All vs Most

June 28th, 2012
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Problems with the potential to kill huge numbers of people are a favorite in fiction. I think this is because on that scale everything else is unimportant. [1] Why should the protagonist be spending all their time undermining the evil scientist, ignoring all the duties of the ordinary life they left behind? Because billions of lives are at stake! Why should we be willing to spend money like acorns to send a spaceship out to destroy that incoming asteroid? Because it would end life on earth!

One thing they tend not to distinguish, however, is whether the catastrophe threatens to kill everyone or just most people. In terms of how many people die, things that kill 90% of people vs 100% are much more similar than different. But anything humanity can't recover from is very much worse: it removes the possibility of future people getting to live. [2] I find plagues and bioterrorism really worrying, but at least they're very unlikely to kill everyone.


[1] Except love. The author can make a romance much stronger by having the protagonist make a choice where they value the love interest more than saving the world. Of course the world still gets saved, potentially by the two of them working together.

[2] If there might be a lot of future people this is really bad, but even if we're just talking about a eliminating the earth's steady state population that's a lot of people-time missed out on.

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