Friday, September 30, 2011

Horror at the Core of the Human Soul

October is upon us, which means we're staring down a full month of horror.  Great thing for us horror aficionados.  Ah, horror!  How you make my heart thud unnecessarily fast when I'm watching a movie or reading a book.  I know I'm personally not in danger, but that doesn't make me less squeamish or jumpy at all the right parts.

Amnityville, © Doug Kerr

But aside from the obvious - gore and blood and sudden violence - we think of when we're reminded of the genre, I'd like to delve into horrors of a different kind.  Those that really make you feel it in your gut, sometimes long after the fact.  And sometimes it even takes a while before the real horror of what you saw or read really sinks in.  That's the best kind of horror to me.

Right now, I'm reading HORNS, by Joe Hill, which is a great way to break in the month of October.  It's a fantastically disturbing horror novel, very well written, and in fact one of the best I've read in a long time.  But the disturbing parts aren't shock horror.  No, they're the inner workings of the minds of supporting characters, and they're disturbing because reading it, you feel it hits way too close to home for comfort.  After all, it would be more than a little shocking to discover what people actually thought about you, especially people you loved and trusted.  Downright awful when you find out just how little they think of you.

HORNS, © Joe Hill, used by permission.

I think most people would jump at the chance to be able to catch a glimpse of the minds of those around them, to see what they're really thinking about us no matter what they say.  But for every awesome thought we discover someone has about us, I'm afraid we'd find several hurtful and hate-filled ones.  Now maybe I'm just too much of a cynic, but humankind's seeming inability to keep their inner monologue of snark, angst, and downright nastiness from surfacing everywhere from real life to social media makes me think I'm not that far from the mark.  The novelty would soon wear off into the horror of what you've seen and the dread of what you know is still to come.

I've always enjoyed psychological horror over any other type.  When you get right down to it, it's much scarier than anything physical.  But to get it to really sink in, sometimes you gotta look it in the eye a little longer, stare it down and really let it get to you.  Let it affect you how it wants, not how you let it affect you.  Sometimes it takes you places you don't want to go, places you didn't know even existed within the human soul.

Isn't that what defines horror, after all?  Isn't it simply that which unpleasantly jolts the human psyche?  Blood and gore scratch the surface with a physical reaction, but psychological horror jolts the human soul.  It's easy to imagine a long list of that which horrifies us the most, but I'm betting at the top of that list are things that bare your soul to the public eye, that which lays back all the layers of protection and pares away the falsely modest confessions and admissions and really digs to the heart of the matter.  If there were no governor on the mechanism that allows us to open our souls to others, this world would be a dark place indeed.

The Death Penalty, ©

It won't be completely bad, however.  That's where hope comes in.  Like Pandora's box, all things bad are countered by one small thing - hope.  You hope you're right.  You hope things will turn out alright.  You hope you haven't gone too far to take it all back.  Sometimes you have, but regardless of the depth of the situation, there's always hope.  Take away that and your recipe for true horror is complete.

Friday, September 23, 2011

High Fantasy!

It's still one of the most popular story forms in the fantasy genre, and probably the most well known of any.  When one hears "fantasy" with regards to fiction, thoughts of castles, wizards, great warriors, elven forests and dwarven mines immediately come to mind.  One almost can't think of such fiction without immediate comparisons to the Lord of the Rings, either movies or books.

And why not?  J.R.R. Tolkien completely reinvented the genre with the book The Hobbit, forever changing the lives of generations of fantasy nerds, including you and me.  His writing led directly to a resurgence of the genre.  He's the ultimate authority on all things high fantasy.  He's been copied and mimicked by countless authors, from the most amateur writers of fan fiction to renowned bestselling authors.  He's influenced them all, and with good reason.

In Hobbiton, © Tara Hunt

But what made him successful in the first place?  What made his works break out with such distinction?  He certainly wasn't the first to write novels in the genre.  We have numerous examples of castles and knights throughout medieval history.  Countless tales of dragons and assorted monsters have survived from the earliest works of history, including Beowulf and even the Bible.  Rumors of those able to perform magic, witchery, sorcery or any other "dark arts" are equally as old.

