Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Failure of Imagination: Fantasy in the Age of Terror

The second half of this semester, I am teaching a course on representations of September 11, 2001 in literature and film.  One of the texts that we're reading is The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation.  I'm fascinated by this text, not only because of the way the words and images interact with each other to tell a story that is, in part at least, extremely familiar to most people, but also because it makes some of the lesser-known details of the history and consequences of the attacks easily accessible to a wide audience.

That's all very well and good, you might say, but what does that have to do with fantasy literature?

After summarizing the events of 9/11, the history behind those events, and some of the most immediate consequences of the attacks, the 9/11 commission summarizes their findings and presents several insights.  They say, "The commission believes the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failure: in imagination, in policy, in capabilities, and in management."

Failure of imagination.  The others are more obvious perhaps--border control policy wasn't what it should be, coordination among different agencies wasn't managed well, etc.  But the more I read about the events leading up to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the more I see how the failure of imagination was perhaps the biggest failure of all.

Take, for example, the words spoken by Mohamed Atta, the man who piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  At 8:24, he was overheard on the airplanes transponder, saying, "We have some planes.  Just stay quiet and you will be OK.  We are returning to the airport."  No one quite knew what to make of the phrase "we have some planes," and so, even though the flight didn't crash for another 20 minutes, nothing was done about it.

Let me be clear here.  This is not at all an attempt to assign blame for anything that happened during those horrifying attacks.  Rather, this is an attempt to emphasize one of the commission's recommendations, namely, this one:

It is crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.

This might seem a bit ridiculous--bureaucratize imagination?--but as scholars such as Alex Houen and Kristiaan Versluys have suggested, we already have a way in which disasters are routinely imagined and dealt with: science fiction films.  Movies like Independence Day have already shown disasters like the attacks of September 11, 2001, and even more importantly, given us as viewers a chance to test out how we would we respond to such horrors.

Certainly, it is a far cry from sitting in a movie theater, watching a fictional film, to seeing real-life events on CNN.  But that fictional film can imagine possibilities that might seem ridiculous or impossible in real life, and in doing so, prepare us for the unimaginable attack that becomes all too real by challenging us to change our policies and expand our thinking in different directions.  Fantasy and science fiction provide a space in which to do this, a space that is easily accessible and available to all, a space that clearly reflects back on everyday reality.

And so, while the likelihood of Megatron actually coming to Earth are slim to none, the responses shown to these robot attacks in the Transformers movies can provide powerful food for thought (hard as that might be to imagine)--What weaknesses does this kind of attack exploit that we might be vulnerable to in reality?  Is the response in the film one that we as a nation are comfortable with?  And how do I, personally, respond to the possibility of an unthinkable attack on US soil?

As writers and fans of science fiction and fantasy, imagination is one thing that we're definitely not short on.  And with the right focus, it can be an area of excellence, rather than failure.