About Marina

Marina Fontaine is a Russian by birth, an American by choice, and an unrepentant book addict. Because of her background, she loves to discover and support pro-freedom literature. She runs Small Government Book Fan Club on Goodreads, Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance group on Facebook, and a personal commentary/review blog, Marina's Musings. Her works include Chasing Freedom (a Dragon Awards finalist) and The Product, a dystopian novella published by Superversive Press. Marina lives in New Jersey with her very supportive husband, three children and four guinea pigs, working as an accountant by day and a writer by night. Her other interests include hard rock music, action movies and travel.

The Product is on Sale for 99 cents

Before Superversive Press took aim at the very foundations of the Social Justice movement with the Forbidden Thoughts anthology, they took a chance at publishing my dystopian novella The Product. There has been some question as to whether Forbidden Thoughts is superversive, and I can see why people would say it’s not. However, there’s an angle that does tie into the superversive philosophy, and my novella, although fairly apolitical for a dystopia, addresses it.

I have long stated that those who worship at the altar of Social Justice do worse than break everything they touch. A significant side effect of their meddling is to remove all joy and inspiration from whatever they target, be it social interactions, scientific discovery, or entertainment. Since everyone loves Harry Potter references nowadays, SJWs are the real-world Dementors. My novella does not specifically mention Social Justice, but it does present its end result: a world without joy or hope. However, human nature being what it is, someone, somewhere, will find a way to resist, which brings us to…

The Product

The Product will change your life. It will give you joy and confidence, make you more aware of the world around you. You will find new friends. You might even fall in love.
Few people know its name. Fewer still dare say it. It is, after all, illegal. Users are jailed. Dealers meet an ugly death. Yet the temptation is irresistible.
Kevin is a dealer. And he is about to get caught.

Seraph from Tangent Online* and Jeffro from Castalia House Blog present different takes on the specifics, but both reviewers agree that The Product is a good representation of a superversive story. (This being a promotional post, I also have to point out that it made Jeffro’s list of Best Short Fiction of 2016). And for the next couple of days, it will only cost 99 cents for the readers to judge for themselves. Happy reading!

*This review has a spoiler at the end, so if you prefer to discover the nature of the Product on your own, stop reading about mid-way through the last paragraph.

The Fate of the Furious: A Superversive Review

On one level, The Fate of the Furious is the easiest movie to review:
1. Great fun. and 2. Leave your brain (especially the part that understands physics) at home

And now, folks, your seatbelts (HA!) because I will try to make this post deep. How deep? Glad you asked. I’m going to take the recent discussion of what qualifies as superversive fiction and apply it to this movie. If you’re rolling on the floor in fits of laughter, I don’t blame you. But stick with me here. Just because something is lowbrow, doesn’t mean it can’t be superversive, at least in part. And if we can see superversive elements in this piece of schlock, maybe they would become easier to identify elsewhere. Thus, let the experiment begin!

Aspiring/Inspiring. Our heroes are far from being role models, that’s for sure. But are they reaching for something higher? Are they attempting to improve the world, what little of it is in their control? The opening segment includes a prolonged drag-racing sequence that ends with Dom Toretto acting with both generosity and honor towards a person who really deserves neither. Much later, when the villainess questions why Dom seemingly rewarded the man who tried to kill him, the response is, “I changed him.” Does it work like that in real life? Probably not. Thugs don’t choose to join the side of light because of one event, not commonly anyway. Is it possible? Yes, I suppose it is. Is it something we’d like to occasionally see in our art? Absolutely.

Virtuous. I can see how this requirement can be viewed as problematic at first glance, but we need to remember that superversive heroes don’t need to be perfect. They do, however, need to know right from wrong, and more importantly, the story itself must be clear on the matter. An advantage of a well crafted dumb action movie is that the central conflict is very clear. The good guys are… maybe not all that good, not all of them, but they are working for a good cause. And the villainess Cipher, played with obvious delight by Charlize Theron, is as cold and vicious as they come. Her purported justification sounds vaguely noble from throwing around words like “accountability,” but at no point are we sympathetic or thinking, “Well, she’s kind of right…” Nope. Not even close. In this story, shades of gray are non-existent.

Heroic. This one is easy. Unlike in some of the other entries in F&F franchise, the protagonists’ motives here are mostly pure: family, loyalty, honor and oh yeah, saving the world. There is revenge mixed in for some, and an opportunity for a second chance for others. In particular, Deckard (Jason Statham), a villain from one of the previous films, is at first hard to accept as one of the good guys, but he does redeem himself in one of the more spectacular and absurd scenes in a movie that’s full of them. In the end, they all rise to the occasion and do what they must to fight evil, no matter the cost. Additionally, in what to me is the stand-out moment of the movie, Letty bets her life, without hesitation, for a chance to reach and save her husband who appears to have gone rogue. It plays much better if you know the history of these characters, but it’s powerful in either case.

