Why I Write Dystopian Fiction - 6/18/12
Earlier today I read Laurie Penny's excellent piece about the Lara Croft rapetacular reboot. I've already discussed at length how I feel about writers who use rape as shorthand here so I won't bother to retread that ground. It did get me thinking about the types of stories I write and what it is about me that leads me to write them.

Anyone who's read my fiction can see that I have a penchant for taking the world into dark places. Having super-powered beings hurl the top several stories of an occupied office tower at a single individual on the roof of a nearby skyscraper? Check. Global nuclear war? Guilty. Destruction of all life on Earth? In progress. How I pick what to write about is as much a mystery to me as anyone else. I get ideas for stories all the time. Some last for an hour or day or week and then I forget them forever. Others keep coming back in one form or another until I write them out so that they will go away and others just click the first time I have the idea and everything else must be put on hold until I get a draft written. I've found that whenever I try and make a conscious decision, things don't work out. The story is either ready or it isn't.

But why is it that the ideas that resonate invariably have some poor character in a dark world spinning wildly out of their control? I think for me it comes down to what feels true and that goes back to my childhood. On the surface, I grew up in a nice suburban town with good schools. Under that veneer was a world where violence could erupt with no warning and where the authorities were often complicit in the cruelty, if not the violence. I spent a good portion of my childhood afraid. Afraid that the bloody noses would be taken to the next level. Afraid that the same school officials who mocked me along with the entire class for not being able to hit a baseball wouldn't bother to step in when that happened. Afraid that this was all life had to offer and getting older just promised more of the same.

I know, genre fiction writer picked on as a child for being a bit of an oddball… shocking news. That explains why a certain type of story draws my attention, but I'd like to think I've moved a bit past high school, so why is it that these stories are worth telling? Why is telling them of more value than watching TV or playing computer games or chatting up pretty women? I think dystopian stories are compelling because they take the veneer of civilization off of society and show just how primal we modern humans still are. Removing polite society, either by a virulent plague or the living dead is a great way to explore what we hold most dear. It gives the powerful the freedom to get truly wicked and for the meek to find their strength. Actions have far more consequence when there is no safety net. Dystopian speculative fiction is one area where a reader will embrace the death of your hero/heroine. That means that you can put the protagonist into real danger that the reader can feel a party to.

Much like my childhood wasn't a constant barrage of terror and pain, dystopias aren't without the opportunity for hope. I knew if I could survive my childhood, I could escape that town and the inhabitants. I also met some of my closest friends. Friends who've been through fire with me and I with them. Unlikely communities can form when the social order is upended. People who would never interact with one another in our modern society can be thrust together and find that they share more than they would ever expect. As a reader, the dystopian stories that are all dark, all the time tend to lose me, no matter how well they are otherwise executed. They don't resonate has having that fundamental truth.

The characters in dystopian stories live in an uncertain world where despite their best efforts, they can be laid bare by the winds of fate. One where all they can rely on is their wits, what they have on their person at any given moment and the people they surround themselves with (all of which can also fail at inconvenient times). That sounds pretty true to life to me.

© 1997-2015 Mike Townsend