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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Sunday 25 November 2018

Bad, Broken, and a Seed of Hope: How Dark Speculative Fiction Works

After I'd spoken to a client yesterday, I found myself binge-watching (and listening) to a number of short video essays about Greek and Roman history, and a bit of Egyptian history, on Youtube. The purpose was to help research and enhance our Dungeons and Dragons campaign's storyline and setting - which I should probably write about at some point - but it yielded a most unexpected fruit.

Last night, I found myself lost in a very enjoyable dream with a cohesive and interesting plot; as soon as I woke up, I did as I sometimes do after such a dream, and took notes as best I could, in hopes of capturing the story. But the story's setting was decidedly post-apocalyptic - not Greco-Roman in the least, at least not on the surface.

How did the one result from another? Well, I do have a developmental and line-edit of a post-apocalyptic book on the queue right now - a third installment in the superb and bold (and inclusive!) Eupocalypse series by Peri Worrell. (Other platforms to snag books can be found on a drop-down menu on the book's GoodReads page, so I'm including those henceforth.) Dealing with a potential future in which all plastics and petroleum products suddenly break down, the series is an enjoyable, elegantly written, and ultimately hopeful story about a tremendous, world-shattering catastrophe - as well as a cautionary tale about our reliance on plastics and petroleum products.

In my free time, I have been working through The Odyssey at a pace slightly slower than continental drift, but I recently read Emily St. Mandel's Station Eleven, and I'm currently reading Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea, a trashy but incisive work of dystopian cyberpunk (which may, admittedly, be a redundant phrase, as cyberpunk is seldom cheerful).

Now - how does all this fit together?

Well, here's the key - civilizations on Earth have gone through phases of development, growth and expansion, internal struggle, and ultimately, either collapse or transition. It happened for the august and remarkable Egyptians; it happened for the Greeks, and it happened to the Romans. Yet all of those peoples persist to this day, and while their populations have changed or interacted with invading or arriving forces, their cultures, ultimately, are not dead.

We have the benefit of thousands of years of history as a mirror, and perhaps it is unsurprising that we cannot but ask if we are participating in the same patterns. The answer is "probably yes, somehow" - but the conclusion is decidedly hopeful nonetheless.

The way we run through potential scenarios and hypothetical risks (not unlike the brain while we sleep at night, busily creating its illustrative dreams from scraps of our experiences) is through storytelling and fiction.

Surprise! I'm a writer, not just an editor 

As long-time readers may know, and as newer readers may not be aware, I myself write primarily in two genres - dystopian fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, both of which fall into the broader categories of science fiction and speculative fiction in general.

Where speculative fiction broadly encompasses all fiction a) including at least one element changing the setting or reality from our own and b) subsequently asking, "What if?", its subset science fiction accomplishes these aims primarily by taking inspiration from biology, climatology and the earth sciences, technology, astronomy, psychology, and medicine. Magical, non-Earthly, or transhuman elements may also sneak in there. Fantasy does so by pulling both from history and (arguably) from non-scientific or trans-scientific ideas, usually based on magic (which is about going beyond the boundaries and limits of science).

But how do dystopias and post-apocalyptic fiction actually work? How do we define them exactly? A fair bit of digital ink has been expended on this topic, but I think it comes down to two very specific iterations of the question.

The question is, "What if everything changed?" In the case of a dystopian book, the question is, "What if everything got worse?" In the case of apocalyptic fiction, it's "What if everything broke?", and in the case of post-apocalyptic fiction, it's, "What do we do after everything breaks down?"

How these questions are answered, and how they change in specific instances - for the much maligned YA romances set in post-apoc or dystopian worlds, the question is, "How do we love after everything breaks/when the worst possible thing happens?"

But the more I thought about dystopian and post-apoc stories in broad strokes, the more I came to a conclusion that surprised me: dystopian books, even the famously grim 1984 by George Orwell, always posit that change is possible. So in a sense, what the two genres have in common  - apart from literally meaning "bad world" and being about "a broken world" respectively - is that they both aim to answer, "and now, what do we do next?"

"It's not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder, when the death of your civilization precedes you."

To cope with the loss of one's civilization is an almost unimaginable task, but that is what these types of fiction set out to do - and in the process, to ask, "How will we rebuild, and what will we create?"

