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Is Dystopian Fiction Good for Kids?

The Hunger Games  is the topic of much conversation. Once again a book that began as a big hit for kids has crossed over to the adult market.

As someone who has written dystopian fiction, this is (theoretically) good news for science fiction writers, but it raises a question in my mind.  Is Dystopian Fiction good for children?

For adults, Dystopian stories can serve as cautionary tales. When Orwell wrote 1984, he created a metaphor that makes people aware of the dangers of government and of state propaganda, while ironically enough providing a language through which we can speak of real life dangers to liberty. In that way, Dystopian literature serves a great purpose in society, even with very dark overtones.

What happens when kids get exposed to dystopian storyworlds such as in The Giver, Holes, The Matrix, and now Hunger Games?  To me, this raises some troubling thoughts. Adults can understand and process the difference between truth and fiction better. But what about kids?

If we look at the generation of kids in their 20s and 30s and we’ve been exposed to more dystopian material at a younger age than any other in history. We also have wide-spread cynicism about government,  a belief in multiple conspiracy theories from 9/11 truthers to the birthers, and many people who instinctively distrust all authority figures. Is this connection? Is this a case of garbage in, garbage out?

Our younger bloggers and media personalities who warn that Christians want to enslave women and destroy civilization speaking the ideas they learned in books like the Handmaid’s Tale? Are people who behave contemptuously towards men and women in uniform doing so, in part, because of dystopian fiction that has the majority of cops and soliders as mindless and soulless defenders of evil regimes?

Even Christian Fiction hasn’t been immune in this point, with end times fiction suggesting that all our efforts are pointless for Jesus is coming back real quick, but first the anti-Christ is going to turn our world into a hellhole and there’s no point doing what’s right.

Of course, some will claim that all stories are just stories, mindless and pointless diversions. That’s bunk, of course, particularly when you’re talking about kids.  I’ve lost count of the number of adults I’ve found who said a television show helped them pick their carer. I’ve heard of kids who grew up to become police officers after watching Adam-12 or Dragnet or got into science thanks to Star Trek or Spider-man, we even have a Supreme Court Justice who got into law because of Perry Mason. Don’t tell me that the popular culture has no impact on society. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t bother with writing.

So, I can say safely that the upsurge in Dystopian Fiction is having an impact on our culture? But what is that impact? How should parents address this? And how should writers, particularly Christian writers of dystopian fiction approach their material?

Ten Reasons To Love Tales of the Dim Knight

10) You’re between the ages of 25-45

If youre in this overly wide demographic, and enjoyed watching Saturday morning cartoons as a child, Tales of the Dim Knight will bring back great memories of shows like Superfriends, Batman: The Animated Series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman (the 1960s series version), Underdog, and Darkwing Duck.

We even had one hopeful marketing conversation with a Mr. Terrance Mann, who said, People will come, Adam. They’ll most definitely come. They’ll come to you to ask about the book, as innocent as children, longing for the past. We don’t mind if you buy a copy, you’ll say, it’s just $10.95 for paperback, $4.25 on Kindle, and $5.95 for all other e-book readers. They’ll hand over the money without a second thought. Because it’s money they have and wholesome laughter they lack.Or something like that.

9) We Have a Cool Cover

Payno attention to the old saying, You can’t judge a book by its cover. Instead, think:
Cool cover equals really cool book. And then take a look at this cover by Holly Heisey:

Need I say more? No, but a top ten list that stops with the second item on the list and lists it as 9) is too weird even for me.

8) The Superhero Team Up

If you’re a warm-blooded superhero fan, nothing warms your heart like superheroes joining forces to take on really bad dudes. Whether its Batman and Superman, Spider-man and Daredevil, or even Darkwing Duck and Gizmoduck, a team up makes the story more exciting. So in Tales of the Dim Knight, Powerhouse joins forces with three other heroes in a battle in which the stakes are (of course), the future of all mankind.

