Some science fiction authors have an almost uncanny ability to see what’s coming down the road. Jess talks with Chuck Wendig, whose writing is both wildly creative and oftentimes extraordinarily prescient.
What follows is from the 2019 science fiction book Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig, in which a deadly infectious disease makes the leap from bats to humans, causing societal collapse. This scene is where Dr. Benji Ray, epidemiologist with the CDC, discusses the causes of the catastrophe with Black Swan, an artificial intelligence used by the government in efforts to stop the disease from spreading.
EXCERPT FROM WANDERERS
It's not every day that fiction writers come eerily close to predicting future events, but for some Sci Fi writers like Chuck, science often holds sway over fiction.
I’m your host Jess Phoenix, and this is science.
Jess: Chuck Wendig is one of the most prolific authors I've had the privilege of reading. His works span everything from horror to science fiction to writing advice to "Star Wars." Yeah, "Star Wars." If you review his bibliography, you'll see my description of his efforts as prolific is an understatement. But it's his prescience that made me want to invite him on the show. It's not an exaggeration on my end to say that I've begun to regard Chuck's work alongside the Isaac Asimovs and George Orwells of the literary world. Chuck, thanks for taking time away from the writing desk to talk with me.
Chuck: Oh, thank you. Ironically, I'm still sitting at my writing desk, so, you know, I'm just shackled here. It's fine.
Jess: That's cool. As long as the chains are out of view, we'll be okay.
Chuck: Yeah, yeah.
Jess: So, let me put this bluntly, as possibly bluntly as I can. You wrote a book published in 2019 that predicted the rapid spread of a deadly pandemic. It's called "Wanderers." And it was a super eerie read for me, because I read it right before COVID-19 began. How did you handle the fiction that you wrote about becoming truth? And did you intentionally try to do some forecasting or future-telling?
Chuck: I didn't intend for anything like that, because, you know, as a science fiction writer, a horror writer, whatever category I land in, you know, we're not really trying to prognosticate the future. Sometimes it's framed that way, but we're almost always talking about, like, what's going on now. And with "Wanderers," you know, I had all of these anxieties, and things I was worried about in the world. And so, as a both greedy and lazy writer, I was like, "What if I just mash all of the anxieties together, and I make them kiss and see what happens?" And so, the anxieties kind of formed this giant anxiety robot, this Voltron monster, and "Wanderers" was born. But I wasn't really trying to come up with anything new per se. Like, you know, a bat-based pandemic is something we know can happen, and is not odd, the zoonotic jump there is not odd. The political violence was, while it was going to reach a fever pitch, you know, after that book came out, obviously, it was something that has happened before, and will happen again.
I think the only thing that really, like, freaked me out, in terms of the comparison to reality and what happened in the book was, in the book there is, as you note, an artificial intelligence called Black Swan, that predicts the coming pandemic. And in reality, there was an algorithm called BlueDot that pegged it by about a week. And I was like, boy, that's, like, because it's like black and blue, Black Swan, BlueDot, two words apiece, and I was like, "That's too close." So, you know, maybe it is my fault. I might have unleashed a pandemic, and if that's the case, I apologize profusely. Mea culpa.
Jess: It's such an interesting thing, because I remember you posting on social media, saying, "I didn't mean for this to be so accurate," but here you are. So, it leads me to think about futurism, and futurists, because it's sort of a term that, in some circles, it gets derided. In others, it's seen as essential. And so, most fiction authors don't go into writing with prognostication in mind, like you said, but you've kind of ended up there. So, because that's where you've been, how did the interplay between science and society at large kind of end up pushing you into that futurist sort of category?
Chuck: Ooh, that's a good question. First of all, the futurism thing is interesting because it was the lead character of my novel "Invasive." Hannah Stander is a futurist who is sort of getting ahead of a coming problem with, as it turns out, weird genetically-modified ants that eat people's skin. But in that story is an Elon Musk analog, who turns out to essentially be the evil person in the story, and I was like, "Man, I called that one too. Crap. Damn it." So, you know, the intersection of science and reality is mostly just for me, ag ain, not a desire to prognosticate and figure this stuff out, so much as I'm just really interested in these things from my own both fascination, and again, my own sort of anxieties. Like, I try to study the things that terrify me, in the sense that I think then that helps us be less terrified by them, and be more prepared for them. And not like in an apocalypse prepper, in-the-bunker kind of way, just, I mean, in a sort of a broad spectrum, kind of like, "Hey, I understand how the world works. If I'm scared of planes and turbulence, reading about that will actually help as much as it's," you know, flying is weird. So, for me, those books are an expression of that. But, you know, I think just by being a writer and computing all of this weird stuff, and jamming it in my head, sometimes the stuff that outputs from the input tends to look like predictions.
