It's book publication day for M L Clark. What better time to talk about the humanist impulse to write bleak fiction?
My heart is a touch heavy this birthday of mine. Don’t get me wrong: all birthdays are fantastic, so long as you’re on the right side of the green. (And even if I weren’t, I wouldn’t be in any position to complain, now would I?) Moreover, I’m publishing my first novel today, which is a terrifically motivating start to the new year. It’s my way of setting clear goals for myself, for a year in which I plan to indie-publish six books in total, including a Colombian novel in translation, three novels of my own, a collection of short stories, and a second edition of my first work of translation (i.e., with revamped secondary materials), while continuing to pitch to traditional venues, too.
(It’s a wild world in the arts these days. The depreciated value of digital media has had cascading impacts for quite a few of us white-collar freelance hustlers.)
So why the heavy heart?
Simple: because although I wrote today’s book well before February 24, 2022, I’m not happy that so much of its subject matter resonates with facets of Russia’s war in Ukraine. It doesn’t fill me with any joy to see history repeat itself in so cruel a fashion.
When I first finished the piece, a speculative alt-history written in a style strongly informed by Soviet-era writing, I was worried that my depiction of life in 1920s to 1940s USSR would be too harsh, too much from another time and place for the agents I was pitching for representation. (And that was probably true! I got a nibble from the first agent I queried, then a pass, then silence from all but one who told me that, while well-written, the book’s themes were too heavy for her. I moved on to writing another book instead.)
But this past year, as proof of Russia’s war crimes (on top of the crime of war itself) circled the globe in record time due to the mixed gift of modern news networks, and as everyday people found themselves on a complex spectrum of response to related suffering, I was affirmed in the worst possible way. The grim realities reflected in Then Raise the Dead Man High are not just artifacts from our past. They are ongoing parts of the human experience. And they are part of our struggle to find more humanist pathways through it.
I chose to publish this book myself, when traditional presses didn’t want it, because I believe in the humanist message it contains, and the human struggle it depicts to get us there.
But I also understand why many would prefer not to dwell on the worst side of human nature: all the individual weaknesses, and all the petty personal transgressions, that exist alongside so many structural injustices that shape our societies, as they do our lives.
Why not lean into our strengths as a species? Why not simply model ideal worlds instead?
The humanist test in our bleakest hours
It’s a fascinating question, because many writers love dystopian fiction. And yet dystopia, especially as Western science fiction and fantasy (SFF) depicts it, can often be a form of escape. Mere backdrop, or set piece. A way of clearing the stage of noisy, full humanity to restore agency to a chosen few, or to provide convenient excuse for characters to behave in ways not currently sanctioned. Just because a book or film is set in a world where most of the species has been wiped out by plague or climate calamity doesn’t mean the author is interested in grappling with all the serious questions posed by actual dystopian conditions.
I’ve taken to calling this The Hunger Games phenomenon, after a friend told me about his painful high school experience of being dragged to a birthday screening when he had family living in an actively war-torn country. and had lost much of his hometown to bombing: his elementary school turned to rubble of the sort depicted on screen. He’d told me that he didn’t often feel different from others in his class, but that he definitely did that day, when first realizing that the trauma of war and state oppression, the likes of which had shaped his family’s destiny, was but an imaginative playground for so many of his friends. A thrilling shiver-ride of a “what if?” in which these comfortably removed Canadians could readily align themselves with a clear hero, against a clear villain, with so very little in the way of real life’s messily human grays factored in.
I don’t write dystopian fiction of that type. When I want to grapple with how humanism can persist in the fullness of our hurting world, I write bleakly. There is an important difference.
Perhaps one of the most famous works of bleak fiction is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s post-apocalyptic, but also not that tonally different from All the Pretty Horses, which is set in the “real” mid-20th century. Both books invoke wonder at the tenderness possible in a world of so many added cruelties: in The Road, from how familial love can abide, even as climate disaster drives some humans to cannibalism; in All the Pretty Horses, from how romantic love exists, though prejudice invites some humans to make blood sport of others.
(Funnily enough, too, The Road is far more optimistic in its ending. But I won’t spoil either.)
In an essay elsewhere, “On the Uses and Abuses of History in Literature”, I draw on the medievalist Umberto Eco to talk about how we use history to tell stories about present-day concerns. But tone, and where we choose to pay attention, matters too. Writing bleak worlds just to revel in human cruelty only offers fetishistic delight in the horrors we visit upon one another. Nothing is gained in the way of humanist insight from such work. But writing bleak fiction to highlight the complexity, the nuance, and the sheer range of human behavior?
