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.