Dystopia for Sale
February 8, 2018 11:40 PM   Subscribe

How a Commercialized Genre Lost its Teeth (Brady Gerber, Literary Hub).
posted by sapagan (64 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Its only admonition is: Despair more.

The most pleasurable sin.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:11 AM on February 9 [9 favorites]


If you want a moving picture of the future, imagine a book stamping on a human face — forever.
posted by chavenet at 2:28 AM on February 9 [5 favorites]


The premise strikes me as kind of annoying-- the only dystopia I can think of which has been a somewhat effective call to action is 1984.

The thing that actually worked get resistance is probably the bit in Revelations about the sign of the beast that people had to have on their hands and foreheads to buy or sell. I assume this was satire of Roman bureaucracy.

Offhand, I can't think of any fiction about the transition from dystopia to a more or less alright society or a utopia. Maybe I'm missing something.

Possibly Westerfeld's Uglies series would qualify.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 4:45 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]


Dystopia is simply becoming non-fiction.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:07 AM on February 9 [32 favorites]


This is a pretty harsh take on the current dytopia-inspired movement. I think it's pretty silly to claim that We need to take action, people! as if all people are doing is writing stories and waiting for the next Facebook meme to share.

I would love to believe that someone watching the show might be compelled to take action rather than sitting around and knitting chickens while waiting for season two to tell them how bad things are.

Oh, come on! Sure many people are talking and not doing but many people are doing. It's great to be an advocate for more action but the article grated me with a lot of history and little light shed on steps forward, which are admittedly small in the grand scheme of things, but definitely happening.
posted by waving at 5:13 AM on February 9 [14 favorites]


"Mass media/social media is ruining dystopic philosophy and social critique" is a dystopic position in itself.
posted by carter at 5:13 AM on February 9 [10 favorites]


It's topias all the way down.
posted by chavenet at 5:16 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]


[Dystopia] cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments

y’all, I started two years ago writing a dystopian fiction set in 2045 with a historical timeline that reality started tracking to. It was scary to watch my most scary predictions coming true. I abandoned that project because not only was it bad for my mental health, I realized that I would be hurting a lot of other people as well if I attempted to tell that story. So I let it die.

Instead I decided what the world really needs is a Withnail & I and Before Sunrise inspired present-day queerplatonic rom-com. (And for what it’s worth, I’m actually doing this thing...)

We’re eating dysphoria all damn day long, writers, we need to provide nourishment.
posted by Annika Cicada at 5:38 AM on February 9 [44 favorites]


Perhaps what we need is a utopic story, to give people a road map to the way out of this dystopic life.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:51 AM on February 9 [9 favorites]


Well, I'll paraphrase Chesterson here and suggest that we write dystopias not to say that those dystopias are objectively real, but that they can be resisted or defeated. It's not a great surprise that Handmaid's Tale has been a key work within the abortion rights movement, and Fahrenheit 451 for ant-censorship, although I'd say we're living in Montag's history.

One criticism of dystopia that I've been considering lately comes from Grace L. Dillion in the introduction to Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An LGBT and Two-Spirit Sci-Fi Anthology
SF survivance stories are not about survival. SF survivance stories are about persistence, adaptation, and flourishing in the future, in sometimes subtle but always important contrast to mere survival, or the self-limiting experience of trauma and loss that often surrenders the imagination to creeds of isolation and victimhood, the apprehension of hopeless, helpless entitlement to extirpated past.
The context for that is that indigenous writers have already experienced the apocalypse so they're already looking at what comes after. There's a different feel to a post-apocalyptic story where the protagonists take responsibility for the continuity of culture contrasted to Katnis Everdeen struggling to heal her trauma by scrapbooking while living among the bones of her community.

I don't find Lepore's pulled quote broadly true, although I may be biased in that 80% of what I read is explicitly feminist or queer. The moral of Fahrenheit 451 is to cherish the challenge of wrestling with difficult texts (not necessarily books!). The dystopias of the first three episodes of Electric Dreams call on the viewer to value our human connections and the quality of forgiveness.

And a perspective from Ursula K. Le Guin before I have to run off.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 5:57 AM on February 9 [9 favorites]


> "Offhand, I can't think of any fiction about the transition from dystopia to a more or less alright society or a utopia. Maybe I'm missing something."