Decisive. Again, easy, as per requirements of the genre. The protagonists don’t have time to agonize over their choices, in part because there aren’t too many. Saving the world is a non-negotiable goal. While there are heart-breaking scenes, we see not a hint of the modern “why me?” angst that has infected even many of the superhero movies. They hurt and they grieve, but never stop moving towards the goal.

Non-subversive. You’d think a movie in a franchise built around essentially glorifying outlaws would be subversive by definition. Not so. This entry in particular has a villainess whose main intent is destruction of the current order, but there’s even more than that. In one of the obligatory Villain Exposition scenes, she’s intent on convincing Dom Toretto, the man who values family and faith, that he is wrong in his priorities. It’s not enough for her to use Dom’s skills. She has a need to destroy who he is, to prove that his life has no meaning, and by extension, no one’s life has meaning. This is an important point. If life is of no value, if family, faith and honor are but an illusion, then mass murder is a perfectly acceptable stepping stone to one’s goals. The villainess is a nearly perfect embodiment of subversion. She would not, in fact, be out of place in an old-fashioned fairly tale, from the time before our culture has developed a need to understand, justify, and sympathize with villains rather than to advocate and celebrate their unconditional defeat.

There were other things that are remarkable on that front. For all the banter and joking around, there’s not a hint of irony when it comes to good old fashioned values. Dom talk constantly about family as if it’s some kind of magic mantra needed to pull him back to the light. (One reviewer commented that at times the movie has a feel of a GOP convention, with the word “family” being mentioned over 50 times.) They pause before a meal to say grace. Crosses figure prominently, both in the visuals and once actually in the plot. Two young hot-blooded men are courting an attractive woman, but that’s where it stays. There is no obligatory danger-inspired hookup, but on the flip side, no blanket rejection of men or romance either. It’s a small scene, fun and light-hearted, but also old-fashioned. And in the end, for all the ridiculous special effects and action, I think this is one of the reasons the franchise has endured. These movies entertain and amuse without tearing down, and they leave you, if not inspired, at least satisfied with a simple tale that shows the world working mostly as you know it should. Not so bad for a piece of dumb action after all.

Maleficent vs. Sleeping Beauty: A Lesson in Subversion

NOTE: The bulk of this article was originally posted on www.declafinn.com, almost two years ago. However, in light of the even-growing trend of “re-imagining” old stories for both children and adults, it bears repeating. This analysis also serves as a good demonstration of the differences between subversive and superversive storytelling. While Maleficent received mixed reviews from critics (50% on Rotten Tomatoes), the audience ratings were much higher (71%) and its financial success is undisputed. I therefore feel safe from any accusations of intentionally picking a modern dud to compare to a beloved classic. In my not-so-humble opinion, Maleficent’s flaws are features, not bugs, for it aspires to subversion and succeeds at that level.

One of the side effects of not growing up in the culture is that, no matter how well-assimilated, one inevitably misses some of the basics that all the native-born take for granted. Classic movies, especially those geared towards children, fall firmly in that category. So it was that after almost three decades in the U.S., I still was not familiar with one of the greatest creations of American culture. I am, of course, referring to the Disney classic movie, Sleeping Beauty. Suitably mortified, I ended up renting both the original and the “modern spin” version that is Maleficent.

I had reservations, having been burned to a crisp by the atrocity that was Ever After, but the trailers promised great visuals, plus Angelina Jolie in title role sounded intriguing.

Thus, a double-feature family movie night was on. Perhaps it is not fair to compare a modern Hollywood production to a beloved classic. On the other hand, since I had not seen either movie previously, sentimental value was a non-factor in my case and my expectations would not be unreasonably raised for one over the other.

*

First, Sleeping Beauty. In terms of storytelling, it is straightforward and honest, the way children’s tales tend to be. The rules of magic are simple, the threat and the possible salvation are laid out, all the characters are introduced in the early scenes, and we more or less know how this ends.

Yet there are layers, too, and it’s a great demonstration of how a story can be more complex than it seems while retaining its innocence. Take the scene where Aurora meets the Prince in the woods. They have, essentially, fallen in love before ever having laid their eyes on each other. The meeting is just a validation of something that is already there. How? Why? Is it magic, or destiny, or just a lucky coincidence? We don’t know, but by establishing that both had dreamed of each other before their encounter, we, even as cynical adults, are given enough reason to believe that true love is indeed in the works.

