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.