Science fiction writers often create post-apocalyptic worlds, but lately they've faced a quandary: What do you do if you think we're living in dystopian times right now?
Writers seem to be adjusting at the extremes, with some embracing the darkness – dystopia-palooza! – while others are letting their characters escape from the here-and-now to the not-here-and-maybe-not-now-either.
That's the word from John Joseph Adams, series editor of "The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy." The 2017 edition of the short-story anthology has just been published, this one focusing on stories from 2016.
In an interview, Adams talks about sci-fi's perennial focus on modern anxieties, the impact of our dark political era on sci-fi and fantasy writers, and the inspiration for an upcoming collection devoted to a better tomorrow – at least in our imaginations.
Q: Other fiction genres – such as mystery, romance and Westerns – don't place as much of an emphasis on modern-day issues as science fiction does. Why is that?
You can't really think about the future too much, speculate about where we're going, without examining the issues of the present and the crisis points we are dealing with. You can just pick a controversial issue and use that as a starting point to figure out where society might be in, say, 100 years.
Q: How are current worries reflected in modern sci-fi?
I like to point to post-apocalyptic fiction, which had this huge boom after World War II. But the Cold War ended, and people stopped writing it when they stopped worrying about annihilation.
Then 9/11 happened, and there was this huge resurgence as writers reflected their own anxiety. "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy [a Christian Science Monitor book of the year and Pulitzer Prize winner from 2006] really made these kinds of works break out.
In 2008, I edited my first anthology, "Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse," of short fiction from 1985 to that time, which made my career as an anthologist possible.
Q: If writers believe that we're living in a dystopia, what does that mean for their work when they seek to create fictional dystopias?
A lot of people turn to dystopian stories as a way to deal with issues. It helps them, and it can help people to read their stories. Not in the sense of showing that things could be so much worse, but in seeing how characters deal with these situations.
Q: We've been talking about sci-fi, but your anthology also includes fantasy short stories. What's the difference between the two genres?
A lot of people know fantasy because of epic fantasy – "Game of Thrones" or "Lord of the Rings." But there are several subgenres of fantasy, and most fantasy is completely different.
Fantasy often takes place in the real world, but there are certain aspects that are impossible. In contrast, science fiction might have things that are impossible now but may be theoretically possible in the future.
Q: "Portal fantasies" are stories – like the Narnia tales or "Alice in Wonderland" – in which there's a portal to a fantastic world. How are these kinds of stories doing?
There's this resurgence in the current climate because writers are trying to grapple with the reality of contemporary politics and the state of the world. Their mind goes to wanting to escape to some other world to avoid living in this one.
Q: Your anthology only includes stories published in 2016, before Donald Trump became president. What's happened since then? Are you seeing any kind of a Trump effect?
Yes. I'm co-editing an anthology called "A People's Future of the United States" that's a direct response to the current administration.
It's a collection of speculative fiction stories due from Random House's One World imprint next year, likely in the fall. It will show us the future through the eyes of those who have been threatened throughout American history, such as immigrants, people of color, women, queer and trans people, Muslims and other persecuted religious groups.
The idea is to have the stories focus on them.
We're asking writers to speculate about how we could reclaim the future of our country.
Q: The pitch for the upcoming anthology says, "We're looking for narratives that release us from the chokehold of the history and mythology of the past … and stories that give us new futures to believe in." What role do you think sci-fi can play in terms of actually changing the world?
Trying to achieve change through something like science fiction seems like a pipe dream.
But it also feels like the only thing that writers can hope to do.
We have a platform. Hopefully we can reach people in a way that's beyond just lecturing them about the realities of the world.