Okay first, right off the hop, let me just say that yes, like a twelve-year-old, I have been snickering at the question “who puts the ‘D’ in ‘Dystopia’”.
Dystopian fiction used to be among my favourite genres …styles… of fiction. I still do love me a well-crafted dystopian tale, but lately I’ve been approaching this genre the way one might approach a wolf caught in a leg trap. I’ve found myself drifting more to a style of fiction I haven’t usually been fond of – fantasy adventure. Before I get too far down this rabbit hole, I will say this: I enjoy fantasy adventure roleplaying games (RPGs), lighthearted satirical fantasy (Terry Pratchett, Robert Asprin, Spider Robinson, et al), and there’s an aspect of supernatural fantasy that I find absolutely riveting. So many works of fantasy adventure though are bloated, enormous beasts of things that, if you start in on a book (or, Glob forbid, an X-volumed series, where X is the square of the fourth fractal hypoteneuse of a topological conundrum), you may be leaving that story to your children’s children. There are ways of doing worldbuilding and fantasy that really work (Katherine Arden’s “Winternight” series; Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Orphan’s Tale” books; Laini Taylor’s “Strange the Dreamer” series), and there are ways of worldbuilding and fantasy that don’t work for me at all.
The things that didn’t used to work for me still don’t (needing a farging flowchart to figure out who the cast of characters are; needing to constantly refer to a map to figure out where the hell anything is happening; characters that are so similar to one another as to essentially be the same character in different gowns (yes, it’s usually female characters who get this treatment – but not always); a staggeringly homogenous cast; pages and pages of slogging through [insert description of landscape here]….I could go on, but I didn’t intend for this post to be a “why cenobyte is super choosy about fantasy adventure fiction” post). The point IS, I more or less stopped reading fantasy adventure in my teens, opting instead for dystopian, horror, suspense, sci-fi, and weird fiction (yes, I know “sci-fi fiction” is redundant; lists are hard, okay?). Lately, I’ve been reaching for different works.
Some is literary work (this goes in part with my work and in part with what I enjoy reading), but more and more, I’m hesitating before cracking the spine on a dystopian novel. Why? (And why do you care?)
Elements that shape and define a dystopian work are: envisioning a world where potentially comfortable, even idyllic lifestyles just aren’t possible for the majority of citizens, if any of them. This includes: overreaching government control or pure anarchy; loss of individualism (usually tied to the former); environmental disaster and the struggle for survival; technological extremes (either total control or near-total loss); cultural destruction; an overarching sense of desloation. Of course, the real hook in a good work of dystopian fiction is that single thread of hope that, like the one left in Pandora’s box, can act as a beacon through the chaos and usually serves as the characters’ call to action.
Some of my favourite works in this genre leave me with such a profound sense of bleak hopelessness that every small gain is an enormous victory. Maybe that’s part of what I enjoy – the triumph of hope over despair, and learning to rejoice in the little things that work out in your favour. There’s a problem, and maybe this has as much to do with being a GenXer who developed coping strategies through the tail end of the Cold War, but buddy, we’re *living in* a fucking dystopia.
Sure, some of us have nice homes, clean water, employment income that allows us to feed ourselves fairly well, and maybe even with a little left over for a vacation where we go somewhere else where we enjoy amenities just as nice as the ones we have at home. But the majority of people don’t have access to all of these things, and the divide between the people who do and the people who don’t is shrinking. Which is to say, among developed nations, the middle class is shrinking. And maybe it’s just that only the shitty stuff gets reported, but it sure feels like any gains we made toward breaking up bigotry and hate in the 80s and 90s has gone out the window; people are shooting each other in schools and streets and nobody seems to think that’s a problem; people are couching hate and intolerance in thinly veiled statements about “freedom” (thus showing a fundamental misunderstanding of what freedom actually is); and this idea that it’s okay to just treat people like crap.
We’ve pushed the environment to (and possibly past) its breaking point by continuing to choose profit over planet, but somehow we’re *also* bitching about the price of oil and gas? Even though we in the west are living in a culture that predicates the majority of its public spending on revenues from that sector? Marine reefs are bleaching and dying; glaciers are melting; ocean levels are rising; weather patterns are changing because of the change in ocean temperatures – this is causing more frequent and more severe storms. Flooding, fires, and drought plage the Americas, and heat records approaching the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet are being broken in India. There are folks who claim none of this can be attributed to human activity, but we also have an entire island of garbage floating around the Pacific Ocean, and my friend, dolphins and sharks didn’t create that. Marine animals are starving to death because their guts are full of plastic. Moose don’t make plastic.
The weird decrease in government regulation and oversight for many industries and activities, coupled with an increase in monitoring and decreases in privacy are warning bells that, as a consumer of dystopian literature, made me nervous enough. Now the radicalised religious right want to dictate how and when people are allowed to access medical and health care. And this is actually a *debate*. All the work done by generations of people advocating for equality and equity is circling the drain.
*CUE THE RUSSIANS*
On the one hand, reading dystopian fiction is an exercise that forces you to realise “well thankfully we’re not THERE. Yet.” But on the other hand, we’re, like, 3/4 of the way there, and that’s bad. Real bad. I thought reading dystopian fiction would prepare me for a life that fell somewhat short of the ideal, but I never thought I’d be living in a society that seems not only hell bent on creating that dystopia, but super excited about it. So I reach for these books less frequently, even more rarely if they’re about pandemics or totalitarian and/or cult-of-personality government leaders. I think it’s about sustained mental anguish from the last few years. And that makes me sad.
(Some of my favourite Dystopian novels: Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Girl Who Was Plugged In, Swan Song, Red Clocks, Snow Crash, Neuromancer, Children of Men, 1984, The Time Machine – there are many more in this list, but these are some of the ones I’ve gone back to more than once.)