The other day, Prof and I were at the library borrowing some light evening viewing. On my way to the circ desk my eye fell on the Just Returned cart and on a relatively recent SFF novel that I’ve heard good things about. (I always stop to check the cart. It’s often the best spot to pick up the popular new acquisitions.)
I picked it up and flipped over to the book description to remind myself what it was about. The novel is set in an apocalyptic or dystopic world with major environmental issues. And that made me promptly put it back down. I didn’t even finish reading the book description.
What my reaction made me realize is that, for now, I’ve reached my tolerance for dark storylines with brooding characters in dire situations.
My little episode at the library collided with two random online pieces.
I was reading Tor.com’s coverage on the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. In his acceptance speech, winner Adrian Tchaikovsky praised the other five shortlisted nominees for a recurring theme:
“One of the things that struck me about the shortlist for this year is empathy as a theme that runs through a lot of these books. Empathy across races, across borders… One of the things [my] book is about is the ability of humanity to seize value in things that are different, and the danger when that doesn’t happen.”
Tchaikovsky’s comment made me conscious of not just how done I am with dystopia, but also how much I’ve been missing stories where the nicer aspects of humanity are clearly present. That doesn’t mean all feel-good stories all the time. It does mean that lifting the darker side of humanity up into the limelight is not enough if, at most, the positive universals get slapped on like a thin coat of paint on a dilapidated theater.
The next day, I ran into an article at Literary Hub by Brandon Taylor. “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You” focuses on the importance of empathy as an aspect of the writing craft:
“Stories have many functions: entertainment, healing, education, illustration, explanation, misdirection, persuasion. Stories have the power to shape worlds and to change lives, and so there is a lot at stake when an author sits down to write. Many people fold stories like delicate paper ships and launch them from obscure corners of the world, hoping that their ships land on distant shores and spread some of the truth of their lives to strangers. It is an act of communion, an act of humanity, the sharing of your story with another person. We each contain within us a private cosmos, and when we write of ourselves, we make visible the constellations that constitute our experience and identity.
“There can be no story without empathy. Our stories begin because we are able to enter the lives of other people. We are able to imagine how a person might move through the world, how their family might operate, what their favorite foods might be, how their nation works, how their town works, and the smallest, most inconsequential aspects of their lives rise up to meet us at our desks. You can’t write if you can’t empathize. Solipsism is anathema to good writing.”
Taylor’s piece crystallized in my mind why dystopias drag me down. It’s because many dystopic stories ignore or trivialize humane acts or traits like cooperative labor or generosity, and in doing so, they omit crucial aspects of humanity. And that—unless extremely, extremely skillfully executed—makes dystopias unsatisfying for me, exactly as I tend to think many utopian stories boring.
Just like darker traits, selfless characteristics exist today because in the past they helped us survive. They still do. We need them, and we’re better for it.
So much of my reading lately has included dystopic worldbuilding. I didn’t realize quite how much that’s been subconsciously bothering me. I’m full, thank you. No wonder books like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers—one of the Clarke nominees, by the by—make such joyful reading experiences.
Images: Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting by Eppu Jensen; Empathy by Pierre Phaneuf (pphaneuf) on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.