It’s a favorite trope in science fiction/fantasy/dystopia/young adult stories. Revolution. Regime change. Often painted in the starkest outline of simplified cardboard cutouts. Our Plucky Hero or Heroine gets involved with the Righteous Cause. They wage war against an Oppressive or Sinister Authority and manage to win against Overwhelming Odds. Happily Ever After. Roll credits. Look at the author acknowledgments/interview/superficially sincere book club questions at the back of the book. Tied up in a nice neat little package. Problem all solved now. Right?
Or the Revolution is portrayed as part of a heroic coming-of-age story. Our young heroine has to Take Down The Oppressors in lovingly written accounts of how The Struggle Makes Her A Whole, Fulfilled Adult And Her Cause was Perfectly Right And Correct.
Um. Maybe. What color was Our Heroine’s skin?
Oh. We also have the Romantically Grim Dystopias set in smoky, foggy, and artistically dark-hued cityscapes. Our Hero battles his way against the Evil Overlord while wielding his Period-Appropriate Weaponry, whether that’s sword, gun, or blaster. Blood flies but Our Hero miraculously manages to win through without a scratch, and Everything Is Solved. Fixed.
By this point there’s a bunch of folks clamoring for my head and rushing to write angry comments because I’ve just mocked several of the basic tropes common to genre fiction by painting them in very stark, simplistic tones. I’m overlooking nuanced takes on these old themes. The twists that involve Heroic Sacrifices and the Dark Variants. Not considering the deeply examined takes on political struggle. Turns meant to make the reader think.
All well and good, and I acknowledge that there are some very well-written works out there on these themes. That there’s much more to this set of tropes within the regime change/revolutionary genre than the simplistic portraits I’ve sketched here. I admit that I’m being somewhat unfair.
For every nuanced, mindful, well-thought-out version of Writing the Revolution, there are at least three or four crudely sketched out wish-fulfillment fantasies that are no more realistic than a first-person-shooter video game or their real-life variant, the run-and-gun tacticool classes that are nothing more than jumped up paintball, that allow the participants to fantasize that they are Real Warriors. Hell, I see several of these books pop up every day on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, either through ads or assorted promotional groups. And they’re churned out to fulfill a reader demand for romantic notions about what Rebellion or Revolution really is.
(Dare I mention Star Wars here? Um, maybe not.)
Couple that sort of romanticized view of revolution and warfare with the sort of political polemic dominating social media over the past five years (Um. Longer) and you end up with events like January 6th, 2021.
You end up with an angry mob seeking to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power because they’ve been fed lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 election and who view themselves as akin to their fictional heroes.
And the intersection of the two has created the foundation for that idealized conceptualization of revolution.
While we as writers and creatives are certainly nowhere near as guilty of bringing these events to fruition as the political and media leaders who cynically manipulated the dialogue in their heinous abuse of their authority in order to amass political power and money, we are not exactly innocent, either.
And I am just as guilty of doing this as any other writer or creator who dabbles in the themes of revolution and regime change.
I spent the morning of January 6th, 2021 working on the worldbuilding for a fantasy series where, ironically, one character has to pick up the pieces after violent regime change. She has a major hot mess to deal with, and it’s all chaos. I went from two hours of doing this work, not hearing any news, to switching on my Zoom to host my monthly Soroptimist meeting.
I was greeted with the blare of news from one member’s TV.
“The Capitol’s been invaded and the election certification has been stopped,” she said.
The rest of us spluttered, then went on to briefly conduct business. After that, my husband and I spent the rest of the day (and a big chunk of the next one) watching events unfold on TV, occasionally switching out to Facebook or Twitter to figure out what was going on. Meanwhile assorted songs from the Evita soundtrack kept echoing through my head.
By midnight on the 6th, I was soul-searching.
These events did not exactly take me by surprise. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science from the University of Oregon, with a focus on electoral politics. I wrote two papers chronicling the rise of the New Christian Right in Oregon while getting that degree back in 1981. I’d been a political activist mostly involved with the Democratic Party during the ‘80s and ‘90s, and was concerned about what I was seeing with these religious right-wing groups organizing at the grassroots level. I was seeing scary stuff in discarded Right-to-Life magazines that I picked up at a local community center while my son was taking preschool enrichment classes there.
