Why We Write
At few other times in history has the burden of writing speculative fiction been so heavy. Our work’s popularity is rising right now because so many seek an escape from the modern horsemen of the apocalypse: armed conflict in Ukraine, Tigray, Afghanistan, and Nigeria; famine in Somalia, Yemen, and North Korea; COVID-19; and 12–22 million “excess deaths” since the beginning of the pandemic.
During World War II, another era when we needed superheroes and otherworldly allies, the details and images of suffering weren’t available in real time. Now we drink from a firehose of human misery twenty-four hours a day. Speculative fiction gives readers a moment of quiet, a respite from the din.
The big question for us is this: We can offer relief from the deluge, but what will we do with this bully pulpit? I believe that Ursula K. LeGuin has much to teach us about our duty to our readers.
In the 1970s, LeGuin explored gender identity in a world where everyone was both male and female in her novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The book was published in the same summer as the Stonewall riots. In her book, the inhabitants of the ice planet, Gethen, thought humans (Terrans) were perverts because our gender is always “on,” because we are always physically capable of mating. (Gethenians only manifested sex traits during certain times in their cycle.) LeGuin created a world where she could illuminate not just sex and gender roles, but real empathy between people. Anyone on Gethen could know the struggles of both sides of a romantic relationship and could fully empathize with the struggles of the other.
LeGuin shows us the truth of privilege in her story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” For us to live charmed lives (of twentieth-century Americans), someone must pay the price. Someone must suffer for our comfort. Many years later, LeGuin wrote:
Young people, people this society blatantly short-changes and betrays, are looking for intelligent, realistic, long- term thinking: not another ranting ideology, but a practical working hypothesis, a methodology of how to regain control of where we're going. Achieving that control will require a revolution as powerful, as deeply affecting society as a whole, as the force it wants to harness.
Finally, in The Dispossessed, LeGuin looks at the inherent corruption in all political systems through the eyes of a mathematician who lives on an anarchist moon. While visiting the commercialized democracy of the home planet, the protagonist’s guide defends her country by saying their politicians are not “despots.” Yet back on the harsh and anarchist moon, people sacrifice for each other and work together for the common good. The world of democracy and capitalism is flashy and empty, all light and no heat.
My new series, The Knight Nurses of the Order of St. John, tries to live up to LeGuin’s tradition. The characters oppose the rise of fascism and racism. They support tolerance and kindness, and while they are warriors of many ages, they are first and foremost caregivers and bringers of comfort and support. The evil they oppose is the evil of ignorance and the moral lethargy of our times.
The Knight Nurses are reincarnations of ten Knights Hospitaller who remained in Jerusalem after it was taken by Saladin. Their magic is balanced by ten mages banished to the Ether, another dimension. The Returned, as they are known, are the top executives of a corporation that exists solely to slake their appetite for power and control. The inhabitants of the Returned’s world are all slaves to their company. In the tradition of Ursula K. LeGuin, the bad guys are greedy capitalists who encourage the politics of division and hate in our world.
We writers of speculative fiction have the ability to reach deep into readers’ consciences, into their hearts, and affect not only their world view, but their behavior. As the world becomes less a place to live in and more a place from which to seek refuge, how will we use this awesome power? Will we shoulder this responsibility with grace and conviction in order to make the world better?
I’m not proposing that we ditch the thrill and shock and fright that fantasy, science fiction, and horror can so aptly deliver. I would like to think, though, that our community will use its voice to advance ideas like tolerance and mutual aid. That red-baiting, racism, and homophobia will find a mighty foe in us and in our readers.
Bring forth the dragons and the sorcerers, the spaceships and the artificial intelligence, the monsters and the spirits. While the world is in thrall to our spells, let us loose a force for tolerance and compassion and justice, and hope that our heroes save the day.