Later on, we get a surprisingly dark yet effective scene where Maleficent, having captured the Prince, torments him with visions of life wasted and love lost, but there is something else. She is mocking the traditional model of a heroic knight who defeats his foe and rescues a maiden, denying the very possibility that the good can triumph. In her world, there is only power and vengeance. No love, no hope, no joy except in denying love and hope to others—a perfect combination of ancient evil and modern nihilism.

In the end, while the Prince is the nominal hero of the story, a big chunk of the credit belongs to the good fairies. They free him not just from physical chains of the dungeon, but also from despair, give him the right tools (the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Righteousness- that’s right; in your face, nihilism!) and guide him along the way. Even in the final confrontation, where the Prince, seemingly alone, has to defeat a fearsome dragon, he is not, in fact, alone as the good fairies make sure the final strike of the sword strikes home. Is there a deeper meaning to the way this part of the story pays out? It is for the viewer to decide.

The rest of the story is simplistic by today’s standards. True love’s kiss is just that. Aurora does indeed wake up, and aside from a little comic relief, the story concludes exactly in the manner we had been promised at the start. It’s not a bad lesson to modern storytellers always on the lookout for The Big Twist. Some stories are beautiful just by their essence and can be told effectively using neither irony nor misdirection.

*

And now, for Maleficent. Skeptical as I was, the visually stunning opening scenes, combined with a hypnotic voice-over asking us to challenge what we think we know of the story, gave me much hope. A part of me wondered why a beautiful girl possessed of magic powers to heal and protect all living things would have a name that literally means “causing or capable of producing evil,” but I put it aside. It did, however, set the tone for the story: hauntingly, darkly beautiful; self-aware in a detached, post-modern way; and often too clever for its own good. In other words, mostly the opposite of the original story it was meant to re-tell.

Maleficent is not the villain of old, but a horribly wronged, heartbroken woman trying to heal her physical and emotional wounds through an act of revenge. And other characters are just as unrecognizable.

The King Father is first a thief and a liar, then a cruel coward, then a full blown lunatic obsessed with killing and destruction, his daughter merely an afterthought by the time the story really gets going. The brief moments where he shows glimpses of humanity are lost because they serve no purpose to this particular version, and that’s too bad because he could have been a great tragic character if handled by a more careful storyteller.

The fairies, who in the original are comical and lovable yet powerful when it counts most, are reduced to incompetent, annoying, squabbling hags who seem to understand nothing of life, or love. They disappear for large stretches of the movie, only to come back and remind everyone how ineffectual they truly are before slinking off again, not even managing to produce comic relief, let alone serious magic.

Aurora is sweet enough, and does get a decent amount of screen time. The best scenes that could really have been the whole (much better) movie are between Aurora and Maleficent, the innocence and innate joy of the girl slowly but surely melting the heart of the bitter, vengeful woman and turning her into a loving maternal figure. But the story’s ambition is bigger, and darker, than that. The little hint of what it might have been makes the end result so much more infuriating.

What about the Prince, you ask? Well, there is a Prince. Unfortunately, he has nothing to do but look confused. He’s not heroic, or interesting, or even particularly attractive. He shows up occasionally to signal in red flashing lights that this story is oh-so-very different. I suppose the script writers think we as the audience are just that dense.

There’s also a Raven who is turned by Maleficent into a shape-shifter and spends some of his time being a semi-useful sidekick who occasionally utters a word of wisdom before being turned into yet another CGI creature.

“But, but…What about True Love’s Kiss? You promised!” says a demanding, if unsophisticated, viewer who still thinks she paid the $10 to see a fairy tale. Said viewer will, indeed witness a kiss, and the Beauty will wake up, but that is all. The Big Twist so lacking in the original is found here. I did not feel cheated, per se, only because the “surprise” was, in a way, so tediously predictable, but neither was I satisfied.

Given the thrust of the story, the ending with Aurora ruling over the newly happy magical kingdom under the wise tutelage of Maleficent should have been enough. But is it? Is there room in the story for romance, for the quaint idea of “happily ever after”? Well, the Prince shows up at the end, for now apparent reason, and all I could think about at that point was “He wants MALEFICENT for his mother in law? He must be either very brave or very stupid, and from the movie’s view of men, I’d have to put money on stupid.” Since we aren’t supposed to question such things too deeply, the movie pulls us back to the beautiful vistas and a hypnotic voice-over, and soon the end credits start rolling to a suitably macabre remake of the original Sleeping beauty love song.