Angry Dragon, © Jonathan Dalar

I think it's hard to say just what made Tolkien's works so great, except for the fact that everything was right.  The characters were varied, interesting, and believable.  The setting was wonderful, from the green, rolling hills of the Shire to the eerie muck of the Mordor swamps.  His childhood, schooling, and service in World War I certainly contributed to his writing.  He was first and foremost a linguist, which would have immensely broadened his writing palate.  And he published in a time when the world seemed desperate to escape into an alternate world of fantasy.

Since then, much of the fantasy published has been derivative, at least in some form or another.  And that's alright.  It helps define the genre and give it boundaries.  After all, what is high fantasy without those elves, dwarfs, goblins, and orcs?

Bamburgh Castle, © Nigel Chadwick

We need certain elements to remain in fantasy, but what helped Tolkien's works stand out and endure was his creativity and imagination.  He went beyond what was established in fantasy at that time and made his own boundaries.  His creativity went beyond his peers and into new territory.

Wulfgar, Celtic Warrior © Jonathan Dalar

And that's what we need to see in fantasy today.  We need it to blend with other genres, creating a variety of new sub-genres.  We need authors to break the established molds and let their imagination separate from that which they grew up reading and spread into new territory.

We need heroes to fight dragons, but we also need them to fight other, as yet unnamed monstrosities.  We need fresh voices to spark new interest further into the unknown, as the early pioneers Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, William Morris and others did.

We've gotten that to some extent already.  J.K. Rowling did exactly that for young adult fantasy, blending the mundane world with the wonders of Hogwarts.  And even if some of us older and more cynical readers aren't completely enamored with her stories of a twelve year old boy's discovering his magic wand, we have to admit it was just the boost of energy the genre needed.

Jacobite Steam Train over the 21 Arch Viaduct near Glenfinnan, © Paul Ashwin

It isn't exactly high fantasy, but it's soundly within the fantasy genre.  And it works.  Rowling pushed the boundaries by not only creating an epic fantasy story appealing to generations, but also ventured into new territory in doing so.  Before, we had stories told of alternate fantasy worlds such as Tolkien's, David Eddings and others.  We had stories with portals that took us from our world into an alternate time or reality, such as in some of the works by Stephen R. Donaldson.  And now we have the world of Hogwarts, that blends and blurs the realities of the magical realm with our own.

It seems we see literary agents, editors and publishers clamoring on almost a daily basis for "the next Harry Potter".  Everyone is looking for the next big break-out in fantasy, particularly young adult fantasy.  It's a hot ticket at the moment, and rightly so.  After all, Harry Potter made a lot of people a whole lot of money.

It's only a matter of time.  It's probably out there already, being typed out on a laptop somewhere between college classes, or in stolen moments when the kids are asleep and the spouse is watching prime time television.  Maybe it's yours.  I'd say it's mine, but only if we were talking about science fiction.  Regardless, when we find it, the genre will be a little better for it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

To the Stars Again

Space has always been fascinating to us.  Long before technology allowed us to venture beyond the atmosphere, we've been fascinated with celestial objects.  Ancient cultures made gods out of them.  We've sacrificed our fellow humans to them.  They've affected daily life in numerous ways, from art to superstition to navigation to who knows what else.

I opined recently in a post on Curiosity Quills whether the decline in our space program would significantly alter the type of speculative fiction our children would read from that which we read.  I wondered whether the focus would shift from science fiction about outer space to more virtual reality, cyberspace-oriented science fiction.  It seems plausible, considering the end of the Space Shuttle program and the costs and logistics of a successful mission so a place even as relatively close as Mars.

But I wonder if I may have been a little premature in my pondering.  I've seen a number of interesting scientific discoveries lately that make me consider another alternative, and that is, we won't have to go out into space to continue our fascination with it.  Bringing it home via magnificent telescopes, video recording systems, and digital recreations of what only mathematics sees in space might just be the catalyst.

