The Darkest Aspects of Fantasy are the Realistic Aspects

The trend towards dark, gritty fantasies has dominated fantasy writing for the last decade or so. The relatively light-hearted Harry Potter series grew darker and more somber as the books progressed. Game of Thrones came to dominate epic fantasy, filled with violent battles and characters that may be murdered in the blink of an eye. The YA market has seen dystopian novels like the Hunger Games pitting children against each other in a battle of survival.

There is another, less apparent theme that runs through all three of these series. Their brutality is grounded in actual history. Ironic as it is, the darkest aspect of each of these books is actually the most realistic.

Game of Thrones

George R. R. Martin has created many fantasy elements for his epic series, dragons, ice zombies, seasons that last many years, and even the land he describes. But the drawn out civil war that drives the story is inspired by, if not based on, historical events. The English Wars of the Roses contain many elements that Game of Thrones fans will recognize, including at least one battle that puts the series to shame for it’s pure brutality.

This video does a good job of explaining the connections:

Harry Potter

Does Voldemort’s obsession with muggle blood strike you as eerily familiar? It should be. J. K. Rowling based a lot of the Death Eaters rule on Hitler’s Germany. Voldemort’s hatred for muggle blood, especially his shame over his own, mirrors Hitler’s obsession with Jews. Even the way he uses an existing bigotry, building a mythology of Salazar Slytherin around the destruction of muggles, mirrors how the Nazi party played on existing racism and anti-semitism. The world of the later books, where Voldemort holds sway, gives us a haunting glimpse into the lives of resistance fighters in any repressive regime.

The Hunger Games

The idea of forcing provinces to send tributes to compete in a bloody battle royale might sound like the most preposterous fiction, but that’s exactly what ancient Rome did. And that’s where Susan Collins drew much of the inspiration for the Hunger Games. Even the purpose of the Hunger Games matches that of the ancient coliseum. Not only were they displays of wealth and power by the sovereign state, they were vital distractions for the masses.

Other examples

I could continue in this vein for some time without running out of examples. Tolkien denied that the Lord of the Rings, published in 1937, had any historical allegory. But many readers and critics can’t help but see the rising power in the east as being applicable to both Sauron and Nazi Germany. The analogy between the middle earth and the times in which the books were written is remarkable, whether he intended it or not.

Tolkien’s close friend C. S. Lewis, on the other hand, was free in admitting that the Narnia series were written in response to World War Two, and the parallels are significant there as well.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Authors are often influenced by the times in which they live and the experiences of the real world.

I think the bigger question we need to ponder is this, gritty fantasy shows us about ourselves. We create dragons, evil wizards, and mythical weapons, but they true horrors aren’t the things writers manufacture in their minds, but the reality of human nature itself.

Turning Cliches on their head

Cliches.

We all know they’re bad. We know we shouldn’t use them. But cliches are there for a reason. They aren’t just a part of literature, they are a part of life. They are expectations. They are things we assume will happen.
I like to challenge cliches. Not just avoid them, but completely turn them on their head and then fish in their pockets for loose change.
The first novel I wrote started out that way. It went through a half dozen attempts at writing before I became a good enough writer to write it and a dozen or more major rewrites before it eventually became Children of a New Earth.
The seed, the kernel of the novel, lay in the post-apocalyptic stories of my youth in the eighties. Mad Max and it’s many spin offs had a simple cliche notion, that once society collapsed it humanity would quickly devolve into punk rock barbarians and para military organizations.
Why? Why does every writer assume this?

Every 80’s apocalypse assumed that para-military groups would take over.

