Disaster Tourism

Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland.

In these Phil Dick-ian times it’s a coin toss whether an idea will be imagined as an sf story before it really happens and gets reported by journalists.

Take “disaster tourism.” Just the other day MSNBC ran a report by a writer who took a tour of Chernobyl:

Even before the crisis at a Japanese nuclear plant broke out in March, interest in visiting Chernobyl was growing so much that the Ukrainian government started an initiative to bring in more visitors by streamlining procedures for signing up for the tours.

“We want to say ‘come and see for yourselves,'” Emergencies Ministry spokeswoman Yulia Yershova told The Associated Press. Then she added a remark indicating that the meaning of Chernobyl is elusive even for those who live closely with it: “We want to dispel the myth that Chernobyl still remains dangerous for Ukraine and the world.”

But Chernobyl is in fact still a dangerous place, as the rules for visitors make clear. Don’t touch any structures or vegetation, don’t sit on the ground or even put your camera tripod there, don’t take any item out of the zone, don’t eat outdoors. Guides make sure the visitors understand that various spots in the zone are more contaminated than others and insist no one wander off the designated paths.

I was initially going to spin the story of “disaster sightseeing” tours to Chernobyl as more-science-fictional-than-science fiction. But doesn’t this precise combination of morbid curiosity and imagination drives a great many sf stories?

One example that comes to mind is Kage Baker’s “Company” story, “Son, Observe the Time,” set on the eve of the San Francisco Earthquake. Baker’s story involves much more than the quake – because a lot of smash and crash, without more, doesn’t add up to a story. And that fact is one of the ironic distinctions between fiction and reality. Loads of people want to visit real life scenes of wreckage and ruin, and no character development or plot resolution is needed.    

There are guided bus tours to New Orleans neighborhoods that were severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Discover The World, a British tour operator, runs a “volcano hotline” and calls travellers as soon as a volcano erupts, offering them a trip to see it. Tourists left for Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland within 48 hours after the eruption began:

From a couple of miles away, we first catch sight of the crater, spewing fire into the darkening sky, and we stop to take photos. This is dramatic enough, but our guide motions at us to start up the snowmobiles again and we head closer. Suddenly, we crest a rise, the ice turns from white to ashen black, and the fiery crater is there before us, no more than 500m away. The sight is mesmerising, but oddly familiar from films and TV – you have to remind yourself this is for real. The sound is thrilling and unexpected though, a succession of low booms as the lava explodes up 100 metres into the air, then comes crashing to earth.

Where science fiction writers have the edge on travel agents is that they can send people to the edge of jeopardy in cosmic environments that can only be reached in the imagination, like Poul Anderson’s Flandry, stranded on the surface of a Jovian world and trying to imagine how to attract the attention of alien rescuers, or Niven’s Beowulf Schaeffer snared in the tidal pull of a black hole.

5 thoughts on “Disaster Tourism

  1. Kuttner and Moore’s “Vintage Season,” about a guy who encounters some time-traveling tourists showing up to observe the huge disaster that will take place in a few days, was filmed as a pretty good TV movie with Jeff Daniels.

  2. I don’t remember the title but I remember a ‘ghost’ story I read when I was a kid that the ‘ghosts’ turned out to be guided tours from another dimension . . .

  3. In Up The Line by Robert Silverberg, the time travel tourist bureau has special tours of the times of the Black Death, with tourists wearing special containment suits which are externally sterilized upon their return to their present time, before the tourists can take them off.

  4. The exclusion zone around Chernobyl is called, reasonably enough, “the Zone.” This is also the term for the zone where alien artifacts have been left in the Strugatskys’ _Roadside Picnic_, and accordingly the guides who now lead tourist parties into the Chernobyl zone are called “stalkers” (_stalkery_), the term used in the novel for the scavengers who look for alien artifacts. So there’s sf bleeding into reality for you.

  5. John Hertz sent this comment:

    If you’re going to talk about “disaster tourism” you should mention H. Kuttner & C.L. Moore’s novella “Vintage Season” (1946), which turns out to be on that topic and is one of the finest s-f stories.

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