The Problem With “Collapse”

In the Winter 2018 issue of Into the Ruins, I wrote “The Problem With ‘Collapse’,” my Editor’s Introduction, which spoke to some of the common tropes of deindustrial science fiction and the ways in which the genre still feels in its infancy, struggling to find the best way to portray stories set in futures that go so strongly against the expectations of our time. It’s one of the challenges of stories of these types, but a challenge that I want to see authors continue to overcome.

It’s an important conversation for this type of fiction, and it’s one I want to foster as widely and publicly as possible. As it happens, the Spring 2018 issue is fast approaching, and I also wouldn’t mind have a few more letters to the editor, both about this subject and others related to the themes of deindustrial science fiction and the future of industrial civilization. Have something to say right now? Shoot an email to to have it considered for publication in the next issue. Not quite sure what to say? Read “The Problem With ‘Collapse'” below and see if you have something to add to the conversation.

Oh, and don’t have the Winter 2018 issue? Well, maybe you should pick up a copy right here. It’s a good one; you shouldn’t miss it!

The Problem With “Collapse”

Change is a sneak. It comes upon you slowly, in increments often unseen, the unnoticed ticks of a clock that pass minutes, hours, days. It is the accumulation of thought and consideration and experience, teased out over months and years. It is the way that an idea once unthinkable, or at least unpalatable, eventually becomes commonplace—becomes habit. It is who you are now, often so different from who you were then.

Of course, change is not always that. Sometimes it is dramatic and sudden. Sometimes it’s a break, severing what you once knew for a different reality now dominant. But most change takes place day by day, under the cover of mundane routine, via processes that churn always in the background. It’s the accumulation of the new and the sloughing off of the old. Much of the new, as it turns out, is just the same as the old; enough over time is different to create long term change, though. That’s how the world eventually looks different. That’s how futures are made.

— ∞ —

When does it happen? When does “The Collapse” occur? That’s the question so often asked about the future facing us. We want to know when the break will happen—where on the timeline the shearing off will take place. And it’s the wrong question. More often than not, “The Collapse” never occurs—it just suddenly is noticed one day. The world, we realize, has changed. We think back ten years, twenty, and marvel at the ways it is different now against then. We come to recognize all the things that, if seen in advance, would have been shocking then but are routine today.

“How did we get here?” we ask ourselves, each other. And the oft-imagined cliff, the dramatic moment when everything changed, is rarely the answer.

“Incrementally,” someone says. “One step at a time.”

— ∞ —

It’s not that there aren’t moments. There are so many moments. We could name them together, we could make our lists. 9/11. Hurricane Katrina. 2008. The election of Donald Trump. These are ones we can point to freely, easily, reeling off the tips of our tongues. They were moments of collective shock, of widespread realization that we had entered into new territory, that the world and its terms of engagement had changed. Not that no one predicted these events in advance; varying people did in every case, at varying levels of specificity. But the society, the culture at large, did not. And when these moments hit, we (or at least some) suffered collective breaks. We tried, and often failed, to understand—even when there were perfectly reasonable explanations. We panicked.

Of course, there are endless other moments. How many foreign entanglements have we wrapped ourselves in? How many dead end economic policies have we enacted? How many ecosystems have we destroyed in the name of progress? How many sustainable livelihoods have we outlawed? How many seemingly inexhaustible resources have we exhausted? How much clean water, fresh air, and fertile soil have we polluted and ruined and wasted?

Each of these is a step. Most of them go unnoticed, or noticed by almost no one. Most of them are simply manifestations of business as usual, and are insisted to be necessities, inevitable—even though they are neither. None of them are cliffs or cleavings—at least, until one of them becomes the black swan that brings a chunk of the system down and that changes the terms. That’s when we suddenly notice the change, but not generally the cause. 9/11. Hurricane Katrina. 2008. Donald Trump. Here again, they roll off the tongue, but never the underlying issues and actions that created them in the first place. Those unspoken truths are too often obscured at all costs. They have to be, so that we may take the next step.

But these black swans are not system-destroyers. They are not “The Collapse.” They are wrenches. They break some gears, shut down a process. But overall, the system continues. It grinds on, hobbled, but with most everyone working to restore its function. And so they do, returning it not to its former glory (so to speak) but to some reduced version of it. And then, exhausted, they look for the next step to take. And the timeline of history continues.

