Okay, so 2020 is done.
Fuck me dead, that was a bit shit and no mistake.
I’m not going to spend any time talking about how or why it was shit, because we all know the answer, and we’re all going to see a thousand retrospectives and thinkpieces about it over the next few months. I got through it in fairly good shape, many people got through it in much worse shape, and far, far too many people didn’t get through it at all.
But even if I don’t want to write about it now, that doesn’t mean I – or indeed any creator – won’t want to write about it in the future. When we write fiction set in the modern day, we use contemporary shared knowledges, references and experiences as touchstones to anchor the fiction, and there ain’t nothing modern humanity has shared more than <gestures around helplessly> all of this.
So how can we do that? How do we reflect this year – this bloodstained mass grave fuckpig of a year – into our modern-day fiction in engaging and meaningful ways that aren’t just 20 pages of wordless keening?
(I should clarify that I’m speaking mostly of the pandemic and its related impacts. Bushfires, Black Lives Matter, presidential elections, government fuckery, JK Rowling preaching hate, Fast & Furious 9 being delayed – they all happened in 2020 as well, but the pandemic was more universal, and there’s only so much I can cover in one blog post.)
What are the options?
I can think of four distinct ways to cover the impact of the pandemic, in all its rich and shitty variety, in more-or-less-modern day stories:
- Make it the focus: Alright, sure, let’s start on hard mode. Do you have something unique and powerful to say about the pandemic? Something that will help others to read/hear/watch – or that at least will feel real to them in ways that matter? If so, a) respect, you’re better at this than I am, and b) sure thing, go for it you mad bastard.
- Treat it as a backdrop: However, I think this will be the more common approach – stories that acknowledge the pandemic is ongoing, but it’s an element that informs the story in some way rather than being what it’s about. These stories are already being created on TV – see recent Law & Order: I Dunno I Don’t Watch It episodes, with Cops 1 & 2 wearing masks and complaining about the ‘rona before solving this week’s appalling celebrity sex crime.
- Make it part of the backstory: Or we can take a step further back and put the pandemic in the recent past (which will be a bit easier when it is in the recent past, amirite). That shared experience can shape story or character in interesting ways. ‘I’m like this because of 2020,’ the hero can say, and every reader will nod and feel a blast of sympathy as they go on a mass defenestration spree or whatevs.
- Eh, just ignore it: Yeah, the pandemic is a touchstone for modern life, but so are, I dunno, Diet Coke and systemic racism. Use those instead, and set your story in an alternate world that avoided this particular bullet. (This is both Marvel and DC Comics did; the publishers just went, ‘yeah, it can’t happen here’ rather than get artists to draw superheroes wearing 2-4 masks at once.)
Me, I’m an options 3&4 guy; I got nothin’ to say about life during lockdown, or indeed life with background lockdown. While The Obituarist 3 came out last year, I wrote most of it before 2020, and very deliberately threw in a few 2019 markers to make it super-obvious that this is a story from The Before Times. As for my next novel project, a YA urban fantasy about teenage professional wrestlers (currently called The Squared Circle, even though I’m sure that won’t stick), the pandemic becomes a backstory element for almost every character, as well as an inciting incident – the impact of shutdowns and sickness on the pro wrestling industry opens up space for a new promotion to appear and try something different.
That’s my angle – what’s yours? How are you going to write your way through this?
Update your metaphors, folks
You may say, ‘I don’t have to, because my fiction is set in the distant past/far future/an Animal Crossing/Terminator crossover AU in which Arnold Schwarzenegger fights and then makes out with Hot Robot Tom Nook’, and friend, I am here for your choices.
Still, every story we write is about our world, our time, our lives, even if we use tropes and metaphors to disguise that to readers and/or ourselves. When we write about fictional disasters, we’re really writing about the stresses and dangers we see around us, and what we know of how things fall apart.
And we’ve all learned more lately about things fall apart.
When I think about the pandemic/disaster/apocalypse stories I’ve read, watched or written – such as LEVIATHAN, the science-horror pandemic-prevention campaign I co-created with Greg Stolze for the second edition of his Reign RPG, which should be out within a few months plug plug plug – I’m struck now by the ways in which some assumptions and metaphors might be flawed.
- Disasters doesn’t have to be dramatic: Plague stories tend to have bodies in the street, and fictional apocalypses send firestorms into the sky. But you only need a 1% fatality rate, or a 2-3 degree increase in global temperatures, for the shit to hit the fan.
- Or fast: Another aspect of drama is speed; stories shoot from normal to disaster within days or weeks. Back in March – fuckin’ March! – I called this a slowpocalypse, and nearly 9 months later we’re still in the thick of it. Our realities collapse slowly, like a punctured lung.
- Some people are just fucked in the head: If your zombie apocalypse story doesn’t include Pete Evans telling libertarian QAnon cultists to collect 10 undead bite marks on their bleached anuses to protect them from George Soros’ 5G ghosts then you are an inauthentic scribe and I judge you.
- But not all people: The notion that we’ll all accept the danger is just as flawed as the notion that everyone will turn on each other when things go south. 2020 has been a year of so many people doing what they can to help others in their families, communities, countries, anyone they can. There is kindness in humanity, more than perhaps we can bring ourselves to believe, and it brings light to the darkness.
Are there other ways we need to update our disaster stories? Leave a comment and tell me.
At last, the 2021 show
‘Years’ are a fake idea. Pope Gregory can try to impose whatever structure he wants on time, but time – and in this essay, ‘time’ is a metaphor for <gestures around helplessly> all of this – don’t give a shit. It may not be 2020 anymore, but we’re still in the middle of a disaster that’s only maybe starting to turn around.
But ‘maybe’ is enough to work with.
For the last few years, I’ve written a post about how the year was tough and my mental health wasn’t great, but I was optimistic that next year would be better. Well, I’m out of optimism – 2021 won’t be the same shitshow, but it’ll still be a shitshow, and it’s going to be a long time before the world recovers.
But at the same time, my mental health, creative energy and willingness to waste my life writing shit no-one will read are better today than they’ve been since, fuck, 2015 or so. I can’t explain it, except maybe to say that I made it through <gestures round helplessly> all of that in one piece. And I’m ready to push my luck to try another round.
I’m still here. We’re still here. And right now, maybe that’s enough.
Let’s do this, 2021.