I see two underlying assumptions that drive this cliche. The first is the idea that humanity is basically evil, that we restrain these impulses because of society. Without societies control people would become vicious and cruel. The second assumption is that evil is inherently stronger than good. That good people are hampered by what they won’t do. Evil may lose in the end, but only be heroic actions of a few.
These are easy assumptions to buy into. Look at any place on the globe where law and order aren’t routinely imposed and you can find the worst in humanity, on display for all to see. It’s easy to see power when it’s being wielded in weapons and dished out in cruelty.
I wanted to explore an alternative world view in my first novel. I wanted to pose the question, what if society collapsed and people said, “hey, that was pretty stupid. Let’s not do that again.”
The novel changed many times over as it was written and rewritten. The finished novel focuses more on the survivors, especially the next generation and the survivalist enclave of Freedom Ranch. But the original kernel is still there in the stories told by other survivors, in the Quiet Earth Society, the Ten Thousand Warriors for Peace and the Cult of the Iron Mother. These groups fought back against martial law and the growing power of paramilitary groups. Even though they were low tech and peaceful (though not to the point of being pacifists), they won.
They won because there are two paths to power and their opponents only understood one of them. There is destructive power and constructive power. You can invest in weapons to destroy your enemy. You can use fear to control your followers. This is the destructive path to power. Or you can have the knowledge to make things. You can reach out and build connection with your followers. This is the constructive path to power.
In the words of a former Quiet Earth Society member and minor character, “The early military dictators were a stupid lot. They fought over politics. We went straight for the food supply. Once the countryside was on our side, it was over. They just didn’t know it until winter hit.”
Did I succeed in proving my point? I will have to leave that for the reader to decide. But it is an entertaining story and it shows how turning a cliche around can lead to a new novel idea.

Children of a New Earth can be purchased here.

Children of a New Earth can be purchased here.

 

Drum Roll, Please…

I have been trying to decide what to do next on Wattpad, now that I’ve put Bear Naked up, or if Wattpad is even worth the time. I posted a survey on my website but haven’t gotten much response. Thankfully, the Saturday Writers came through with an almost uncanny synchronicity. Before I even posed the question, several members asked about a work in progress I had mentioned at a past meeting, wanting to know if it was available in print.

It will be now.

The series is about Mondamin Court. It’s a small quiet middle class block in Des Moines, Iowa. The residents are a mix of middle class and working class families. Each story in the series starts with the same location and the same characters. Each story has a different apocalyptic event that occurs. Who survives, who doesn’t, who they pull together or splinter apart, depends on how events unfold.

The first project I am releasing in the series is Home for the Holidays.

My rough draft blurb:

Zoey Scott, a nineteen year old trans woman, planned to come out to her mom over the holiday break. She did not plan for a deadly flu outbreak, a virus that kills over ninety percent of those infected. She did not plan to watch the world crumble. Can she find the strength to go on?

Holly Wheatsfield is a barista at a local coffee shop. All she wants is a quiet holiday with her partner Nicky and maybe, just maybe, for Nicky’s conservative aunt Helen to keep her mouth shut this year. Instead she’ll find herself lost, homeless, in an increasingly hostile world. Can she survive with her humanity intact?

Home for the holidays web

Home for the Holidays in the first in the Mondamin Court series, a series of stories that explore how an average group of Americans might survive in apocalyptic times.


I will be posting chapters, relatively rough, as they become available, both on my website and on this blog. I am actively encouraging readers to share and comment on the story in progress. Stay tuned for more information. When the project is completed I will work on editing and possibly publishing it.

Top Ten Posts of 2014

I’ve been blogging pretty consistently this year. This site has slowly been gaining a bigger following as well. What’s been your favorite posts? Here are the ten posts that resonated the best with you, the readers.

  1. Six books that prove book banners don’t read.

Back in August I wrote a tongue in cheek post about books that conservative book banners have overlooked, because most are not avid readers. Apparently you enjoyed that post because it’s been the most viewed blog post of the year.

  1. Ten Adult Dystopians to read now that you’ve read Hunger Games

Dystopians are all the rage these days. Or maybe not, publishers and agents have been quietly spreading the word through writers conferences that “dystopian is dead.” I’ll believe that when the sales start to drop. Until then, many young readers don’t realize that dystopian is nothing new. I posted a list of classic dystopians for those who have already whet their tastes on the likes of the Hunger Games but want something more adult.

  1. How to Kick an Internet Troll, Right in the Freedom of Speech

After the gamergate uproar, I got so sick of trolls trying to justify their actions with the freedom of speech mantra, I decided to shut them down. I guess most readers must have been sick of it, too.

