Science Fiction Author Terry DeHart On The Politics Of Dystopia
Which group is more likely to survive an apocalypse—liberals or conservatives?
It’s a simplistic question duct-taped to a complex problem, but when an American writer sets out to tell a post-apocalyptic story in these days of media-fired partisan rancor, readers look for the question on every page of the work. The writer’s choice, it seems at first, is to choose a side and go with it—which is to say, choose to write off roughly half of the population. (Bye-bye! Nice knowing you!) The passionately partisan writer can paint the question in black and white and be done with it. And the book might find its niche, a readership of like-minded people, and what’s wrong with that?
Well, I couldn’t do that. For one thing, I love stories that revel in the gray hued complexities of mortal existence. And the political arguments that fill our airwaves and bandwidth don’t really apply to a world in disaster. Taxes, deficits, funding or regulation of this or that? Who cares? The most relevant political questions in a world gone mad address the assumptions that lie within the bedrock of ideology. Would individualists bunkered-up in the hills stand a better chance of survival than less martial people who banded together and capitalized on their individual skills? Wouldn’t the mistrust and resulting isolation of survivalists also present a weakness? Would larger groups of less-than-ruthless people stand a prayer of a chance against roving bands of predators? How many stereotyping assumptions does a person have to make before trying to tell a story, for crying out loud?
Well, I didn’t actually have to answer those questions as I was writing my post-apocalyptic novel, The Unit. I didn’t have to answer them, because my characters took the load. I was pecking away at the keyboard when a wonderful thing happened. As I wrestled with ideology and sociology and the spiritual aspects of people in great peril, I fell in love with the characters. And only by falling in love can a writer manage to look beyond types. At least for this writer, love is the power gives stories a chance to pull away from propaganda.
Before I knew I was working on a novel, I began writing from a father’s point of view. Jerry Sharpe was on a road trip with his family, driving to Portland, Oregon for Christmas, when all the cars and trucks on the highway stopped running. He was a former Marine and he knew there was only one logical explanation for the sudden, simultaneous breakdown. The sky was blue and the forest was still and whole, but he knew that a nuclear explosion had occurred. He knew that an electro-magnetic pulse had disabled all electronics in the area, and his fear was nearly unbearable because his family was at risk.
I wrote a few dozen pages of Jerry’s story before he refused to look away from his wife, Susan. She remained front-and-center in his field of vision, and so I had to find out what she was thinking. I knew she was a strong woman, and I wanted to hear what she had to say, so I started writing from her point of view. And after a few dozen more pages, her gaze was fixed firmly upon her children. So then I was dying to know how their newly adult daughter and son, with the unique viewpoints of their generation, would respond. And then I was bouncing from one to the other, watching the plot unfold and thoroughly enjoying the ride. The not-me bastard who takes over when I write, well, he put the characters through hell, but the members of this family all stood up to the punishment, each in his or her own way, and at least in this dystopian world, love trumped politics.
Anyhow, that’s how it felt to write The Unit. I’m working on the sequel now. Love has bitten me on the ass again, and I’m away on a fine new ride, my own biases be damned.
- Terry DeHart