— ∞ —

There is nothing new about a civilization collapsing. It’s happened time and time again throughout history, and it so happens that it’s currently happening to our civilization. It shouldn’t be a surprise; all the signs are there for those who care to learn the history. Nor should it be a surprise that it takes awhile, take centuries. That means that, while we are currently living through the collapse of our civilization, we almost certainly won’t live to see the final shape of the ruins. There’s still a very long path to travel to get there. Still, the section that we have the pleasure of traveling, already proving eventful, is sure to become more interesting yet.

That entire path—likely hundreds of years long—is “The Collapse.” But it will be filled with myriad events, many of them significant, far more insignificant, and with long stretches of relative calm. That’s how a civilization collapses, not all at once and in flames, but piece by piece, step by step, some of them large and some small. It’s a process. It accumulates.

Again, that’s not to say there aren’t meaningful moments or even sudden endings. We all will have a sudden ending some day, and many of us may have one directly related to collapse: an act of war, a failure of critical infrastructure, dramatic political or social turmoil, that lashings out of a population with its back against the wall, an escape from one’s harsh reality that turns unintentionally permanent. Or perhaps we perish in an earthquake, a storm, some natural calamity. These too are part of the fractal pattern of collapse, driven sometimes by our own stupidity and other times by the natural processes that serve both to keep us alive and to sometimes kills us.

The key to these events, dramatic and shattering as they are for those caught in them, is that they are localized. They may be localized at a very small scale or at a large, regional one, but they do not consume the entire world and, even where they are localized, they do not impact everyone at an equally disastrous level. In addition to their localization, they are inevitably mitigated. From the individual level all the way to the global level, humans and their institutions tend to work to mitigate the overall impact of these disruptions and to limit their ongoing fallout. They seek stability and a return to normal. They respond, provide care, assist, and rebuild. Granted, these palliative actions can be too limited in scope, suffer from corruption, take too long, and feature exploitation and profiteering, but the responses still occur.

All of this serves to check and contain the spread of disaster. The impact is still there and the overall system suffers, but it isn’t destroyed. It continues on at some lower level of function, awaiting always the next disaster that will piece it still a bit more apart, inch it ever closer to the final floor.

This is how civilizations die.

— ∞ —

It’s with this understanding and viewpoint in mind that I evaluate the stories I publish here in Into the Ruins. This magazine has been referred to as post-apocalyptic, but it really is not that, as I don’t believe in apocalypse and I actively shy away from stories depicting such futures. Nor is it dystopian, as I instead search out stories that depict the kind of complicated world we humans make for ourselves—good roiled with bad—rather than the endlessly bleak and stifling futures so often depicted in dystopian stories. No, the stories I look to publish are those that take place in the changed worlds we’re most likely to get, in which the slow process of collapse is quite a bit farther down the road or long since finished and completed, depending on the story.

That means, of course, that the stories I look to publish depict futures that are different from today, sometimes dramatically so. That’s nothing new to science fiction, of course; however, the particular sort of science fiction found in Into the Ruins suffers from a distinct disadvantage that the usual stars-and-spaceships or all-computers-all-the-time sort of science fiction doesn’t: that is, that the future depicted is not the one most people think we’re supposed to get. A story featuring space adventures and interstellar travel is rarely under any pressure to explain how humans managed to get their way to that future if the writer isn’t interested in a long explanation of the backstory. It can go merrily along on the presumption that the audience will take this future in stride, understanding that of course we’ll eventually be happily planet-hopping with nary a second thought as to it’s cost or feasibility, never mind the fact that no human has been beyond low-earth orbit for well over forty years now. However, a story set in a future in which industrial civilization has collapsed—or is in the process of doing so—and the populace is struggling with dramatically lower standards of living, reduced energy and resources, and the consequences of climate change, ecological collapse, rising seas, drought and famine, and other such obvious repercussions to our current ways of life . . . well, that’s a future that must be explained.

In some ways, there’s nothing wrong with that. An explanation of how humanity got to an imagined future is often intriguing when handled right, and a good part of the point of Into the Ruins is to help broaden the public’s understanding of the predicament we’re in through the use of fiction. Tracing out the consequences of that predicament, then, is a worthy effort. However, there are a ton of great stories waiting to be told in realistic futures that are worse off for having to hold the reader’s hand through an explanation of how we got there. Just as a rip-roaring tale of space adventure might be knocked off track by a long explanation of the evolution of space travel, so too might a rip-roaring tale of adventure in a future wracked by risen seas, mass migration, and the desertification of large swaths of the American landscape might be knocked off its rhythm by a segue into the evolution of climatological change and disruption due to the exploitation of fossil fuels.

