We always get the fiction we need

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?

9 Responses to “We always get the fiction we need”

  1. Avi says:

    my post was eaten!
    What scares me is the erosion of civil liberties and expansion of presidential power under Bush and Obama. Kidnapping, rendition, torture, wiretapping secret prisons, assassinations…What frightens me is how easily it could be turned against the Jews. It’s supposedly done for our “safety” but now we’re not safe at all! We are not safe from our own government.

    I’m also frightened by the damage we do to the environment. It’s sort of a feeling of vague unease that turns into dread – that the harm we do to the planet will probably be irreversible.

  2. Matthew Watkins says:

    One of the things that I love to read and write about are relationships in difficult situations. I loved The Road because it was about a Father and Son relationship in the harshest of situations. I like to read and write about people that I can understand. In my current novel, my protagonist is a middle-aged small business man who is dealing with his society turning on its head and who is also dealing with the fear of knowing there are bad guys out there who act outside the bounds of what is expected or can be predicted.

  3. Christoph says:

    “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?”

    What really scared me as a younger kid was living in the direct vicinity of a nuclear power plant. I was born in 1986, two months early, with health problems stemming from Chernobyl, so I was primed to be scared by that. But what really got me hiding in my bedroom (as if there could have been safety) was reading a book (which was inappropiate for my age, but which my older sister had finished) about said nuclear power plant in my vicinity having meltdown. I only got over this fear when visiting the power plant seven years later and seeing all the safety precautions to prevent the scenario painted in the book. So really, what scared me most in my life was a book… What that must say about me :)
    Today I worry more about graduating from university with reasonable grades, getting a good job and hopefully marry my girlfriend sometime in the next two years. So much will change within these two years, naturally I am a bit scared by my world being rocked around. I worry about being ready for my own future.
    For other aspects I really think it scary that the wheather has become more extreme round here. We have flood in Pakistan, and on a much smaller scale here in Germany, whereas Russia is in flames. Mind, this is not a “oh my god we´re all gonna die and real soon, I´ll hide in my bed”-fear, but watching with a sort of queasy fascination.
    Politically I have a feeling that our (German) politicians are completely not doing what they are supposed to do. Our system is quite a bit different from yours, we have more political parties for one. But when parties that are allied start to squabble, and not about what they are doing, but about single persons, and no one does anything about it… Our ruling party is in disarray, and the opposition no less so. It only kind of works. The problem with our system (and probably with many other democratic systems) is that our parties have lost integrity. To quote my grandfather, never are there bigger lies than before election and after fishing.

  4. Hannah says:

    My problem with society is that nowadays it seems we are all free – to be exactly the same. There is a definite loss of culture now, rather than the idea that each culture must be preserved and respected by all.
    Another problem I have is that children nowadays grow up watching Hannah Montana and MTV. When I was that age (and I’m only 15) we watched the Wiggles and Dora the Explorer. SHows with messages that weren’t “I can be a popstar when I’m older and wear glittery miniskirts!” (which they already wear anyway even if they’re only seven) but rather messages more age appropriate.

    Also, totally unrelated, I have come to the conclusion that the only difference between Edward Cullen and John Wayne Cleaver is that one of them glitters. Edward Cullen has killed people and he stalks Bella constantly. Excepte apparently because he glitters, it’s totally okay.

  5. Greg says:

    What worries me is increasing partisanship, not just of politics, but more the general unwillingness of people to have a civil discussion of anything that does not agree with their static worldview. Media is so varied today, that people can find exactly the right combination of television, “books”, and radio to tell them exactly what they want to hear in confirming their viewpoints, while making it sound as though everyone else is insane. Science is treated like a boogeyman and ignorance is glorified as some sort of “everyman” ideal.

  6. Steve D says:

    Maybe it’s because I’m still waking up, but I feel a little sick at seeing Glen Cook and Stephanie Meyers mentioned in the same sentence.

    The difference between Cullen & Cleaver is that Cullen is really a pedophile disguised as a younger glittering body, and Cleaver kills demons and isn’t a complete sissy.

    Dan–Almost every time we have played Galactica, you have been a Cylon. Stop acting like you are me (who has been a Cylon ONCE).

  7. Avi says:

    And I just started rereading Running with the Demon by Terry Brooks. The fantastic and magical elements are set dressing – the story is about how society is becoming more cruel and less compassionate, people are becoming isolated from each other and spiritually empty.

  8. Hroth says:

    I am primarily scared of everyone becoming zombies, even if my wife understands I’ll have to shoot her in the face if she is infected, its still scary. More seriously though, Greg said “Science is treated like a boogeyman and ignorance is glorified as some sort of “everyman” ideal,” while I think this is a very boilerplate talking point I hear a lot, he made me think a little. One thing that scares me a lot is our reluctance to accept wildly new, bleeding edge new, technology and our reluctance to think about the future critically. I’m not talking about e-readers, and touch-screen-phones, I mean technology that will let you pick your child’s sexual orientation, cybernetics, and nano-tech. There are a lot of people that think about this kind of stuff – transhuman ethicists and philosophers – but not enough for my tastes. Francis Fukuyama wrote, Our Posthuman Future, in which he asks (and I am paraphrasing from memory here) ‘how can we sustain a liberal democracy, founded on the premise that all men are created equally, if one day in the future that is no longer true – when some men will be created better than others.’ Our technology is evolving at an incredible rate, I think we have to consider what that means for us and what it may mean for the future of liberty around the world.

  9. Avi says:

    Spiders and heights also scare me

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