I tried to tell people about my observations. I tried to write articles to encourage liberal and Democratic people to put similar efforts into organizing at the grassroots levels like our opponents were doing instead of focusing on national issues. We needed to work on hearts and minds and counter the rhetoric building up to authoritarian revolution.
It wasn’t happening.
I was scoffed at. Told to bolt to the Citizens Party.
In reaction, I turned to fiction and started building a world where things went terribly wrong in the 2020s. That became The Netwalk Sequence series, which I eventually self-published starting in 2010. It was set in the 2070s. But the events leading up to the events of the Sequence had its foundations on things falling apart for the United States in the ‘20s. The Sequence even chronicles some of those events—as written in my short stories Inconvenient Truths, Cold Dish, Lucifer Has Fallen, and others in The Netwalk Sequence. Hell, one of the subplots in Netwalk: Extended Edition deals with violent regime change.
Only one of those stories made it into traditional publication.
I did it in fantasy as well. The Goddess’s Honor series is chock-full of regime change, some of it violent. I don’t really deal with it in The Martiniere Legacy but revolution does lurk on the sidelines.
All the same, for the last five years I’ve been screaming THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE FICTION. THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A CAUTIONARY TALE, NOT FUCKING REALITY.
And I’m fucking sick of it. Even as I now listen to Evita.
Evita is one of my favorite movies. But make no mistake, Eva and Juan Peron were fucking Fascists. Populist Fascists, but Fascists nonetheless. Evita prettifies Fascist revolt. Sure, there’s a critique undercurrent, but how many people look past Madonna to take that critique to heart? How many really looked into what happened after Eva Peron’s death and Juan Peron’s continuing quest for dictatorship?
I delved into a big research hole about Eva Peron when I first started building The Netwalk Sequence in the 90s. I ended up veering from my original notions fairly quickly, but all the same, that foundation is there, along with my hopes and fears for the future.
So where do we go from here? Do we stop writing these stories?
The problem with no longer writing those stories is that those of us creatives who are mindful would be the first to stop. Meanwhile, those who thrive on churning out what is, basically, revolution pornography, won’t stop.
So where do we go from here?
Many of us are already doing what must be done. Instead of compressing revolutionary time, we remember that it took Hitler ten years to go from being jailed over an attempted putsch to becoming der Führer. We remember that the current political situation in the United States is part of a forty-year consistent organizational effort to impose a theocratic autocracy (even longer if one looks at the John Birch Society).
We do the responsible thing and show the hard work of revolution.
We show the aftermath. Sometimes that means the rebuilding of a successful society. Sometimes that means successive crashes and burns.
We show the personal cost of revolution. Lives destroyed. Health wrecked. PTSD. Financial, political, and personal losses.
We show the societal costs. Broken systems.
What we don’t do is engage in destruction porn. We don’t portray revolution as romantic and dwell lovingly on the fight sequences.
We show that revolution is hard, and that there is a cost to it.
That revolution does not automatically solve everything.
I’ll admit that I was quick to pull my books off the shelf at midnight on January 6th to leaf through them, worried about how I portrayed violent regime change, especially in The Netwalk Sequence. I don’t think I glamorized it but I’m not certain just how accurate my perceptions are. The Goddess’s Honor and The Martiniere Legacy books are pretty clear in my mind and again, I think I’m somewhat okay.
All the same, with this new set of books, I’m sure going to be thinking hard about the costs of violent regime change and whether I’m contributing to the glamorization of revolution. I’m going to try to be responsible.
But I’m also going to be very clear that we need to stop this romanticizing of revolution. Insurrection and violent regime change doesn’t happen without the spilling of blood—and very few of us in real life are unaffected by it should it happen during our lifetimes. I’m going to look for narratives that promote cooperation, collaboration, and peaceful solutions.
But perhaps it’s time to step away from adrenaline addiction. Promote the reality that lasting change comes from years of hard, difficult work instead of the barrel of a gun. Develop the awareness that while revolution may occasionally be necessary, it comes with a price and you had damned well better be ready to pay it before you start it.
Will those of you who are creatives be willing to join me?