So, the world is a scary place sometimes and it’s getting scarier all the time. The rise of the far right and modern Fascism, the Climate Crisis, Coronavirus, the real world is becoming more and more like the fictions we read for a little dark escapism so, what does that mean for those of us who write or intend to write under these circumstances?
Oscar Wilde was a great proponent of the philosophy that ‘Life Reflects Art’, a subject that has long been argued back and forth but, in the end, Art is created by artists drawing on their experiences, opinions and subconscious influences so it’s no wonder that the themes of Dystopia, Eco-Horror and Epidemic are still popular forms for fiction.
Though access to basic literacy in the West is a relatively recent development (Universal Literacy being a development of the las 150-200 years) dissatisfaction with the state of the State or the idea of being oppressed under the Social Elite is not. Since the Dark Ages under feudalism there were the Haves and Have-nots and, had there been access to free-press in the days of the Peasant Revolt of 1381 then we might have seen some dystopian fiction as a result. Although the offices of governance have, at times, gone to great lengths to suppress any accusation of totalitarianism, here in the UK at least, the Miners strikes of the 50’s all through to the 90’s have colourfully illustrated social inequality and perpetuated the hunger for Dystopian fiction.
The Pandemic has been an aspect of social awareness since the days of the Black Death or Bubonic Plague of 1347. Although the general public were likely not aware of the full scale of the disaster (Facebook and TV news not being a thing back then) the accounts we have illustrate a very real and pervasive atmosphere of terror throughout the affected countries and that has stayed on as part of the social consciousness. In fact, as well as giving rise to the Science-Fiction genre with ‘Frankenstein’ Mary Shelley is also credited with the creation of the Post-Apocalypse genre with her work ‘The Last Man’, published in 1826 in which an epidemic wipes out much of the population (of Europe at the very least) over the course of the latter two of it’s three volumes.
Eco-Horror or Biopunk is the new kid on the block, sprouting from the non-fiction work ‘Silent Spring’ written by Rachel Carson in 1962. Ever since humanity became fully aware of our impact upon the planet to which we are currently tied, the idea that it will, someday, somehow attempt to shrug us off has fascinated writers. The idea that, whether a spontaneous event or something triggered by an errant humanity in it’s reckless pursuit of wealth, an inevitable cascade of events provokes a violent end to the world we know or our species as a whole is darkly satisfying to writers and readers alike.
The current problem for writers and readers of Dystopian fiction is the growing impression that it’s all too possible. When people discuss Totalitarian Dictatorships and Corrupt Regimes the mind often wanders to the Middle East, South America or certain African states. The horrifying realisation that is fast becoming evident is that this style of Demagogue leadership can and does work in Western culture. Not just that, ‘Democracy’ is a fragile system. Gerrymandering (or manipulating constituency boundaries) can ensure a win for the Minority vote over the Majority.
The same is true for Pandemic and Biopunk visions of the future, it’s all becoming quite terrifyingly plausible. So what does a writer of these works do in this climate of rising anxiety? Maybe you want to build an image of hope or the inherent nobility of the human soul. A hard thing to do when images of people belting each other with packs of toilet roll is clogging the screens and the death-toll is rising daily. Acts of self-sacrifice and generosity become less poignant if everyone in your book is doing it and you can’t really have a steady and logical rise of resistance or action in the face of the threat only for all to come to naught. Readers expect certain conventions and conflicts, trial, loss, grief and triumph (well, maybe not always in the last but certainly at times throughout).
I don’t know if I’ve got an answer for you. You can make the disease, the despot or the destruction bigger, badder, meaner. The outcome more inevitable, the eventual triumph more glorious but it is, at this time, more and more important that your work is out there. It’s about giving an example, theoretical though it might be, in terms that appeal to people. A way to be in the face of fear, hardship and uncertainty. It’s about encouraging thought and understanding in a way that prompts people to pay attention, or question what they take as read in an uncertain (and untruthful) world. Though the political, medical and environmental scene might look bleak right now I hope (I have to) that it will get better and, who knows, in five, maybe ten years time the walls between this life and the next might break down, the dead rise and it’ll be the turn of Zompocalypse, Ghost and Demon/Other horror authors to go through this.