth, and the attractions it provides for story-tellers are ones most other Christian denominations can’t match. Much as I’d love to read that Quaker sf story, if I want to then I’ll have to write it myself.