And from that, as grim as it may seem, we can look to history and feel a sense of hope. As much as Percy Shelly wrote about Ramses in "Ozymandias" as a king's statue broken and abandoned in the desert, we still know and speak his name to this day. We know he was an exceptional and fecund king who brought peace to the Nile kingdoms and built great and beautiful monuments that have outlasted even Time itself. And we are learning more each year about our ancestors. So as much as the Egyptian civilization - which lasted five thousand years and was so old that Cleopatra lived closer to the discovery of flight and space flight than to the building of the pyramids - has fallen to ruin and dust and the sands of time, it's also fine. 

We remember. We speak the names of the fallen. And as Terry Pratchett, author of the magnificent Discworld series put it,

“Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”
Even if the worst possible things happen, these dark and dire settings are about what we remember, and ultimately, what we rebuild. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian books aren't about the end of the world - they're about a disruption in civilizations and our worlds, and how we carry on and return to greatness.

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partners-in-crime and their cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and nightmares, as well as social justice issues. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.

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Saturday 3 November 2018

The Conversation about "Partisan Divisions" is All Wrong

I need to scream somewhere. Every media outlet I like, and probably some I don't - today, it was Vox, which I usually like enough - has done a "gee I don't understand why there's so much partisan division going on right now owo *shrug emoji*" type of piece.

Look - we can't have a "civil conversation" when part of the platform of the party is about not accepting the human rights of the other people.

The screaming - is this real?

It feels like the world is gaslighting me, trying to remember when legislators would disavow the KKK and mean it. I know those elements were lurking. This is probably my white privilege talking, at least to some extent.

But we can never have "civil partisan conversations" or "reach across the aisle" until we, as a society, stamp out fundamental intolerance's validity as a political position.

I miss conservatism that was rational and reasonable, a time when it meant caution. Yes, the racism and prejudice were in there, lurking and growing, but there was a time when they were at least openly disavowed.

Now, in the face of a fractured center and left, trying to explain this feels like a sort of strange nostalgia for an imagined thing. Was it ever really so?

Nostalgia mode: engage

I miss conservative conversations where we could talk about how much spending and actually have reasonable discussions. But conservatism has been usurped by fascism and nationalism. I mean sure, it was always there, somewhat, but I'm pretty sure there was a time it wasn't okay.

I hope for the rise of conservatives again - but that can only happen safely if they are willing to flush bigots out of their ranks. Until that happens, we can't have conversations safely. Until we accept that some respect for people's fundamental rights must be at the core of an argument, and that the question is not always "whether or not," but sometimes "how much," politics will not be safe for those who are disenfranchised. We have spent too many years debating whether First Nations people (in Canada and America) or Black people (mostly in America) deserve upgrades and full rights that we've accepted that as normal - instead of a heinous and terrible argument in the first place.

We cannot legislate away fundamental human rights, something both Canada and America have done for decades and centuries, and consider that an acceptable casualty rate of democracy and negotiating across the aisle.

A plea to the right

I address this essay not just to people on the left, but more so, to the people who probably don't read my articles and posts - to the families and campaigners who dislike or are frustrated by us. People in the Manosphere, people in the center, family members who just don't understand why we don't like Trump - this is for you. I come not to insult you or belittle you, but to beseech you.

Conservatives who still believe that, say, trans people deserve to exist and black people shouldn't be shot - I don't mean to alarm you, but you are now basically liberals. At least compared to some of your comrades or fellow soldiers, or however you might wish to be addressed.

Please, those of you who identify in the centre or the right - I ask, nay, beg of you: flush out your ranks. I realise it can be tempting to ally with someone to get legislation pushed through, but those of us facing a true fight for our rights have no wish to harm you. We on the left, we children of abuse and of plural identities - we wish only to exist in safety and comfort. This need not threaten or remove your comfort, not on a fundamental level.

Sure, there are scary conversations that might make you upset or even angry - things we have been through ourselves, and go through still - but all of us want to be housed, alive, taken care of medically, and to have full bellies. And we actually want that for you, too.

We want everyone to be called by the gender prefixes they prefer and identify with, to marry who they love, to have families by their own choice, to be fed, and to have access to an education. We want running water and heat and air-conditioning and safe living conditions for everyone. That includes you.

Please, when it comes time to vote - ask yourself who cares about the fundamental human rights issues. And then tick off their name.

All we have left is to strip away the technicalities and subtle arguments, and beg you for our lives. 

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime, housemate, and their cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and nightmares, as well as social justice issues. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.

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