I have to give the script writers credit where it’s due: the movie stayed true to its vision till the very end. Unfortunately, the vision is thoroughly at odds with the classic it was claiming to re-tell. While it is possible to create a compelling story—NOT a true fairy tale, but perhaps a dark fantasy—where the hero and the villain is one and the same, Maleficent doesn’t quite gets there. Once you look beyond the special effects and Jolie’s solid acting, this “re-imagining” eagerly tears down the original, but fails to build anything substantial in its stead. But then, knowing what we know of today’s Hollywood, perhaps that was the intention all along.

Marina Fontaine is a co-founder of Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance and the author of Chasing Freedom (a Dragon Awards finalist) and The Product, a dystopian novella published by Superversive Press.

The Holiday of Purim: Come for the Cookies, Stay for the Story

Purim is a lesser of the two Jewish spring celebrations. It has a short list of observance requirements (does a Jew ever need an excuse for a festive meal?), and is no more than a curiosity to those outside the faith (what’s up with the funny costumes and triangular cookies?). Passover, which comes only weeks later, gets all the glory, and deservedly so. And yet, the story of Purim is as compelling as it is universal, and frankly deserves a better tribute than this obscure production, or even a hilarious Twitter Feed summary.

Think of the characters alone. A tyrannical King? Check. Evil advisor? Yep. Poor, beautiful and virtuous young woman, tasked with saving her people from certain doom? You got it. A kindly older man, a hero in his own right, giving said woman advice and inspiration? Absolutely. Add a magic wand and you have an old-fashioned Disney film. Ah, but here’s the thing. There is no magic. Of course, you already knew that since we’re talking a religious tale, but there is also no voice from above, no visible miracles, not even a mention of G-d. The heroes pray for wisdom and strength, but the actions are solely their own, even if in retrospect some of the coincidences must have been divinely guided. This, to me, is the central lesson of this Holiday. In dark times, we might wish for superheroes and extraordinary powers (as we certainly do now, considering our entertainment preferences), but they are not necessary. Often the only quality that separates the heroes from the rest is the will to make the right choices and persevere, no matter the cost.

That brings me to another point, and here comes the storytelling connection. There is a lot of talk nowadays about the need of more strong female characters in fiction. Most people, upon hearing the term, imagine leather-clad Amazonian babes kicking the bad guys into oblivion. Tiny women defeating men twice their size is a modern variation, currently in the process of overstaying its welcome, but the point is the same: physical prowess is valued above all.

Not so with Esther. It is easy, from the comfort of our modernity to underestimate the level of her courage, or the height of her achievement. She approaches her husband the King (who had ordered his beloved wife Vashti executed for a single act of disobedience) without being called, in violation of court etiquette that is traditionally punishable by death. Then she proceeds to manipulate and outsmart both the King and his genocidal advisor Haman, thus obtaining mercy for her people and causing Haman’s downfall.

How did Esther accomplish such a feat? Certainly not by force. Not by her beauty alone, either. Vashti’s beauty did not save her from execution. In fact, Esther had gone through a fasting ritual before approaching the King—not something conducive to looking her best. Still, she succeeds. One can only conclude that her greatest assets, in addition to virtue and faith, were those usually underplayed in modern portrayal of heroic women: charm and patience, intuition and empathy. With those, she melted the heart of a tyrant and out-strategized a ruthless warrior, in a society that used women as disposable playthings. Perhaps modern storytellers could take a lesson as to the different ways in which a female character might be powerful, rather than falling back on the tired Hollywood clichés.

The story doesn’t end there, but diverges yet again from the expected. The King, having decided not to kill the Jews, could not to revoke his original verdict. Instead, he gave the Jews permission to arm themselves and fight back. And fight they did, defeating trained soldiers sent to exterminate them. Once again, victory does not come from obvious divine interference, but is won by righteous, yet ordinary, individuals who rose to the occasion. Esther had provided an opportunity for the Jews to save themselves, and they took it. In the final analysis, both parts of the story are equally important.

And so, there is another lesson to be found in this tale, perhaps most relevant to our times. Faith is important, and so is proper leadership. However, neither will save us from darkness if we, as individuals, refuse to act when called upon. Esther’s courage would have been wasted had the people not rallied to protect their lives and homes. Let us not today similarly waste the sacrifices of those who came before us, the men and women who built and defended our great country. Freedom, safety and prosperity that we currently enjoy are fragile things, uncommon in history, rarely found even now around the world. By all means, let us choose the leaders who would help preserve them, but we dare not forget that the final responsibility lies, inevitably, within ourselves.