  1. Ten Problems with being a Werewolf

I am guessing that people already know the good parts of being a werewolf, because the ten best things about being a werewolf didn’t even come close to making the list. However a lot of you were curious about the problems.

  1. Hiding in Plain View

Not my favorite post of the year. I hate bringing the news that a heroine to many was far less of a heroine after all. But abuse likes to lurk in the dark. If we are to ever live in a better world, we need to face the truth about sexual abuse.

  1. Shield Maidens, Bell Curves and Strong Women

My post about viking shield maidens didn’t get many hits at the time and I was pleasantly surprised to see it so high on the list at the end of the year. As in ancient times, viking women keep on coming.

  1. Books Everyone Talks About but Almost No one Reads

Another tongue in cheek post, poking some gentle fun at book snobs. There are books that lots of people talk about, but they rarely read.

  1. The Suckiest Superpower

The suckiest superpower arose from a conversation with my son, and like that conversation it was a fun one. I still get a chuckle every time I think about Chicken Man, he can’t really fly but he can sort of flutter places.

  1. Reviving an Old Manuscript with Scrivener

Scrivener is my go to piece of writing software. I love scrivener. It’s so versatile and useful for all sorts of writers. This tip on using Scrivener to revive old manuscripts was well received. I guess my writer friends like Scrivener, too.

  1. Trivia Time: Florence Nightingale

This humorous post about the founder of modern nursing, ends my top ten list. I am happy you’ve enjoyed these and other posts throughout the year.

 

Ten Adult Dystopian novels now that you’ve read Hunger Games

Now that you’ve read the Hunger Games, Divergent and a slew of other YA dystopias, including one titled Dystopia, where do you go next? Dystopian novels are nothing new. Long before Suzzane Collins brought them to the YA genre, writers were exploring dystopian worlds in literature, science fiction and fantasy. Here are my favorites.

What makes a novel Dystopian?

Before we begin the list, what makes something dystopian? I will give my answer in two parts. First, what makes a society dystopian and then what makes a novel dystopian.

What’s a dystopian society?

Dystopia, at its simplest definition, is the opposite of a utopia. A utopia is a perfect society, so a dystopia must be a terrible society. But that’s pretty vague. I prefer to define a dystopia as a dysfunctional society.

Some families or groups look and act crazy, but function fairly well together. Others act normal but are loaded with dysfunction once you get inside. So what makes a group dysfunctional? A common litmus test that sociologists and psychologisst use is the Über rule. The űber rule is; you can’t question the rules.

Every group has certain rules and expectations. Ideally these rules were established for a reason. Members understand why the rule is there, when it was instituted and how. There is a protocol in place for discussing and changing rules as the situation changes.

But when the űber rule is in place, you aren’t allowed to question the rules. The reason the rules are in place are hidden or forgotten. Any attempt to discuss the rules or change them is an act of treason against the group.

For example, the United States might act a little crazy at times but we all know how the laws are made, how they can be changed and we are free to discuss what changes we might want to make, so it’s not a true dystopia. Of course you can argue that there’s corruption in how laws are made, unequal enforcement, etc. and we are times, pretty dysfunctional. But it’s still short of a true dystopia.

In Soviet Russia, on the other hand, laws were made by a small group who didn’t have to explain how or why they choose those laws. Any attempt to question the regime was harshly dealt with. It does qualify as a dystopian society.

So what makes a novel dystopian?

I have two simple criteria. The dominant group in the novel must be dysfunctional to the point of being dystopian. The group’s dysfunction must drive the novel.

A lot the novels that you find on the average listopia don’t really qualify as dystopian to me. By the same token there are a lot of good novels that should be considered dystopian but aren’t.

I don’t have any zombie or apocalypse novels on this list, because the dysfunctional society, if it exists, doesn’t drive the story. It’s a side effect of the apocalypse. Most epic fantasies don’t qualify either, because they tend to be about stopping the totalitarian regime (AKA evil wizard) from taking over. A true dystopian novel is about the character’s struggles living within a dystopian society.

Here are my top ten picks for adult dystopian novels.