Hubble Catches Jupiter's Largest Moon Going to the 'Dark Side', © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Consider the new planet made of diamond that was recently discovered.  Or the Tatooine-like planet that revolves around two suns.  Or the fact the planet Pluto may have oceans hidden beneath it's surface.  All three of these discoveries have been in the news within the last month or so, and all are exciting new developments in space research.  Maybe we'll end up designating poor Pluto as a planet once again.

Crab Nebula, © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Technology grows in leaps and bounds, and that includes the tech that allows us to expand our reach into space without ever leaving the ground.  We're seeing more and more beautiful photos like these from NASA, allowing us the unique experience of space at a distance.

Hubble Finds Carbon Dioxide on an Extrasolar Planet, © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

And while it would be überawesome to be an astronaut, and who hasn't dreamed of that as a child, the odds of a kid actually growing up to be an astronaut are well, astronomical.  Precious few actually get the chance to go up in space, unless of course you have large amounts of cash lying around without purpose and want to do it as a tourist.  That's where programs and projects like the Hubble come into play.  They allow that exploration without the travel.  They allow kids who won't have that chance to be actively engaged with the science of space exploration and research.

Hubble Supernova Bubble Resembles Holiday Ornament, © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

We can see worlds far beyond our own, and even speculate whether they have life on them or even contain livable environments.  We might even be able to detect life on even the remotest of them someday soon.  That's a lot, considering we're looking at objects fifty kajillion light years away from being seen with the naked eye.

We're a curious species, and whether or not we continue or discontinue a program, our curiosity won't be easily sated.  We'll continue to wonder what's out there beyond the boundaries of our vision, and we'll continue to reach out to find it.

Dying Star Shrouded by a Blanket of Hailstones Forms the Bug Nebula, © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

So who knows, maybe I speculated wrong in my earlier post.  In fact, I'm sure I did.  Not because the premise was necessarily wrong, but because I didn't take into consideration the other aspects of technology we are developing.  And while we will continue to break down the barriers of the cyberspace frontier, it won't come at the expense of abandoning outer space.

Most Earthlike Exoplanet Started out as Gas Giant, © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

We may be decades or even a century or more from actual space travel to another celestial body besides the moon.  We may never get there as humans, but we aren't going to remain that stationary with the technology that allows us to view it from where we are.  And that's what's going to further drive space age science and the speculative fiction that derives from it.  As more and more of these exciting discoveries are made, our imaginations will remain fueled with thoughts of what's even further out.

Our kids may well see the same space-inspired fiction we grew up reading and watching, but because of the remote technology that allows us to see it from a distance, instead of manned space vehicles exploring the visible space around us.  Rather than shifting focus, this type of fiction will expand its focus.  We've already seen several new sub-genres appear in the last several decades or so, and we'll continue to see more.  Our kids won't abandon the types of speculative fiction we grew up with, they'll just add more to the mix, and that's a great thing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Psychic and other Paranormal Phenomena

There have been huge numbers of psychic phenomena tallied throughout history.  Some are obvious fakes; some not so easy to disprove.  Of course, while predictions can be exposed as fakes by not coming true, it's a little more problematic if not impossible to prove them.  How many times does a prognosticator have to be right before it can reasonably be said they're actually foretelling the future?  What margin of error is acceptable?  I don't think anyone can even quantify this sort of thing, which is why we're no closer to understanding psychics and seers than we ever have been.

Nostradamus Statue, © Babak Farrokhi

Nostradamus (Michel de Nostredame, born either 14 or 21 December, 1503, died 2 July, 1566) was one of the first, and certainly more well known, prognosticators of the future.  He's been credited with predicting numerous events including the Great Fire of London, the political rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, both world wars, the Apollo moon landings, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and even the terror attacks of 9/11.

However, most academics say the majority of these prognostications of world events are the result of misinterpretations or sometimes deliberately inaccurate translations.  Many times the link between the events and the predictions is so weak, they hardly offer any proof of prognostication.  So, in spite of the cult status he's attained for predicting the future, we're still a long way from proving even the most famous seer ever had the ability.

