I recall seeing a presentation by Robert J. Sawyer about “Writing in the Zeitgeist” at Keycon one year, and I was really glad to hear his thoughts on the subject.
The dictionary definition of Zeitgeist is “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” In his presentation, Sawyer encouraged writers to write about things that are relevant in the here and now of modern day – things that people feel passionate about, have opinions about, etc, and that doing so would help them find an audience of people who will enjoy the book.
I got thinking about it and how I’ve tried to follow that advice in my current work-in-progress lately for two reasons.
First is the obvious political climate. The rise of hatred we’re seeing right now is frightening, and unlike many previous generations, we have enough global awareness and memory of the last big time it happened that it’s disturbingly familiar.
So I’d been wanting to make a point of writing something that had more diversity in it than what I’d written before, so I came up with a black main character. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be taking over black people’s stories and telling their stories for them, so it wasn’t going to be a story about what it was like to be black or anything like that. I still wanted to be saying something about my feelings about racism and discrimination and such, though, so I thought a while about what I, as a white woman, had to offer.
And sometime around when I was coming up with the world my story is set in, Folklorama was on again. I hadn’t always realized it, but Folklorama is apparently, quite literally, the biggest multicultural celebration in the world. And I stopped to think about that, realizing that I live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, in a country that has an official policy of not just tolerance of multiculturalism but embracing and celebrating multiculturalism as something that makes the country stronger.
And at the same time, Winnipeg also holds the title of the most racist city in Canada.
So when I thought about that, then I knew exactly what I have to bring to this conversation – it’s my experience living, not in a utopia of multiculturalism, but in a place that’s at least trying. A country and a city where that utopia of Star Trek’s Star Fleet is kind of the goal, but it’s a work in progress.
So what I decided to portray was just that – a society with government policy supporting multiculturalism, but people who are still struggling with it. A government that inconsistently applies those policies, governing people who disagree on how and to what extent those policies should be applied.
Sometimes the utopia seems like it’s just hopelessly far off. But I hope there’s room someday on the shelf in between all those dystopian YA novels, for a utopia in progress.