So it’s been a heck of a week. I wasn’t sure what I should write about at all, and then I had something sort of fall together around a book I’m reading at the moment. The book is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (and this entry would be far tidier if I had finished it, but I haven’t and the usual mess will prevail) which is – at least in part – a dystopian or post-apocalyptic story looking at society in the aftermath of a great plague. (The author spends a good amount of time with her characters prior to the outbreak, so you might be justified in saying it’s only about 50% post-apocalyptic. Maybe.) In any case it’s mostly about how these people cope in their various realities, so as we discussed last week, it is extremely my thing.
One of the things that came up in a panel at Can-Con (yes, I’m going there again) was the popularity of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, currently. Western society, anyway, certainly does read and watch a lot of it, in recent years – Walking Dead and Hunger Games I guess being two obvious big-ticket examples, but you’ll easily think of many more. Exactly why these kinds of stories have such an appeal at the moment is an interesting question that I’m going to wrestle with a bit today.
The theory on the panel I attended was that late 20th/early 21st century society doesn’t have the optimism about the future that previous generations had. We no longer assume that our descendants will live in a better society than we currently do, or that the advance of human knowledge is leading us to better and better things; in fact (with some evidence) we often assume the reverse. Dystopian fiction certainly reflects this sensibility, but you might also expect an substantial amount of work that reacts against those ideas, or provides escape from the pessimism, which isn’t obviously the case. There’s probably more going on.
One additional idea we might bolt on is the idea of these stories as cautionary tales, revealing the imagined fate of human society if we continue on as we currently do. Hugh Howey’s Sand stories, set in a world overwhelmed by desert, seem to fall into this category, even if it isn’t made explicit how his planet ended up as it did. I’m not sure how many writers are really looking to Teach A Lesson in quite this direct a way, overall. Also, not everyone enjoys or identifies with the bleak outlook. For example, while I did have my grimdark phase, I now generally (as I’ve discussed on here before) like a story that, to some extent, can be summed up with: “and afterwards, things were better.” And yet I still enjoy post-apocalyptic stories.
I’ve often seen the theory that post-apocalyptic stories also allow the reader a kind of escapist fantasy themselves, imagining life without all the constraints of contemporary life that may annoy us, and imagining what we would do with ourselves if we could start life from scratch, or nearly so. I think for some people, imagining what their various survival strategies and tools would be is also a fun part of the equation. I, on the other hand, am very well aware that with my various health problems I would last about two and a half days removed from the support of modern society, so that’s not the appeal for me. Because I do enjoy post-apocalyptic stories.
So why do readers like me like them? I’m going to digress a bit and come at the answer from a different direction.
Last Wednesday was Remembrance Day here in Canada. It is a day to remember the men and women who put their lives on the line in service of our country and our values, and especially the sacrifice of those who were hurt or killed doing so. I always have so many feelings on Remembrance Day, but one of them is always gratitude. I am grateful to live in a society where I live in peace, where I can write and express my ideas safely, where my days are primarily cups of coffee, cats that need petting, and ideas that I need to write down. We are extraordinarily fortunate, and should be grateful to those who helped make that fortune possible.
We all got, I think, a stark reminder along those lines on Friday, with the terrible events in Paris. I don’t have anything especially eloquent to say about what happened, or its aftermath, except that having us resort to fear and hatred and exclusion and division is precisely the result that the perpetrators of crimes like these hope for. We must find the courage to disappoint them, to not allow their atrocious acts to take away our empathy and our sense of community with fellow human beings. We win by continuing to be awesome to each other.
On a extremely selfish level, of course, the Paris attacks also remind us how fragile the society that we are fortunate to live in is. Every day we get in these wonderful places, with these wonderful people, is a gift that could be taken away very quickly, whether by zombies or something more mundane. I think that’s part of what is going on with post-apocalyptic stories as well; part of their appeal is the same appeal that has always been part of horror stories. It is fun to be frightened when you know you can close the book and be safe, or get off the ride and it will be over. When you put down Station Eleven, the world hasn’t really been devastated by a plague. Close Day of the Triffids and civilization hasn’t been wiped out by carnivorous plants. You can make another cup of tea and pet the cat.
Post-apocalyptic stories, or the good ones anyway, carry with them that thrill of danger without actual danger, but I think they also remind us, on another level, of how fortunate we are to have the world we have. It isn’t perfect, of course, and there are great and daunting challenges requiring our energy and our intelligence to find solutions. However, we are still immensely lucky. There is a great deal to lose. I think that on some level we like stories that remind us of the good fortune of our existence, even if that is through contrast with some far less palatable alternative.
Well, that got a bit more philosophical than originally intended. I think I’ll stop it here.
Ottawa PopExpo is this weekend! They have a whole myriad of cool stuff relating to SFF going on, among which is the Renaissance Press booth, where you can pick up The King in Darkness along with all the other exciting stuff Renaissance is bringing out. I will be there all weekend as well, hanging out and soaking in the strangeness of it all, so if you’d like to come say hi, I would be delighted.
Work on The King in Darkness sequel is proceeding fairly well. I still think I should have a complete draft ready for the Eager Volunteers by the end of the month, or shortly thereafter. I think that will be a very good thing to do because my internal critics have gotten pretty loud about it. Writing more about Adam Godwinson and Alex Sloan has been undeniably a lot of fun, though. Again – I’m very fortunate.