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Warning: Danger Ahead

Updated on February 14, 2014
A cautionary tale we all know
A cautionary tale we all know | Source

Tale as old as time.

The cautionary tale has probably been part of human storytelling for as long as we have told stories. They are often enduring stories as well, especially when they are told to the young. Many of them contain an element of the fantastic. The story of Little Red Riding Hood serves to caution children against talking to strangers using a talking wolf, likely because it was less disturbing than the idea that there were people who might do what the wolf did or worse. The tale of the Billy Goats Gruff served to warn against highwaymen who like the mythic troll might hide under a bridge.

One can examine many of the most enduring fairy tales and find similar cautionary elements.

The next chapter

Today storytellers still weave cautionary tales and they often still contain fantastic elements. What is less common today is intending the cautions for small children. In fact most of today’s cautionary tales are aimed at teens at the youngest. Of course today the fantastic elements of the stories tend to be more technological than mythic. The cautions tend to be on a larger scale today too, warning not about individual threats but about dangers to the whole world.

After the end


The End!

The best known sort of modern cautionary tale is post apocalyptic science fiction which can be further subdivided into four sub types.

The most optimistic are tales of averted apocalypses. In these stories the end of the world is imminent, usually due to some human action, but the heroes through courage and self sacrifice manage to avert disaster at the last minute and save the human race. Film examples include Wargames The Core, and Deep Impact.

The second group is considerably less optimistic and relates to warlike impulses leading to our own destruction or near destruction. The most obvious are of nuclear or biological weapons. Although Alien invasion stories also fit. These war stories can range from how the world ended tales to stories of how the handful of survivors coped with the devastation. This sub genre became more prominent with cold war fears but can be traced to War of the Worlds and The Time Macine. Prominent examples of cold war based apocalyptic tales range from classics like Dr Strangelove and Planet of the Apes to modern stories like that of the Fallout video game series.

The third world ending genre focuses on environmental catastrophe or natural disaster. Although its tempting to assume that this group began with global warming fears that is not the case. The short story “the Keeper” was originally published in 1957 and was one of many stories featuring a world engulfed in a new ice age from purely natural cycles. More recently miniseries like The Fire Next Time and movies like The Day After Tomorrow are the most prominent examples of tales cautioning against the effects of human caused climate change.

The final type of post apocalyptic fiction is typified by it's failure to specify how the world came to it's end. This group seems to be the newest group but has many popular examples like the Silo Saga, the Hunger Games or the series “Firefly.” They generally posit the end being so far before the story being told that it's only relevant as a reason for the story taking place in a society radically different from our own.

Too perfect servants?

Or not

Post apocalyptic fiction is hardly the only cautionary tale told in science fiction, although it may be the most obvious. Even some of the most optimistic stories often slip in cautionary bits. Asimov's robot stories subverted what had been the prominent caution about machine revolt but featured, among other things, the possible effects on society of being too coddled by it's perfect machine servants. "Star Trek" is famous for it's allegorical confrontation of modern issues though it is far from the only science fiction to do that. Invasion of the Body Snatchers for example confronted cold war fears of Communist infiltration.

Overpopulation fears

Do we really want to go there?

Caution about current trends is another common theme. The novel Make Room! Make Room! And it's film adaptation Soylent Green projected population growth into a horrific future. Minority Report featured the risks of ubiquitous surveillance that we seem to be rushing headlong into. In an inverse of the overpopulation fears in Soylent Green, Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society includes consequences of Japans declining birth rate as well as the dangers of a brain computer interface that leave the human mind vulnerable to hacking that typified the series. The last also illustrates a danger in a writer using current trends for their cautions. Trends can change, leaving a writers work seeming dated.

Kindness the Haiti disaster aftermath
Kindness the Haiti disaster aftermath | Source

Sometimes, it's about what we want to avoid

Listing every possible type of cautionary tale would be an impossible task. By the time such a list were compiled someone would likely have penned a tale of a new potential danger in our future. Needless to say if there is an implication of potential technological use or abuse that someone might be afraid of there is likely a book or short story about it on a bookshelf somewhere. Don't believe it? Go visit bookstores sci-fi section and browse for a while and find out.

What's your favorite

Whats your favorite type of cautionary tale?

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    • profile image

      Eric Hendrickson 

      4 weeks ago

      i like farytales because they don't have to have just human characters but other creatures.

    • profile image

      brent habeb 

      2 months ago

      i enjoy reading about disaster cautionary tales


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