Tragedy and Fiction

So, last week, I went up to visit with my mother/grandmother, and I found my grandmother most of the way through All Clear (which is the second half of Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear duology and the most recent volume in her time travel books). I was delighted, and we did get to have the conversation I read The Doomsday Book for, as well as talking about the series as a whole.

We got to talking about which ones were our favorites, and I waxed poetical about the humor and romance in To Say Nothing of the Dog and the fantastic research of Blackout/All Clear. My grandmother said her favorite was The Doomsday Book. I kind of paused–if you remember from my post on The Doomsday Book, I thought it was the weakest of the series–and then asked her why.

And she said, “I don’t really enjoy World War II as a setting, but I suppose that comes from having lived through it.”

And it was like: oh. Oh. Of course WWII isn’t going to be an enjoyable setting. She lost siblings in that war, saw the rationing, the friends and family sent home in boxes (or not). It must have felt like the world was tearing itself apart. Why would you want to live through that again?

And I felt terribly guilty, especially for talking about how “real” the book’s setting had felt to someone who had lived through it.

WWII is so removed for so many of us. My grandmother is 95 and would have been in her late teens/early 20s during the war. But to me, it’s like the Big War in my favorite fantasy series. It’s something that happened, something that shaped the world, but it’s almost reached mythology at this point. Especially here in the States, there’s not a lot of reminders of what the war did. That’s not universal, of course–I’ve been to Berlin. I’ve seen the remains of the Wall and seen bombed buildings that have never been repaired. I’ve walked the rows of sarcophagi at the Jewish memorial. But I bet even my generation in Germany doesn’t quite understand.

And don’t we all have those things, those events, that were so traumatic, so tragic, that we don’t want to have our fiction anywhere near them? I know what mine is. It’s Columbine. I don’t think I’ve talked about Columbine here, and I don’t intend to start now, but let us just say that I can remember that day almost 20 years ago as clearly if it had happened yesterday, even as most of my memories from that time in my life have started to fade.

I know I avoid media related to Columbine or school shootings like the plague. Even songs that can be interpreted as being about school shootings I can’t listen to. And, to be honest, it’s not that hard. In the great scheme of cultural zeitgeist, it wasn’t that major. It didn’t affect that many people. Something like WWII that affected entire generations is a lot harder to avoid. (Wikipedia tells me 3% of the world’s population died over the course of the war.)

It’s certainly been a bit eye-opening. Sometimes these big, horrible historical things are a lot closer than most people realize. I mean, we’re only a few generations past when slavery ended in this country.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Is it exploitation to use an event that was traumatic to a ton of people for media designed for profit? Is it sad that terrible things happen? Where is the line where something becomes art?

Makes me glad I write science fiction and fantasy, if nothing else.

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