Jess: You're really good at capturing different perspectives, and showing them through your characters. And so, you do. You do the science people well, you do the techies well, you do the everyday average Joes really well. And so, it makes it seem less like it just lives in the fictional world, and it sort of does that leap over into, well, a lot of this could happen. So, congratulations. You're good at what you do. It's also scary. Thinking on from "Wanderers" to its sequel, "Wayward," and that story, just for folks who haven't read it, it's the people who survived the apocalypse pandemic AI takeover craziness, white supremacist uprising in "Wanderers." I just am wondering how you see technology playing out. Now, in "Wayward," obviously there's no antibiotics, there's no cars. Big commercial farms don't exist, and we have hyper-specialization today. I mean, in our roles. I mean, you're a writer. I'm a scientist. And we don't also have to be farmers and hunters and gatherers and warriors. In the world of "Wayward," everything's within, like, a five-mile radius, and so you use the barter system, and…what is it that you see technology could do in a society where all the rules have broken down, and we don't have access to the things, the hyper-specialization that we do today?
Chuck: Yeah, it's interesting, because then, that book, the town of Ouray is sort of the nexus for all of the sleepwalkers, who survived, wanderers, are now in "Wayward," and they are the sort of brain trust for what was handpicked by this artificial intelligence. So, they have a something of a leg up on the ability to be that specialization, then bring that specialization to bear in a collapsing world, in a broken civilization. So, they're the ones who can understand how old tech can still get working again, and how do you even just bring something like electricity back, in total darkness? You know, so, but it does... You also find out that there's more sinister things going on with artificial intelligence, as it turns out, and, there's, I guess, another fun prediction, that came true, is I didn't really think we were gonna be cresting a wave of weird, you know, artificial intelligence stuff going on, but here we are. Yeah. So, it was always just a fun challenge to think about, both in a sort of a entertainment way, because I think there's something luridly entertaining about the disaster side of things, like how would we survive and how would we do this? But to kinda go back to the comment earlier about, like, disaster prepping, and, you know, apocalypse preppers, like, part of the goal with something like "Wayward" was writing a story that was very explicitly countering this idea that you can be, like, it's just me and my wife and my family down in the bunker, and we're just gonna survive the end times. Like, no, you're not. First of all, why would you want to? Community is literally everything. It's what we have in this world. But also, the community, as has been proven time and again, is how we actually get through things like this. Usually, in crisis, community comes together, as opposed to breaks apart. In so much fiction, you know the zombie fiction, the apocalypse fiction, is all about how society fractures, and I didn't really want it to be that way. Obviously, there's some of that, factions and white supremacy and so forth, rising, but I really wanted it to be about how communities and people come together and find a way forward through that, and that, to me, is how this sort of technology, futurist aspect sort of comes through, is these people bringing it together for each other, as opposed to just in isolation.
Jess: A lot of what you write about is pretty intense. What I've noticed is that you do have a lot of this, the darker, the scarier parts of life on Earth in a lot of your work. So, what are the most positive human traits that you see coming from really terrible events, either fictional or in real life? And how do those positive human traits, that sort of seem to shine through, especially in the work that you've written, how do those speak to the ideals of science, of actually, like, being scientific about how we approach the world?
Chuck: Well, community, for one, I think is really, again, with "Wayward," and to a lesser degree, "Wanderers," there's a huge aspect of that. I don't think science works well in isolation. I think, obviously, it works well when it's tested rigorously with and against other people. You know, that's why we do what we do as a sort of a sign of civilization is to test these things for each other, and to learn more about each other and so forth. I think found family is another thing. You know, that kind of comes through the work, especially "Black River Orchard" is very much about a found family sort of structure emerging. You know, as to how that relates to science, I mean, I don't know, but I'm sure that working in an environment, and having spoken to a number of scientists, you know, they, I think, feel like their cohorts and compadres are certainly part of that found family structure, and can be, at least to some degree, and go maybe a little beyond just professional entanglements. And so, these people are, because you understand them, it's like, you know, when I find other writers... There's a prevailing theory sometimes, from some people, that writers shouldn't be friends with writers. You should be friends with, like, "real people," like, you know, out in the world, so you learn things, and...
