Right Story, Wrong Time

Can a story really be too topical or contemporary?

I’ve been shopping around a cyberpunk short story called “Brain Bombs” to various markets. I wrote the first draft about a year and a half ago, inspired by people I knew years ago who were involved with the ELF. I wanted to know how such individuals would operate in a scenario that genre readers are more familiar with.

I put the story away for a while, then revised and prepped it for critique on the Codex forums. A day before I planned to give it to Codex members, the Boston Marathon bombing happened.

I couldn’t touch the story for months. I had visited Boston after attending Viable Paradise the previous October, and I knew a lot of people who lived there. My protagonists were planting cyber-bombs in public places to achieve their goals, and it was too beyond the pale to touch for a while.

A few months passed, and I felt it had been long enough to finish. The work was critiqued, I put the finishing touches on it. . . and as I began submitting the story to markets, the Snowden affair exploded.

My protagonists were fighting against government surveillance.

I hadn’t intended my story to be quite so “ripped from the headlines.” I wanted to draw parallels with the ELF, the old IRA, and the Weather Underground, to show how the existence of such organizations just radicalizes both the public’s and the government’s responses.

I would guess that one reason my story hasn’t found a home is because editors think it’s just Edward Snowden meets Neuromancer.

It’s frustrating because I don’t want my story to be so contemporary. For a recent example, I recently saw Elysium in theaters. It’s a fun movie and well-executed, but it’s so bound to this decade’s political milieu that audiences won’t connect with it in another twenty, maybe even ten, years. Soylent Green is a much older movie, considered a genre classic, that has the same problem. The best works of science fiction, like Foundation by Isaac Asimov and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, address timeless issues that resonate with readers decades later.

So what can I do? If I wrote my story well, it should work outside of the context I wrote it in, without the (unintentional) parallels that contemporary readers are familiar with. I’ll keep looking for a place for “Brain Bombs,” hope the right editor finds it, and I’ll be rewriting my next story.

Which, by the way, involves unicorns. So please, scientists, don’t invent unicorns until I get it sold.