Psychic Readings, © Adam Currell

Still, there is no lack of faith in the ability, or people who claim they have the ability.  Psychics are everywhere, and anecdotal experiences offering "proof" abound.  Much if this is fraud, or illogical leaps of faith due to cognitive bias.  Many times we as humans misinterpret correlation, and assign relationships based on what we want to believe instead of looking at things from a strictly objective standpoint.

Shadow Man Walking, © I K O via Flickr

Parapsychology research in some form or another has been around since 1889.  The term is used to include telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation, and apparitional experiences.

Fear, © I K O via Flickr

So what's my take on this?  Well, like many things, I'm decidedly undecided.  Neutral, one might say.  I think there may definitely be something to paranormal activity.  I say that with an ace card in the hole, as you'll see in an upcoming post.  We haven't produced any factual evidence proving any of it, however, which tempers my beliefs, but overall, I'd say there's at least something there.

I do know someone who seems to have some sort of precognitive aptitude.  She has correctly called a large, game changing play while watching football, whether from true ability or luck, who knows.  She's also been right on numerous other predictions, from the commonplace to downright astounding.  These, however, aren't what makes her predictions interesting.

They become a lot more interesting when observing her behavior before some of the more tragic, large-scale natural disasters we've seen in the world.  A number of times I've seen her jittery and worried, saying that something is terribly wrong, only to see a major earthquake or other natural disaster strike within days, or even the same day.  One of those times was Christmas Day, 2004.  She was horribly edgy, and said several times throughout the day that something was very wrong.  She paced the floor, irritable and worried the whole day, in spite of the fact it was Christmas.  "Something terrible is going to happen," she told me.  "I know it."  The next day we watched as tsunamis from an earthquake in the Indian Ocean crashed ashore, killing more than 230,000 people in fourteen countries.

Coincidence?  Quite possible.  It can't be proved, but on the other hand, it's certainly intriguing enough to make one pause for thought.  I'll share my own eerie experiences sometime in the future here, one of which is almost impossible for those involved to brush off as simply coincidence.  Stay tuned.  It's a wild one.

Until then, I'll leave it to you.  Any believers out there?  Any complete skeptics?  Let me know what you think.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Darker Side of Speculative Fiction

Horror.  We love it, but oftentimes don't really know why.  It's been suggested before that it really isn't a genre of fiction.  In fact, Douglas E. Winters said exactly that in the introduction of the horror anthology Prime Evil, - "Horror is not a genre...horror is an emotion."  He's right, to a point.  Until Stephen King took it to completely new heights, horror wasn't marketed as such for readers.  It was just literature.

But I think now it's become as much a genre as any of them, and that includes a lot of other genres that haven't been around long either.  Genres are changing.  They have a place, and that is to tell us as readers what kind of story to expect when we read it.  They'll only get more diverse, and that's good for literature.

Scraesdon Fort © Bill Booth, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License

Good horror often has the fear of the unknown.  Much of what scares us is simply something banal which we do not fully understand.  Looking at a deep, dark set of steps leading down into nothingness sets our imagination on fire, especially if it's in the context of horror.  There's no telling if the stairs lead down to things that go bump in the night, or just a bare room full of cobwebs.

Spooky in Broad Daylight © Jonathan Billinger, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License

A graveyard is not nearly as unnerving in the daylight, when we know the histories of those entered.  It's a place of history, of silence and solitude.  Of loss and reflection.  Sadness is not the same as horror.  Not by a long shot.

Logie Kirk © Marc Curran, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License

But add a touch of the unknown, and the possibility of danger and things unnatural, and it becomes an unnerving place.  Make those things a probability, or even an eventuality, and it becomes terrifying.  In fact, it becomes so much so, it has been a staple feature in horror film and literature since horror was first written.

Even a touch of fog changes an old graveyard into something straight out of a horror film.  Just imagine walking through there at night, with nightingales and hoot owls calling in the surrounding trees, and maybe a dog or two snuffling around in the brush, just out of sight.  All harmless creatures, but one certainly wouldn't be assuming they were harmless in such a scenario.

