Monday, June 14, 2010


So, Fellow Sophisticates, I'm either suffering from a nasty virus or, like Winston Smith, being slowly crushed down by the weight of a totalitarian regime. And the latter is possible! Yes, The City of Windsor could be just such a fiendish foe. The barren landscape, the lack of culture and individualism, a leadership more intent on the status quo than on productive change...

But possibly it could be a virus.

Yet I've been thinking about this idea of dystopia, and it struck me how pessimistic this genre is, at least as evidenced by its founding fathers. Not only have Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell envisioned these dystopic societies where the individual is buried beneath the mass of the State, but they all, shall we say, end on less than a happy note.

All three create a society where the state overwhelms the individual, where facelessness overshadows individuality. They are almost flawless, these vast structures of manipulation and propaganda. And yet all three writers have set fractures of hope in the blank wall of the state. Individualism, the questing human spirit... there's a sense of resistance, even against what seems an impossible enemy.

Yet in the end that hope is erased, subsumed by the faceless society.

So not only do we have the pessimism of the vision itself, of these dystopic worlds, but the veins of contending possibility are slowly squeezed shut or drained dry. Yes, there's always the possibility that opposition will rise again at some point, and yet will it have any better chance?

The pessimism of it struck me. Yet that is likely part of the didactic nature of these stories: the story as warning, as an omen of the future. And products of their times, too, most likely, created as they were in the time of the Great Wars. Faith in humanity, and human progress, had been dimmed. A sense of fear pervades these novels... and a sense of just retribution, as well. We, as a whole, deserve no more than these fates presented to us.

It strikes me that this is part of the driving force of the genre. Much of the generative power comes from this sense of pessimism. What do you think? Do dystopias arise out of our frustration with what we see around us?

And have things changed? What are some great modern dystopias if I want to continue my reading? And is there hope? A little optimism? Can the human spirit survive the dystopic future?

I'd love some recommendations. I've heard some great things about Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. Any thoughts? Any others?


Mesmerix said...

Amid the landscape of pessimisstic sci-fi is one vision of the future that is so optimistic it seems impossible: Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. A world where the Federation represents an overwhelming authority, but for the good and betterment of mankind (and alien-kind too, I suppose). It is the only hopeful sci-fi setting I can think of off the top of my head.

I definitely think these ideas, as within any genre, reflect the times. The publics' concerns are reflected in the material that is published and/or sells, though that certainly doesn't mean they were written in that era, merely that they became applicable then.

As for reading recommendations, if you haven't read Dune I think you sort of have to in order to consider yourself properly versed in the sci-fi genre, though YMMV on how much you enjoy it. I found it to be too crammed with expository writing that took away from an epic story, though that is also part and parcel to sci-fi. :)

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Thanks, Mesmerix. I read Dune years ago and liked it, but couldn't get too far into the sequels. They seemed to get worse as they went along, though it's been so long I can't remember much about them.

Mesmerix said...

I actually watched the movie over the weekend, the one with Patrick Stewart and Sting. It was alright. I wouldn't recommend anyone watch it without having read the book first as they skip and gloss over so many parts. I assume this was done to fit the mammoth book into 2 hours worth of film.

Never read any of the Dune sequels though. Haven't heard anyone ever rave about them.

Ted Cross said...

Yeah, I didn't much like Dune, and certainly not the sequels.

I feel that both overly optimistic and passimistic views are likely wrong (barring enormous acts of nature that simply wipe us out). Resistance has always proven stronger than people imagine, regardless of the history of individualism in any society. The state can try to make us conform, but resistance will eventually overcome it to at least a degree, in my opinion. I think there is a cycle to everything. If things head to far in one direction, just be patient and it will go the other way soon enough (historically speaking).

Mira said...

I think this is really interesting.

And I agree with what you said, Bryan, I think interest in Dystopian fiction is partly a sign of the times - with Industrialization, the World Wars, and the Depression. Also, Russia's dictatorship under the guise of communism - all these things were being worked out in the culture.