7) Real Christian Characters
The media portrayal of Christians is usually pretty annoying. At one extreme, you have the hypocrites and crazy psychopaths spouting Bible verses that inhabit much of the media. At the other extreme, you have the all-too-perfect characters who act like they memorized Evidence that Demands a Verdict and a dozen other pop Christian books.

With our Christian characters, we seek to introduce you to real, decent-hearted folks who try to do the best they can, but don’t always know the right thing to say and don’t always come off well. Sound like anyone you know?

6) Great Superhero Gadgets

Consider just a few of the devices featured in Tales of the Dim Knight: a rocket pack, an airship that shrinks down to pocket-sized, a shape-shifting key, force fields, a 50-foot giant robot, shock collars, and a cloaking device that hides all the furniture in the room. To paraphrase one of our characters, we have more hardware than True Value.
5) Its Serialized Fiction

As my work at Laser and Sword will attest, I’m a huge fan of serial fiction. Reading Tales of the Dim Knight is like watching a season of your favorite superhero show, as he battles for honesty and fair play in his continuous skirmish against evil. While underlying threads weave through out each story, Dave has a wide variety of adventures to please your palette.

4) Multiple Secret Identities

Unlike some poor superheroes who have only one alter ego, Mild-Mannered Janitor Dave Johnson actually has three alter egos in the course of the book: Powerhouse, the Red Flame, and the Emerald Avenger. It’s three heroes for the price of one.

3) Great Villains

Great Superhero stories require great villains, and in Tales of the Dim Knight, Powerhouse battles a veritable rogue’s gallery of classic villains. Marco Silvano is the father of a mob family who has a soft spot for his kids, Night Lord is a drug lord who refuses to do any hit jobs before evening. The old-fashioned Diablo believes in the tried and true villain methods of tying victims above pools of acid and contends there’s no such thing as too much high explosives. Ahmed is an Islamic terrorist threatening to blow up Megalopolis. Leona Campbell is an ice queen divorce attorney and self-help guru who teaches there’s way too much loyalty in the world.

2) A Family Story

Tales of the Dim Knight has a serious side. Dave becoming a superhero puts a strain on his family when he doesn’t tell his wife his secret and she suspects he’s cheating on her. At the same time, she finds herself attracted to Powerhouse. Can the Johnson family survive Daves superpowers?

1) It’s Lots of Laughs

All seriousness aside, Tales of the Dim Knight parodies countless superhero tropes, supervillain tropes, and even some non-comics stuff, such as a speed-dating scene that features a tactless detective. You’ll laugh until you stop laughing. It’s guaranteed to be the funniest novel you’ll read this year.*
*Legal Disclaimers: This guarantee is not valid, and hence a reason for a cause of action, in foreign countries, Alaska, Hawaii, U.S. Territories, commonwealths, or protectorates, or the Continental United States. In addition, the guarantee is valid only for novels which feature both superheroes and speed dating and were published in November 2010. Void where prohibited.

Safety Advisory: Be advised that reading this book while drinking may cause you to laugh so hard your drink spews out your nose. Should not be read while operating heavy machinery.

Heroes:Why We Need Them

Bill Willingham writing at Big Hollywood mourns the current state of superhero comic books:

The super is still there, more so than ever, but there seems to be a slow leak in the hero part. Theres even a term for it, coined by (Im not sure who, but it might have been one of two respected comics journalists) either Dirk Deppey or Tom Spurgeon. Folks, were smack dab in the midst of the Age of SuperheroDecadence. Old fashioned ideals of courage and patriotism, backed by a deep virtue and unshakable code, seem to be well, old fashioned.