Part of that fear of the unknown includes the supernatural.  Our minds make it morph into something dangerous, deadly.  Even if we've never actually seen ghosts, devils, demons, ghouls, zombies or any other supernatural creature, and even if we truly don't believe they exist, they'll scare the bejesus out of us with the right setting and plot.

West Cemetery Chapel © Hugh Mortimer, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License

Horror affects us based on what we let our minds get away with.  There's nothing in a book or movie, in spite of what we've been told by writers of the genre, that will hurt us.  We can sit down and read the words of a horror novel off the page as easily as those from any other genre.  Nothing inherent in the movie itself will hurt us watching it in the movies or on our television screens, but we sure jump at the parts the director wants us to.

The topic is certainly worthy of discussion, and is actually one that will be addressed in the new horror exhibit at Seattle's Science Fiction Museum beginning October 2011.  They'll take a look at some of the psychological aspects of horror, according to EMP's Senior Curator, Jacob McMurray, and "why we as a culture are drawn to these macabre narratives, and how fear and horror are a vital component to our human identity."  I'll be visiting that exhibit sometime before the end of the year, and will report back my experiences there, so stay tuned for that.

I have a buddy who says he doesn't like horror at all.  "Not a bit!" he proclaims.  "I hate the way it messes with your mind."  Actually that last part is a G-rated paraphrase of what he said, but the point is the same.  Now he's read several of my horror stories and loved them.  Couldn't put them down.  In fact, I got an awesomely nasty voice mail message one day telling me he hadn't been able to put my novel down until he finished it at three o'clock in the morning, when he had to get up and go to work at six.  Nice.

© Jonathan Dalar

One has to ask, why, besides the fact that he was a very good friend, would he finish a book in a genre he doesn't like?  Or more precisely, why couldn't he put the book down and finish it at a more reasonable hour?  My first reaction was that it was a damn good book.  I'd like to think so anyway.  I'd like to think it was all my writing.  I'd love to believe it was written so well, so gripping, that it's almost impossible for the majority of readers to put down.  And I wish I'd kept that message!

But in spite of my devoted interest to fantasy and things that don't really exist, I'm a realist.  I understand the psychological aspects of it, and I think the horror itself was what contributed largely to his sleepless night with the book.  I think it's personal, and the reason he couldn't put it down lies in the genre.

Horror is an emotion, and it drags us in a little closer than some of the other genres do.  It's more invasive.  It gets all familiar and moves into our head.  How many times have you woken in a cold sweat from reading romance or mystery, after all?  I didn't think so.

From the time we're very small, we're on regular speaking terms with horror.  It's the thing that goes bump in the night.  It's waiting for us under the bed, after our mommy tucks us in.  It lurks just around the corner, waiting for us to drop our guard just a little bit.  It's the embodiment of all the bad that could be, and all that might be.  It calls on our deepest emotions and provokes that instant and primal fight or flight instinct that lies within us.

And it's also a rush of adrenaline and endorphins - our body's own morphine-like substances which dull our pain and make us feel good.  These are the same chemicals we produce during exercise, excitement, love and even orgasm.  It's no wonder we're somewhat attracted to horror, even if we profess we don't like it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Movie Review: Heavy Metal

I think I was hooked on this movie before the opening credits even finished rolling up the screen.  I mean, how much cooler can you get than a 1960's Corvette used as a space ship, set to a rock n' roll soundtrack?  They really don't make 'em like that anymore.  I saw it for the first time on a bootlegged VHS tape in the early to mid-eighties over at a buddy's place.

It's very crudely drawn, campy at times, and is straight out of the 1980's no mistake there.  In spite of this, it often hearkens back to an age of film making even older than itself.  Some of the lines, especially in the New York sequence, sound like they're straight out of an old black and white 1940's film with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.  That's where the similarities stop.  Other than the spoken lines, it's nothing like the old ones.  It is decidedly a trip back down 80's memory lane, though, that is for sure.

