Tue
Apr 10 2012 11:00am

Wading Into the Hard Side of the Big Easy

Should science fiction and fantasy explore real events? Should speculative fiction address tragedies recent enough to still be part of the world’s collective consciousness? Should certain subjects be sacrosanct or relegated only to “serious” (i.e., literary) fiction or to historians?

When I set out to write Royal Street, I hadn’t given those questions much thought. I just wanted to write a story set in New Orleans immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina’s winds blew in from the north and essentially dumped Lake Pontchartrain into the streets of the Big Easy. I wasn’t trying to explore the strength of the human heart to endure and survive—that came later, as the story developed. In the beginning, I just wanted to tell an emotionally truthful story about a subject I knew. I wanted to write a love letter to the hometown I’d come frighteningly close to losing. And I wanted to write it in a genre I love, which is urban fantasy.

In retrospect, it was probably a ballsier decision than I realized. But I’d lived Hurricane Katrina, studied it, had written about it every day as part of the ongoing Tulane University rebuilding efforts. I’d lived, loved, and earned my livelihood in New Orleans for more than a decade before the levees broke. Afterward, I’d run a daily post-Katrina blog railing at insurance companies and relief efforts and wicked irony and politicians. I loved New Orleans, and I wanted to put that love into words, wrapped inside a story about magic and voodoo and pirates and jazz that couldn’t have taken place anywhere else on earth.

Some people are uncomfortable with using Katrina as a setting for a fantasy, and I understand their discomfort. Hurricane Katrina was painful. The flooding that almost destroyed the city of New Orleans following the levee failures was catastrophic. More than that, it was tragic and, at times, arguably even criminal. It exposed political, cultural and moral weaknesses both endemic to New Orleans and to our nation as a whole. More than a thousand people died in the greater New Orleans area alone; because of the large number of people missing and never found, the actual death toll will never be known. Hundreds of thousands of people had homes destroyed or damaged (including my own, although compared with many friends and coworkers, I was blessed).

But I would argue that the genres of science fiction and fantasy are in a unique position to examine the cultural or emotional aspects of a historical event from a completely different point of view than that taken by a historian or writer of literary fiction. I would argue, in fact, that such examinations are something at which science fiction and fantasy are particularly suited. By stepping outside the realm of history and science and fact, science fiction and fantasy as genres can look at painful subjects or ask difficult questions from a distance, while still telling a good story.

Is it exploitative? It has the potential to be, but it doesn’t have to be.

An author of any genre using a sensitive historical event as a setting (and I’d argue in the case of Royal Street that the city of New Orleans is more a character than a background) has to really know his subject and approach it with respect and sensitivity.

After that, it will be up to the reader to decide if the author has done a good job in the storytelling. If it has made people think, remember, get lost in an alternative version of a world they know, or even pick up on those themes of how a person reacts when the world she’s constructed her life around disappears—then a book has done its job, regardless of genre.

Weigh in: Should certain settings or subjects be off-limits to science fiction and fantasy? Or is it all in how the story is told?


Suzanne Johnson’s new urban fantasy series gets underway with Royal Street, which comes out April 10 from Tor Books. A longtime New Orleans resident, she put her own experiences into the backdrop for the book, which takes place in New Orleans in the days just before and after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005. You can find Suzanne hanging around her blog or on Twitter.

9 comments
Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
Should science fiction and fantasy explore real events?
Yes.
Should speculative fiction address tragedies recent enough to still be part of the world’s collective consciousness?
Yes.
Should certain subjects be sacrosanct or relegated only to “serious” (i.e., literary) fiction or to historians?
No.
Should certain settings or subjects be off-limits to science fiction and fantasy?
No.
Or is it all in how the story is told?
Yes.

There is nothing "wrong" in dealing with real world events in an SF&F setting. As Suzanne mentions, if you are dealing with events that people know and care about, you should do your research carefully as you will get called on errors.
The responsibility to have a story that in some way fits with the subject matter is basically the same if there are SF&F elements or the work is of a more standard "literary" type.
VÐGriesdoorn
2. VÐGriesdoorn
Dear Suzanne,

wonderful and thought-provoking article. As someone whose husband lived through the storm and as someone who was pulling her hair out being trapped on the other side of the world, not being able to be with him, I sympathise.

I feel that as long as people aren't trying to capitalise on a situation at that time off the backs of those who are suffering, any topic is open for discussion and open to be used as source material for fiction. Of course I'd never want to step on a raw nerve and would say be sensible about when you tackle a topic but I actually find fiction is an excellent way to discuss difficult subjects. Emotions and hardship are often conveyed and shared in a supportive context when enveloped in prose.

I for one will be looking out for your book next time I visit the lovely Tom and Judith at Octavia Books!

Victoria
VÐGriesdoorn
3. trench
Oh it most definetly can and should be used to explore diffrent factual events. I for one will be lined up to read your book. Whether or not it is a succesfull story, all depends on the writer and amount of research is put into it. How you deal with the fantasical elements and the hard truth of the situation would be a tightrope walk, but a walk that is worth taking.
Constance Sublette
4. Zorra
There's probably no audience as critically tough as a New Orleans audience assessing anything written about New Orleans, whether fiction or non-fiction, in print or on the screen.

Love, C. Who spends a lot of time on Royal because that's where lives Ms KittyKat Mineola Empress of the Universe, whom I serve when her human goes out of town.
Sky Thibedeau
5. SkylarkThibedeau
I'd say setting a story during or after Katrina or another Disater say 9-11 or the Japanese Tsunami could be somewhat of a Catharsis for both writer and perhaps reader. Thousands of people were impacted directly or indirectly by the disaster (my father's family lives in New Orleans and my Grandparents old apartment was completely destroyed ). Each of them responds to its memory differently.

Even writers are effected. I don't believe local writer Poppy Z. Brite has published anything but a compilation of short stories (Antidiluvian Tales) since the Storm.

Still I see nothing wrong with a tale set during Katrina. I had an idea myself for having a Crescent City Detective persue a serial Killer as Katrina comes ashore and the levees fail.
Suzanne Johnson
6. Susannah Sandlin
Thanks for the comments, everyone--sorry I wasn't able to respond today. It was launch day in New Orleans. I'm pleased to say that my New Orleanian readers so far have felt the picture of Katrina was fair and respectful, so if they're happy I'm happy!
Wei Cho
7. C.S.
It doesn't make sense that we should restrict Science Fiction and Fantasy to certain themes and subjects. After all, these genres are about constructing the impossible. Dystopian and Utopian fiction sorta uses themes, or at least alludes to them in a subtle fashion, set in the real world, usually as way past events. They do it with some dissimilarities though, but in essence is the same event that happened in our real life (e.g. World Wars). So really, an author can base their setting and situations in real life happenings just as long as s/he is chooses their words carefully and are able to execute a brilliant story that kinda deconstructs my perception of reality, but not quite.
VÐGriesdoorn
8. Johnni
Sci Fi and Fantasy are the genres of story telling we use to create modern day mythologies and prophecies. Through these genres we carry on the traditions of our ancestors, as we seek to explain and give meaning to events beyond our control. The power of imagination has propelled humanity through the worst of times, and it is this gift that gives us insight, comfort and solace. Incorporating true events into sci fi & fantasy stories is our way of connecting the known with the unknown. This is the true legacy of humankind.
VÐGriesdoorn
9. Eugene R.
Lisa Goldstein (The Red Magician) and Jane Yolen (Briar Rose) took Fantasy and Fairy Tale (Sleeping Beauty) into the Holocaust and came out alive. If we can survive that journey, we can survive anything.

As a stone Treme fan, I hope your novel does well!

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