Death tolls

Jens brought something up over his blog that’s been on my mind lately: casualty figures. He’s referring to the infamous Black Death that devastated Europe, killing millions.

For the story I’m working on, yesterday I stopped by the library and picked up An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, who, during the mid-’90s Rawandan genocide, harbored over 1,200 people from the massacres going on in the streets right outside his doors. (I haven’t seen it, but the film Hotel Rawanda was about this.) The raw numbers he provides about the slaughter are staggering: 800,000 people killed, mostly by machete, in 100 days. Nazis would have envied the efficiency, if not the lack of bureaucracy. 8,000 people per day, by hand.

In fiction, especially science fiction, you see numbers like this all the time. Millions killed at the push of a button. Whole planets destroyed in the blink of an eye. Biological weaponry that wipes out whole species. Massive battles that kill hundreds of thousands of people in an afternoon.

It seems like, and I’m certainly not excluding myself from this, as writers we tend to throw these sorts of events out there for dramatic purposes. These things certainly happen, throughout history. But something we sometimes miss is the impact these sorts of things have. Alderaan explodes and an old man gets a headache.

(Not that it hasn’t been done well; most of the Ender’s Game books, for example, are all about a kid coping with events he triggers in the first novel.)

Just a few years ago, the sudden death of 3,000 people dramatically altered the political and economic landscape for millions of people, and our grandchildren will likely still be suffering the effects. Just something to keep in mind.

But at the same time, you don’t want to get too heavy-handed with it. You probably don’t want your story to turn into a ham-fisted morality tale about the Evils That Man Wrought. You want your story to be focused on, whatever, the kid and his best friend the talking cheeseburger. It’s a tricky line to walk.

And, as Jens says, it’s impossible to really wrap your head around the numbers. Even the people who’ve experienced it have trouble describing these events. And this is one of those areas where modern psychology utterly fails to explain human behavior.

I guess my point is really just to be careful with these mass slaughters; as plot devices they’re often simultaneously overused and underused.


3 thoughts on “Death tolls”

  1. Maybe overused but “underemployed”? Meaning they’re used often but not to their full potential as literary devices or vehicles to explore human roles in the aftermath.
    I’m thinking over it, and many of the war novels I’ve read, written by bona fide veterans who were there and saw it, fail or neglect to deliver the impact of this sort of death toll. Some exceptions: “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and the Battle of Borodino in “War and Peace”. The Flashman series does an excellent job of portraying the carnage of warfare in relation to mass deaths, as well.
    A difference between the Rwandan genocide and that of the Nazis is that the Nazis sought to mechanize their genocide. Many of the men carrying it out had no institutional hatred for Jews, Gypsies, etc. However, once they could transfer the burden of guilt from themselves to a system, an institution and not an individual, the job became possible without going insane. (Though, of course, there were a huge number of atrocities committed that were clearly the product of hate.) Whereas it seems that the Rwandan genocide was an explosion of long-simmering sectarian and ethnic hatred, which would boil over into mass murders, albeit facilitated and encouraged by the government.

    Anyways, that’s a different question. To digress, the Black Death was more or less a natural event. From 1347-1352, approximately 30% of Europeans died – 25 million people! Some historians estimate it was as high as 60%, or 50 million. Split the difference and you arrive at, say 40%, which means two of every five. Some areas, such as Sienna or most of Sicily, were depopulated by 90%! The dead would outnumber the living. It blows my mind. How could anyone render this sort of catastrophe in fiction convincingly? I don’t know, but I intend to try, hopefully in a responsible, mature manner.
    Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” Though the plague described in that book falls well short of 40% mortality, he does an excellent job of describing the horror of this sort of loss of life.

  2. Oh, sure. I wasn’t trying to draw parallels between various mass losses of life. I think every instance of genocide is unique and remarkable in its own horrible way. Just, as you mention, pointing out that in a lot of big war stories tons of people can die with apparently little consequence.

    I wonder if part of it that I’m spoiled by modern warfare. If 1,000 troops suddenly died in Iraq tomorrow, it would be considered a massive disaster. In World War I that would have been a skirmish.

    I’m sure your treatment of the Black Death will be fine. It’s one of Earth’s greatest plot devices! 🙂 Closely following it is the Industrial Revolution and the Atom Bomb.

    It’s kind of funny you mention Camus’s “The Plague.” Rusesabagina actually quotes him at the beginning of the book.

  3. Really? I oughta check that out. I’m sure that the wisdom Camus hands out in “The Plague” would be a comfort to one trying to make it through the genocide.

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