IT’S NEVER TOO SOON

Last week I happened across a New Yorker article from September 11, 2015 by Joshua Rothman entitled “The Unsettling Arrival of Speculative 9/11 Fiction.” In it, Rothman dissects the anthology In the Shadow of the Towers: Speculative Fiction in a Post-9/11 World, edited by Douglas Lain, painting an overall unflattering view of the book, the stories it contains, the authors of those stories, and the very concept of speculative fiction as it relates to real events. But before I try to convince you, if not Joshua Rothman, that it’s never “too soon” to begin exploring any event through the lens of fiction, a little something in the way of “full disclosure”:

Prior to September 11, 2001, I had never been to New York City. I have been there since. Twice. I was born in Upstate New York (Rochester, to be exact) but moved away in 1969, not yet age five. I watched the 9/11 attacks play out, like most people, on live TV, safe in my house in (then) Issaquah, Washington, a full continent removed from the reality of the disaster. As such, unlike Rothman, I couldn’t read this book “while in the shadow of an actual tower—One World Trade Center, where The New Yorker’s offices are located.”

Though I do know a bunch of people in the speculative fiction world, at least in a sort of friendly, “in passing” way, I don’t know editor Douglas Lain but have brushed up against some of the authors. That said, though, I have no actual involvement with this book, nothing at stake in its existence or sales.

I’m also decidedly not a “9/11 Conspiracy Theorist” or anyone with any sort of axe to grind in all the complex political stuff that continues to swirl around it.

I watched a vicious act of mass murder happen on live TV. I did not enjoy that experience. And no, I didn’t immediately run to my computer to write a short story about it. I did mention it in one draft of one book I wrote but that ended up being cut for reasons of character and pacing. I didn’t cut it because I thought it was “too soon” it just didn’t work in my story. I did, however, read the Onion’s coverage of the event. The sheer audacity of it blew my mind, and to be honest, I think it was not just okay for them to do that, it was essential. We need to be reminded, sometimes, that even on a really, really bad day, we are dragged down by grief but we survive by humor.

That leaves us with the question, then: When is it “too soon” to approach an event like 9/11—or Hurricane Katrina, or Sandy Hook, or . . . ?—from the point of view of science fiction and fantasy—or any other fiction genre?

All I can offer here—and, let’s face, it all I ever offer here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook—is one man’s opinion:

It’s never too soon.

That having been said, a disaster like this, where real people were brutally killed in some kind of spasm of misguided politics filtered through religious fanaticism, leaving whole families literally and figuratively blown up, is never something to be taken lightly. But that, to me, is at the heart of this particular discussion. Does this anthology take 9/11 lightly?

Joshua Rothman wrote:

“In the Shadow of the Towers” marks the beginning of a transition in the legacy of 9/11. At first, a protective aura surrounds recent tragedies, preserving them from the injudicious meddling of pop culture. But it can’t be “too soon” forever; no event is permanently beyond the reach of the imagination. Typically, to start, only respectful, realistic stories make inroads. Then some border is crossed, and it becomes possible to make revenge Westerns about slavery (“Django Unchained”), tragicomedies about the Holocaust (“Life Is Beautiful”), and horror movies about Vietnam (“Jacob’s Ladder”).

I have to ask, why can “only respectful, realistic stories make inroads” in the examination of a tragedy? After all, “realistic” stories are actually a fairly new invention if you look back across the full range of literature. I can’t help but think that this is where Rothman’s bias begins to show itself. The problem isn’t stories about 9/11, it’s science fiction and fantasy stories about 9/11 that are coming too soon. This is only a valid argument if you begin with the misguided idea that SF and fantasy are inherently frivolous, incapable of a deeper sense of the emotional carnage of 9/11. Even not having read the anthology in question I can reject that idea on its own merits. We don’t have to cross some unseen border between the perceived “respectful” realists and the apparently disrespectful genres.

This bias against the genres is, to my mind, clearly stated here:

But when we say it’s “too soon,” what we really mean is that we’re not yet ready to confront these ideas and feelings in ourselves. We already have the thoughts—they’re in there. But we’d still prefer moral clarity. We’re not ready to play.

The shortcoming to this way of thinking about “speculative” fiction is that stories are more than experiments; they are speech acts, written by particular people who wish to get some feeling across.

The fact that Rothman seems to have happened upon this otherwise unknown concept, that speculative fiction isn’t just about “play”—about silliness and frivolity—is what’s keeping him from looking at these stories as anything but disrespectful. And listen . . . maybe some of them are. I haven’t read the anthology. And though Rothman seems to have mixed feelings about specific stories, it’s this tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater that I think we’ve all heard far, far too much of, as though a science fiction story might occasionally, accidently, be good, but in general those purveyors of second-rate entertainments need to keep their hands off the serious stuff.

This really burns me.

I guess I have to ask then:

Was it too soon for George Orwell to warn of the rise of a military industrial complex that switches enemies at random between Eastasia and Eurasia (Communism and Islam) to keep society in a perpetual state of war that justifies the complete erosion of individual rights—which has actually come to pass in terrifyingly real ways—when he wrote 1984 at the end of World War II?

Was 1964 too soon for Frank Herbert to warn us of the dangers of a single-resource economy, especially when that resource is concentrated under a desert in which the fully-alienated local population has come to hate us and everything we stand for, waiting in quiet desperation for the rise of a charismatic leader to set them off on an empire-destroying jihad?

So then now I have to ask:

Was it that this anthology talked about 9/11 too soon after, or Dune talked about it too long before?

Which of these frivolous, unserious, unrealistic novels do we dismiss along with In the Shadow of the Towers?

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to IT’S NEVER TOO SOON

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