Marina Fontaine is a co-founder of Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance and the author of Chasing Freedom(a Dragon Awards finalist) and The Product, a dystopian novella published by Superversive Press.

Do Strong Female Characters Make for Better Stories?

(Cross-posted from Marina’s Musings)

Much discussion time and blogging space over the last few years has been devoted to the topic of Strong Female Characters. (Yes, people usually capitalize the first letters of each word when using this term because it’s So Very Important.)

Part of the emphasis comes from troublemakers from both sides of the feminist/masculinist divide. There is a type of feminist who would never be satisfied until there are no male characters left in fiction except for killers and rapists; and there are certainly people on the other side who groan in disgust every time a trailer for female-fronted action flick pops up on the theater screen. The issue is in fact that divisive, and politically charged on top of that, even if most of us fall somewhere in the middle and want no part of the drama.

Scratch that last one. We most certainly do want drama. Storytelling drama. Excitement. Unpredictability. Surprise. And this is where some of the current trends fail us. It’s a shame, really. Movies have more and better technology than ever, and book publishing is less and less constrained by the gatekeepers. Yet whether in an effort to adhere to new societal norms or simply to pander to the perceived demands of the market, our stories are swapping new tropes for the old and still leave many of us longing for something more.

To start, I will use a familiar recent example, even though there have been enough words written about that particular scene to fill several doorstopper-sized novels. In case you haven’t yet guessed, I am going to bring up the semi-controversial scene in The Force Awakens where Rey fights off the bounty hunters while Finn, having realized his help is unnecessary, is watching in slack-jawed awe.

People smarter and more knowledgeable that I have already addressed the realism, or lack thereof, of that scene from the point of view of the physical interactions and fighting choreography. I have a different question for you, and please be honest.

Did you, at any point before or during the confrontation, expect Rey to lose?

Of course not. A woman surrounded by a group of burly thugs who fight for a living? How could she possibly lose? It just isn’t done. Even Finn is apparently familiar with the way modern stories go because after that initial gallant impulse (which was intriguing, and I’d like to know how a Stormtrooper would have acquired it) he decides to just watch. Objectively speaking, the fight looked great. It should have been exciting. We should have worried about our spunky heroine. But we didn’t, not really, because we know the Strong Female Character trope. So all we got to see was a really cool performance. Fireworks with no heat, if you will: great visuals with an unexciting story. If that sounds too familiar, you’re right. And familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least boredom.

Mind you, there is an upside to an overplayed trope. A writer can easily set up a situation we think is familiar and have it play out differently. A great example, again from a popular movie: the Mad Max remake. As soon as I saw Furiosa and Max start swinging at each other during their first encounter, I just KNEW what was going to happen. I was already prepared to roll my eyes (especially considering how the early buzz had declared the movie some kind of feminist triumph) and then… whoa, what did I just see? A tough-as-nails heroine with a metal arm does not prevail against a guy who was just thrown from a moving vehicle? Are you kidding me? Did the writers not get the memo? Well, maybe they did, and then decided to give us something fresh instead. The movie was not exactly perfect, and got mixed reviews. Personally, I enjoyed it not even so much for the action as for the fact that, after that one scene, I knew the story would not go by the numbers, and I was mostly right.

To be fair, there are constraints on Hollywood. We as consumers demand to see beautiful people on screen, and the standard of beauty for women still tends to the thin, no matter what the body positivity movement will tell you. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It just is. As a result, the casting pool of leading ladies, with a few notable exceptions, is filled with women who don’t ring true as realistic action heroes. (Male actors are not without their own problems. I could easily write a separate post on the ridiculousness of Tom Cruise as a slab-of-beef Jack Reacher, with some of the scenes obviously written with a larger man in mind. However, there are tricks to make an actor seem bigger on screen, and an obviously strong upper body certainly helps. There is a reason male movie heroes go shirtless so often, and it’s not just to entice women into the theater. Actually seeing the muscles aids in our suspension of disbelief, so we can go along with the story. But I digress…)

What is the harm, you ask? After all, Hollywood, for the most part, sells us fantasy, whether wrapped in a love story, a hard-boiled action movie, or an over-the-top superhero production. Why expect realism in female characters when there is so little of it elsewhere?

Well, for one, as I pointed out earlier, adhering to the requirement that a woman, no matter how small and thin, must win the fight takes away any possible suspense in terms of storytelling. But there is also a bigger downside. No teenage boy will expect to single-handedly defeat a group of terrorists after watching Olympus Has Fallen (or its much better precursor, Die Hard). On the other hand, a young woman, when confronted by a predator in a dark alley, might very well believe that she could take down a larger man with a single punch to the jaw. After all, she’s seen it countless times on TV and in movies. It seemed plausible enough. To be sure, there are ways to take down a larger opponent, none of them easy, with a firearm being the most reliable if less glamorous. But the false confidence created by unrealistic female action characters is as dangerous in real life as unrealistic body image, if not more so.

