A well-known writer — I think it was John Updike — said that it was difficult to write about your own times. I suppose he was referring to incomplete events and trends that an artist sees close up and can’t predict what they’ll lead to. The situation is different, of course, for writers who have a cause to promote or who espouse a political agenda.
I wrote a series of five novels that I call “Witnesses” in which ordinary private citizens describe their experiences of coping with crises — in particular warfare — that they didn’t start, but had to observe or take part in, and did what they could to resolve or keep from getting worse.
“Witnesses” includes novellas about a war in the 17th century between a coalition of native nations and English colonists and their militias. Another sequence of stories has to do with a difficult war the American military fought in an imaginary Asian country in the 1960’s and early 70’s.
But what about the present day? I wanted to include certain troublesome aspects of our times — criminal gangs, cults that destroy their own people, terrorists, tyrannies, private military groups, and in the distance communism and neo-nazism. At the same time, I didn’t want to point my finger at a particular faction or movement, so I invented a cult group I called the Scythians, a nation that no longer exists but that was active in west Asia more than two millenia ago. Consummate materialists, they were also known as brutal, warlike, and inhospitable. People who came in contact with them considered them barbarians.
I thought up a history for my imginary cult and supposed that they’d been lurking underground for centuries and acting surrepetitiously until a modern-day ideologue revived them and gave them courage so that they could intrude with ambition and violence into present-day affairs. There’s nobody like them, so far as I know, and yet the anti-social self-seeking they epitomize is recognizable as part of the human story.
The Scythians can’t have the last word, however. Along with showing that good has the stronger hand in the never-ending battle with evil, the “Witnesses” novels portray ordinary private citizens who resist the cult and fight back at them. These people enjoy the freedom and ingenuity to live fruitfully and creatively and with the integrity that many people cherish. “Witnesses” affirms the hope that such values will continue to occupy a place at the center of our way of life.