Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the most satisfying tales, we feel that we have witnessed the most important events in the character’s life so far. Depending on the genre, the external action might be as small as buying the flowers for a party, as great as destroying the ring that could bind the world. It doesn’t matter: we have seen the hero make the critical choice, take the fateful action on which her world depends.
Of course, the characters don’t know that they’re living in the arc of a story. In my new novel Regeneration, Echo Hunter 367 discovers a secret tech that could literally lead to the rebirth of her world—but revealing it might cost her everything she loves. If she knew how the story ended, she could choose quickly. She might have some worries or regrets, but she wouldn’t have much angst. She would know she was doing the right thing.
But what fun would that be in a book? I love angsty action heroes, and I wanted Echo’s problems to provoke big, deep emotions in her and therefore the reader. The best way I could do that was by forcing her to make harder and harder choices, and never giving her a hint about how they would come out. And those choices wouldn’t affect her alone, but would determine the lives of the innocent people under her protection. At the very end, she has to decide how to act not knowing if she will survive, if her lover will survive, if the world will survive.
Then I decided to make it even harder. So I also gave her the choice of not acting at all. Near the end, she has the chance simply to walk away. One of the key characters in the book has been telling her all along that this would be the right choice: leave things as they are. Don’t risk everything. This isn’t the right time.
Coincidentally or not, I was working on this part of the book during the presidential campaign. I have never had such an acute sense of the choices facing our country—facing us as citizens. On both sides, the narrative was explicitly about disrupting the order of our political world. Then, on election day, we stepped through a door, and it closed behind us. Now, irrevocably, we find ourselves in the middle of a story that, despite our modern self-consciousness, we didn’t quite realize we were in.
Some of us at this moment feel a sense of order restored. Some of us fear that our current nationalist revival will turn dark, as such movements have before. We want to know where this story is going. We look at how people like us, in times like these, influenced what happened next. We study their choices, how they acted or did not. We used to wonder what we would have done in their place. Now we wonder what we should do in our own place. We could go to town halls, rallies, protests; we could wait and see how things go. We turn to history to learn from parallels to this moment. We turn to story to learn from parables about this moment. It is not coincidental that social media has been abuzz with only part-joking remarks about how young adult dystopias have been preparing us for resistance. Speculative fiction has always been a place where we explore our hopes and fears, a genre where we can approach the emotional truth of our situation precisely because we are not constrained by “reality.”
If we knew for certain we were in The Handmaid’s Tale, we would find our choices easy.
But we don’t. We can never know exactly where we’re standing in history. This uncertainty can be paralyzing, but it also is a source of hope. One of the dangers facing us now is that we think we’ve read this story before. We fear that the outcome is inevitable. I don’t believe that we’re characters in someone else’s story, though. Echo Hunter 367 is stuck with the plot I gave her, but we have it better than Echo. History isn’t a well-constructed narrative, with plot points and a predictable structure. Our world is difficult, but we aren’t stuck with the story. It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that in Regeneration, Echo doesn’t walk away. The one thing we can always choose to do is try. In the end, we are writing ourselves.
Stacey Berg is a medical researcher who writes speculative fiction. Her work as a physician-scientist provides the inspiration for many of her stories. She lives with her wife in Houston and is a member of the Writers’ League of Texas. When she’s not writing, she practices kung fu and runs half marathons. Her new novel Regeneration is on sale March 14th.