Fiction In An Era Of Cartoonish Evil

Today we live in a surreal, bizarre world, with facts, alt-facts, and subjective judgments all mediated by corporate media, social media, and institutional power structures. It’s a hyper-capitalist world where communications are dominated by clickbait and hype – where only capturing lots of eyeballs leads to profits. Because everyone seeks a bigger audience all the time, media – corporate and social – have a built-in incentive to over-promote and exaggerate everything.

And yet, we also live in a world of what I call cartoonish evil: Events and people that follow, absurdly, the most extreme archetypes of malice, villainy, and depravity. Reading news stories about them, they seem unreal; so unlikely, in some cases, that you’d never see such examples in fiction, for fear that they’d fail to overcome a reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Cartoonish evil doesn’t require hype or clickbait to come across as a clear trope; they’re overwhelming in their indecency, and smack-you-in-the-face obvious with their symbolism. All you need to do is peruse recent headlines to see myriad examples:

Consider ISIS, an organization with a black flag that beheads reporters and throws gays off buildings: An insane terrorist organization right out of central casting, right? Even as the organization loses territory, it seems to adapt, change, and – HYDRA-like – pop back up elsewhere.

New law allows coal company to dump chemicals into streams. As the New York Times put it, the stream protection rule aimed to protect the environment “from debris generated by a practice called surface mining. The Interior Department had said the rule would protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests by keeping coal mining debris away from nearby waters.” But the Republicans and Trump quickly shot it down with a new law, leading writer and humorist Kashana Cauley to tweet:

New law allows you to shoot hibernating bears and hunt bears and wolves from the air. Whatever debates about “states’ rights” are subsumed under this policy debate, the bottom line of this law is that it will allow people to kill hibernating bears (including cubs) and to shoot animals from helicopters.

Opponents of Vladimir Putin murdered, one after the next. Eight political opponents of the Russian President have died under suspicious circumstances or have been literally gunned down in the streets. Another dissident has been poisoned twice and barely survived each time.

I’m sure everyone can add to this list, since cartoonish supervillainy has become a nearly-daily occurrence.

With all this cartoonish villainy, some of your SFF writing concepts might well become obsolete. Charlie Stross found out that reality had intruded on his Halting State series, as police went and recruited gamers in exactly the fashion he’d posited. A few years ago, William Gibson declared that current reality had become science fiction, though he’s since returned to far-future concepts. Or perhaps your antagonist risks falling into some tired trope of cartoonish supervillainy – which can now happen when you’re too realistic, apparently.

So what do we do, as writers, to make an impact against this backdrop? I won’t pretend to have all the answers by any stretch. I take inspiration, though, from a William Gibson anecdote about what he does in his fiction:

A friend knew a woman who was having old-fashioned electroshock therapy for depression. He’d pick her up at the clinic after the session and drive her not home but to a fish market. He’d lead her to the ice tables where the day’s catch was spread out, and he’d just stand there with her, and she’d look at the ice tables for a really long time with a blank, searching expression. Finally, she’d turn to him and say, “Wow, they’re fish, aren’t they!” After electro­shock, she had this experience of unutterable, indescribable wonderment at seeing these things completely removed from all context of memory, and gradually her brain would come back together and say, Damn, they’re fish. That’s kind of what I do.

I interpret that to mean: Focus on story essentials, create situations that make readers look at old problems in new ways, and bring a sense of joy and wonderment to your writing. That’s what I aim to do to distinguish my plot and characters from the real world’s cartoonish villainy.

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