Our task at hand, then, is to make visions of these sorts of futures common. It’s to make them as obvious and unquestioned as those with intergalactic space travel. It’s to rid ourselves of the need for shorthand, of the need to clarify to the reader that something went wrong.

— ∞ —

One of the tropes of deindustrial science fiction is the tendency of characters to reference the moment when things fell apart, to give it a name like “The Collapse” or some other short, catchy name. You can find examples of this phenomenon in stories in this very issue of the magazine, not to mention in multiple back issues. As the steward of this project, coming across such a term in a story always sets me a little on edge, gets my back up. I mean no disrespect to the authors who do it, mind you, because I understand the urge; it’s for the reasons stated above, the assumed expectations of the readers. But it sets me on edge anyway because it puts the scent of fast collapse into the story. It teases at a possible past apocalypse. And that’s one of the biggest reasons I reject stories that otherwise feature quality writing and an interesting story set in a compelling future setting: because they portray the collapse too fast.

Getting this right is important to me. If we’re to understand the future that’s unfolding around us and have a chance to address it head on—making the world a bit better, even if the emphasis is on “a bit”—then we have to understand that the collapse of a civilization is not an overnight, apocalyptic event. It’s what’s happening to us right now. It’s only in comprehending this that most of us might begin acting now, rather than waiting for an apocalyptic act to kick us into gear. And it’s in understanding that this right now is what the process of decline looks like that we may come to truly grasp that the future is not likely to be one of betterment, but one of decline, fraught with great challenges.

One of the biggest goals of this publication is to drive home that point through fiction. I don’t carry that goal in an effort to depress my fellow citizens or to rage against that world; I carry it due to my own optimism, even if that optimism is sometimes hard for others to see. I really do believe that, facing a hard future, we can take actions that make that future better for us, our descendants, and the many other creatures that call this planet home. These actions won’t fully mitigate what we are destined to face, but they can help, and I believe that such action is worth it.

But there are two common beliefs that do an excellent job of diffusing the sense of need for such action: the belief that the future is one of inevitable betterment, and the belief that the future is one of inevitable apocalypse. If the former, no action is needed, as we are not facing challenging times. If the latter, no action is helpful, as we are facing destruction anyway. Both beliefs foster a willingness to continue living lives that we know are dead ends and that tend to fail in providing happiness and fulfillment, anyway. Both beliefs sentence us to a worse future, at a time when the future is guaranteed to be hard enough as it is.

In portraying realistic futures set during or after times of decline, the stories published in Into the Ruins help to counter the first belief of inevitable betterment. But if, in the process, they reinforce the idea that the decline we face will manifest itself in sudden and cataclysmic collapse, then much of the good they might do is mitigated. We need stories that show us both: the hard times ahead and the fact that those hard times will come as they always do, in fits and starts, piecemeal, fractal, chaotic, messy, uneven, an d decidedly non-apocalyptic, even if they do feature sudden ends for certain people and places. It’s in those sort of messy futures that the actions we can take start to become more clear. It’s in those futures that we see our own agency and the ways that, even in troubled times, we can act to better the world.

It also just so happens that the complication, chaos, variability, joy, pain, and myriad human complication found in these kinds of futures makes for, in my opinion, far more interesting stories than those typically found in science fiction these days. Give me not dystopia or apocalypse or space colonization or techno-utopia; give me instead the messiness of humans making their way through a complicated and living world that refuses to conform to their wishes. Those are the stories I want to read and publish.

— ∞ —

I imagine that in the future, there will be stories about our time. They will speak of our mistakes and they will probably not speak kindly, especially since they will still be dealing with the fall out from our destructive decisions. They will talk of the decline we went through—the way our civilization came to pieces. Perhaps they will know some of the details and perhaps they won’t. I’m not optimistic about the records we’ll leave. But I imagine their story, while condensed, will still be long. I do not imagine they’ll speak of the day everything fell apart, and if they do, it will be a story of myth, not a literal cataloging of exactly how our world went to pieces.

