When the first Battlestar: Galactica came out back in the day, the good guys were dashing heroes and the bad guys were nameless, faceless robots. It was a perfect Cold War metaphor, with two nations (one good and one evil) locked in war; it reflected the concerns and challenges of our time.
Today we live in a different age, when the cold war was over and we were faced, instead, with subtler enemies we couldn’t always identify: the man who wants to kill you isn’t a Russian general with his finger on a big red button, he’s your friendly neighbor who smiles and waves and is secretly part of a terrorist cell. Where we used to watch the horizon for a fleet of invading planes, today we watch our own planes with the knowledge that any passenger could suddenly turn on us and ram it into a building. The new Galactica reflected that, with Cylons who look exactly like us, and heroes who are frequently flawed and unheroic. The old series was about war and valiant survival, and the new one was about distrust and paranoia. And each series was perfect for the political and social climate that created it.
We always get the fiction we need, reflecting the things that are important to us, so: what is important to us now? Dystopia is bigger than it’s ever been, and I talked about that a few weeks ago—we live in a world in which people often feel unhappy, unsafe, and unsettled, so the challenges of Dystopia resonate with us.
Another huge genre right now is “heroic fantasy,” which is a gritty subset of fantasy represented by people like George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, stemming from the early works of Robert E. Howard instead of the “epic fantasy” of J.R.R. Tolkien. Epic fantasy ruled for decades, but heroic fantasy is quickly taking over as the dominant archetype: the conflicts are often smaller (winning a war instead of saving the world, for example), the scale is more human, and the characters are more flawed. The line between hero and villain is usually much more blurred. Believe it or not, I see this as an extension of the same phenomenon that is producing our most popular genre of all, Paranormal Romance, because they share the same defining attribute: the people we use as our good guys used to be our bad guys. We have embraced the monster as a vital, even desirable part of our world—in this sense Stephanie Meyers is a part of the same literary heritage as, say, Glen Cook and the Black Company, and my own books fit right in. The world is darker now than it was, and the definitions of good and evil are changing. When the bad guy is your friendly neighbor, and the good guys are using torture on unconvicted, untried prisoners, a soulless, bloodsucking demon almost starts to make sense as a romantic lead. We identify with monsters, we see their side of things, and we see that their side includes more of us than we expected. This scares us, and we don’t know exactly how to deal with it; we get the fiction we need.
What are the issues that concern you today? What aspects of your life are being reflected in your media? What scares you about the world you live in, and why?