I used to take some chances with my bad guys. I’ve written my fair share of them. But if I wrote a scene where cops teargassed clergy off the stoop of their own church, so a president who has never believed in any god for a day in his life could get his photo taken with an upside-down Bible that he’s never read a word of, I’d have to delete it before my editor got a chance to berate me for being ridiculous.
I’m also guilty — most writers are — of relying on coincidence in my stories. Something huge will be unfolding in my plot when another major event happens! Didn’t see that coming, did you innocent reader?! But my inner editor will always warn me to make some effort to link the big events. It can’t seem like major things are happening on top of one another “just because.” I certainly couldn’t get away with throwing police brutality and mass protests on top of a global pandemic, with a recent backdrop of presidential impeachment over blackmailing an ally for dirt on an election opponent. Who would want to read that? Who would be crazy enough to write it?
In May of 2018 (over two years ago!), John Joseph Adams reached out to me about putting together another triptych. A few years prior, we’d released the Apocalypse Triptych, three amazing anthologies full of every conceivable way you can imagine the world ending by an all-star collection of science fiction writers. The series had been a big success, so we decided to do something similar for dystopia stories. We sent a call out to some of our favorite writers, and I started dreaming up my own contribution to the anthology. It needed to be three stories that showed the beginning, middle, and end of a world descending into some kind of dystopian ruin. I knew I wanted to write about the wealth gap and race relations, two things I’d been wrestling with as I sailed through poor islands in Captain Cook’s wake. I tried to come up with a world that pushed beyond the plausible just far enough to be satire, but not too far that it doesn’t serve as a warning.
Two years later, and the world has passed me by. My upcoming stories are going to feel like ones that take place today, rather than tomorrow.
At the end of June, you’ll be able to read a series of stories in which Detroit descends into a warzone, in which the United States breaks out into a cultural civil war, in which minorities are being caged, a young black man is beat up by cops because a woman phoned in a suspicious boy sitting on her stoop (he was tying his laces). There’s even a president willing to kill not for anything as grand as gaining political power, but because it might help make their grandkids a little wealthier.
It’s ridiculous. It’s heartfelt. I cried while writing these stories, and I cried every time I made an editing pass. The characters in these stories feel real to me. My plan now is to turn these stories into a novel to give them even more room to breathe. Because they deserve that. It’s the bare fucking minimum in this world that we all deserve to breathe.
It’s hard being a writer today, not just because reality wants to make fools of us all, but because our creative output needs to spark joy in the end. Even the sad stories have to be told with the joy and pride of getting them out there. But how do you celebrate art while your cities burn? While so many are hurting? With so many lives lost to a pandemic that could have been mitigated?
There’s a part of me that thinks these stories don’t matter, because we are living them. But there’s a bigger part of me that screams out how important these kinds of stories have always been. When we came up with the titles for this triptych, we decided to honor three of the great dystopian novels of all time. Because those books serve as timeless warning of what can happen when we let our guards down, when we succumb to the baser elements of our natures, when we forget our past or don’t pay attention to the present. These are stories that aren’t always comfortable, but they are necessary. They are marching stories. They are protests.
As writers of speculative fiction, one of our jobs is to plumb the past and current events and tell stories that seem absurd, but serve to highlight our faults and our injustices. As human beings, our job should be to make such art completely unnecessary. Unfortunately, that day has not yet come. These stories are more necessary than ever. We have to raise our voices however we can. We have to keep writing. This is our march. And it will be toward progress.