It’s spectrums all the way down.
There’s an old nerd joke that goes, “There are 10 kinds of people in this world —those who understand binary and those who don’t.” The joke is that in binary math (that is, base two), you count using only one and zero, so 1 is 1, 10 is two, 11 is three, 100 is four, 101 is five, and so on.
There’s a slightly newer nerd joke that goes, “There are ten kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary, those who don’t — and those who understand ternary.” Ternary is base three, which counts like this: 1 is 1, 2 is two, 10 is three, 11 is four, 12 is five, 20 is six, and so on.
You could continue this joke ad infinitum, simply by referring to a handy list of numeral prefixes: “Those who understand binary, those who understand ternary, those who don’t, and those who understand quaternary” (base four) or “quinary” (base five) or senary (base six), etc etc etc.
The thing I like about this joke is that it challenges your assumptions about categorization, reminding you that there’s no way to really know how many buckets things might be sorted into.
Here’s a pair of buckets you might think of sorting people into:
- People who are good, and who, in a crisis, will help those around them
- People who are evil, and who, in a crisis, will turn on those around them
Those buckets are a gift to pulp writers like me. Pulp genres, like science fiction, put plot front and center. As William Gibson once told the Paris Review:
The only kind of ghetto arrogance I can summon up from being a science fiction writer is, I can do fucking plot. I can feel my links to Dashiell Hammett. If I meet some guy who subsists on teaching writing in colleges, and if there’s any kind of hostility, I think, I can do plot. I’ve still got wheels on my tractor. The great thing is when you’re doing the other stuff and you whip the plot into gear, then you know you’re driving something really weird.
Pulp writers are always looking for ways to “whip the plot into gear” — which is why, when confronted with the age-old choice of a “man vs man” and “man vs nature” plot, so many of us grab the twofer, in a “man vs nature vs man” plot. That’s when the tsunami blows your house down and then your neighbor comes over to eat you.
This is the staple of a post-war British science fiction subgenre that Brian Aldiss called the “cozy catastrophe,” books like John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, where the invading monsters unleash the inner beasts of working-class oiks, who form militias that come for their social betters.
Jo Walton identifies the cozy catastrophe as a bourgeois reaction to the prosperity of the post-war British working class — a kind of wealthy person’s horror of having to share once-exclusive spaces with the poors.
There’s a sociological term for this anxiety: elite panic: “a fear of civil disorder and the shifting of focus away from disaster relief towards implementing measures of ‘’command and control.’
The term was popularized by Rebecca Solnit in her essential history book “A Paradise Built in Hell,” which uses primary sources to carefully document the actual behavior of people during disasters.
From the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina, from the Halifax ammunition explosion of 1917 to the 9/11 attacks, Solnit painstaking shows that disasters are not moments when our bestial nature is finally revealed.
Rather, these are moments of extraordinary clarity: moments when the background refrigerator hum of petty grievance is stilled, and, in the ringing silence it leaves behind, we discover that we owe our neighbors solidarity and care, not suspicion. As I put it in my 2017 novel Walkaway, a disaster won’t send your neighbor over to your house with a shotgun — rather, they’re going to knock on your door bearing a covered dish.
The cozy catastrophe proposes that there are two kinds of people: good people and bad people. But history shows us that the real “two kinds of people” are:
- People who think there are two kinds of people: a huge pool of barely controlled monsters and a tiny minority of noble heroes; and
- People who understand that most of us are mostly okay, most of the time, and any of us is capable of great nobility and also rationalizing great wickedness.
The “mostly bastards, sprinkled with heroes” theory of humanity is statistically incoherent, of course. What are the odds that nearly everyone is a barely controlled monster, but you and everyone you know are mostly okay? Far more likely that you and the people you know are statistically representative of most of us: flawed vessels, capable of good or bad, mostly ready to rise to the occasion, possibly gripped by a foolish theory of human action written by pulp authors who want to maximize their plot or promulgated by wealthy people who literally can’t imagine that poor people would tolerate inequality if there wasn’t an armed police force ready to defend mansions from slum-dwellers.
As I’ve written, I think all this matters, far beyond literary aesthetics. Fiction is an “intuition pump,” Daniel Dennett’s term for the thought experiments we use to rehearse our responses to future problems.
A foolish insistence on binaries trips us up in all sorts of ways — not just in the insistence that gender is always a one-or-the-other thing, but in all our affairs.
There are, after all, 10 kinds of people, and that means that the longer we study ourselves, the more kinds of people we find.