Increasingly strange days, these. In an age where ‘news’ can appear in mass-media well in advance of the events it pretends to report, and in which ‘opinion’ is too often unsubstantiated – and therefore valueless – bile, actual discussion of actual facts is increasingly taking place under cover, disguised as fiction.
Recent voting upheavals in the UK and US – and the alleged reporting thereof – have confirmed that it is now acceptable for untruths to be both promoted as truths and indeed facts, and for those who challenge those lies to be shouted down by the same bilious crowd who devour those same lies as though they’re the very bread of heaven. It’s that old question of faith. I want to believe something, therefore it’s true, and if you don’t believe it then you’re a liar and should be exposed and shamed as such. Curious.
In fiction, however, it is gloriously possible to – pause for a moment – to tell the truth, to be honest, to have a balanced and forceful discussion. It is possible, for example, to have a character spout condemnation about drone warfare being the very definition of cowardice, to reveal that a character can see no moral difference at all between the bombing of a remote village by a distant state and the bombing by the surviving villagers of the ground troops of that same state. That same character might suggest that she believes that chopping off the heads of a few captured foreign ‘spies’ might be a quick way of discouraging others from that same foreign state interfering in the internal affairs of another sovereign state. In my own short story First Contract, the central character kills prisoners on a battlefield – and conventional armchair thinking would condemn this. Does that make it wrong? There are always other considerations, just not in the pages of tabloids and in the airwaves.
And as we’re talking about fiction – thriller fiction, maybe – all of the counter-arguments can be presented, disassembled and discussed. Such is the joy of fiction. The Reader is free to agree, disagree and to care not at all … because it’s only fiction, right?
Problems arise. Of course they do. Most authors would have a personally preferred side to any argument they feel inspired to discuss. In my own case, when writing about matters contentious, I generally have no real idea on which sides of the several fences I’m standing – or even whether I’m trying to sit on several fences at once. Because like most decently smart hom saps I can see more than a single side to most arguments. Worse: I sometimes reach a conclusion after fictional characters of my own devising have spent an age arguing about it on the page. The dilemma would be whether to proclaim victory for that view or instead insist that it is still only an opinion, not a truth.
It’s the same in relationships. Maybe it’s unacceptable to discuss in the real world multi-partner relationships, either covert or overt, or relationships between partners of widely different ages, without righteous opprobrium descending from all angles. In fiction it is perfectly OK to discuss anything. Yes; anything. An author with a decent imagination, or better yet experience, can consider all manner of things that would reduce the currently self-righteous mass media to entire floods of indignation and condemnation. In my second short story, Two Wrongs, the central character fathers a child with a fellow soldier’s wife. The consequences are profound, the opportunity to consider twisted moralities obvious.
It’s long been a cliché that the truth is stranger than fiction. Have we reached a point where the perceived truth is less honest than fiction?
Frank Westworth disguises the truth as fiction in his new anthology of quick thrillers, The Stoner Stories, available in paperback and ebook.