I can think of a bunch. You mention Uglies, but you could also argue that this happens in the Hunger Games trilogy, Fahrentheit 451, Logan's Run, the Oryx and Crake trilogy, the Matched trilogy ... it seems to me to be as common a theme as all resistance being crushed or everyone dying.

I don't think that's a bad thing or a good thing, incidentally. It's just one way to approach a story.
posted by kyrademon at 6:10 AM on February 9


Look, I just want to ride eternal, shiny and chrome. Is that so bad? And, if it's bad, it's bad in the cool way, right?
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:22 AM on February 9 [5 favorites]


Give me those old-time dystopias like we had when we were kids! Soylent Green! Silent Running! Planet of the Apes! [Immediately spills coffee all over myself.]
posted by lagomorphius at 6:27 AM on February 9 [4 favorites]


Planet of the Apes!

The movie, or the planet?
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:32 AM on February 9 [8 favorites]


I was sold with the start of this piece but their brief history of the genre made me feel like their definition of dystopia was a bit loose. By referring to books such as Neuromancer as dystopias it stretches the meaning to encompass any future that is non-utopian. There is a major difference between forecasting a future that extrapolates accurately the current mistakes we are making, and one that foretells the kind of societal cul-de-sac indicated in a Handmaid’s Tale or 1984.
The author also omits a lot of important actual contributions to the genre— no Ballard? No ‘A Canticle for Liebowitz?’
Also a bit put off by referring to Fahrenheit 451 as “Pulpy Science Fiction,” not going to lie.
posted by q*ben at 6:44 AM on February 9 [23 favorites]


Black Mirror is only mentioned in passing here, and it deserves more. I'd put it at the center of any discussion of modern dystopia fiction. When it's not being too fanciful, which it only is for the sake of plot, it's scarily realistic. To point where I think some of the scenarios depicted are almost inevitable. This episode features a militarized robot dog, which is pretty much what Boston Dynamics are prototyping. You won't look at their goofy robot videos on youtube the same ever again.

It's a real highlight of the current crop and I fully recommend it. Each episode is stand-alone in a loosely shared universe set in the near future, and can be watched in any order. Check it out on fanfare.
posted by adept256 at 6:53 AM on February 9 [6 favorites]


it's scarily realistic

I only watched Black Mirror recently, and assumed it was newer than it is. I thought some of the stories were very pointed satires of actual events, when it turns out they were simply prescient.

(Waldo probably would be a better, and less embarrassing, POTUS than Trump.)
posted by Foosnark at 7:00 AM on February 9


One of the things that is a limit in interpreting SF is the mythology that SF is "predictive." One of the first comments in a discussion of Left Hand of Darkness last week ran along the lines of, "Is it really realistic for Genly Ai to be confused in the future given the progress in trans rights over the last 50 years?" And that's missing the point, because the novel is not about people from a future Earth with a history of progressive social evolution. It's about two people trying to understand each other in spite of seemingly irreconcilable differences in worldview and experience.

Where science fiction has a prophetic voice, it's not in providing an accurate vision of a potential future, it's the willingness to voice uncomfortable truths about current "human nature" and systems of power. I ended up reading Hunger Games during the buildup to the Sochi Olympics, and pretty quickly caught on that it was, in part, a literary riff on the contrast between glamorous bread-and-circus events and the abusive economic exploitation of the global south.

Treating SF as predictive allows us to handwave away its meaning as "escapist" or dismiss it on the grounds that it couldn't happen in that way. It's polemic function as comment on the now gets dismissed as well in that.

Escapism can comment on the now as well, but that's another topic.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 7:08 AM on February 9 [11 favorites]



Planet of the Apes!

The movie, or the planet?


The musical.
posted by nubs at 7:09 AM on February 9 [13 favorites]


To point where I think some of the scenarios depicted are almost inevitable

I was trying to explain to my father-in-law over the weekend why I don't (generally) care for Black Mirror, and I think this is it. It doesn't seem to have much to say beyond "technology can be alienating and scary!" which, to a "digital native" (he said, choking back a gout of bile) is kind of a "no shit" message. It's not social interaction with technology taken to an absurdist extreme to make a point, it's more "here's the next step, isn't it shitty?"
posted by uncleozzy at 7:13 AM on February 9 [8 favorites]