Right now - I think it's about corporations and how they control the world, with the resulting fears about class leveling, and environmental scares.

and I also agree - Dsytopian fiction is like a big warning sign - wake up! Fight back! It has to end on a negative note in order to have the full impact. It is, in a subtle way, an off-shoot of horror. It's trying to scare people awake.

What interests me, right now, is the dearth of Utopian fiction. Why isn't there a equal effort to imagine new visions and new solutions?

Maybe we should write one. :)

Fascinating topic.

Mira said...

Oh - what do you think about existentialism? I think Camus and others might have been writing their own brand of dystopian fiction.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I do think there might be some thematic similarities. In a sense, I think some of the existential writers see the world as a regime. Culture itself is oppressive, and we try to impart generic or large scale meanings on humanity. Religion, politics... all these try to shape what it means to be human, whereas the existentialists would lean more to the subjective nature of meaning and value, with the idea of individualism set against society. That is, our "meanings" are unique to ourselves, are creations of our own experience.

Which is not so different from the individual's struggle for autonomy in an all-powerful totalitarian state. Certainly there's some thematic overlap, at least.

(Though I am far from well-read on existentialism, it should be mentioned)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Aha! I've discovered the reason for you to read young adult novels - the YA dystopias are inherently optimistic, unlike their adult brethren, who find it far too easy to imagine the State crushing the individual successfully.

The League of Extraordinary Writers had a great post about YA dystopias.

Rec's: Uglies (just because I love Westerfeld), Hunger Games, Forest of Hands and Teeth, Boneshaker (dystopia + steampunk = awesomeness). Boneshaker is actually adult, but we'll over look that. :)

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Lol, I have Boneshaker on my library list! Heard really good things about that one (and from divergent sources).

Deb Salisbury said...

I loved Dune, but I hated the sequels. Gave up after three or four. He never got the fire back. Now I'm afraid to read it again, in case the fire was never really there.

I'm looking forward to Boneshaker, too, and I rarely read dystopia. It sounds very interesting.

Donna Hole said...

I haven't read much - hardly any actually - in the dystopian genre. Probably for the points you cover here. That small crack of hope doesn't shine brightly enough, and things always end on a static note. The one individual (or very small group of individuals) leaves the confines of the world they cannot change, and goes off to live a lonely life as an outcase.

I like to think dystopian worlds are warnings not to become too inmeshed equality and organization. Some things are not fair; sometimes chaos sparks creativity and growth.

Maybe that's why I haven't heard of any newer writers in this genre. There is so much change in our time, its not believable that the State could overwhelm us so completely. Our generation is too involved in everything.

But my children are another generation from us babyboomers. They don't seem as interested in their own motivations, and are willing to sit back and let the choices be made for them. Maybe the genre will come back into style with them in the lead.

I'll have to put Boneshaker on my reading list also. Just to see . .


Mesmerix said...

Went to to check out Boneshaker and add it to my list. Which one? The one by Cherie Priest or by Kate Milford?

Both are tagged "steampunk"...

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

My rec was for the one by Cherie Priest, but the Kate Milford one looks interesting as well. But why on earth would they title two books in the same genre the same, especially with them coming out only 9 months apart?

Mesmerix said...

Susan: Why do people do half the things they do?

The world may never know...

Thanks for the recommendation! :)

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Yes, the Cherie Priest one was the one I'd heard about, too.

QuiteLight said...

Oh! I'm wounded! My post didn't make it through! The gist of it was:

Dystopian works generally don't do it for me; it's not a surprise, or even very interesting when people fail against overwhelming odds. Show me how they succeed!

One exception (which may not fall into the strictest dystopian definition, but is close enough for me), is "City of Saints & Madmen" by (mumble-mumble) Vandermeer. Lush to the point of decay & rot. I felt that incredible tension to go deeper & deeper into that world & run for my frickin' life at the same time. You cannot trust that book.