The escapism of fiction is essential in our world right now, but for many authors COVID-19 has caused something of a headache.
I’m not talking about the closure of bookshops and the postponement of events where we were intending to publicise our latest works. That is a real challenge, of course, and those of us whose launches turned into damp squibs value your love and support. To help in these trying times you can pick up copies of the latest Harvey Duckman Presents anthologies, my recent non-fiction work Blockchain Hurricane, and new books by Hayes, Hallam, Hatton and others on Amazon.
I’m talking about a very real dilemma in writing. Do you include this pandemic in your plot, or is it Too Soon?
One of the wonderful things about writing science fiction is the freedom to take any wild idea you have and “make it so”, as a legendary captain once said. When, as Mark Hayes does, you are building a steampunk future vision where Victoria is still on the throne and airships fill the skies, reality can take a running jump. I count myself lucky that I included a plotline about a tricky virus in my last SimCavaliernovel and mentioned an imaginary 2020s global pandemic in the backstory. I can firmly dismiss any nagging thoughts about whether to refer to the current situation and as a bonus I have set myself up as something of a visionary.
Authors whose work is anchored in the present day have reportedly been removing key dates from their final drafts before publication, taking the reader back to a world before lockdown and disruption. This can mess with carefully constructed timelines over a series of books, of course, but there is very little alternative. Our world has changed, and with it the hopes, fears and habits of our characters.
The changes in science fiction will be subtle but noticeable, regardless of the time or the world in which our stories play out. We draw our readers into a tale by giving them enough of an anchor to empathise, and we show the strangeness of a new setting by contrasting with the familiar. Have you ever wondered why Doctor Who has human companions? They are our window onto the alien universe. Thanks to COVID-19 our anchors and our assumptions have been changed for good. When we look back at decades-old classic fiction, we are often amused by the outdated attitudes and customs. Will face to face meetings and world travel become as anachronistic as telegrams and carriages? On the flip side, writers of fiction set in our past may find themselves hunting for ways to reflect a new normal. The creators of Stranger Things gave their characters walkie talkies, unable to work around the concept of a time without mobile phones. The old behaviours – waiting on the corner for your mates, being home when it got dark – are unthinkable in our modern society. Will our characters (in any time setting) now have stricter controls on their movement, or be more cautious about infections?
We also need to revise our assumptions about the way the authorities react in a dystopian future. As the makers of 2011 film Contagion explained recently, they were faithful to all the models of a pandemic, but they did not envisage the fragmented and contradictory responses from governments around the globe, or the speed with which PPE ran out. We tend to assume that the zombie apocalypse will be taken seriously by well-prepared leaders. We may have been wrong.
I’m heading back to a partly complete manuscript now. I wonder how many simple interactions I will edit to make it palatable to the post-COVID audience? I won’t be mentioning the elephant in the room, though. It’s definitely Too Soon.
About Kate Baucherel (by Mark)
Kate Baucherel is a digital strategist, a writer of both non-fiction books that explain technology while making you laugh, cyber-crime sci-fi (her third SimCaviler novel is much anticipated this year), and short stories for the Harvey Duckman Presentsseries (her Christmas tale was particularity compelling). She is also an internationally renown expert on Blockchain, an occasional guest lecturer at universities, as well as a panellist and speaker at technology conferences around the world. More importantly Jackie Carlton once bought her a drink and she has been known to dress up as Han Solo at Halloween (or whenever else she can get away with it probably). If that is not intimidating enough, she is also is a black-belt in several martial arts including Karate, octopus catapults, parenting and the internet …