I've always liked dystopias because they are ceaselessly the story of the oppressed or the normal. a lot of normal SF is about soldiers or heroes or high-level politics; even some of my most favorite authors in my most favorite books are guilty of this (The Dispossessed and the Ancillary Justice series, for ex). but dystopian fiction like Oryx and Crake or Parable of the Sower or Farenheit 451 or Children of Men or even The Hunger Games, they're all, at some point, about normal, everyday, unimpressive people living under extremely oppressive and brutal systems that robs them, their families, and their communities of their humanity all for the benefit of some happy elite, many of whom have no idea how terrible their lives are and how they benefit from their dehumanized labor and status

reading this stuff as a kid made it easy for me to then see our very own reality as being so very close to actual realities currently being experienced by queer, PoC, disabled, etc folks who are forced, in many ways, for myriad reasons, to also live as a kind of invisible underclass, whose lived experiences are largely hidden from the normal mass of society and whose suffering benefit them in direct but invisible ways. immigrant workers paid not-even-minimum wages to work in brutal, heat-stroke ridden conditions = cheap canned food for the rest of us. redlined black populations = better mortgages for white people and relative suburban comfort. and so on, and on, and on

for those of us who already realize these are things that exist in our very own reality, it's not likely very healthy for us to be reminded, time and again, of a fictional kind of oppression when we're already stuck knowing all the real oppressions in the world. we need healthy, lovely literature that shows us how we can engage, the fulfillment that brings, and the hard-fought victories that will, one day, come. but for the people who don't know, dystopian literature is important - because it's one of many, many ways lived experiences under oppression can be made real for someone, and because you're far more likely to approach fiction that full of fanciful, far-flung notions of technology and society than you are to engage with boring, in-the-moment reality
posted by runt at 7:50 AM on February 9 [16 favorites]


Massively popular dystopian fiction is just the water in which we frogs are boiling.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:45 AM on February 9 [5 favorites]


Dystopian movies where the world is so oppressive only the prettiest and best dressed have survived.

Soylent Green and THX1138 are dystopian. The Matrix is an action film.
posted by Beholder at 9:08 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]


There’s something that gets on my nerves about pieces that are essentially, “you are enjoying fiction in the wrong way.” Authors and critics do not (and should not) have control over their own works, and the way in which readers and viewers relate to fiction is mostly their own concern. The fact that people aren’t standing up and saying, “I am taking this political stand because of this particular work of fiction I just read” doesn’t mark then as mindless consumers. It marks them as normal human beings.

I certainly would count works like Brave New World and Ligan’s run as “philosophical influences,” but waving them around as impetus for specific and direct political actions would be kind of strange.

If authors are upset their books aren’t translating to direct political actions as a result of people buying their books and if book critics are upset that writers are more interested in promoting their work than calling people to take to the streets, then maybe those two groups should do the hard, difficult work of political organizing and creating change rather than scolding writers and readers for not using fiction in the way these people approve of.
posted by deanc at 9:09 AM on February 9 [10 favorites]


@deanc I agree, art is not static and how it is interpreted is allowed to grow and change over time.

As a writer I read the article nodding my head a lot because my decisions influence and create waves in that not-static space and as a writer I believe it's my job to care about how my creations meet the world. So I try to be examined to a point where I'm not obliviously careless with how I represent humanity.

Viewing that article as a reader though, I agree it is a little off. No writer can tell me as a reader how to interpret their words on a page, or what I can or cannot do with my interpretation of their work over time. The writer gave it to the world already, what it "means" or what it's intention is longer belongs exclusively to them.
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:34 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]


kyrademon, thanks.

"I can think of a bunch. You mention Uglies, but you could also argue that this happens in the Hunger Games trilogy, Fahrentheit 451, Logan's Run, the Oryx and Crake trilogy, the Matched trilogy ... it seems to me to be as common a theme as all resistance being crushed or everyone dying."

I think so for The Hunger Games books, but it's been a while since I've read them.

Fahrenheit 451 isn't what I'm looking for-- hope at the end isn't enough, I want to see the actual process.

I'd give a pretty to see the fall of the regime in 1984 and how people make societies afterwards. And also to see the characters from Atlas Shrugged deal with the difficulties of the aftermath of the book.

I mostly bounce off Atwood, though I did read The Handmaid's Tale.

I haven't heard of the Matched trilogy, I'm looking it up.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:37 AM on February 9


During the Bush years, people said Americans were too busy snickering at The Daily Show when they should be taking action against an administration that was ruining the country (the world). Now the problem is dystopian fiction? Meh. The Great Depression gave us Shirley Temple and fashion montages. There will always be something to escape to. If we refuse to deal with our society's problems, that's not on Kim Kardashian or Jon Stewart or Suzanne Collins...