Full disclosure time. Im at least partially to blame for this steady chipping away of the goodness of our comic book heroes. In my very first comic series Elementals, first published close to thirty years ago, I was eager to update old superhero tropes, making my characters more real, edgier, darker less heroic and a good deal more vulgar than the (then) current standard. Elementals was one of the first of what was later dubbed the grim and gritty movement in comic books. And to complicate my confession, Im still proud of much of that early work. At least my crass and corrupted Elemental heroes still fought,albeitimperfectly, for the clear good, against the clear evil.

What can I say? When I was young and foolish I was young and foolish. In hindsight I should have realized then what is so obvious today. In any industry, especially one as inbred and insular as the comics world, one excess feeds another. Of course we didnt think of it as excess. We called it stretching the boundaries. Pushing the envelope. Doing a bigger and better car chase in this one than they did in that one. And every other cliche we could summon to our defense. If they got away with having their hero accidentally kill his opponent in that book, then were going to outdo them by having our guy purposely kill someone in ours! And so on, until today an onscreen (and quite graphic)disembowelingof a superheros opponent is not only allowed, its no big thing…

So, finally to the point of this note. Borrowing some wisdom from the famous parable of the mote in one fellows eye, and the whole beam in anothers, it would be the height ofhypocrisyfor me to make any call for our industry to clean up its act, until Ive first cleaned up my own. Ive already made some progress down that road. In my run writing the Robin series (of Batman fame), I made sure both Batman and Robin were portrayed as good, steadfast heroes, with unshakable personal codes and a firm grasp of their mission. I even got to do a story where Robin parachuted intoAfghanistanwith a group of very patriotic military superheroes on a full-scale, C130 gunship-supported combat mission. And in my short run on the Shadowpact series I kept to the same standard (but with less success as several story details were editorially imposed).

But some progress isnt enough. Its time to make public a decision Ive already made in private. Im going to shamelessly steal a line from Rush Limbaugh, who said, concerning a different matter, Go ahead and have yourrecessionif you insist, but youll have to pardon me if I choose not to participate. And from now on thats my position on superhero comics. Go ahead and have your Age of SuperheroDecadence, if you insist, but youll have to pardon me if I no longer choose to participate.

No more superhero decadence for me. Period. From now on, when I write within the superhero genre I intend to do it right. And if I am ever again privilegedto be allowed to write Superman, you can bet your sweet bootie that hell find the opportunity to bring back and the American way, to his famous credo.

A lot of people have been disappointed in the dark turn of superhero stories, particularly in the comic books. That’s why when I started Laser and Swordmagazine, I wanted to be sure to include stories with real heroes in them. Of course, my heroes have flaws and then there are some heroes claiming to be superheroes that aren’t, but we’re clear on that.

Why do we need heroes? If there’s a useful, redeeming point to our culture’s heroes (particularly superheroes) it’s that they point back to true North and the type of people we should be. Superman in particular is key to this understanding.

Over the years, defining the virtue of our heroes down is a way to cover up our own shortcomings. If our heroes’ virtues no longer challenge us to be better people, than “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay.” But it’s not okay.

I hope for many years to come to preserve and honor heroism and virtue through the stories we tell. It’s perhaps, one of the most impacts that can come in this business.

The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be

My wife and I have in the works a series of science fiction stories set in a dark future, based on where we see current political and cultural trends potentially headed. One thing weve been ribbed about is that our future is not futuristic enough.

As a recovering journalist, I like to make sure statements about the present are as accurate possible. As a writer, my wife is determined to not make inaccurate predictions about the future. Our storys set in an indeterminate future time where the year is reckoned by the rule of a global empire which, as of yet, has not set up housekeeping on Earth. Thus, until such an Empire begins and reigns for a few decades or more, you cant even suggest we were wrong. If it doesnt come along, our warnings were heeded, the Empire avoided. If it does, well, youll have more to worry about than tracking down a couple of novelists to whine about the inaccuracies in their book. My wife thus combined the dedication to accuracy of a reporter with the cunning of a lawyer.

