It’s quite scary out there at the moment. I started writing this post on the day that Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed by a US airstrike. Twitter (where I heard the news) was one big held breath. We were poised on the edge of disaster. Speculation was rampant and the whole internet felt like it was waiting. Waiting for war. Waiting for retaliation, escalation. We all imagined the worst was about to happen, and then we had to imagine what “the worst” would actually be, which was frightening because until then most of us had had the luxury of “the worst” remaining abstract, nebulous and remote.
The Iran news was only a small part of the cascade of bad news that came on the heels of the new decade. Australia on fire. Russian government mass exodus. The looming spectre of Brexit. And amidst it all, a phone call. I’d won an award, a pretty big one. One I’d been pining after, fantasising about and working towards - I’d thought without any hope of success - for almost as long as I’d lived in this country. And I’d got it. This, and booking my first festival appearances, and my first paid book review, and more freelance money than ever, suggested that 2020 was going to be a good year for me and my career.
But as this became clear it became even clearer that for most people, 2020 was going to be unimaginably shitty. This was hard to reconcile. It felt like it took the shine off winning the award. What did success matter when an entire continent was literally on fire? Was the world going to end before I finished my novel? When I compare them side by side, my own aspirations seem petty and small. Recognition and external validation are important to me: I spent a very long time thinking I had and would never have anything of value to offer the world, depression and low self-esteem had convinced me that my creative aspirations were worthless and that I shouldn’t try. It’s only in the last year that I’ve started to believe otherwise. But now all of a sudden it felt irresponsible to make art at all.
And I’m still struggling with this. Someone on twitter told me that I should write the book anyway, because “we still need escapism.” “But,” I thought, the voice in my head taking on a petulant whine, “I don’t want to write escapism!” Was it one or the other? Was it an ultimatum between gritty, pessimistic realism on the one hand and adventurous, far-flung speculation, completely divorced from reality, on the other? Why did I have to make the beggar’s choice between writing about the world as it is without imagination, and ignoring it completely?
I thought about my favourite books in my genre. The kind of books I wanted to write. Earthsea. NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series. These books didn’t feel divorced from reality, and they didn’t feel like they were offering the reader a safe place to escape to, where the world’s troubles couldn’t reach. They still raised uncomfortable truths and explored ugly realities.
Times have always been ‘bad’ in one way or another, and writers have always written. And I have to believe that there’s no difference in kind between those times and now. I think that feeling of selfishness and guilt is a cousin to the depressive thoughts that told me I had nothing worthwhile to say. The source may be external but the result is the same: I felt like I wasn’t “allowed” to write. It pushed me towards inaction, paralysis, and away from productivity and thoughtfulness.
So what are we doing with speculative literature when times are bad? I don’t want to bury my head in the sand, but I want desperately to believe that there’s still a place for imagination, speculation, that there is value in picturing the world as it could be rather than as it is. That’s what speculative lit should do. It should engage with what’s happening in the real world and say something about it, but by imagining the world as different, it lets the reader know the world can be changed.
I’m not saying we have to write utopias, or use fiction to sermonise. And I’m not saying speculative fiction can’t be bleak, gritty, dark and pessimistic. But whatever I write, I want to energise my readers, to inspire them to action in the here-and-now, to show them new ways to think about the world and the beautiful things in it. There are values we need as the day grows darker, that writing can nurture. Collectivity, empathy, pragmatism, curiosity.
When compared side-by-side with what’s going on out there, my own aspirations still feel petty and small. But that’s okay. We all have that thing we’re good at, that we can do well and be loved and recognised for. And we all have a responsibility, too. To do what we can to help, to do our thing, and to try to enjoy it, even when it feels like we shouldn’t.