(FWIW, I've always felt that the infuriating part of the Handmaid's Tale is not "and that's what we'll become," so much as "that's what is already happening." I remember reading the book around age 14, before "feminist" was an okay word to use to describe yourself. If the show makes more women confident in their feminism -- and skeptical of throwback conservative movements -- that's good to me. No, it isn't "real progress," but it is still rare enough for stories about women to be told in a serious way that it might be considered a bit of progress.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:38 AM on February 9 [4 favorites]


Many SFF writers are not full-time professionals, and getting political in social media is an invitation to harassment for multiple groups.

I don't think SFF writers are shy when it comes to expressing opinions on real-world politics. But few people give a fuck outside of SFF circles unless they're multi-million dollar names. Even Le Guin was mostly ignored except when she got general literary honors. I think Atwood routinely gets interviewed, and I suspect her habit of keeping SFF at arm's length probably helped there.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:00 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge are, of course, not mentioned. Those are my go-to hopeful dystopia books for surviving the current administration.

They take place in a near-future US where theocratic fascists have taken over much of the country (or at least, most of southern California; communications are too broken down to be sure of much more than that); SF is a hippie utopia that has to cope with the environmental devastation and weaponized diseases released by the theocrats. And they're losing, slowly, so they have to start taking more direct action.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:06 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]


> "Fahrenheit 451 isn't what I'm looking for-- hope at the end isn't enough, I want to see the actual process."

Oh, you're looking for something that bridges all the way from dystopian to post-dystopian? That is trickier, hmm. I can think of a lot like Phillip Reeves' Mortal Engine quartet, where at the end there's an epilogue which shows the new society that has emerged, but it doesn't show the process, so not what you have in mind, I think ...

Ooo, a great one is Elisabeth Vonarburg's "Maerlande Chronicles"! It's a great, classic book. The society at the start is ... not exactly dystopian, but quite oppressive in some ways, and the book among other things charts the long, slow process of its becoming somewhat less oppressive. It's not completely terrible at the start and not completely wonderful at the end, but it is one of the best portrayals I've seen of Things Getting Better. Even though this might not fall neatly into the "dystopian lit" category, it might be along the lines of what you're looking for.

The first couple of book of Jane Fletcher's Caelano series fit a bit better into the dystopian niche. "The Temple at Landfall" and "The Walls of Westernfort" shows the process of a group breaking away from a rigidly religious society and founding their own city. The writing is, let's say, uneven, but I still rather like them.

Laurie J. Marks' Logic series are better written than Fletcher's and may be exactly what you're looking for. From "Fire Logic" to "Earth Logic" to "Water Logic" things move very much from horror to rebuilding to redemption. They're great. I haven't generally classed them as dystopic because things get better, but you're LOOKING for ones where things get better, so.

That would also maybe apply to Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice series, which takes the concept in some unexpected directions over the course of three books. The awful society is not brought down, but by the end a *major* change is effected. Doesn't show the later effects of that change, though, so may not be what you have in mind.

Here's an oddball, but the final book in Kristin Cashore's Graceling series, "Bitterblue", is all about emerging from the ashes of a dystopian state and rebuilding it. That's the only one of the three that I would put in the "dystopian/post-dystopian" category though -- the country examined in that one is in the background of the other two books, which are set in places which have problems but I wouldn't call dystopian. They all are a bit about societies changing for the better, but only "Bitterblue" is really "post-dystopian".

Looking over this, I'm a little surprised by how much of what I've suggested is in some way or another queer lit (Fletcher, Marks, Vonarburg, and Leckie.) Probably something interesting in that.
posted by kyrademon at 10:09 AM on February 9 [6 favorites]


Planet of the Apes!

The movie, or the planet?

The musical.


What? I wrote a simple one-act play about the Country of the Chimpanzees!

YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!!
posted by Guy Smiley at 10:59 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]


I think it's a lot easier to have this conversation if we acknowledge the simple meme of "We live in a dystopia NOW!" is simply not true, and it's not funny when it's a joke, and not going that direction doesn't stop political critique but allows it to have nuance and doesn't make people paralyzingly afraid. I'm saying this as a person who wouldn't be alive multiple times over to critique fiction if we did actually live in the Handmaid's Tale or the fictional dystopia of your choice: please stop.
posted by colorblock sock at 11:39 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]


I've been saying for years how we need optimistic Sci-Fi. We need something to strive for, not just things to feel dread about. We need to break out of the two models of Techno-dystopia (Blade Runner) and Collapse (Mad Max) and get on to some progressive scenarios. The future is bigger than this.
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:49 AM on February 9 [6 favorites]


There are progressive scenarios. The problem is they tend to be transhumanism or Singularity techno-Rapture wish-fulfillment contingent upon miraculous biological breakthroughs and benevolent A.I. gods. Us baselines need a nearer future to aspire to.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:55 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]


So I'm wondering if anyone else has read Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias, which is two dystopia and a utopia.

Personally, I find well-constructed visions of a mostly hopeful future (Star Trek, much of Robinson's work) inspires me to action more than dystopic works, but I have read and appreciated things like Farenheit 451; I think different people need different things from art, and even individuals need different things at different times.

But I would love others' thoughts on Three Californias; I have nothing much to say about them except I enjoyed them, they've stuck with me in the several years since I read them, and for me, it was good that the third one was more of a utopia.
posted by kristi at 12:12 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Near-future dystopia gets overrepresented in mass media because it's so much easier to film and visualize, and offers recognizable good vs. bad. I'd love for more people to encounter Door into Ocean but I doubt that Hollywood can handle two hours of single-gendered, naked, and amphibious anarcho-feminists.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:25 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Near-future dystopia gets overrepresented in mass media because it's so much easier to film and visualize, and offers recognizable good vs. bad.

Also, it's generally cheaper to film. Usually, you just need to find some run-down or abandoned buildings and away you go. No sets needed.

(Which is, IIRC, Neal Stephenson's comment.)
posted by suetanvil at 12:34 PM on February 9


That whole article is packed with grandiose claims about "the true meaning and purpose of dystopian fiction" that don't seem to have any connection to the actual contents of the books.

Dystopia has moved from an explicitly political critique to a sensationalized and commercialized form of entertainment

Er... so, um, it got popular enough to be a genre? And what, it stopped having politically relevant critique value because there's too much of it? Handmaid's Tale was good dystopia when it was a book and a movie, but once it became a series, it was just emo entertainment?

Dystopias, in the rare moments of hope they offers, often suggest that it’s up to one protagonist who must defy impossible odds and defeat the bad guys in some dramatic showdown if we are to have any hope of saving the future.

I think I missed that chapter of 1984. Or, wait, maybe he was saying that 1984 was one of the first of new "doomed future" dystopias that didn't have the proper political message of the originals, all couple-dozen of them over the previous hundred years. So, going back to early dystopias - the good stuff, before they got polluted with commercialism... I think I missed the "dramatic showdown/defeat the bad guys" part of Brave New World, too. He puts A Clockwork Orange in the "proper, good dystopias" category, and again... not seeing any defying of odds in that, other than Alex being lucky enough to live through it all.

It looks like he's unhappy that the genre got popular enough that you can actually see its tropes and some of them start becoming cliches with overuse. "There's too much; we're drowning in this stuff!!" is the same complaint that was made about fantasy novels about dragons, scifi that includes any romance, genre fic that features people of color and/or lgbtq+ people....

Huh. This is pretty much the same argument that gets made every time a genre formerly dominated by white men starts getting a more diverse authorship and readership.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:54 PM on February 9 [6 favorites]


It's funny because that was why the '80s had so many cheap dystopian action films. Well, besides Reaganism, Thatcherism, the crack epidemic, AIDS, Exxon Valdez, etc. You'd think by now with CGI the price of filming utopian futures would've become more affordable. Maybe the style just stuck on.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:56 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


I've been saying for years how we need optimistic Sci-Fi.
There's some out there, but the main issue is that there's not much conflict to be mined from utopian fiction. Usually the high stakes must come from outside the utopian system--pandemic, hostile aliens, unavoidable catastrophe like meteor strikes or sun death. Even the ridiculously optimistic Star Trek dabbled in weighty issues like terrorism, mental illness, crime, and sex work, though, admittedly, some of this was accomplished with the reintroduction of money into the system.