But, for me, writers have to have friends who are writers, because we're the only people who understand the really weird stuff that we go through. You know, even my family, who are great, and I love very much, if I get into the weeds on publishing and writing stuff, they're, you can kind of see, like, the gaze disconnect, and like, "Oh, okay." Like, "We're out." But when I'm talking to other writers, they're like, they totally are laser-focused, and understand exactly the weird nitty-gritty that I'm talking about. And I assume, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but that science and scientists certainly have a similar vibe, that there's just some things that people who are not practicing in that way maybe can relate to and understand. And especially as you get down into specializations, there's probably definitely some pretty unique things that just, other people, you know, the normies, so to speak, are just like, "I have no idea what you're talking about," but your friends in the industry and the friends in the business, and in the practice and disciplines, understand that stuff.
Jess: Yeah, if I start telling people that I've figured out and named and described 13 different kinds of undersea lava flows for my master's, they're like, oh, my god, their eyes roll back in their head, because all people wanna know is, "Is the lava gonna kill me?" And I'm like, "Well, when it's five miles undersea, the answer is no."
Chuck: Yeah, yeah.
Jess: So, that's it. That ends it. So, you get it. And so, let's swing to AI again. So, you kind of present it as a double-edged sword, with "Wayward," it's very different than "Wanderers," the first book of those two. And you've also used AI and mentioned it in a few other works, so...
Chuck: Oh, yes. Yeah.
Jess: ...so, just, you know, I'd love to get your take on what you see as limits, dangers, possible benefits of AI, that you can imagine, because that is your job. You are Mr. Imagination, so, I'd love to hear.
Chuck: Yeah, AI is one of those things where, like any of our great powers and technologies, whether you're talking about splitting atoms or you're talking about a sharpened piece of metal that we turn into a knife, can always be used for great benefit, you know, I'm gonna cut bread and serve my friends, or I'm gonna stab them and take their bread, or, you know, obviously, you know, what you do with fire and nuclear power or whatever it is, there's always a sort of a double-sided coin there. So, artificial intelligence is very clearly that, and I think, you know, we're seeing that, and my preference would remain that artificial intelligence do the things that the human mind is not really capable of doing, whether that's, you know, gazing upon an entire network of health data, and figuring out trends that maybe an individual alone can't see, or whether it's making sure that my, you know, my Roomba does not track dog poop across the carpet, and, like, maybe can figure that out for me. That'd be great. But I don't know why we're all so hyper-focused on artificial intelligence taking over human positions, especially the human positions like art and writing, that, traditionally speaking, people would like to do, and would like to be free to do. So, if you, you know, artificial intelligences could pick up the other slack, that would be fine. You know what, like, I would like to know when my milk is running out in the fridge. If it can help me do that, that would be super great. Less than, like, write my books for me, and that part, I don't want it to do.
Jess: Yeah, it's funny that people immediately jump to, "Let's let the AI take all the fun stuff." And I'm like, "No, no, no."
Chuck: Yeah. That's why we do this.
Jess: You've written so many things, and I just, I really like the way that you represent science and technology in one of your books called "Zeroes."
Chuck: Oh, thank you.
Jess: Yeah. You had so much versatility as a thinker and a writer, because the book involves a lot of technical work. It involves hackers, and it, you know, that is... Hollywood's version of a hacker is somebody connects a computer to a system, and then brings down the government in five minutes. That's not how it is. You manage to convey... Like, I don't know, you got your brain in sync with people who have very highly technical knowledge, and a very distinct lifestyle, and yet how are you able to do that? How are you able to get into the head of a very specialized profession, and then also use your imagination to make a really compelling story?
