Hello hello! Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Radio SciFiMagpie, your source for goofy reviews, insight, genre fiction, and quotable fuckery related to all of the above.
Today, we're talking about dystopian fiction: I have mentioned my love for it in previous posts, and since the Hunger Games is still warming the front shelves of book store windows, I figured it was time for a review of why some of us love talking about the end of the world.
Dystopian fiction--Wait, what?: Sometimes also known as social science fiction, takes its roots in the idea of a dystopia, literally a "bad world" (Greek "dys", meaning bad, and "topia", world). A story centred in or around a dystopia tends to have a hint of horror or suspense, but is generally more psychological than action-packed. It is very seldom, if ever, that you will get a propery fantasy seting with this fiction type. Sometimes the setting will be post-apocolyptic; it is pretty impossible to distinguish them, since disasters of various kinds are usually the driving force behind the development of a dystopia. The old stuff was generally centred around a world that was ruined by government control, but technically any vision of the world that is a) bad and b) vaguely futuristic or "not right now" counts as a dystopia. And lately, of course, the hottest trend in teen literature has been a re-tread of the "star-crossed lovers" theme with the state or world acting as Romeo and Juliet's interfering parents. We'll get to that in a minute. Have some theme music first.
Here, have some examples!: Say "dystopia" and the one most people think of is 1984, George Orwell's famous work about a communist police state. It's nightmarish, violent, dirty, and grimy: this is not a shiny future filled with fast cars and elegant technology. In contrast, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World has the shiny technology and a tidy, beautiful world, but the darkness comes from the lack of freedom from the caste system and the meaninglessness of the lifestyle there. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a.k.a Blade Runner, and pretty much everything else Phillip K. Dick has written are also good examples of dark, ugly worlds torn by ideological conflict, environmental ruin, and class war.V for Vendetta or The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore are graphic illustrated dystopias, in case you want something with a little more visual detail. If Politics don't turn your crank, Nick Sagan's Idlewild series and Feed by M.T. Anderson are fast-paced, short, and teen-friendly options in the 'world sucks' area. There are also more anime and manga options than can be safely mentioned by a sane person, if you want something other than the Euro/American flavours.
Before you fall asleep or skip back to the blog about Space Boobies, I ought to mention that the dystopian perspective is not restricted to rectangular paper things or those files that are clogging up your Kobo. Portal and Portal 2 are both, technically, dystopian games. Everything in the Resident Evil series would also count, as would the world of Bioshock, Metro 2033, and, of course, the beloved Fallout games.
(If you aren't familiar with any of these games, google "Steam games", find the game website, and buy all of them for your computer. Alternately, find a friend who likes them and have them play while you watch. Or, if you're a lazy fuck, and shame on you, go read about them on Wikipedia. Each one of them represents a fine and rich gaming experience and excellent story-writing, or in the case of the the Resident Evil games, writing so bad, it's good.)
So, now that we've established what dystopias are, and that there are lots of good ones for you to enjoy, why the hell do you care?
A lot of people find them unpleasantly hopeless. Darkened settings are part of sci fi, but a dystopia is something a little more hopeless and strange and distant than the usual faraway planet or not-so-distant future. They have come in and out on a regular basis since the 1980s, more often in books and games than movies, but a really pure dystopian story isn't all that common. Or rather, it wasn't, but they've gotten a lot more attention recently.
Why? Between environmental destruction and its effects, rapidly more apparent, and political uncertainty, we have the basic ingredients of the end of the world. (I'm not going to derail this into a political rant, because you can probably judge the importance of those factors for yourself.) And yet, there are billions of us, the technology of movies and television has become real enough to hold, and there is a sense that we, humanity, are too big and heroic and important to fail. It is impossible to picture the end of the world as it is now, because so many endings are possible. The urge to explore the method of our own destruction is irresistible, the human impulsive curiosity about death. Like Narcissus, we stare into the pond's mirror in fascination, unable to abandon the deadly and tempting image of ourselves.
Of course there are less serious reasons: the technology is damn cool. In the pre-assembled world of developed countries, jury-rigging ersatz tech and clothing is cool as all get out. Alternate times have always interested us; the idea of magic or a now-and-not-now world compelled us as soon as our brains were complex enough to think about it. A world really and truly working against the hero is both more relatable and a higher-stakes game than usual. it is more fun to be in love when the world is falling apart, too, because the struggle of the characters seems more important and less so at the same time, a pleasing contradiction. Maybe it is even related to the joy in destroying things: everyone loves a good disaster.
Ahhh. a destroyed New York. It is as soothing as peting a fluffy kitten. Made of rainbows.
Or, just maybe, it is because we are playing through our nightmares and trying to defeat them. One theory about dreams suggests that the brain creates them partly to play through its fears and develop alternate coping strategies, solutions. Dystopias, strange as it may sound, are always about surviving. If you can think of a dystopian story with a genuine unhappy ending, bring it back. The rest of us will wait.
As for me, I love thinking about, experiencing, and talking about every possible way the world could end, and what it would look like. I love it. Odd technology, traumatized characters, personal interactions that matter to survival instead of just existing to amuse, a cut-throat world, and, ultimately, a crazy kind of hope that makes protagonists persevere: these are ingredients of epics, both great and minuscule, and in the dystopia, they get a special sharpening. I think what keeps me coming back to the end of the world is a mixture of all of these things, of the factors that make us as people long to explore them, and the challenge of making it realistic. Expect more end-of-the-world/evil world settings as you keep reading my releases.
Well, every love song needs a coda, and I have come to mine. Unless the world actually ends, and we end up huddled around campfires again, you can expect a steady supply of these settings in entertainment for years to come. Until then, I'll be working on this hydrogen-cell-powered double-engine deathmobile, just in case. Actually, before you go, could you pass me the duct tape?
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