And, of course, scarcity breeds innovation, but scarcity usually means that someone is suffering. Hopeful futurists tend to inject scarcity by creating their dramas in bubbles--colonies in asteroid belts, spaceships, that sort of thing. But there's only so many episodes of a show you can watch where they technobabble the machine into fixing their lack of oxygen/water/food/navigation system/power/etc before it feels like a neverending Apollo 13 incident. And meanwhile, all the people from home have all the food, water, shelter, education, and medical care they want, so, in effect, the hopeful futurist is just creating a mini dystopia in the bubble to introduce conflict.
posted by xyzzy at 1:08 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


A crucial ingredient for injecting hope into dystopian literature, or a key to finding it, is to observe characters using the best bits of historical human society in order to rebuild. This can be a snapshot, as in the walking books of Fahrenheit 451, or the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. A more comprehensive approach is seen in the return of trust in simple public service portrayed in David Brin's The Postman. (That one is also great for demonstrating the evil inherent in competitive survivalist tendencies.)

That's not to say that the hopelessness in 1984 or some Black Mirror episodes is worthless--it serves quite well as a warning.
posted by TreeRooster at 1:12 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


That would also maybe apply to Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice series, which takes the concept in some unexpected directions over the course of three books. The awful society is not brought down, but by the end a *major* change is effected. Doesn't show the later effects of that change, though, so may not be what you have in mind.

there are hints of change in Leckie's latest book, Provenance, but it's as distant in that book as, say, British domestic politics is to most USians (that we're aware of major things like Brexit but we only really understand it when it impacts us personally)

I'm very much hoping that she explores more of this from a basic rights angle in the near future!
posted by runt at 1:18 PM on February 9


I think all science fiction has a utopian element, in that it tends to say that what we do now matters and will have consequences. It's a denial of nihilism.

Future Politics: An Interview with KSR. 2004.

There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection—that they must be boring—are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying “No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly.

Interview with KSR about writing utopias. 2009.

Stories about a better future can help break the dominance of the story that says you’re screwed, says legendary science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. 2017.
posted by tofu_crouton at 1:22 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


Iain M Banks' science fiction offers a utopian option in the Culture, as does Star Trek with the Federation. I'd argue that the universe of The Expanse, while not utopian, is not dystopian either.
posted by dazed_one at 1:25 PM on February 9


if book critics are upset that writers are more interested in promoting their work than calling people to take to the streets, then maybe those two groups should do the hard, difficult work of political organizing and creating change rather than scolding writers and readers for not using fiction in the way these people approve of.

I mean, it's one more thinkpiece that points people to action instead of inaction, one of many in a wide discourse. not entirely sure why everybody's hating on it- it's not a bad criticism, it's helpfully contextualizing even if it can be strident without sufficient evidence to some of its bolder claims

if this piece causes you some cognitive discomfort and your first reaction is to vehemently deny the entire thesis by pedantically picking its supporting statements apart or by offering an alternative thesis that's even less well-founded but accords more to your own values then the issue isn't the piece, it's your own dogma clouding your judgement
posted by runt at 1:27 PM on February 9


In addition to the technical issues, a lot of the more interesting thought experiments, setting the problems of "utopia" aside from a moment, are so radical in terms of sexuality and gender that they require the audience to make leaps that are unmarketable. Everyone's worried about Annihilation having financial trouble with a smart screenplay centered on women. How do you sell the gender fluidity of Leckie's Radch, Banks's Culture, Slonczewski's Elysium, or Yang's Tensorate? Hit the first neopronoun of A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (a novel widely criticized for being too optimistic) and you'll lose 3/4ths of the cineplex audience.

Strange Horizons just did a panel interview with trans SFF writers who point out a problem that writing for cis audiences imposes a mess of constraints.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 1:29 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]


I've been saying for years how we need optimistic Sci-Fi. We need something to strive for, not just things to feel dread about. We need to break out of the two models of Techno-dystopia (Blade Runner) and Collapse (Mad Max) and get on to some progressive scenarios. The future is bigger than this.

I really think that the culture makes the fiction, not the other way around. (And this relates to the original author’s frustration— he expects that art has a mission to “change the world” and blames readers and authors for the fact that it doesn’t ) Optimistic understandings of the future were grounded in a world that was watching things get progressively better over time and drawing an upward sloping line from what people saw now to where they thought things were going.