The sad part is, the solution to the dilemma, in pure storytelling terms, is laughably simple. One more movie example, if I may. The first Black Widow appearance in The Avengers. As a super-assassin, she could, in fact, outfight the group of Russian thugs any time. But she doesn’t have to. She feigns utter helplessness, playing the perfect damsel in distress with no savior on the way, and then, when the time comes, takes them by surprise. In other words, she outsmarts them. Later on, she plays up her vulnerability again, and tricks none other than Loki into revealing his plan. Those scenes are much more memorable and suspenseful than most of her pure action sequences. Why? Because they show a heroine with a different skill set, and because there is an element of surprise that we as consumers so crave.

I find it interesting that while family movies and sitcoms over the last 20-some years have taught us that women are smarter and mentally tougher than men, we rarely see women outsmart, rather than outfight, their opponents. Whether it’s lack of imagination or blind insistence on physical equality between men and women, too often the writers’ choices end up diminishing both the female characters and the quality of the stories. It is high time we got past the tropes and moved on to different, and more exciting, possibilities.

Marina Fontaine is a co-founder of Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance and the author of Chasing Freedom (a Dragon Awards finalist) and The Product, a dystopian novella from Superversive Press.

A Day in the Life of Joe (Blue State Edition)

NOTE: “A Day in the Life of Joe Republican” is an essay meant to demonstrate the usefulness of Progressive policies and hypocrisy of conservatives who take advantage of them. A shortened version of the original and my “re-write” are presented below.

 

Joe gets up at 6 a.m. and fills his coffeepot with water to prepare his morning coffee.

Joe gets up at 6 a.m. to prepare his morning coffee. Then he remembers that he doesn’t have any real coffee. All the coffee beans are now Free Trade and Organic, so he can’t afford to buy them anymore. He measures out the instant coffee powder into his mug and fills it with water.

 

The water is clean and good because some tree-hugging liberal fought for minimum water-quality standards.

The water trickles very slowly into the mug because his kitchen is equipped with low-flow faucets, as per the new regulations. After a couple of minutes, the mug is full and he heats the coffee in the microwave.

 

With his first swallow of coffee, he takes his daily medication. His medications are safe to take because some stupid commie liberal fought to insure their safety and that they work as advertised.

With his first swallow of coffee, he takes his daily medication. It’s not as effective as the one he used to take, but FDA banned the medication that worked for him because it could cause miscarriages. Joe tried to explain to his doctor that he was not in danger of a miscarriage, but there was nothing to be done.

 

All but $10 of his medications are paid for by his employer’s medical plan because some liberal union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance – now Joe gets it too.

The medication used to only have a $10 co-pay, but now Joe has to pay $50 because the union negotiated the new insurance plan that covers in-vitro fertilization for female employees, and the cost had to be made up by reducing pharmacy coverage.

 

He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs. Joe’s bacon is safe to eat because some girly-man liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry.


He prepares his morning breakfast, a bowl of organic oatmeal. He misses his eggs and bacon, but a carton of eggs is $10 at his local supermarket because the eggs came from free range chickens who only eat organic corn. Bacon is illegal in his town because it offends his Muslim neighbors.

 

In the morning shower, Joe reaches for his shampoo. His bottle is properly labeled with each ingredient and its amount in the total contents because some crybaby liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained.

In the morning shower, Joe reaches for his shampoo. It doesn’t clean his hair very well, but it’s made of bio-degradable vegetable based ingredients that are safe for the local wildlife. He takes care to finish the shower after 2 minutes to comply with the city water restrictions.

Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is clean because some environmentalist wacko liberal fought for laws to stop industries from polluting our air.

Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. He coughs from inhaling the car exhaust fumes. His street is now much more crowded with cars because one of the two lanes is reserved for bikes. It’s the middle of winter so no one is riding a bike, but the law still applies.

 

He walks to the subway station for his government-subsidized ride to work. It saves him considerable money in parking and transportation fees because some fancy-pants liberal fought for affordable public transportation, which gives everyone the opportunity to be a contributor.

He walks to the subway station and sticks the Metro Card into the slot. It’s rejected because the fair just went up again and he needs to re-charge the card more often. Luckily, he has plenty of time because the loudspeaker just said something about a delay, and judging by the crowd on the platform, he may not even get into the next train anyway. Joe had to give up his car last year because the new 35% parking tax at the garage. At least he doesn’t have to worry about gas prices going up. The thought energizes him enough to push his way through the crowd and make it inside the train just before the doors slide shut.

