Think The Hunger Games. Think Dune, or The Power, or Star Wars. Even The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. (Yes, really: its entire plot is the struggle to end the tyranny of White Witch Jadis.) Fantasy and science fiction writers seem obsessed with rebellions, resistance, and the overthrow of unjust world orders.
I’d argue revolution is in the very DNA of speculative writing, just as murder is for crime fiction, and love for romance writing. So why the love-affair between SFF and resistance? I’ve a few ideas:
Worldbuilding – We SFF writers love to create worlds. Everything from food, transport and etiquette, to systems of government and religion may be different, or tweaked. And a rebellion story is a great frame for showing off that canvas to its fullest extent.
Drama – Rebellions and revolt offer clashes on a scale from galactic (think the of solar-system-wide starship battles of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series) to the intimate (think of the unbearable personal betrayals and losses in, err, Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series. You see what I mean?) Whopping stories like George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones have multiple revolt and overthrow plots going on at once. It’s exciting and emotionally wrenching, and keeps the pages turning.
Ideas – Much of what we call fantasy or science fiction, is really only a twist away from our world. The Hunger Games pushed into a bleaker future, Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season books spring from an alternate past. In my books, I take one aspect of our society today – the presence of a super-rich elite – and use magic as an analogy for money and the power that comes with it. If you’re interested, as SFF writers are, in playing with ideas, then a rebellion framework lets you set competing values and realities up against each other. In the real world, the cards only fall one way. In speculative fiction, you can explore all the possible different directions society could have taken.
Contemporary urgency – For me, as both a writer and a reader, this is the biggie. It’s hardly the exclusive territory of SFF writing. Satire, or realist contemporary fiction can also offer searing critiques of the world we see around us. And few writers would say that their main goal is to pen a polemic. We want to tell stories. To breathe life into characters. But one of the reasons we read and write is to understand ourselves and the world better. And a speculative story, by ‘turning up the volume’ on one particular aspect of injustice, can land the point without (hopefully!) sounding preachy or simplistic.
My books sprang from my work as an investigative journalist and my personal experience as a working class single woman, trying to get by in a world where opportunity and advantage is entrenched in the hands of the few. Books I’ve admired recently include Naomi Alderman’s thought experiment on gender inequality, The Power. Louise O’Neill’s horrifying takedown of sexualisation, Only Ever Yours. And Tomi Adeyemi’s “Black Lives Matter fantasy”, Children of Blood and Bone.
Not only do SFF writers not look like they’ll give up writing about resistance any time soon, judging from the power of these women’s work, I hope they never will.
Vic James is the author of Gilded Cage (a 2018 World Book Night pick), Tarnished City, and Bright Ruin.