Progressive sci-fi was doomed pretty much around the oil crisis of the 70s. At that point, productivity gains slowed in the developed world, and at the same time space travel pretty much leveled off, air travel got about as fast as it was ever going to get, auto travel was transforming into rush hour traffic jams, and cities were on their big downswing. Optimistic sci-fi depends upon a vision of future abundance and expansion. The shock of 70s-era stagnation and post-cold-War political dysfunction makes the future look like a future of shortage and contraction. As William Gibson said, “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” It’s that understanding of uneven distribution that grounds and motivates modern dystopian fiction.
posted by deanc at 1:30 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


Fahrenheit 451 isn't what I'm looking for-- hope at the end isn't enough, I want to see the actual process.

I mean this as an honest question, but is it possible that a story about transition out of dystopia could just serve as more of an escapist fantasy than a roadmap? I honestly don't know, because on the one hand it seems like present conditions may seem more tolerable if we imagine they're going to change, but on the other hand it seems very important to be able to imagine alternatives to the status quo. I don't know,it's sort of like how it can feel like something is taking a very long time if you don't know where the end point is, vs. if you know there's an end coming up. I mean, for me, I think I've sometimes imagined that there's going to be this huge revolutionary restructuring of society because that makes the present seem more bearable than if I imagine that things will only change a little bit over time. Does that make sense? What does it take to imagine a better future and still be motivated to act now?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:31 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Strange Horizons just did a panel interview with trans SFF writers who point out a problem that writing for cis audiences imposes a mess of constraints

I don’t mean this in a bad way, but for the most part, the trans-friendly utopia is a dystopia for a lot of cis-gender people, much like modern Los Angeles would seem to be a racial dystopia to a 50s era southerner or the founders of the all-white state of Oregon with its whites-only constitution. Or those societies being the dystopia off non-whites.

Actually, I’d be interested in fiction presented as a utopia by an unreliable narrator that is revealed to be a dystopia, and not in a “narrator becomes awakened to injustice” way, either.

Heck, I have frequently argued that Star Trek is in reality a set of propaganda films for a militarized dystopian society.
posted by deanc at 1:38 PM on February 9


I don’t mean this in a bad way, but for the most part, the trans-friendly utopia is a dystopia for a lot of cis-gender people, much like modern Los Angeles would seem to be a racial dystopia to a 50s era southerner or the founders of the all-white state of Oregon with its whites-only constitution. Or those societies being the dystopia off non-whites.

It's exactly my point. Star Trek even is currently the focus of conservative backlash/revisionism for what it does. Good utopias are just as critical of existing systems of power as dystopias, which arguably makes them even less marketable. This is true even of failed historical utopias, of which there are well over a hundred.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 1:52 PM on February 9 [5 favorites]


I think another point to consider that this article's criticisms need not be intrinsic to dystopian fiction. I think we're at an age where the complexity and range of consumer-based mass media delivers an overabundance of stimulation which can stir up our emotions, deliver us thrills and catharses, and then leave us content, like junk food, without any further action or growth. Consider this previous article on political satire, from The Baffler. Genres that once served to subvert and critique the ruling order have become easy entertainment, riddled with cliches, tropes that we no longer blink at, no longer speaking truth to power but becoming yet another blockbuster.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:59 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


I'd argue that the universe of The Expanse, while not utopian, is not dystopian either.
The Expanse makes the argument that UBI creates suffering. In a world with gajillions of people receiving "basic assistance," there's only so much work and opportunity to go around, only so many jobs to be done. So a guy can sign up for vocational training at 17 and still be waiting for a slot at 52. The Martians call the people of Earth "grabbers" because they just sit around living off of BA, not appreciating the trees and animals and atmosphere, but when a Martian wanders around on Earth she finds people who have only their most basic needs met while an elite ruling class plays chess with their lives. Kind of like today, except the level of suffering has been ameliorated only very slightly with monthly placation payments and strictly rationed health care. I find that to be dystopian, especially when contrasted against Star Trek, where people have all their basic needs met so they open restaurants and create art and study. They certainly don't wander the streets in rags, looking to trade osteo drugs for medical treatments for their friends.
posted by xyzzy at 2:19 PM on February 9


My suggestion is that the mass marketing of dystopian SF depends a great deal on being provocative but not radical. There's a reason why we're seeing three PKD franchises, two Michael Crichton properties, and an asston of Marvel/DC.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 2:22 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


Actually, I’d be interested in fiction presented as a utopia by an unreliable narrator that is revealed to be a dystopia, and not in a “narrator becomes awakened to injustice” way, either.

