Publishing Thoughts: Nuclear Annihilation, Amish Fiction, and the Themes of Our Collective Unconscious

One of my favorite things in culture are the odd little pockets of music and television and books that pop-up now again. Some theme or topic will see the light for a few years, fueled by something in the water. One of these is the teenage death songs from the 1960s. Filled with aching and/or hilarious stories of young love cut short by catastrophic car accidents, songs like Last Kiss, Tell Laura I Love Her,and Teen Angel are wonderful little  time capsules of a world that had finally started to travel too fast. Literally.

Then you have the nuclear monster movies of the 1950s coming both from here (Them!) and not surprisingly from Japan (Godzilla). These movies were so overt in their reaction to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that it’s almost incorrect to call it a collective unconscious. The fear of the nuclear age (and of being eaten by giant ants) was on their sleeve.

These were things from my parents’ era though. From a personal stand-point, nothing touches the songs of nuclear annihilation that filled the radio waves in the early 1980s. It’s perhaps a bit hard to remember * just how real the Cold War tensions were back then when the USSR existed. But having just walked through an exhibit of 1980s art I can tell you that it (along with AIDS) was one of the main themes of the decade.

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

* It’s less difficult for me. Personally, the threat of nuclear annihilation was probably the most lasting fear I had as a child. In 1983 I somehow ended up watching The Day After (a made-for-TV movie about Kansas being blown up) and after that point lived in a near-constant state of anxious worry about our geo-political relations. I did not want to flash out of existence like all those people on the TV. It finally went away after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet. So… when I was seventeen.

Sting, in his usual hit-the-nail-on-the-head way, wrote “Russians.” But the shadow of nuclear war echoes through tons of other popular music, too. U2’s “Seconds.” Nena’s “99 Red Balloons” (or 99 Luftballons if you prefer the German version.) Prince’s “1999.” Europe’s brilliant hair-metal rock anthem “Final Countdown.” “Leningrad” by Billy Joel, which is right up there with Sting for its overt literalness. And finally, my favorite from the era, Alphaville’s “Forever Young” which, weirdly enough became my senior year prom theme. Because who doesn’t want to celebrate the closing of their youth with an ode to being blown up before you can get old?

::

We often don’t take the time, but I do think it’s possible to point out the weird quirks of this generation. What’s fueling them may be somewhat harder to pin down.

The biggest shadow over our current world is obviously life after 9/11 with the rise of terrorism and the emergence of radical Islam as a threat. That’s at the heart of what Vince Flynn and a lot modern political thriller writers are doing. Throw in the role of the Israel in end-times prophecy and you have Left Behind and Joel Rosenberg as well. (One of the more interesting analogies for me, are the Jason Bourne films. A trained killer who now questions his orders and is trying to find meaning for the violence is one of the better metaphors for our time in Afghanistan.)

The second lingering shadow is the crash of our economy and the fear that the world as we know it somehow isn’t on a trajectory toward “better and better” anymore. So it’s no surprise that this anxiety can fuel dystopian fiction.

It’s not a surprise that in a world whose problems seem massive and completely unsolvable that superheroes might re-emerge. The Avengers aren’t solving our health care crisis, but isn’t it nice to see someone on the screen fixing things that seem impossible?

The vampire thing, I’m less sure about. We’re scared of getting old, I guess. We’re always scared of dying. Immortality used to be offered by religion but that seems passe, even offensive, now. So perhaps that makes sense.

And it’s clear as a bell that in a world falling deeper into technology, planting itself more often in front of a screen (he says, while planted in front of a monitor) that one of the most appealing worlds might be one without any of that. No cords. No need to re-charge anything or find 4G service. Heck, no zippers. Just dirt and a horse and a shoo-fly pie. Beverly Lewis was writing massively successful Amish fiction since 1997. Some folks hadn’t even gotten email addresses back then. It didn’t explode as a genre until the world fully went digital . . . and it’s among the great ironies that Amish fiction hit its peak just as ebooks and Kindle emerged. Talk about a society saying two different things.

::

These things aren’t manufactured. (At least not at first. Later, when everyone jumps on, yes, they’re manufactured.) Rather they emerge because artists are taking the fears of the age giving them voice. Or the anger of the age. But usually the fear. Because one of the things that art can do, is it can help us face what scares us. It can place it in context, it can show us we’re not alone. It gives us courage that there are answers.

So what are people talking about? What concerns them? And how can that fuel your writing? It can be the stakes of your story, or you can twist and play with it until it’s just there under the surface. Nuclear annihilation packed into a tight chorus and three minutes of pure pop.

6 responses to “Publishing Thoughts: Nuclear Annihilation, Amish Fiction, and the Themes of Our Collective Unconscious

  1. As a kid, I kind of looked forward to a radioactive world full of roaming mutants and forbidden zones. Now not so much. The kitsch is still fun for nostalgic purposes — and not all of it is mere kitsch.

    Last week while in Lancaster PA I saw an Amish girl buying a stack of CBA Amish novels at Barnes & Noble. Were they escapist fun for her, or some kind of realism? It was an interesting wrench to throw in my interpretative works.

    • We’ve always had a significant readership of those among the Amish. My guess is that it’s both comfortable and escapism at the same time. Brings drama and conflict to a recognizable world?

      Or she was planning an exit strategy and was getting ideas on how to leave.

  2. Can’t forget OMD’s immortal “Enola Gay” — only in the 1980s could you write a techno pop song about the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

    Incidentally, as popular as Amish fiction has become, I can’t help wondering if there is a parallel to the (evident, but perhaps purely unintentional) rise in “Texas fiction.” Just how many stories, contemporary and historical, can we set in Texas already? Is it a subconscious anti-government fear and desire to withdraw into a little republican, gun-toting, keep-your-federal-laws-out-of-my-personal-freedom utopia? Or do authors/publishers/readers today simply not realize that there are 21 other states west of the Mississippi?

    • I actually don’t know Enola Gay. I shall Spotify it. BTW: here’s an incomplete list of all the 1980s songs that make references to nuclear war. http://www.inthe80s.com/nuclearwar/

      As for Texas…I’m headed to Dallas in September so I have to be careful about what I say, but…my sense is it’s about iconography as much as anything. Texas stands for something in a way that (no offense) Oklahoma and Missouri and Arkansas must not. “Freedom” and “true west”…? That makes some sense for the historicals. I’m less clear why it resonates with contemporary stories. I feel like Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are WAY more libertarian/freedom-loving than even Texas, so it’s not just the dream of conservative utopia.

      • Agree! But it has become a standing joke amongst my writing friends and I, that everything seems to be set in Texas these days. Granted, I don’t expect a huge breakout of “Nebraska fiction”… and I know there are many CBA authors based in Texas, so perhaps they’re just writing what they know. But as a 4th-generation Californian who grew up in Arizona and now lives in Colorado, I feel compelled to REPRESENT. :-) Hmm, perhaps that will be part of my platform when it comes time to pitch my WIPs: “because there’s more to the American West than Texas.” Catchy? lol

  3. Hi, Dave! Don’t know if you caught our mini FIF reunion over on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/katiehart/posts/187124861421236 I was so excited that Mark let us know you’re blogging again!

    As far as the vampire thing, a lot of the Twilight-era stories have focused on the concept of eternal love – probably very appealing to those who grew up in broken homes and to adults who’ve suffered through divorce or an inability to find “the one.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s