The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

The World We Write About


My colleague Fonda Lee (author of Zero Boxer and Jade City, which I recommend) brought up the question on twitter of feeling conflicted about dealing with book release issues (readings, signings, &c) when, well, the world is going to Hell.  I mean, you hear about another mass shooting, and then you’re expected to go to a bookstore and talk about your fantasy novel? How can that not be weird and uncomfortable?  The thread is worth reading, if you’re interested

She got some excellent answers from various people that I can’t improve on, but it set me off in a different direction.

I’m going to repeat something I said a few years ago, in a comment on the World Socialist Web Site:  “No matter how much one tells stories of magical beasts or impossible worlds, in the end, it is always the world of here and now one is writing about. The better one understands that world, the more powerful the stories will be.”

I still agree with this, and, in fact, as the pressure-cooker of our society intensifies, I think it becomes more true. One might, of course, “inject” political and world views into one’s fiction, but that almost invariably comes across as clumsy, artificial, and gratingly didactic. The point I want to stress is that these stories we tell, whether we want them to or not, are powerfully influenced by our experience and our interpretations of that experience, and that means by the society in which we live our day-to-day lives. To be sure, the influence is often disguised and can appear in contradictory ways: sometimes an outraged rebellion against the status quo can turn out deeply normative; sometimes the cry for a return to an imaginary simpler time, reactionary in feel, can be subversive or even revolutionary in essence.

We, as writers, are observers who turn those observations from vague feelings into precise words, which, in turn, form images and make connections to the experience of the reader.  I know some writers who can capture taste, smell, touch, and express them in words that make me cry. I know some writers who observe and describe individual human interactions in a way that permits me to see many of my past experiences in a new light. Others are skilled at noticing, deducing, and illuminating the motives behind seemingly inexplicable actions.  Other are able to reveal and explain hidden social contradictions.  And so on.  And all the while they delight us with the thrills and fights and narrow escapes and wit and striking phrases for which we read adventure fiction.

What I’m getting at is this: The things that infuriate, sadden, or terrify us in our world are already there in our work. The degree to which we wish to bring them to the surface is up to us, but they are there whether we are consciously aware of them or not. When, as we write, we remind ourselves not to cheat, what we are really reminding ourselves of is that our job is to tell the truth, and the more we manage to do that the more successful (and moving) is the story.  And when we go into a bookstore to do a reading of our tale of elves and dragons and unicorns three hours after a mass shooting or Trump’s latest threat of nuclear war, it will feel strange and uncomfortable, and to some degree it should—being aware of that contradiction simply means one is a decent human being.  But it is worth remembering that our stories do not come out of nowhere, that the same world that has produced these horrors, has also produced our story, and that, dialectically, our story can have an effect on that world.


Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. Thank you. There is more that I want to say, of course. But that is the most important part. –Angela

  2. I’m glad you wrote this. A lot of people feel like their interests and passions are superfluous in a world like ours.

  3. “I know some writers who observe and describe individual human interactions in a way that permits me to see many of my past experiences in a new light. ”

    Many of the interactions that take place in your books have permitted me to view things in my own life from a different perspective. Thank you for that. And subsequent readings years (decades in some cases) later offer an entirely different view.

    My son asked me the other day why I like reading fantasy and sci-fi. I told him that I actually read authors that I like because of the stories they tell and the characters in them and how they relate to the world they are in. I like books (series) that describe the development of characters and how they overcome (or fail) the obstacles in front of them. You can learn a lot from a good author who writes well about human interactions. I just happen to like alternative worlds.

    And yes, I can taste those red mushrooms on the back of my tongue… 😉

  4. Your last sentence is why I want to be a writer. Part of me would like to print it out and hang it over my desk, and part of me fears doing so would seem naively pretentious until others have actually read words I’ve written.

  5. skzb

    Argentum: Up to you, of course, but I’d be flattered.

  6. I read sci fi/fantasy almost exclusively. I love escaping to a place where no one has been and thinking about how the issues we all face would play out there. Good can win! In this world, all too often, it seems good will never win. It also de-politicizes issues. If I can explore a world where there is not gender bias, for example, it could totally change my thinking about gender without the additional worry of political alignment getting in the way. It offers a safe space to explore ideas that make us better or worse, and then take a stand in the real world. For me, as a person with a lot of empathy for others, it also doesn’t pack the same punch as a real world example. If you were not moved by the destruction of the giants in the Thomas Covenant books, you have no heart. (I sobbed!) However, compared to reading about the destruction of the Jews or any earthly genocide, it is not nearly as hard. I read before I go to sleep at night to help me escape from the thoughts in my brain about my life – even just the grocery list type thoughts – and fall peacefully asleep. Fantasy novels have truly been a gift in my life.

  7. I should certainly add a thank you to skzb. The added pleasure of the Magyar pronunciations is also a delight! I so wish my grandmother had chosen to pass down her heritage but she believed you should embrace your new country and let go of the old. Hungary was not kind to her. I respect her choice, but I also lament it just a little.

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