Banks's Consider Phlebas does the reverse of this, and I think it's a pretty effective device (it's certainly the most memorable Culture novel for me).
posted by enn at 2:26 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


The Crichton thing annoys me because Westworld and Jurassic Park were the same story told with different props: Rich guys create a system for their own profit and entertainment too complex to understand or maintain.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 2:44 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]


There's this perpetual resistance to or resentment of art that is anything short of purely programmatic in many political movements. It is harmful both to art and politics. I think of what James Baldwin wrote in his famous review of Uncle Tom's Cabin:
[A human being] is not, after all, merely a member of a Society or a Group or a deplorable conundrum to be explained by Science. He is--and how old-fashioned the words sound!--something more than that, something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable. In overlooking, denying, evading his complexity--which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves--we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves. It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey towards a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.
Now, he was critiquing the idea of the protest novel just as much as the OP is the dystopia, but ultimately I think he would agree that the strict subjection of art to explicitly political ends, whether they be the mere exposure of social or political problems or the identification of the solution to those problems, is an error.

Or, again, Orwell:
The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and a sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible. And a gesture of helplessness, even of frivolity, might be the best way of doing that. If I had been a soldier fighting in the Great War, I would sooner have got hold of Prufrock than THE FIRST HUNDRED THOUSAND or Horatio Bottomley's LETTERS TO THE BOYS IN THE TRENCHES. I should have felt, like Mr Forster, that by simply standing aloof and keeping touch with pre-war emotions, Eliot was carrying on the human heritage. What a relief it would have been at such a time, to read about the hesitations of a middle-aged highbrow with a bald spot! So different from bayonet-drill! After the bombs and the food-queues and the recruiting-posters, a human voice! What a relief!
He is writing about the evasion of dystopian thinking, basically, but he is still stumping for literature that is something other than the instantiation of a program for political action, for the value of escapism (which seems to be the ultimate charge here against modern dystopian fiction) in maintaining humanity.
posted by praemunire at 3:49 PM on February 9 [6 favorites]


shapes that haunt the dusk,

I suggest asking people how they keep their spirits up and maintain their willingness to do practical politics. There will probably be a lot of different answers and some that make be useful for you.

****

It occurs to me that Jo Walton's Thessaly trilogy (Athena tries making a society based on Plato's Republic. Things do not go smoothly) would count as doing better after dystopia.

****

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer strikes some people as a utopia, but it isn't. I've never gotten that far into the book, but I'm told that the narrator is unreliable.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 3:56 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Stargate is progressive science fiction. We make a discovery that results in the ability to travel to somewhere far away where we bring order to a dystopia...
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:23 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


Also... Idiocracy. METAFILTER, I WOULD LIKE TO INTRODUCE YOU TO THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:25 PM on February 9


oh, Too Like The Lightning! Has metafilter ever discussed this book / series? (Currently three novels in, but the next one's to be released Summer 2019 iirc — the first three were published very quickly, as if the author (who is a historian of the Renaissance) had been thinking about them for years and just had to write her ideas down to get a fascinating book.)
There is a lot to talk about here!

And, an annoying missed attempt at the current events → dystopia → reformed world (and maybe heading to something better) progression is Walkaway by Cory Doctorow, which i was super hopeful for (given his earlier works' hints towards people who just ~opt out~ of capitalism, or live in a society which has already moved beyond it) but turned out to be utterly disappointing plot and believability-wise.
posted by ver at 7:09 PM on February 9


If this was 1948, and this article was attacking 1984 or Brave New World for not advancing political programmes or practical solutions, then that'd be one thing. But now, seventy years later, dystopian futures as well know it are old hat. Something has to be said about when a genre that's now become another form of popcorn schlock seasoned with Hollywood cliches, without new works that radically shake up our jaded worldview, or present us with a way forward.

For the past few years, YA novels have been glutted with dystopian fiction (as a reaction to... Harry Potter?). The new trend: stories about teen suicide.
posted by Apocryphon at 7:23 PM on February 9


wool was pretty good, now howey is writing stuff like this?

My suggestion is that the mass marketing of dystopian SF depends a great deal on being provocative but not radical.

snowpiercer!

re: Too Like The Lightning @ramez sez, "Utterly unique political, philosophical sci-fi." ;)
posted by kliuless at 7:37 AM on February 10


How you gonna mention Snowpiercer without Okja?
posted by Going To Maine at 10:36 AM on February 11


This weekend, many people will see the teaser trailer for Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer, a project that will probably blow away my disappointments with Electric Dreams and Black Mirror.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:26 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


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