Elizabeth Fama on Science Fiction as Metaphor

Today we welcome YA Author Elizabeth Fama. Her novels include Plus One and Monstrous Beauty.

Science Fiction as Metaphor

To me, the fun of writing science fiction or fantasy is in exploring deeper themes using an invented setting, and everything is in service of those themes. But I'm learning that this isn't true of all sci-fi/fantasy writers, who sometimes just love the aesthetic and the romp, and I'm finding that many readers also prefer to see the story in a purely literal sense. This sort of reader will search for internal consistency, plausibility, and detailed world-building. But in the end, as the author, you're the one who must feel comfortable with the balance you've chosen.

My alternate-history thriller, Plus One, imagines the world took a different course during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. In order to relieve the burden on medical staff and limit the spread of the disease, our government took a series of steps that gradually split the population in two: a Day group and Night group, with mandated curfews. For me, the world I invented seemed just as plausible as women not having the vote, and black and white children not being allowed to go to the same schools--heck, as plausible as gay people not being allowed to marry, and 20,000 Romani people being deported from France. We've lived this kind of insanity in multiple ways on our planet. Add in the fact that Woodrow Wilson was a president who was happy to sacrifice civil liberties, and I felt I'd found my metaphorical world.

Historical precedent

The background given for the Day/Night divide in the book is based in historical fact: during the Spanish flu pandemic, medical staff couldn't keep up with the sick and dying, doctors and nurses often fell from exhaustion, and there was evidence that restricting the movements of citizens helped control the spread of the disease. For instance, in St. Louis the City Health Commissioner, Max Starkloff, persuaded the mayor, Henry Kiel, to implement a regime Starkloff called "social distancing." Mayor Kiel closed schools, banned public gatherings, allowed no standing passengers on public transportation, and shut down or limited all businesses "except those supplying sustenance, medical attention, or the conduct of the war." As a result, St. Louis had the lowest big-city death rate at 3 per 1,000 people, whereas Pittsburgh and San Francisco had up to 12 deaths per 1,000. In Plus One I dramatized this regime by having the government divide medical staffs into two groups and beef up their numbers with young-adult apprentices. (Yay! that makes it YA!). The policy was gradually extended to all industries supporting hospitals, and culminated with curfews for the entire population when it became clear that reduced crowding slowed the spread of the disease. In other words, imagine that Starkloff and Kiel had authority over the whole country, rather than just one city.

In character for President Wilson 

Once I read up a bit on Woodrow Wilson's affection for regulation (he invented the Federal Trade Commission and Daylight Savings Time among other programs), his complete disregard for civil liberties leading up to our involvement in WWI (and after), and his not-very-well-hidden racism and segregationism, I knew I had found my man. "The Committee on Public Information" in Plus One is a real thing Wilson created, supposedly to help Americans understand the war effort--but really to enact censorship privileges against the press. This, combined with how tenaciously he held onto the presidency even when he was too ill to do the job, made it seem that the Day/Night divide could have become good and entrenched by the time he left office in 1921.

How much implausibility is okay?

In terms of strict plausibility, however, if you delve deeply you'll uncover technical questions about the Day/Night divide. I saw them as I wrote--the practical ways in which the Day/Night system would be complicated by reality. For instance, do people near the arctic circle spend months at a time in their homes? (In the northernmost inhabited area of Norway the sun is visible for 24 hours from roughly mid-April to mid-August. How would Night people shop for groceries or go to school? And vice versa for Day people in the winter.) How is transcontinental travel possible? While writing the book I mulled over these issues (among others) and came to my own conclusions that didn't make it into the book because 1. they're not pertinent to Sol's journey, and 2. for me, this whole world is a parable (see: title of post).


As writers of science fiction and fantasy, we each have to come to our bliss point about world building. If the deeper layers of meaning are more important to you than the perfection of the set-up, you may be comfortable--as I was--not addressing the minor glitches that you see in the system. If creating an adventure in a gorgeously-imagined setting is your primary interest, you may want more detailed world-building. My goal in Plus One was simply to make this alternate view of our world feel reasonable enough historically (and also scientifically, but that's another post) to have the reader accept it as a metaphor for social injustice and inequality based on arbitrary constructs--which is what all limits on freedom and equality really are.

Find out more about Plus One and Elizabeth Fama at her website.

1 comment:

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