 

Joe begins his work day. He has a good job with excellent pay, medical benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some lazy liberal union members fought and died for these working standards. Joe’s employer pays these standards because Joe’s employer doesn’t want his employees to call the union.

Joe begins his work day. He’s an excellent worker, but only received a 2% increase last year because he reached the top of his pay grade and can now only get inflation adjustments. His usual partner has been on paid leave for the last week to take care of a sick pet. The union fought very hard for that concession, and Joe was happy when they won. Now he’s not very happy because he needs to cover the station on with a less experienced employee, but it’s worth it to have the union benefits for everyone.

 

Joe is home from work… He turns on a radio talk show. The radio host keeps saying that liberals are bad and conservatives are good. He doesn’t mention that the beloved Republicans have fought against every protection and benefit Joe enjoys throughout his day.

Joe is home from work. He turns on the evening news. The news anchor keeps saying that conservatives are bad and liberals are good. He doesn’t mention that the beloved Democrats have passed laws and regulations that caused many of the difficulties and sacrifices Joe faces throughout the day.

 

Joe agrees: “We don’t need those big-government liberals ruining our lives! After all, I’m a self-made man who believes everyone should take care of themselves, just like I have.”

Joe agrees: “It’s a good thing we don’t have those free-market conservatives in charge! After all, I’m just a regular man who believes the government should make everyone’s lives easier, just like they’ve done for me.”

 

Waiter, There’s a Message In My Fiction!

First, a disclaimer. Art in general and storytelling in particular lends itself to near-infinite variety of perception. In spite of what highly paid literature critics and professors will tell you, there isn’t One True Way to interpret a piece of art. I am, in fact, fresh of watching Mr. Plinkett’s video explaining why Titanic was both the best and the worst movie ever. And so when we discuss so-called “message fiction,” it’s good to remember that such classification will always be in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, the term has gained popularity lately, and it might be time for some clarity as to the meaning.

The most common usage of the “message fiction” has come from the (loosely defined) right side of the political spectrum when discussing works by authors, largely on the left who place ideological considerations above the quality of their art.

Message fiction can take many forms and exists in every genre, although it seems especially prevalent in science fiction and fantasy. A post-Apocalyptic story that incessantly talks of humans ruining the Earth through environmental neglect. An alien encounter story that demonstrates clear superiority of communal living over individualism and traditional family structure. A dystopia about the horrors of the government run by corporations, or the Church, or whoever the Villain of the Week is supposed to be. You get the idea. Setups, plotlines and even characters who are mere vessels for advancing the author’s agenda, with minimal regard for the basics of storytelling and no attempt at entertainment.

Mind you, there is a market for it. There are people who read and love message fiction. There are organizations handing out accolades and awards to the authors. At this time, anyone who has paid even minimal attention to the happenings in the publishing world will understand the reference, and others can just take my word for it. Or simply look at what happened with the Oscars over the last few years. It’s the same disconnect between the highbrow elites and garden-variety consumers, minus the red carpets and obnoxiously overpriced gowns.

That leaves the rest of us with a dilemma. Sure, we want entertainment in our fiction instead of a lecture. However, does it mean that we are forever doomed to limit ourselves to book equivalents of B-movies? Don’t get me wrong, I love Fast and Furious as much as the next gal (probably more, truth be told), but I also love Lives of Others. There is a place for lowbrow art that exists to give us a burst of adrenaline and take our attention of the next mortgage bill for a few hours. And there is a place for something more subtle, more refined, that will make us ask questions about the human condition and difficult moral choices. There is, in other words, a place, not for message fiction as described above, but for fiction with a message.

This is not mere play on words. The distinction is crucial: does the message come before the story, or the other way around? More to the point, how do consumers know one from the other, and how do authors avoid the dreaded “message fiction” label?

Many writers and bloggers have addressed the subject before, with examples ranging from Pilgrim’s Progress to Atlas Shrugged and everything in between. (Ayn Rand is certainly considered the Grand Dame of message fiction because of the (in)famous John Galt speech, explaining the Objectivist philosophy in painful detail, stuck in the middle of a compelling if flawed novel. Note to new authors: Rand got away with it. You won’t.) I want to use something different for my example, if only to shake up the discussion.