They will not yearn for the time before our civilization fell, any more than we yearn for the Roman empire. If there are records giving some idea of how we lived, it may interest some, but it will be a curiosity of another time, irrelevant to their lives. We will not be central to future civilizations. If we are known at all, we will be just one more piece of history; one bit of curve on a long arc.

Our civilization’s death is certain to be a long one. There’s no particular reason to attempt to aggrandize it. It won’t be the reference point for all who come after and it won’t end the world in a fiery apocalypse. It will simply be one more civilization in a long human history full of them, carrying out its life cycle the way each of billions of humans do, being born, ripening, and eventually dying in the slow, cascading, chaotic way that civilizations die. And then will come another, and another, and another.

The stories to tell are endless: of that death, of all the moments in it, of the civilizations that come afterward, of the complicated path between death and rebirth, of untold humans making their way through fascinating lives on a fascinating planet. Let us tell them. Let us dive into them knowing that now is not the reference point for all, that the future cannot be known in advance, that stories set in decline are as legitimate as stories set in endless progress, that we do not have to hold the reader’s hand. Give them reference points, clues, the shadings of a path, detail if it fits the story and vague allusions if it doesn’t. Let them see the futures we imagine and give them the option to accept those futures or not. But it is in presenting them unapologetically—putting them forth as casually as all those shiny, sterile futures of endless computer technology and casual space travel—that we make them normal. It is in putting them forward over and over and over again—matter of fact, obvious, no labels necessary—that we move from debating if this is the sort of future we can expect, this place of obvious decline when referenced against our now, to debating whether this is what the decline might really look like. And it is in placing formed and breathing characters in these worlds, and having them expect the world, to know it intimately, to not imagine any other—because why would they? this is the world—that we make those futures real, that we change our understanding of what to expect.

And it is then that the work begins. Because now we see what to expect, and it’s through that knowledge that we begin to understand what we must do.

What are your thoughts? Send in your letter to the editor now by emailing or commenting on this post and contribute to the conversation! Don’t have the Winter 2018 issue in which this editorial was published? This is just a taste of the excellent content found therein; grab your copy today!

5 thoughts on “The Problem With “Collapse”

  1. Since language IS important I must call your attention to this statement:”This magazine has been referred to as post-apocalyptic, but it really is not that, as I don’t believe in apocalypse”. Do you know what apocalypse actually means? I would contend that these times ARE apocalyptic ,hence the ongoing presence of Into The Ruins.I suspect that you are(commonly and falsely) equating apocalypse with the biblical concept of armageddon.Apocalypse is an opportunity for awakening and right action;not the final death battle that “ends” the world.
    I’m grateful for being introduced to Catherine McGuire’s writing.Keep up the good work


    1. Hmm. I think I mostly disagree with you, though I think you do have an argument to be made. Yes, I am thinking of apocalypse in something akin to a biblical concept, but I would argue that that’s generally how apocalypse is thought of in our society–as something roughly approximating complete destruction. Now, you can get a more general definition of it that speaks to destruction on a great scale or a great disaster, and in that sense, yes, I would agree we are in apocalyptic times in many ways and that the stories in Into the Ruins are post-apocalyptic. We humans (primarily we humans in industrialized nations) are creating great disaster on a mind-numbing scale, after all. Still, I find that when most people speak of apocalypse or imagine post-apocalyptic fiction (written, visual, or otherwise) they think of something much more akin to the biblical conception. It’s that I’m pushing back against.


    2. Oh, and glad you’ve been enjoying Cathy’s work. I trust you’ve picked up a copy of her novel Lifeline? I’m reading it now and quite enjoying it!


  2. Very inspiring editorial Joel. A clearly articulated picture of a realistic future and the role of stories in helping us get past sitting on our hands.
    I’ve been wanting to write for you since the first edition got published. I’m currently following Greer’s “Writing Right Out in Public” series. A novel is a bit daunting but I’ve been working away on the stories.

    BTW I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Day’s of Rice and Salt. Are you familiar with it? It’s alternative history not future fiction but it really has that ” . . . the messiness of humans making their way through a complicated and living world that refuses to conform to their wishes.”


    1. Thank you, Elaine! And I apologize for this very late reply–I seem to have somehow missed your comment when you originally posted it.

      By all means–work on those stories! I would love a submission from you.

      I have not read Robinson’s Days of Rice and Salt, but perhaps I should work to rectify that. I have heard of it at least in passing. Certainly he seems to get it to a large degree with much of his writing. I’ll look into it!


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