One of the greatest aspects of the movie is of course the soundtrack.  It's a compilation of some of the greatest classic rock n' roll artists all packed into a science fiction production.  To refresh your memory, should you have forgotten:

Black Sabbath
Blue Oyster Cult
Cheap Trick
Donald Fagen
Grand Funk Railroad
Sammy Hagar
Stevie Nicks

Yep, that's some rock n' roll awesomeness right there, and I dare you to find an all around better soundtrack out there.  There may be one, but that's a pretty high bar to reach.

Before I get started, let me make a disclaimer.  The movie's rated 'R'.  Probably only barely, too.  It has a ton of nudity, violence and coarse language throughout.  Animated or not, it's not one for the kiddies.  Yet.  They'll watch it someday, I'm sure, whether you forbid them or not.  It's a cult classic, and a really great science fiction flick, even up against all the modern, special effects-heavy movies being produced now.  I'll try hard not to give away the plot if for some strange reason you haven't seen it yet.  Instead, I'll concentrate more on the style and feel of the film, one sequence at a time.

Soft Landing

This is the opening credits of the movie, where the astronaut drives his Corvette back from outer space to bring back a gift for his little girl.  Too bad it's the Loc-Nar.  Like I said, it's hard to beat an opening like this one, no matter how awesome the movie is.


I think one of the most telling parts of this sequence is where we see the alien miners using their noses to vacuum up the dust of the planet when they find the Loc-Nar.  It's supposed to convey images of how evil the Loc-Nar is, but instead conveys how hedonistic, and yet strikingly innocent the 1980's were.  Ah, yes.  Good times, those.

Harry Canyon

One of the coolest scenes is the dystopic, futuristic New York sequence "Harry Canyon".  That's the guy's name, by the way, an indication of how completely cheesy, bold, and totally unassuming the movie is.  I think that sequence is one of the best old fashioned futuristic science fiction scenes ever made.  It's got the übermodern inventions, with flying cars, neat space vehicles, huge satellite dishes and aliens, but it's coupled with the grime, and hurry, and that singular in-your-face New York attitude.  It's a snapshot of pure dystopia at its finest, which makes it one of my favorite sequences of the movie.  Ironically, the Twin Towers are seen in the opening part of this sequence, coupled together with what looks like a pair of giant tubes.


John Candy.  'Nuf said.  One may not normally associate him with this role when thinking of movies he's starred in, but I think this was one of his better roles.  He's fantastic in it, with that unassuming, boyish wonder.  He really makes this movie what it is.  And we get so much more of the comical dialog and wild and fantastic imagery with this sequence.  Suffice it to say, it would have been interesting to have been there when they wrote this part.

Captain Sternn

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde aspect to this sequence is made so much more awesome for the great soundtrack and the fact that it's set aboard a giant space station.  And of course, they use another fantastic name with the character Hanover Fiste.


This has got to be one of my favorites out of all the sequences.  More than just because it's a scene with wartime aviation, the imagery and music used throughout are what makes it so.  What makes it work are the number of classic horror elements used.

So Beautiful and So Dangerous

This segment is so weirdly implausible that you can't help enjoying it, but it's got a very humourous sci-fi vibe to it, along the same lines as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  It starts off with aliens abducting a couple of folks straight out of the Pentagon and goes downhill from there.  It's already weird, but the "plutonium nyborg" drug references really push it over the top.  Add stoned Canadian aliens and robot sex just for kicks, if you're up to it.  At this point, you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride.


With this scene, both the opening music by Black Sabbath and the visuals give it a much darker feel.  This scene is set on an alien planet, with a long-forgotten race of saviors, summoned to save the world from destruction and chaos.  To me, it calls to mind everything from the legend of King Arthur to Wonder Woman, and was yet original in its own way.  The imagery with Taarna flying her steed across the land of huge, steel pipe cities to avenge the deaths of those massacred is probably the best part of this sequence.


I won't give it away if you haven't seen it, but to me it ended perfectly.  It gave symmetry to the story in a poetic sort of way.


