Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Deconstructing a world on fire

I don't know if you've taken a peek at the world lately, but it's a mess. I kept a list of wtf moments in 2020 -- including but not limited to: global pandemic, declassified proof of UFOs, murder hornets, ten gazillion hurricanes of ever increasing horribleness, earthquakes, wildfires, fire tornadoes, that scary af explosion in Beirut, and this headline: "Scientists Revive Ancient Microbe That Has Been in a Dormant State for More Than 100 Million Years" (BBC News, 7/27/20) --  but have largely left off doing so in 2021. My mind is just too tired, honestly, and more than a little overwhelmed. It's hard to read, it's hard to sleep, and it's really hard to write.

Because, dude, how do we express the utter freaking swirling chaos that is our real life right now? And more importantly, how do we do that without creating an echo chamber for bad stuff, which is likely to turn off more readers than it lures? When you see this kind of stuff on the news, you don't really click on the TV and watch Contagion. I mean, most folks don't. They watch The Great British Baking Show or TikToks about puppies.

So our challenge as writers is to speak to the zeitgeist of 2021 without bringing our readers down. We have to acknowledge reality without piling on more badness. And those of us who write speculative fiction have been given a huge gift in this effort because we are gods.

Literally, we make and unmake worlds on the regular. It's like our job.

We can endure involuntary isolation and constant existential threats but also show the entire world reaching out with a big sciency hug to end that isolation and bring Mark Watney home. (The Martian)

We can feel the frustrating lack of agency as history washes us along in its tsunami when we read about an immortal girl who's perpetually forgotten. (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue)

We can address inherited trauma by investing it with magic as a mechanism for justice. (The Deep)

All of the real-life, actual bad stuff hitting us right now can be deconstructed into core themes -- isolation, uncertainty, injustice, fear, who to believe, who to trust, who to admire. And then we can use not our real world but fictionalized speculation (spec fic, right?) to tell readers that we see them, we hear them, and there is hope.

In other words, absolutely we can write about this real world shitstorm. We do it all the time in spec fic. The trick is to bake reality into our made-up worlds so that reading our stories is not only an escape but also a validation of the struggle.

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