That’s where we can start to understand what has brought us, and what keeps us, in less-than ideal worlds today. That’s where we can look unflinchingly at the messiness of human striving and, from our inevitably imperfect subject positions, begin to imagine a better way forward—if not ever really “out”.
What about utopias? Why not write win conditions?
A splendid counterargument, of course, is that we’ll never get to where we’re going if we don’t imagine better worlds nearer to their final form. So why not do that instead? Why not write more stories set in the lands we want our own to become?
Some writers do that brilliantly. My personal favorite, in the contemporary SFF universe, is Becky Chambers. Her Wayfarers series cracked the curmudgeonly crust of my heart wide open with its approach to speculative xeno-anthropology: a warmhearted exploration not only of different possible societal arrangements for other species, but also of how humans might coexist in a cosmos with many different moral peaks.
And yet, I found Chambers’ latest series, Monk & Robot, both well-written and a perfect reminder of the dangers of utopia. I burned through A Psalm for the Wild-Built, wherein a tea monk in a post-scarcity world meets with a robot who’s just dropping by to check in on humanity. It really is a lovely tale, absent traditional antagonists and with lots of deep thoughts about how we find purpose and shape value. But after the initial glow of reading it, and of being affirmed by its great sentiments, I was left cold. Very, very cold.
I wondered why, so I went back to the book blurb. “Chambers’ series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?”
Right. I’d been reading a story based on a fantasy premise.
And yet, not exactly fantasy, because many aspects of Chambers’ utopia in Monk & Robot echo her real-world surroundings: namely, a relatively comfortable upbringing and living context. (I’m keeping this purposefully vague because the specifics aren’t the point.) This is why even well-written utopia is risky: because everything we write is still informed by the real world (e.g., consider how the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation conveniently had the same cultural touchstones as middle-class white America), and if we don’t reckon with that fact, we can easily airbrush out details critical to the shape of our supposed bliss.
In this case, those details include the pressing fact that the real world informing Monk & Robot‘s approach to utopia is still built on huge disparities. In our world, the answer to “how do we find purpose when everyone (we know) already has everything they need” is “we turn our attention to lengthening that table of plenty”.
But to do so means bringing in what lies outside the gates of utopia.
If not also interrogating the foundations on which utopia exists at all.
And that brings us back to the need to look unflinchingly (if also with great humanist care) at the bleaker parts of our human condition.
Reading what we love, and creating it too
I love literature. I love reading it, I love reviewing it, I love wrestling fearlessly with the good, the bad, and the ugly in it. I love how many human beings get to spend part of their time alive creating whole worlds for others to enjoy, and I’m deeply grateful that I’ve been able to spend so much of my time alive doing likewise. What a gift to create most anything, in a world where so many people are consigned to spending most of their precious time on subsistence-level tasks. Where talents equal to if not greater than all the wonderful authors named above routinely go unknown and underdeveloped for want of similar access.
Which is why, even though bleak fiction often feels right for me—and why it absolutely felt like the right choice with Then Raise the Dead Man High—my heart is still heavy today, as I celebrate an incredibly low-key indie book launch for my birthday.
Because while I had the opportunity to write and share a whole other way of looking at our world, through a bleakly humanist rethink on some of the worst 20th-century history, contemporary horrors persist. Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the ever-mounting reckoning needed for all the unnecessary trauma it’s inflicted on so many lives, presses on.
The speculative conceit of Then Raise the Dead Man High is this:
Three days. Three decades. Three connected lives.
In a world where the voices of the dead echo among us, a student, an officer, and a prisoner in the USSR struggle with a discovery that will expand state tyranny.
Can any of them overcome their own terror, shame, and misery long enough to free the world?
The question I was really asking—the question I find myself asking again today—is whether any of us, living in such states of petty political drama and local complicity in global injustice, can ever hope to do the same.
And that’s a question I haven’t answered yet. But goodness, will I ever try.
Whatever books you read this year (and films you watch, and music you listen to): may they sing key aspects of our humanity back to you in the ways that you love best—and may they fortify you for even the bleakest of our humanist work ahead.
Then Raise the Dead Many High is now available on Amazon in eBook and paperback. Supporting the work can take the form of asking your library to buy a copy, mentioning its existence to others, and leaving a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads if you read it. (An honest one, mind you; I don’t think folks believe me when I say that I prefer sincere lower-star reviews to false shows of five-star love for content one didn’t enjoy. But I do!)
Not your cuppa? Feel free to let me know what kind of SFF you enjoy, and if something from 2022 or an anticipated 2023 read comes to mind, I’ll be sure to pass on the rec!