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Friday, August 22, 2014

Enough with the Dystopias, Already

Posted by on Fri, Aug 22, 2014 at 4:01 PM

In my review of Edan Lepucki's California, I stepped back from the book and announced my exhaustion with dystopian novels:

But still, in the same way that readers of the 1990s eventually grew weary of icy suburbs populated with dark comedy and sly sociopaths, a reader in this decade sometimes wants a vacation from the postapocalyptic landscape. Even California-style literary death-worlds, with their gorgeous depictions of desolation, are starting to grate with their mysterious befores, their boundless suspicion, and their endless capitalizations of simple nouns for emphasis (the Spikes guard the Land, while others live in Communities, and the Group figures into the Plot of the Book, too). Must we end all the time? Can't we write the world whole again?

Over at The Vulture, Adam Sternbergh asks why utopian novels aren't a thing anymore. He provides some historical context:

In college, as part of a history class, I read Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, a Utopian science-fiction novel published in 1888. The book — an enormous success in its time, nearly as big as Uncle Tom’s Cabin — is interesting now less as literature than as a historical document, and it’s certainly telling that, in the midst of the industrial revolution, a novel promising a future socialist landscape of increased equality and reduced labor so gripped the popular imagination. We might compare Bellamy’s book to current visions of Utopia if I could recall even a single Utopian novel or film from the past five years. Or ten years. Or 20. Wikipedia lists dozens of contemporary dystopian films and novels, yet the most recent entry in its rather sparse “List of Utopian Novels” is Island by Aldous Huxley, published in 1962. The closest thing to a recent Utopian film I can think of is Spike Jonze’s Her, though that vision of the future — one in which human attachment to sentient computers might become something close to meaningful — hardly seems like a fate we should collectively strive for, but rather one we might all be resigned to placidly accept.

On television, of course, Star Trek was a utopian fiction that ran for many decades, although the rebooted Star Trek movie series took a brief detour into post-9/11 dystopia with Into Darkness. Is it just because of America's place in history that our authors are so obsessed with decline? Is it laziness? I do think it's easier to write about a dystopia than it is to write about a utopia, but I don't think optimistic fiction is impossible. Just because you're writing about a utopia doesn't mean you're abolishing conflict from your story—it just means you have to get more creative about where the conflict is coming from.

Local author Neal Stephenson thinks that this dystopian obsession is actively hurting the world. He says optimistic science fiction provided a lot of the inspiration for the scientific marvels of the mid-20th century, and that science doesn't have anything to aspire to, now that authors are almost exclusively writing about doom and gloom. Stephenson actually has done something about it: He's inspired an upcoming sci-fi anthology of utopian and optimistic science fiction titled Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. Stephenson will be appearing with Cory Doctorow at Town Hall on October 26th to talk about Hieroglyph. I know I'll be there for that reading; I strongly believe that fiction is where reality test-drives tomorrow, and it seems as though many authors have abdicated themselves of their responsibility to the future. Maybe it's time to imagine something better.


Comments (14) RSS

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If this doesn't make sense, ask Mudede to explain it....…

Posted by j-lon on August 23, 2014 at 11:07 PM · Report this
collectivism_sucks 13
I'm tired of dystopias too...which is why, when my lease runs out in the winter, I'm moving the hell out of Seattle.
The city council is planning new cameras and mulling a tax on people who move out of this city. If that doesn't scream "1984" then what the hell does? And the only reason they're pushing a relocation tax is because they can't build a Berlin style wall to keep "Western Influences" out and the people in.
Posted by collectivism_sucks on August 23, 2014 at 9:44 PM · Report this
SchmuckyTheCat 12
Talk to Greg Bear about this. He lives here. His book sSlant creates this mental health utopia, but only because everyone is medicated.
Posted by SchmuckyTheCat on August 23, 2014 at 4:27 PM · Report this
Fish Wrench Asteroid 11
Read Existence by David Brin. It's exactly about this subject. It might start out kind of feeling distopian, but it's the opposite. It's ambitious and earnest and intelligent, which will cue in most people a reflexive urge to trash it.

Also Our Better Angels by Steven Pinker makes a strong case that we're not as bad as we think we are. And that we're not currently as bad as we were.

What I'm personally tired of is cynicism in fiction. (And internet comments) The world is as those who wield power make it. People that wield power don't have to be monsters.
Posted by Fish Wrench Asteroid on August 23, 2014 at 11:23 AM · Report this
There aren't many utopian novels after WWII. Perversely, Heinlein's Starship Troopers is utopian... so much so, a serious take on the novel couldn't be turned into film.
Posted by tom006 on August 23, 2014 at 10:37 AM · Report this
St. Beretta 9
What about Minority Report and Artificial Intelligence? Not sure if they qualify or if any futuristic movie that is not dystopic just looks really nice in comparison.
Posted by St. Beretta on August 23, 2014 at 9:30 AM · Report this
Max Solomon 8
I said this same damn thing to my stepdaughter about The Giver on Tuesday. dystopia fatigue.

as a fan of that book and The Hunger Games, she did not take it well.
Posted by Max Solomon on August 23, 2014 at 8:05 AM · Report this
sirkowski 7
Utopias are racist.
Posted by sirkowski on August 22, 2014 at 10:01 PM · Report this
You know what I'm over?
I'm over Zombies, Legos, Transformers, and every damn movie looking like a fucking video game!

Other than that, dystopia? not high on my list.
Posted by Senor Guy on August 22, 2014 at 9:16 PM · Report this
Utopian settings do not often beget interesting conflict that well enough satisfies the hunger of the modern narrative.

Also, the relative setting of a piece is usually a reflection of the level of optimism present in the culture of the author that breeds it. I don't know if you've noticed, but we're living in a time of political turmoil, endless war, declining economic fairness, repeated failure on part of the social justice system, and a biosphere that's being steadily eroded by our inability to reign in our voracious consumption.

Outlook for the future: not so bright. Our fiction is reflecting that because the world a hundred years from now is looking less and less Star Trek, and instead more and more Mad Max.
Posted by Hacksaw on August 22, 2014 at 8:40 PM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 4
On television, of course, Star Trek was a utopian fiction that ran for many decades, although the rebooted Star Trek movie series took a brief detour into post-9/11 dystopia with Into Darkness.

Star Trek 8 was about revenge and the forced extermination of the human race and all sapient and sentient life in the entire galaxy. Star Trek 9 was all about forced relocations of cultures and societies for imperial type purposes, in a pretty bald allegory of Israel and Palestine. Star Trek 10 was all about genocide and hatred. Trek could get pretty damn dark on a regular basis.

@1 Game of Thrones isn't dystopian.
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on August 22, 2014 at 7:01 PM · Report this
Great point about the banality of dystopian literature. In a world of Boku Harum, ISIL, and North Korea, dystopia is the last thing I need in my fiction. I consider KSR's 2312 the closest thing to utopian lit that I've read in a very long while - and that's probably a stretch.
Posted by burien top team on August 22, 2014 at 5:15 PM · Report this
Utopian visions are compelling for societies with serious struggles to overcome. We, however, are totally fucked. Dystopia.
Posted by an epicurean on August 22, 2014 at 4:40 PM · Report this
Dr. Z 1
Maybe you should start by pulling the plug on Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games.
Posted by Dr. Z on August 22, 2014 at 4:19 PM · Report this

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