Fantasy and Warfare
Plus: Broad City, Sanderson and Stranger Things
This month’s essay + recs roundup begins on a meditative note. Reading time is 15 minutes.
The fantasy of warfare
I’ve seen my fair share of student excuses for turning in late assignments, but one excuse from a few weeks ago gave me pause. In asking for an extension, a student cited an intense increase in their anxiety because, in their words: It feels like World War 3 is happening and I’m so scared.
It would’ve been easy for me, in my pause, to put on my admin hat and dismiss their reason as insufficient. My first thought was to wonder if they had relatives in Ukraine or any other sort of connection to Russia’s ongoing invasion of the country. But it was this question, I think, that caused me to pivot, to ask myself: Do they need to have relatives to be concerned and afraid?
The answer is no, because this is how war functions: it leaves its imprint on all witnesses, even those without proximity to its location.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the realities and casualties of that invasion (amongst other more silent ones, like Yemen’s), I’ve been thinking about what our responsibilities are as artists in our depictions of warfare in our stories. I’ve been wondering:
How may we move further away from sensationalizing the depiction of battles as “exciting” and discuss the less peeked-at parts of the effects of war and violence (outside of the also sensationalized depictions of suffering, displacement and despondence)?
It turns out I’d already been thinking about this for a while, because sometime late last year, I tweeted this:
Other authors of fantasy and speculative narratives have been thinking about this too. Fellow Orbit author C.L. Clark wrote about this in Fantasy Magazine just last year, and more stories in recent times have attempted to engage with this, like C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken, R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, etc.
So it’s not that we don’t understand or agree that war is a complex endeavor with a multifold range of stakeholders and victims, and that the big battles we see play out on our screens and pages are but a slice of that whole rotten pie. It’s that we wonder how we may tell these stories in ways that better serve our readers and the world at large, without sacrificing empathy and nuance on the altar of excitement.
Because let’s face it: whether storyteller or story receiver, we’ve been fascinated by stories of war for a long time. The depiction of large-scale battles or “heroes” and “legends” standing up against hordes of “evil attackers” and hopefully defeating them “for the greater good” did not just begin with Tolkien or GRR Martin. But what we must pay notice to as contemporary authors in 2022 are the terms I have placed in quotes in that last sentence. We must understand our responsibility as storytellers, that no matter the story we tell, we are presenting our story receivers with impressions of what good and evil are, who are the heroes, legends and villains, and who we suggest they root for over the other.
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My approach in The Nameless Republic
When I set out to write The Nameless Republic trilogy, one of the first things I told myself was that I would never glorify battles and violence that harmed a large swathe of people. I wasn’t just thinking about those hordes who would die on the battlefield in defence or pursuit of someone else's dream, but those tucked into the clothfolds of war, away from the big action and exciting sequences. The farmer who's forced to pay higher taxes to fund weaponry. The transporter who has to give up their carts in service of the military. Those who are forced to migrate and leave everything they own behind just to survive. Those far away, sleepless, wondering if they’ll be the next to be invaded. I thought of this quote from Satti in Warrior of the Wind (yes, you are getting an early peek now!):
“I’ve always thought peace was not the absence of war or violence, but the presence of one so silent it makes no sound.”
I have never witnessed war like this, but my father, a survivor of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) told me stories of his family sleeping in forests whenever either the Nigerian or Biafran army marched through their town. He was not one of those on either side of the Nigerian state’s clampdown on the secessionist state of Biafra, but a midwesterner simply caught in the middle, the grass that suffered the elephants’ stomps. When I thought about what kind of story I would like Son of the Storm to be (and Warrior of the Wind, now that I’ve finished it, hurray), I thought of him.
Now, as I begin to plot and outline the final book in the series, which sees more warfare than the first two, I'm holding in my head, hands and heart, those who suffer the repercussions of warring decisions made by others. I'm thinking about their descendants and what they will have to carry in their hearts forever, only whispering memories of the war, if they ever speak of it at all.
This is to say that soft touches and a dexterous hand are required to offer the nuance and complexity that narratives of warfare deserve. Us fantasy and science fiction writers, whose stories are rife with such depictions of warfare, must pay special attention to this, especially as the real-life implications of war stare back at us from our myriad of screens. We do not want readers to turn away from reality and seek only the “fun” and “exciting” parts of war (yuck) in simplistic, sanitized versions of battles in our stories. As authors, it is our duty to resist presenting that option. Not if we can help it.