 

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

When a conservative Christian group takes over the United States, the Republic of Gilead is formed. Marketplaces now features pictures since women aren’t allowed to read. Facing declining fertility they begin to employ handmaids, to let the ruling caste procreate. In order to avoid the idea that this is adultery, the handmaid must lay under the sheets while the man stares at his wife.

Told from the point of a view of a handmaid, there is no doubt the novel is both dystopian and adult. It’s very well written.

2. Make Room! Make Room! (AKA Soylent Green) by Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel about an overcrowded urban society facing food and space shortages, became the inspiration for 1973 movie, Soylent Green. It’s a great dark dystopian novel. Fans of the film beware, Make Room! Make Room! doesn’t include cannibalism.

3. Wool by Hugh Howey

Wool tells the story of a future where the world has been blighted and unlivable. Survivors live in underground silos. What really makes Wool a true dystopian is that the survivors don’t even remember what happened to make it that way, and even thinking of outside is a criminal offense punishable by death.

4. The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert had a thing about survival of the fittest. It shows up frequently in his works. The Fremen of Dune are tough because they’ve spent generations in one of the toughest environments ever, the planet Arakis. Arakis, however, can’t hold a candle to Dosadi. The novel is set in the Whipping Star series, though it’s easy to read as a stand alone novel. Aliens have conspired to keep a small group of aliens and humans trapped on a toxic planet, until the survivors have become so strong they now fear to let them out.

5. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson


Snow Crash is a classic cyberpunk novel but it also qualifies as dystopian in my opinion. The government has more or less ceased to function and sovereign corporations have moved into the power vacuum. The result is a byzantine world of sovereign corporations that is well described.

I have always admired Stephenson’s gutsy writing style, but never more than his decision to make his hero a half-Japanese American named Hiro. Hiro is a hacker turned pizza delivery guy who is drawn into a friendship with a young skateboard courier named YT. The two of them must work together to uncover the secret of Snow Crash, a computer virus that can infect hackers brains.

6. 1984 by George Orwell

Published in 1959, when the title date seemed far in the future, 1984 is a dystopian classic. It’s so old school that most 1984 fans still think old school is a popular catchphrase. Even so, it’s a must read, especially if you have ever wondered where terms like thought police, big brother and double speak come from. It’s a world that is so fucked up and dystopian that after the main characters is caught and re-educated for his thought crimes, they leave him alive until he is so brainwashed that he agrees with his sentence and volunteers for death.

7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

One of Bradbury’s classic novels, Fahrenheit 451 is an allusion to temperature at which a book will ignite and burn. The novel tells of a world where knowledge is censored and books are all banned. Guy Montag is a fireman. It’s his job to find and destroy books. That is until he is sucked into a secret society that strives to save literature by memorizing books whole.

8. Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson

Life under the dome is perfect, except for one small fact. To conserve resources everyone must die at thirty. That doesn’t seem like much of a problem when you are in your early twenties, and as you near thirty, well that’s what the Sandmen are for, to make sure no one runs.

9. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. His style is dark and cynical, and several of his novels show up frequently on listopia and elsewhere as dystopian novels. Most of those novels don’t make my cut. Titles like Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five are unrelentingly dark, but the societies are not true dystopias. But Player Piano is different. The society is one where machines are rapidly replacing humans in virtually all jobs, creating a new lower caste of unemployed or barely employable men. Strikes a little too close to home at times.

10. The sword of truth series by Terry Goodkind

I have left almost the entire fantasy genre off this list for one simple reason. Most epic fantasies are about the struggle of good and evil. The evil is the threat, a wizard, lord or ruler that is trying to take over the land. While that can make a great story, its not a dystopia. A dystopian novel must be driven by the characters reaction to living within a dystopian society. The Sword of Truth series is one of the few that meets that requirement.

My Shameless Promotion:

I’ve dabbled in post-apocalypse and have one book out that could be defined as dystopian. In Children of a New Earth, Amy Beland has been raised on Freedom Ranch, deep in the Rocky Mountains in the years after the collapse. The ranch is run by white supremacist. They don’t allow much discussion or input in decision making and they’ve lied to the younger generation about why the collapse has even happened, making it a pretty clear dystopian society. You can download a copy from Amazon:

Children of a new earth, front