COVID. War. Totalitarianism. Pandemic. Climate change. Terrorism. Nuclear war.
Judging from hyperbole in social media, we are out-and-out terrified of these things. Just consider the rhetoric around the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Will he? Won’t he? Should we?
The job of 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 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 has been done to…undeath? Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a bunch more movies drawing a link between them and COVID. There have also been a lot of movies and stories about the next pandemic, from The Omega Man to Outbreak and more. And we can also expect books and movies about nuclear bombs exploding in a far-off country.
Here’s a challenge for creative writers: new fantasies that symbolize tomorrow’s fears, like unchecked global warming, flooding, epic storms. Been done? That won’t stop people from doing it again, as long as they make money.
The biggest fear, though, that I can see is the fear of change. Any new idea still evokes howls from predictable corners. Get a new vaccination. Wear a mask. Drive an electric vehicle. 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.