Of course, we made some assumptions. Under the influence of corrupt despotism, with extremely high punitive tax rates, in the Years of the Empire, green tape strangleholds make businesses feel like theyve been put in a headlock by the Hulk (the Incredible one not Hogan.) the economy would grow at a snails pace. Its a miracle that after a hundred years they have dish generators to turn garbage into electricity and recycle dirty dishes, and 3D Holowindows to watch television on. Dont even ask me for starships. The same green tape strangling their economy also punishes scientists researching anything but solutions to environmentalists pet concerns.

Pity poor Robert Zemeckis. His hit trilogy, Back to the Future, is dated, quite literally. The 1955, 1985, and 1885 scenes stand the test of time, but in Back to the Future II, were taken to the year 2015 to see Zemeckis vision of the future.

Robert Zemeckis, you are no Nostradamus. 2015 is right around the corner. Zemeckis future has six years to happen and, unless Mr. Obama really has a magic wand, it looks like itll be as absurd as Lost in Spaces vision of Intergalactic travel in 1999.

Some of the predictions Zemeckis made that appear not to have come true and are unlikely to hit by 2015 include:

  • No flying cars.
  • No garbage powered cars.
  • No rejuvenation clinics that can add 40 years to your life.
  • No automatically adjusting clothes that adjust to fit your size.
  • No clothes that dry themselves off
  • No hover boards.
  • No dog-walking robots.
  • No 3D Movie trailers in the townsquare that jump out at you.
  • No elimination of all lawyers (Please, can we work on this one? To quote MLK: I have a dream.)
  • While some high tech installations have Thumb Print scanners, theyre unlikely to replace your old fashioned lock any time soon.
  • No tiny dehydrated Pizza from Pizza Hut that will grow to full size if you add water. Its true that Dominoes sells shriveled dehydrated pizzas, but unfortunately they dont rehydrate. They were just left in the oven too long
  • No readily available cybernetic implants to take your neighborhood idiot and turn him into a supercharged idiot.

Did Zemeckis get anything right? Yes, being able to watch multiple channels at the same time is a reality. But compared to hoverboards, its a big whoop. Also, there are some automated ordering systems as well as self-check out. Of course, nothing was a grandiose as Zemeckis 80s caf where a virtual Ronald Reagan takes your order. Zemeckis also gets a partial for suggesting video games would be way cooler than they were in the 1980s, but he got it wrong when he predicted that kids would not be playing them with their hands.

Finally, he uses the common sci-fi trope of the videophone, which actually made its dbut in the sixties, had already long since tanked by the time the movie was made, and has never made a comeback. Today it exists as one of many features available for PCs and high end mobile phones, which most users pass up in favor of more sophmoric features. Not exactly the future Zemeckis envisioned.

Now, Im sure theres some tech geeks who will protest, Some guy in Indiana has a flying car or a dog-walking robot. But its not being mass-marketed, and its really unlikely to happen in the next six years.

Zemeckiss future, oddly enough didnt contain cell phones, which may have been the easiest to predict tech trend in recent decades. I cut him slack on other missing components, like MP3 players, which just may not have been seen in our brief peak at 2015, but the everyday annoyance of omnipresent cell phones should have been an easy call when the film was presented.

So how does Back to the Future, Part II stand out? Actually, fairly well. Watching the movie as a kid back in the 90s I had no idea how probable it would be that wed have hoverboards. I just wanted one.

Beyond that, the characters and the story are a lot of fun. It delivers a memorable message on the dangers of greed, arrogance, and being a hothead with only a small touch of ethnic stereotyping. Marty McFly, the Irishman, is hotheaded? You dont say.

Despite a few plot holes, its still a fun movie, and the films outrageous predictions didnt phase me in enjoying it. The morals of the story for writers:

Dont try to predict the exact shape of the future: you cant.

Having gadgets for the sake of gadgets is dumb.

Good writing covers a multitude of techno-prophetic sins.

More importantly, as Doc Brown said, The future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.