Chuck: First of all, like, I've known a number of hacker-type folk throughout my years, and I used to, like, pre-internet, I used to run, like, bulletin board systems, like, the old dial-up, you know, 2400 baud, [inaudible 00:16:13] kind of system. So, you know, even back then, I was connecting with and meeting, you know, hacker folks who were kind of... Or phone phreakers. Like, people who were, like, really sort of all about getting into systems and learning how to manipulate both the systems and the people to get into the systems. And so, I always found that interesting even then. But I think there's, like, a good line between making hacking look super easy, like, "Oh, the helicopter's shooting me," and I would need to just hack the helicopter, and it's like, goes to 100, and it's like, "Ding. We hacked the helicopter," and then it explodes. You know, versus, like, obviously, hacking, too, can be really boring. Like, it's just code. Just, like, ticketty-ticketty, like, typing. It'd be as exciting as watching me write a book, you know, on a camera. So, you know, you're trying to find that sort of narrative balance between being authentic to what's going on and what reality is, but also be tense and exciting, and have it be something that's intriguing and interesting to the reader. For me, it's like there's a... Anytime I deal with, like, reality-based information that needs to be conveyed in a fictional, entertaining way, I sort of take a tweak on the two truths and a lie. Like, I'm always trying to tell, like, several true things that will bridge me to the complete fictional fabrication, the horror sci-fi thing that I'm going to, you know, bring to the table, and not just be like, you know, which, again, obviously, I have written "Star Wars" and love "Star Wars," but it's not just like, "I don't know. It's a sword with light." Like, who cares? Like, that's awesome, and I... But when you're kind of trying to write these books, you want it to make sense, and feel like it's a real thing, especially when it's set in the now, and it's supposed to be something people believe in, not just that they take on faith. So, for me, it's always, like, building in those, like, real details, and then eventually being like, "We have left the real details behind," but hopefully you can still follow me, naturally, in this connect-the-dots way, to this really nightmare stuff I'm writing.
Jess: The humans at the heart of all of your books, you're correct. Community is a very strong underlying theme, and then, what happens when you don't have it. But the people are so real. And I think that's what, you know, you get from a, like, a Michael Crichton, Stephen King…
But one of the things that I've really noticed is you've been able to portray the radicalization, and, like, hatred and white supremacy kind of coming back to the fore. It's really, like, you say the quiet parts out loud in your writing, and they need to be said, because people need to see that this stuff can fester. So, yeah. And I first became familiar with your work when I was running for Congress in 2018, to also shed light on things. And I've interacted with you a bunch on Twitter, on Instagram. And so, I wanted to know if immersing yourself in social media, in that landscape, which, obviously, you just said you've been part of since BBS days, is that, like, is that kind of like a twist on the intellectual salons that they used to have in the early 20th century? Or is it like a pressure cooker, like, Manhattan Project-style thing? Is that why you engage so much online?
Chuck: Yeah. Ooh, yeah. Wa-huh. Sometimes it's those things. Sometimes it's just a distraction, time-waster. Sometimes it's a, that sort of aquarium, like I'm pressed up against the glass, trying to figure out what's in there. You know, sometimes it's a tonguing a broken tooth kind of a thing. Like, you're like, I just, I feel like everything is bad, and I wanna just keep poking at it and figuring out why, and see if it makes it feel better, and it traditionally does not. But sometimes you learn some things in the process. Sometimes it's like that just hypervigilance, right? Because we're, like, living in this very strange new world, with... Not just everything... I mean, obviously, every time in history is its own special brand of weirdness, right? I do recognize that. But it does feel like since 2016 and into the pandemic, things have just been maybe a little extra off the rails. And so, you know, that hypervigilance sometimes is like, I just wanna be, like, staring at it to see if it'll start making some sense. And I think then the fiction becomes kind of, to some degree, an extension, and hopefully, a healthy extension of that hypervigilance, that's like, "I am trying to make sense of it, staring at it," but then the fiction is, like, taking it, like clay, and seeing if there's something there to be molded and shaped into some kind of sense.
Jess: It's interesting to me, too, because, you know, the solitary writer vibe is definitely one that, we've all heard about that...
Chuck: Oh, yeah. Jess: ...like, locked up in your room, with the yellow wallpaper, and [crosstalk 00:21:22]
Chuck: Yep, yeah. Like, we're doomsday preppers, narratively speaking. Yeah.
Jess: Yes. And so, it just makes me think of "Wayward" again, and how... I think what I really got from that, like, post-apocalyptic world is that you kind of underscored humanity's commitment to survival, and innovation and engineering, and, like, a shared struggle. Is that the sort of ray of light that, is that one we can take from the science fiction future, maybe?
Chuck: Yeah, I think so. I mean, you know, and again, that's why I think I go... I don't wanna say out of my way, because I think this is true with a lot of science fiction, but I make special effort to ensure that it's not just, like, the bad side, like, "Well, science is bad, and they, it unleashes bad things, and we can't trust it." Because I think that's the sort of path of how you get to be, like, "Vaccines are actually full of tiny robots, and they're gonna kill us." Even though, admittedly, I'm also using the tiny robots who might kill us thing. Not in vaccines. But, you know, yeah, the people, and the disciplines they're bringing to the table, and the wisdom and the intelligence and the discipline, I think, is definitely something that presents the hopeful side of that equation, as opposed to the disaster, doom, doomsaying, doom-scrolling kind of vibe that you can get from some things.
