Dealing with Harsh Realities through Genre Fiction

The following article was written by Jeffrey Aaron Miller, author of Children of the Mechanism.

Children-ofthe-Mechanism_EBook FinalOne of the things I love about science fiction and fantasy is the ability to craft fantastical settings as a concrete reflection of the thematic elements of the story. A post-apocalyptic setting serves well for a story about characters who are emotionally devastated. A dystopian setting serves well for a story about characters who are yearning for freedom. The options are endless.

When I was in college, in a previous millennium, I happened across a documentary on CNN one night about children in the Holocaust. It profoundly disturbed me, not just the specific horrors that people endured but the thought that there were kids who essentially grew up in concentration camps. The daily evil that they witnessed and experienced was the only version of “normal” that they knew.

As I often do when things disturb me, I looked for a way to deal with my emotional response through the writing of a story. Now, I’m no historian, so I’m not qualified to write a period-specific story. That is another reason why I turn to genre fiction. So I proceeded to write a short story about child slaves living and working in the depths of a mysterious factory, guarded by cruel robots called Watchers. Their days are filled with meaningless work, punctuated by constant death and a mounting sense of hopelessness.

That story, called Stick Boys, was first turned in as an assignment for a creative writing class. The teaching assistant, as I recall, was disturbed by it, but the overall reception was positive. Later, that same story appeared in a now-defunct fiction magazine called Lost Worlds of Science Fiction and Fantasy. The editor of the magazine asked me if I had any other stories set in the same world. I did not, but the query set me on a path to creating that world.

Over the years, I wrote other short stories set in the same factory, detailing the experiences of other slaves. I never published any of those stories. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them, but I could sense the experiences of all of these slaves flowing together into one over-arching narrative. Finally, I knew they had to become a novel.

By the time I sat down to write the novel, other disturbing things had taken the place of that CNN documentary. Specifically, I had been exposed to the conditions of child laborers in third world sweatshops. Not unlike the child laborers of the Industrial Revolution, these kids spend twelve to fourteen hours a day in dark, dangerous conditions, working tirelessly to make things like soccer balls and sneakers for export to wealthy nations.

It is a reality that troubles me greatly. While my own children play video games and sports, jump on the trampoline in the backyard and watch cartoons, there are (according to UNICEF) an estimated 150 millions kids between the ages of 5 and 14 who work full-time as child laborers in developing nations, most of them in hazardous condition. They face constant beatings, mistreatment, malnutrition and abuse.

All of this knowledge worked its way into the novel. I suppose it is catharsis for me, working through troubling thoughts by carving out a narrative that exposes them and shapes them into something meaningful. I think science fiction and fantasy are great genres for doing that.

So my latest novel, Children of the Mechanism, is the result.

In the book, the reader is introduced to a series of young slaves working in various chambers inside a vast and mysterious factory, guarded and cruelly treated by robots called Watchers. In the course of the story, some of the slaves escape from their chambers and wander the corridors, and gradually they discover some terrible truths about the nature of their world.

The novel is available from Clockwork Quills as both a paperback and e-book, and I hope readers are moved and provoked to thought by it.

Article by Jeffrey Aaron Miller.

  • James Pailly

    One of the things I love about science fiction is this sort of social commentary. It’s been a part of the genre from the days of H.G. Wells, when he wrote about the Haves and Have-Nots of society evolving into separate species. I’m adding this book to my reading list.