Thursday, June 18, 2020

Current Events in Fiction

One of my e-mail lists recently had a discussion about the wisdom of referring to the COVID-19 crisis in fictional works. One concern was that including the pandemic would "date" a story. That is, more so than all pieces of fiction are inherently dated merely because fashions and technology change. One author's editor asked her to remove the references for that reason. Personally, I don't plan to include the pandemic in my fiction, because all my stories contain supernatural or paranormal elements, and it seems that having the pandemic as part of the background would add an unnecessarily complicated extra layer. Also, setting a story in a version of the current real world, I think, would result in having the pandemic "take over" the story. If a work were explicitly set in the present year as it actually is, it would be almost impossible to keep the story from being at least partially "about" the pandemic. So, because of the genre of my writing, I've decided to keep locating my works-in-progress in an indefinite present where COVID-19 doesn't exist.

It will be a different matter when the acute crisis ends and the "new normal" (whatever that may turn out to be) becomes established. In that case, whatever social changes have become permanent should be included for verisimilitude, in my opinion. For instance, if in the future all store clerks continue to wear masks, that custom should be mentioned in passing when appropriate, just as we would show characters going through airport security lines. (Remember when friends and relatives of departing passengers could walk with them right up to the gate? Or am I the only person here who's that old?) Diane Duane subtly alludes to the September 11 attacks in a couple of her novels. In one of the Young Wizards installments, the teenage characters' mentor says they must have noticed how the world situation has deteriorated recently. The young heroine agrees, thinking of the Manhattan skyline. Her adult friend corrects her; he means within the past hundred years or so. In Duane's STEALING THE ELF KING'S ROSES, whose characters inhabit an alternate Earth, at one point the protagonist and an ally travel the multiverse through several versions of New York. In a world obviously meant to be ours, she asks, "Where's the World Trade Center?" Her companion hastily moves her along, suggesting that maybe it was never built in that continuum.

The TV series TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL featured two very effective episodes in reaction to 9-11, but alluding to the event in retrospect, months after the attacks. In one, a small community can't get past the loss of a favorite teacher who was visiting New York on the fateful day; the other takes place on New Year's Eve in an old-fashioned watch repair shop about to close forever, as the staff labors to repair a timepiece found in the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Another way of dealing with current events in fiction, as mentioned by a few authors on that e-mail list, is to write about a setting with analogies to the present crisis, yet not literally portraying those real events. For example, one might create an imaginary world suffering an epidemic with medical and social effects similar to those we're experiencing. An alternate-universe novel published several years ago portrays a world politically dominated by Muslim Arab states. In the recent past of that Earth, where Christianity is a minor sect, a November 11 attack on a major Middle Eastern landmark by Christian fundamentalist fanatics has shaped politics and culture.

Artistic works can allude to current events even more obliquely. I once got a surprised response when I labeled the country song "Beer for My Horses" a 9-11 song. No, it doesn't mention the attacks. But its theme of bringing frontier justice upon the bad guys, in the context of the time of its release, unmistakably calls to mind that event and the U.S. military response. How do you deal with real-world crises in your writing, if at all?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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