Stories in the Worst of Times

On Friday at 7PM, the Apocalypse Rising track assembled a panel on the Fan Track streaming channel called Dystopias: Writing an Imperfect World.” Moderated by Steve Denham, the group included Marina Fontaine, Faith Hunter, and Tao Wong.   

Denham opened the discussion by asking what draws the authors to dystopian settings. Hunter likes the problem-solving aspect of dystopian stories. She sees humans, especially writers, as prone to solving problems, which means they look at social patterns and see where things can so easily go wrong. Solving the problems offers hope that allows the reader to expect something positive.  

Wong likes to examine how and why societies go off the rails and to look at ways to fix them and ways for individuals to handle doing so. He believes dystopian stories also lead readers to examine themselves, asking, Would I help or walk away?”  

Fontaine sees dystopian stories as cautionary tales but said it’s not enough to examine what goes wrong. Readers want to be told things will be okay, needing a thread of hope and walking toward the light, making the right choices. She contrasted dystopian tales with horror in which one survives or none.” To her, Ayn Rand’s Anthem is more hopeful than Orwell’s all is lost” 1984. 

Denham asked the panelists what sets their works apart from other dystopian works. Wong responded that he uses the same systems as in our world, but with monsters around and electricity not working. His characters are stuck in the Yukon and must figure out how to survive and grow there. What is this system, and how did this happen?” 

Fontaine bases her books on real experiences, with relationships made or not made based on who one can trust. She sets her books in the United States two generations in the future and tries not to have over-the-top villains. A couple of wrong choices, she noted, can lead to disaster, and her stories look at what it takes to rise above that. 

Hunter described her Rogue Mage series as X-Men meets Left Behind without God.” Demons and angels come back to Earth and wage a huge war. Now they’re both stuck here. Children can use leftover creation magic or energy, and mages are imprisoned. Angels sell magic. Her main character is allergic to others of her kind and can hear all their thoughts. Smuggled out to the human world, she hides there and has had to adapt who she is to survive. 

When Denham asked what inspired the directions the authors took, Fontaine said her book began as a flash fiction piece. After she finished, she found herself wanting to know more. 

Wong noted that he reads post apocalyptic LitRPG, which he also writes. Such works often involve the complete breakdown of society, with people attacking each other. In reality, however, people often band together, and he wanted to stay with that idea of mutual support. 

Hunter indicated that she started out writing mysteries and drew on her experience in medical laboratory work. She likes the problem-solving and resolution in mysteries and the aspects of social versus antisocial choices, which she applies on an international scale. 

Asked whether they planned to continue in these directions, the authors mostly reported being at or near the end of these series. Fontaine said her story is complete in the two novels, though she may write some short stories in that world. Hunter described her Rogue Mage series as finished. The planned fourth book didn’t happen, and a collection of short stories concluded it in her mind. She is about to wrap up her Jane Yellowrock series but has another book coming in her Soulwood series and has agreed to write some novellas. Wong is working on the last book of his System Apocalypse series, which is mostly LitRPG but does cross genres.  

The authors also discussed whether they draw ideas from the real world. Hunter responded that her medical background has made her aware of how mutable viruses are, so she has always been prepared for a situation like the current one. She sees the events of 9/11 as making people aware of possible viral and dirty bomb threats, which we aren’t equipped to handle. For Wong, current events are too close to write about. He would rather have look back on them at some future time. Fontaine wants to start something lighthearted. No one talks about toilet paper, she noted, but it became the big freakout” when the pandemic began. We can do better than hoarding.” She writes dystopia to make people think about who they would be in that society.  

Denham asked the authors what they read. Fontaine said she has lately been reading shorter novels. She loves epic fantasy, but has just wanted action-adventure for the past year. She likes Declan Finn’s supernatural cop series. Wong cited Jace Kang’s Quantum Cultivation, a mixture of Science Fiction and Asian fantasy, and Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries science fiction series. Hunter recommended J.D. Robb’s near-future science fiction-mystery series featuring Detective Eve Dallas. 

The panel wrapped up with the authors discussing forthcoming work. Wong will soon release the last volume of his System Apocalypse series. Fontaine reports nothing coming soon, as her books were just recently republished. Hunter recently released Junkyard Bargain in her Junkyard Cats series and has a Jane Yellowrock book, True Dead, coming later this year. 

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.