Sunday 4 September 2011

D is for Dystopian

In a dystopian science fiction story, characters inhabit a future (or imaginary) society that is repressive, totalitarian, fundamentalist or in some other way intolerable. The best dystopias are only slightly exaggerated forms of our own world, perhaps stretching government censorship (at least as we know it in the “Free World”), taking media bias to a logical extreme, and removing personal freedoms that we are already allowing to degrade around us. Whether political, corporate or religious dystopia, there is of course plenty of grist to chew on in our contemporary world. Classics of the genre—Orwell’s 1984, Gilliam’s Brazil, Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale—contain nothing that would be out of place in a realistic account of Fascist, Soviet, and/or theocratic dictatorships of the Twentieth Century.

It is therefore obvious that dystopian SF will be an extremely suitable work for a magazine of socio-political science fiction (‘Art Attack’, ‘Kemistry’ and ‘The Recycled Man’ use it to particularly good effect), and the corporate dystopia is particularly popular in one of our favorite subgenres, Cyberpunk. Exaggerating the worst elements of our society as a warning against complacency and political apathy is one of the most valuable roles science fiction can play in our culture.

In a dystopian setting the individual is powerless, is lost; the protagonist may be a victim of this repression, or may be a rebel against it, or may even be a cog in the sinister machine that keeps the world in its unjust and intolerable state (aren’t we all, if we don’t speak out against it?).

Perhaps the most popular dystopian setting is the totalitarian crypto-Stalinist regime that openly demands loyalty and agreement in political and ethical dogma; free-thinkers are the first to fall, and brutal public reprisals against real or alleged dissidents are used as a means to instill terror and therefore submission in the rest of the populace. The regime claims to be acting for the greater good, because only through social engineering of this kind can lasting peace and prosperity be assured.

Almost as terrifying, and especially popular in the fantasy flavour of dystopia (perhaps because we naïvely think this sort of religious fervour is a mediaeval throwback), is the fundamentalist theocratic government. In the world the government are a benign, paternalistic force, often working through the medium of honest local pastors of the faith to ensure that society follows literally the moralistic teachings of whatever Book the society follows. Victims of this culture will typically include women, homosexuals and nonbelievers to varying extents; resistance is particularly difficult to sustain because of the great power of propaganda that religious proselytism allows, and the simplistic and attractive picture of good versus evil that they project.

In my view the most potent form of dystopia available to the Twenty-first Century Western speculative fiction writer, however, is the libertarian or hypercapitalist “meritocratic” dystopia. In this world, which is most obviously an exaggeration of our own, rather than a historical horror story, society claims to be free, to the extent that government has almost no role in restricting the lives of its citizens. Individuals are only constrained by the extent of their own ambition and ability to succeed, to make money, to rise through the classless culture to a position of privilege, luxury, and power. Without government intervention against monopolistic industries, corrupt corporations and unscrupulous individuals, however, those who rise to the top of this ruthless society have almost limitless power to exploit, suppress and silence the bulk of humanity who are still sucking on the ocean floor. Any kind of social welfare, universal healthcare, workers’ rights, anti-corruption activity or redistribution of wealth is instantly, mercilessly and decisively crushed in the name of virtuous market forces.

The three scenarios above are only examples of how modern dystopias might work; you should come up with your own, and I think it will be inevitable that as you set out the dark forces at work controlling this repressive society your heroes have to fight against, social and political parallels with our own or other cultures will become obvious to you, and your story will turn into a cautionary tale whether you conceived it as one or not. It will also become obvious that you cannot write a political dystopia without your own political views and biases being reflected in the setting (if you think this isn’t true, go read Rachel Swirsky’s ‘Scene from a Dystopia’ and we’ll talk again).

But I am of the opinion that dystopian fiction can also be among the most optimistic of stories, or at least can contain elements of heart-warming and reassuring detail. In the worst of circumstances, people are capable of pulling together, of showing human warmth, generosity and altruism in contrast to the paranoid, self-interested isolationism that totalitarian rulers would like to instill in their subjects. We don’t always do so, it’s true; nevertheless showing awareness of and highlighting the co-operative, socialized and community-spirited side of human nature is a deeply political act (see the companionable characters in ‘Avatar on the Belts’ or ‘Silence’, for example). This shouldn’t be the point of the story, or it turns into a cheap morality play, but observing human nature like this is itself a political act.

It’s hard to imagine a well-written dystopian science fiction story that is not deeply socio-political and speculative.


Trace Yulie said...

Thought-provoking post on one of my favorite topics in lit.

Dystopia's exploration of tensions between equality, homogeneity and repression make it an excellent counterpoint to political impulses towards radical utopia (and I mean "radical" in the most vibrant and positive sense). That interplay is a fun and fruitful site of socio-political discussion.

Markhaa said...

I also think Dystopian SF is the nearest to 'naturalistic' writing. For readers who have problems dealing with SF and Fantasy, they are more comfortable with the author picking on something that they can see in the current world and exaggerating it.

Djibril said...

I think there is a lot to be said for Mark's point that dystopia is a genre often co-opted by "literary" writers because it is speculative in precisely the sense that all literature is and should be. It writes about the world as it might be, as it could be, as we might dream it, or as it might turn out if we're not careful. (This is part of the reason, of course, that there is in no real sense a hard and fast line between spec-fic and lit-fic or any other genre... there are just themes and styles and concepts that are available for all to work with.)

For the same reason, the point Tracie makes about dystopia and utopia being wonderful vehicles for exploring political tensions is absolutely spot on. I think all speculative fiction (which, as I argue above, means all fiction) twists aspects of our real world to make them better and/or worse, which cannot help but be a political statement (or experiment--we can ask questions without necessarily knowing the answers).

Susan said...

Yes, it is because Margaret Atwood writes dystopias that she is able to say (and many others say) she is not a spec fic or even straight science fiction writer, despite the fact that she writes of a future where someone creates a new species to replace humanity in a lab and then releases an artificial disease to wipe out regular humanity. Have you ever heard of a more science fictional premise? But she is a known everywhere as a literary author. Of course, my problem is not with the idea that Atwood is a literary author, because I agree that she is. My problem is with the idea that this necessarily means she is not a science fiction author, as if you can't be both.

One of the things that I like about dystopias is what you talk about in the fundamentalist stories. People focus on what they see as the positive aspects of a world view and don't see the failures. Drawing these societies out to their fullest expression exposes those failures, and also shows why people like them. Generally speaking, most types of dystopias do some real good for some members of the society, even if it is just as a way of exerting control and extorting loyalty. The exploration of how a society can do both good and bad, and why the good does or does not outweigh the good is what is interesting to me. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a perfect society that meets absolutely everyone's needs. Where do you draw the line, and what sacrifices do you make to set up the best possible society? This brings to mind Le Guin's story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," which seems like a utopian story at first, but then shifts to a dystopia.