One of the more interesting parts of the film is how it was filmed.  Each sequence is so strikingly different than any of the others.  Each is unique in the part of the story it tells, and it isn't until they're all together as one do you really get an idea what was happening in the movie.  The scenes cover almost every aspect of speculative fiction, all wrapped up into one story, from space travel to dystopia to fantasy to horror.

Of course, the movie being what it is, a violent, sexually graphic, drug-inspired tale of speculative fiction, all you really need to do is sit back with a bag of popcorn or whatever else might suit the moment and watch it for pure entertainment value.

Oh, and it's available on Amazon, should you somehow not have it in your collection.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Dystopian Reality Around Us

The world was first introduced to Utopian fiction in 1516, with Sir Thomas More's novel Utopia.  Since then, idyllic settings have been common in literature, especially science fiction, where such a place makes it easy to introduce conflict and discord.  We as readers like Utopian fiction.  It gives reference to our own societies and our own lives.

Dystopian fiction has been around since the late nineteenth century, and its popularity is only increasing.  It appeals to us probably more than Utopian fiction, and for a number of reasons inherent in the themes of the genre.  We like imaginative alternate realities and worst-case-scenarios.  We like heroes, fighting against the odds, rising from the ashes to overcome, and there is always plenty of that in this type of fiction.  Even more importantly though, we like the contrast it provides to our own lives.  We like to sit back in our comfortable chairs and read about or watch something so much more awful than our own lives, because our own lives look great in contrast.

Dystopian themes seem so distant, so removed from our lives that it's easy to read them.  But what about the inspiration?  Where can we find these elements to expand on and create interesting works of Dystopian science fiction?  The sad truth is, they're not as distant as one might think.

Detroit, Michigan © Tom Roche, Roche Photo

The decayed, abandoned buildings of Detroit show a stark picture of a real dystopia.  One need not look far to find images better suited to the worlds of William Gibson's novels than our own world.

Detroit, Michigan © Tom Roche, Roche Photo
Detroit is hardly alone in this regard.  Many places such as Mumbai, India have serious economic issues that paint a grim dystopian picture.

Mumbai, India © Jon Baldock

Mumbai, India © Jon Baldock

There are many other places on earth that provide similar imagery.  One need only watch the news during hurricane season to find other disturbing examples.  The aftermath of Hurricane Irene, and Hurricane Katrina, pictured below, are examples of dystopia created almost instantly by natural disasters.

New Orleans, Louisiana © Charles Taber

Images from the tornado devastation in Joplin, Missouri last year add even more such imagery.

Joplin, Missouri © John Tewell

Unfortunately, examples are not limited to those of a failed economic structure or natural disasters.  The current crisis in Somalia has been brought about by a combination of drought and the total chaos of anarchy and warfare.

Somali Refugee Camp, Kenya © IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation Turkey

Mogadishu, Somalia © macalin via Flikr

This is all rather sobering, not something one likes to think of with regard to speculative fiction.  It's easy to distance oneself when reading about it in fiction, because our reality is so far removed, we don't completely empathize with the situation because it's not part of our own experiences.  We read it in books and see it in the movies, and we know it's contrived, something that was created to give us the illusion of dystopia.  It's a lot harder to stare brutal reality in the eyes.

Truth is, fiction mirrors life, because there are always elements of reality in it.  Something from the author's life always impacts the story, whether it's personal experience or not.  Whether we like it or not, there will always be natural disasters, failed societies, and human atrocities in the world.  There will always be examples of true dystopia.

© Kate Gardiner

And that brings us to the best part of Dystopian fiction, and that is the heroism it portrays.  Dystopian fiction is often about rising from a dire, almost hopeless situation, and finding a way to overcome against all odds.  It showcases the human spirit in us, and gives us hope for the future.  No matter how bleak the situation is, humanity will always find a way to rise above it and survive.  And that's why we like reading it, because it's not about the squalor, the chaos, the poverty and destitution.  That is the setting.  The story is about the indomitable human spirit in all of us.