Thursday, December 03, 2020

Catastrophes and Fiction Writing

The annual ChessieCon was held virtually this past weekend. One session explored how catastrophic events influence literature. The panelists mentioned works of fiction inspired by real-life disasters, whether sudden and traumatic or longer-term "slow catastrophes," and discussed the ramifications of choosing to compose stories about such events. Authors may write about characters caught up in the real-world event itself, a science-fiction scenario that transforms the actual situation into speculative terms, or a near-future society that reflects the ongoing effects of the catastrophe.

They considered some advantages and disadvantages of making art out of contemporary catastrophes. Pro: It's a way to form a deep emotional connection with the audience. A story that mirrors the trauma and anxieties of the present time can feel immediate and believable. Moreover, SF and fantasy can, of course, offer a fresh perspective on events that may seem overwhelming if faced straight-on. Con: Authors may find themselves writing the same kinds of stories as everybody else inspired by the same event. A story about a pandemic, for instance, may get lost among hundreds flooding the market at the same time. Another potential pitfall is the accusation of exploiting a grave crisis for personal gain by writing fiction about it.

Literature, of course, has always reflected the catastrophes and traumas of its time. C. S. Lewis, in an essay about the impact of the King James Bible on English literature, points out the difference between influences and sources. One can hardly understand many of the great English classics without knowing the biblical stories they mine for sources. The influence of biblical prose on the style of later writers, on the other hand, isn't nearly so widespread, if only because "Bible language" stands out so obviously. Likewise, disasters, whether natural or human-caused, supply fiction with endless sources of material. "Influence," as I conceive it, refers to a more subtle, indirect effect that pervades the cultural atmosphere even when not explicitly mentioned. Many early twentieth-century authors were influenced by World War I in both senses of the term, whether they wrote war fiction or not. Hemingway wrote war stories, but he also wrote about characters living with the social and psychological aftereffects of the war. Those effects show up in genres where you might not expect them, such as Lord Peter Wimsey's posttraumatic stress (as we'd call it now) in Dorothy Sayers's detective novels. The recent Great War shadows the background of the literature of the period.

In the 1950s and 60s, many science fiction works explored nuclear war and its aftermath, such as ALAS BABYLON, ON THE BEACH, and Heinlein's FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD. A bit later, pollution became a dominant theme. For instance, I own an old paperback about which I've forgotten everything except the title, THE SEA IS BOILING HOT. Nowadays, numerous authors confront the potential short-term and long-term effects of climate change. After the 9-11 attacks, most TV series continued their story arcs (if any) in an alternate present wherein the attacks were never mentioned. A few, though, incorporated the aftereffects of the catastrophe into their plotlines, such as NCIS and a series about firefighters and police officers in New York City. NCIS and its spinoffs continue to inhabit a world where terrorism remains an ever-present concern. As far as "influence" is concerned, most fiction set in the present day or near future takes for granted an environment of security checks at airports and our country's perpetual involvement in anti-terrorism campaigns.

A striking example of the long-term cultural influence of a "slow catastrophe" appears in "Thoughts and Prayers," by Ken Liu, reprinted in THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2020, edited by Diana Gabaldon. This story combines our society's free-floating anxiety about mass murder rampages with the total devastation of privacy made possible by the internet, in the harrowing experience of a family whose teenage daughter has been killed in a school shooting. Aside from some near-future computer technology that doesn't yet exist but can easily be imagined as realistic, there's nothing in this story that couldn't happen right now.

One downside (in my opinion) of including acute catastrophic current events in fiction wasn't mentioned by the panel. If a writer incorporates such material into a story while the disaster is either ongoing or fresh in memory, it almost has to dominate the work. That's fine if the story is "about" the crisis itself or the protagonist's confrontation with an aspect of it. What if you're writing about some other dimension of a character's life with the disaster looming in the background, though? After the disaster recedes from current events into recent history, the story becomes dated. That's why I haven't mentioned the pandemic or its societal effects in my recent fiction. The three pieces I've had published last year and this year, as well as the novella I'm finishing at the moment, fall into the light paranormal romance subgenre. Allusion to the present crisis would throw those stories completely off balance. Also, it would "date" them in a way I don't want. Assuming our current plight won't last forever, I chose to set my stories in an alternate present where the pandemic doesn't exist, so that if anyone happens to read them (let's say) two years from now, they'll still feel contemporary.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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