⭐ Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston
It’s not often that you come across a debut that’s hyped and stands up to that hype. But Alston hits this right out of the park. In my opinion, this is what Harry Potter wants to be when it grows up, lol. Sure, it sometimes read like a movie—a Men In Black movie, to be precise—but I think it handles its pacing, twists and subversions so excellently (crucial for an attention-grabbing middle-grade novel) that the book does everything it needs to do to keep the target audience interested, intrigued, excited and feeling represented.
⭐Abbott Elementary S01: I’ve never attended an American elementary school, but this show makes me feel like I want to (not as a teacher, though, because those folks are clearly struggling!). I’ve seen the valid criticisms that the workplace mockumentary formjat runs the risk of inadvertently sanitizing the struggles of inner city schoolteachers (not to talk about Principal Ava’s incompetence and obvious nepotism smoothed over by jabs and jokes). However, I think the show’s “wink-wink, nudge-nudge, we’re making a joke, but it’s not really funny” approach demonstrates the creators’ self-awareness—they’re offering fun and hope despite that bleakness. Also, teachers are hot again, even the older ones (especially the older ones—and not in a crummy older cis-man kind of way).
⭐ Broad City, all five seasons: I’m not sure why I’ve slept on this show for so long. Perhaps because the show is so irreverent and subversive (when these words still meant something, before the Netflix algorithms took over), it’s not something one instinctively reaches for. Once you’ve hit a stride with it though, you can immediately see why it’s so immersive. Not just because it is deliciously unhinged or Ilana is an absolute riot, but because it employs tender touches in its comedy and commentary, even when it’s going hard at something. It’s one of the few odes to New York City that did not draw a groan from me at any point. In my opinion, it carries itself better than HBO’s other quintessential millenial dramas.
⭐ “Rock the Boat” by Hues Corporation: Any 80’s to 90’s baby will agree with me that this song slaps. Recommended for lazy days.
🌐 On the interwebs
⭐ Sanderson and the publishing debates
It’s no longer news that prolific fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is running a Kickstarter that has since become the #1 most funded project on the platform with, as at time of writing, $38 million in funding and counting. This has rightly sparked debates as to what this means for publishing and authors, to which I reply: absolutely nothing.
Others smarter than me (Scalzi, Bond, Roman, Shotwell, etc) have already pointed out the why of this: because Sanderson is Sanderson, and not your average author. The combination of factors that got him there—writing prolificacy, Wheel of Time fandom, a 30-employee strong machine (with its own publishing warehouse) behind him, the backing of Utah’s largest religious community, playing the publishing game on the Lowest Difficulty Setting, etc—do not exist for 99.9% of authors. So rather than wonder if we should all give our publishers the middle finger and go a-kickstarting, here are a few links to bring us down from cloud nine to soggy, wet earth:
Remember Nicole Brinkley’s “It must be exhausting to be an author?” The challenges inherent in our fraught profession remain so for 99.9% of authors. Many of such talented writers, like Audrey, will be “Dreaming of Writing While Waiting Tables.” And even when we do make it, the challenges have only just begun. As Daniel Abraham puts it, no matter what you do as an author, you’re screwed.
Sanderson is a savvy businessman as much as he is an author. Just take a peek at this post of his breaking down his thinking behind this kickstarter. This kind of business acumen is a completely different skillset from storytelling. It’ll be asking a lot of the average author to possess this level of acumen (not to talk about implementation) in addition to their task of telling great stories.
The past week has seen multiple folks in editorial and publicity exit publishing like a building on fire—perhaps because it is on fire. As much as we’d like to shit on traditional publishing, we must redirect our shaken fists at the institution, rather than the wonderful, caring, intelligent everyday people who work there and are also getting screwed daily. A few kickstarters will not topple the centuries-old worth of systemic rot that has set into Big Publishing. Any sort of lasting change will require more conscious thinking than that.
In Case You Missed It
It’s still awards season, and Son of the Storm is still eligible for Best Novel in the Locus, BSFA and Nommo awards. These nomination periods are still open, so if you mean to include SOTS in your noms, remember to do so (and thank you!)
Remember my Imagining Health Futures short story project with UNICEF? It was featured in Forbes. All 12 short stories are now available to read for free. Mine’s titled “SelfCare,” and is about a couple trying to introduce a radical new healthcare product to a traditionalist African city.
Feel free to share this letter with anyone you think may gain something from it.