Jess: Very true. So, there is a question that I know, I think... I think. My guess is it's going to be opening the, all the cans of all the worms...
Jess: ...and this is because we are the Union of Concerned Scientists. We are concerned.
Chuck: Yes. Yeah.
Jess: And so, I ask all of my guests, in this case it will be Chuck Wendig, why are you concerned?
Chuck: How long do we have? Can I... Do we have, like, a couple hours? Yeah. "Wanderers" was definitely, like, my Bible of the concerns. Like, it was definitely... But then, like, the weird thing was, when, like, an actual pandemic hit, after having written about an actual pandemic, like, my sort of anxiety relaxed. It was really weird. Like, at the start of the pandemic, it was almost like my anxiety was taking a victory lap, like it was, like, "See?" It's like, "I told you." And then you were right. Like, it high-fives everybody. You can now take a nap and lock down. So, I guess the pandemic thing, as a worry, is now off the table, just, if only because it's fresh. But like, one of the things, like, you know, outside of the giant, monolithic concern of climate change. But the post-antibiotic age is one of the ones that sort of gets me because we really need antibiotics, and the fact that sometimes the search for new antibiotics is halted by basic capitalism, like, well, there's not as much money in it, so we just don't look. And you're like, "Yeah, but, like, there has to be money in society existing, so, like, maybe just get that part done." Like, I know they have... I just saw, yesterday, the day before, that they had new, potential, a new potential gonorrhea antibiotic on the horizon, which is desperately needed, given the resistant forms that are out there now. So, you know, stuff like that's always, like, you know, when I write "Wayward," and it's the end of the world, you understand why antibiotics are hard to deal with. But, like, we shouldn't have that problem now, in current society, where antibiotics stop working and we're just like, "Whatever. Too bad. Good luck with your cut on your face from shaving." So, that's one that's still kind of, like, burrows. I'm like, can we just fix that? Good.
Jess: It's these little things we take for granted, and when you remove them, what do you have left? So, that's a pretty good concern, and I like it, because now I'm waiting for your next book, which'll probably be about the lack of antibiotics.
Chuck: Don't tempt me. Don't tempt me.
Jess: Drug-resistant bacteria takes over the world. So, you heard it here first, folks. But in more real-world matters, tell us about your most recent book, and what it's called. Should people read it? I'm gonna guess the answer's yes. Chuck: Well, that's, I mean, yeah, that's up to them, but I'd like them to. It's called "Black River Orchard." It's set where I live, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It's about a man who brings back from the brink a secret heirloom apple called, he calls "the Ruby Slipper," but there was a reason it was sort of left to the margins of history and darkness, and that there is a curse afoot, and it slowly begins to take over the town and county in which this new orchard grows. So, it's about the people affected by these strange new apples, and the people who are not affected by them, and who effectively form resistance against this strange new fruit.
Jess: That is pretty cool. I haven't read it yet, so I'm excited. Because I've read your sci-fi, kind of, leaning stuff, and then I read "Book of Accidents," which is
Chuck: Oh, yeah.
Jess: ...not sci-fi, definitely horror, and...
Chuck: You know, some people say it's sci-fi, though. That's the weird... Some people are like, "Well, it's sci-fi." I'm like, "Well, kind of."
Jess: Yeah, because, I mean, I could see it, but I put it more in the horror line of things, versus, you know, like, "Wayward" or "Wanderers," or "Zeroes," or... Yeah, I mean, you've got such a vast array of things you've written, and it's great. And so, I really appreciate you coming on to my little science program and talking about this, because...
Chuck: Oh, it's my pleasure.
Jess: ...it's, your science fiction is an important way of thinking about these current, modern, real-world challenges. And so, we need everybody on board. We need the writers and the artists and the poets, and the scientists and the engineers. It's all... That's how we keep our society moving, so...
Chuck: Yeah, it's all connected. That STEM stuff, yeah, absolutely. It's all connected.
SOUND: Music (Theme Song)
Thanks to Rich Hayes and Omari Spears for production help, and to Anthony Eyring for our multimedia magic. Remember, ignorance is the disease scientistas!