Having grown up in the former Soviet Union, I read plenty of what in today’s terms would be called “message fiction,” 99% of it ranging from forgettable to laughable. But there was a poem we had to read in second grade, Death of a Young Pioneer Girl by Eduard Bagritsky. It was traditional as part of our Russian Language homework to memorize poems, but this one was long and memorizing it was an option for extra credit. Being a stereotypical straight-A nerd, I naturally decided to memorize it. And frankly now, decades later, I wish I hadn’t. I don’t want it in my head. Yet here it still is.

The story revolves, as promised in the title, around a dying girl. She is a member of the Young Pioneers, an organization designed to indoctrinate children aged seven to fourteen into the Soviet ways. (Most Americans, public education notwithstanding, are probably familiar with iconic Soviet posters of happy kids with red scarves around their necks—those are the Young Pioneers.) Surrounded by helpless doctors and grieving family, she is slowly and painfully succumbing to scarlet fever. If you ever wanted to know how it feels to die from a nasty childhood disease, this poem will tell you. Russian children’s literature can be brutal that way. But that’s not the plot, as the death is pre-determined. The conflict comes when the mother attempts to put a baptismal cross around the girl’s neck, presumably to administer the Russian Orthodox version of the Last Rites. And the child, even in her agonized feverish state, refuses. Her last act on this Earth is to swat the cross away and lift her hand in a Young Pioneer salute. Her last words are the Young Pioneer’s pledge of loyalty to the state, not a goodbye to her family. The ending is devastating, sure, but it’s also meant to be inspiring. The poem is both a vile piece of propaganda aimed at eight-year-olds and a haunting piece of art.

And art it is. There can be no question in my mind that this one is not the kind of “message fiction” currently attempting to devastate whole genres of literature as surely as an untreated disease can kill its victim. It’s just fiction, and it has a message that is not at all subtle. Repugnant, yes, at least to my mind, but also highly effective. Why? Because it’s wrapped in a darn good story. This is how propaganda works, and the Soviets had perfected it in their time. The Left in the U.S. has generally done a good job of it as well, except, having become so successful at it over the decades, they have also become complacent. The quality began to slip, and they fell into the message fiction trap. I, for one, will not shed a tear.
There is a danger, though, for us as conservative and libertarian writers. We write for different reasons, but many of us use fiction as an opportunity to express our worldview, at least to some extent. I was a reader and reviewer long before I started to write, as I have always felt that authors should at least attempt to put something of themselves in their work. Otherwise, why bother? With millions of stories out there, why add to the pile if you can’t offer something that is specifically “you”? And it makes perfect sense that “something” will occasionally be political views.

Censoring yourself, filing down every edge so as not to appear too controversial is just as destructive of art as squeezing a political message in a place where it doesn’t belong. We can all agree that message fiction is bad, but hollowed-out, sterile, one-size-fits-all storytelling is worse. I’m not talking about pure lowbrow entertainment—as mentioned at the beginning of the post, there is a place for it, and I enjoy it greatly. But much too often I come across a story that has all elements of greatness, where the author obviously wanted to say something interesting and thought-provoking—and then backed down, whether to sell more copies or to avoid an accusation of making the work too political, I would never know. I do know that such stories break my heart with their obviously wasted potential.

Ayn Rand, of whom I am still a fan, even though I no longer find Objectivism as appealing as it once was, has once written a short story The Simplest Thing in the World. It details a struggle of a desperately poor writer to create a story that would appeal to the masses. Unfortunately, any time he starts a safe, predictable, plot that a potential publisher would accept, his mind wanders into different directions, creating stories that are unique and exciting—but not suitable for a dime store novel. And so, at the end, he gives up and decides to peruse the Classifieds for non-creative work. It’s unlike Rand’s other fiction because the character is not a hero intentionally refusing to compromise; he’s a creator whose mind rebels at the attempt. He simply can’t help it.

Fortunately in our time and place, with the rise of independent and small publishing, we don’t have to compromise. As readers, we don’t have to settle for either obnoxious, low quality message fiction OR for stories that are muted, bland and sometimes outright confusing because of the author’s desire to please or fear to offend. Conversely, as authors, we have the luxury of being ourselves, writing what we want, saying what we believe and most importantly, crafting the best story we can. Anyone even marginally familiar with history will understand what a rare opportunity this is. We dare not waste it.

Marina Fontaine is a Russian by birth, an American by choice, and an unrepentant book addict. She runs Small Government Book Fan Club on Goodreads, Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance group on Facebook, and a cultural commentary/review blog, Marina’s Musings.
Marina  is the author of Chasing Freedom (a 2016 Dragon Award finalist for Apocalyptic Novel) and The Product, a dystopian novella. She lives in New Jersey, working as an accountant by day and a writer by night.