By Scott Bury
Ebola. Communism. Totalitarianism. Pandemic. Climate change. Terrorism. Jihad.
Judging from hyperbole in social media, we are out-and-out terrified of these things. As evidence of the level of fear, one person seriously advocated carpet-bombing ebola-stricken areas in Africa as a response to contain the epidemic, because he saw it in a movie.
The job we have chosen as writers of fantasy and speculative fiction is to reflect our audience’s fears back to them in symbolic way. Perhaps this is a way to help deal with them, but mostly, it’s because through fantasy, we can take some joy from our fears as well as, well, fear. It’s like riding a roller-coaster: it’s fun because it scares us, but we’re really safe.
A long, grisly, nasty yet honourable tradition
This is what fantasy writers have always done: writing stories about mythical, legendary and magical symbols and themes, stories that give us another way to look at what’s really bothering us. It has a long history in a technological era:
- Godzilla, the monster awakened by atomic radiation and that could breathe out “atomic fire,” reflected our fears of nuclear war and radiation.
- Zombies, like those in World War Z, Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead reflect our fear of incurable, virulent and especially contagious pandemics, made even more horrifying and destructive by their ability to instantly render their victims as vessels of further transmission.
- The Hills Have Eyes, Drag Me to Hell, Saw and other recent horror films and books play on our fears of surveillance, mortgage foreclosure, and of course, the old standby, the Other—people not of our tribe, and therefore a threat.
- Dracula, the Un-Dead, the progenitor of nearly all the vampire books since, plays on several fears. First is the fear of contagion—Bram Stoker’s heroes thought Lucy’s affliction was a blood disease, after all – but also the fear of being infected with something that will change your nature (becoming a vampire). There is also the fear of the Other, the foreigner, the intruder who by his very nature is dangerous. But mostly, Dracula was a sublimation of the greatest fear of the Victorian era: sex.
Yes, I am saying that sucking up blood was the only way that a Victorian era writer would portray sexual lust without getting banned or arrested. Don’t believe me? The vampire was ultimately defeated by a woman’s sexual attractiveness. Oh, sure, Dracula said he was only interested in her blood. But he was lured to his doom by a beautiful young woman, who invited the vampire into her bedroom and made him stay all night long. Now tell me Stoker was not writing about sex.
Still holding onto that argument? Watch Francis Ford Coppola’s film based on the book and try to sustain it.
Today, writing about fear of pandemic is just too easy. Vampires or zombies with ebola-like symptoms is just too obvious—which means there is already a really bad book or movie, or both, based on exactly that idea in development right now.
But what about Jihad? Terrorism? What sorts of fantasy tropes symbolize those without being overly literal? Now there’s a challenge for this capable gang to take on.
The biggest fear, though, that I can see is the fear of change. Any new idea still evokes howls from predictable corners. How would fantasy writers deal with that? What about fantasy readers? What suggestions or challenges do you have for your favourite writers?
Leave your suggestions in the Comments.
Scott Bury is a journalist, editor and writer living in Ottawa. His books include the historical fantasy The Bones of the Earth, the erotic romance One Shade of Red and the historical memoir, Army of Worn Soles.
He has I written articles for newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia, including Macworld, the Ottawa Citizen, the Financial Post, Marketing, Canadian Printer, Applied Arts, PEM, Workplace, Advanced Manufacturing and others.