Science fiction, especially, has often addressed present-day issues adroitly by using a future or alien setting. "Golden Age" SF often dealt with the then-new shadow of nuclear annihilation as well as the horrors of totalitarian rule. Today's stories often address the implications of advanced computer technology including artificial intelligence and extra-governmental conspiracies. On TV, the original Star Trek series dealt with the hot issues of the late 1960s, such as racial equality, the Cold War (with the Klingon empire standing in for the Soviet Union), and the morality of proxy wars. Star Trek: The Next Generation likewise explored themes pertinent to the 1980s and 1990s such as cultural relativism, embracing diversity, the moral use of power, and using multilateral diplomacy rather than the threat of force to achieve goals. While the Star Trek franchise may have fallen away from such relevancy in its more recent incarnations, Babylon 5 picked up where TNG left off.
Fantasy has tended not to address current events as explicitly as SF, hearkening rather to ancient themes of good versus evil, poetic justice, and Pyrrhic victories. Even so, a recurrent theme in fantasy is an exploration of women's roles through strong women protagonists facing challenges in oppressive societies. Another issue that arises often is a struggle for intercultural communication, cooperation, and mutual respect.
As I write this in 2004, the United States is in the middle of a presidential election campaign where the outcome will probably be very close, and our troops are fighting on foreign soil. The events of 9/11 are still fresh in Americans' minds, and other acts of terrorism, such as the 3/11 subway bombing in Madrid, are omni-possible. The U.S. economy continues to register mixed signals, hinting at an underlying fragility or, at least, uneven opportunity across our society. If you are not American, then you have your own list of key concerns.
Given SF/fantasy's tradition of reflecting on current events through storytelling, we may well try to write about the current world situation -- or find ourselves unconsciously writing about such concerns. Here are some thoughts about how to do so successfully.
If you want to make a point, then perhaps you should write an essay. I mean it. Fiction is much more effective when it poses questions than when it tries to provide answers.
Our characters should seem to have free will or, at least, wills free of their author. When we manipulate them like puppets, pointing them in a certain direction, then our readers sense the strings being pulled and no longer identify with them. Give your characters permission to have deep character flaws, make bad decisions -- and to be smarter and wiser than you are.
Likewise, our stories' outcomes must seem to hang in the balance. When the reader senses -- and readers are very acute -- that the plot is being forced toward a given outcome, they will lose interest. Are you determined that certain things will happen or that certain things will not happen? Then take a step back and relax your convictions until everything is possible.
When we approach our stories in a questioning frame of mind, open to surprises, then we create work that will be alive to our readers, perhaps surprising them into asking questions as well. We need to trust our readers to come up with answers.
If we want to know what's going on in the world, we can read the Internet or a newspaper, watch TV, or listen to NPR. I don't need to read a story to tell me that food aid can disrupt indigenous, ecologically adapted diets. Or to know that some leaders have political opponents shot. Or to know that when an industry collapses, small towns that depend on it are left destitute. Or to know that some white people are bigots and some black people are smart, or vice versa. Or to know that some mothers kill their children, or vice versa.
The facts are already in the news. The purpose of fiction is to transcend facts, to add a layer of insight, compassion, and wisdom so that the reader walks away resonating with some new truth apart from the literal facts.
Don't tell me that murder is bad and deserves punishment. Do explore the personal and broader repercussions of the soldier who mistakenly kills a friend in combat. Do explore the personal accountability of, and our social responsibility for, the immigrant mother who is so isolated and alienated that she throws her children off a bridge. Do explore that edge of humanness where another human being no longer registers as human, whether in a split-second of alcohol-uninhibited rage or as part of a lifelong sociopathy.
Don't tell me that post-colonial governments are often corrupt. Do explore the personal moral compromises of living under such a system, the risks of trying to change it, and why complicity with corruption may be the best choice for someone trying to take care of themselves and their loved ones.
Don't tell me that pollution is bad and that when humans hurt their environment, they eventually hurt themselves. I already know that. Do explore the hard choices between economic development and environmental damage, the gap between actions and consequences (it's a fact that we've made a lot of species extinct but we're still here), and the vast amount we still don't know about so many species or about global environmental balance.
Don't tell me that gay people shouldn't be harassed, tortured, and killed . . . Don't be obvious!
The bottom line: Ask questions. Filter events. Explore the unknown. Get to a maybe-truth that hits your reader in the gut.