The lazy indulgence of dystopia

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Stories create worlds. And not just in the way we think, to escape into mindless entertainment. The power of our imaginations and collective beliefs literally creates the world we inhabit, today and every day.

Which is why I have such reservations about dystopian fiction. I can’t offer a fully researched, scholarly critique of the genre – I haven’t even read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Nor am I one of the legions of fans of Hugh Howey’s “Silo” series, or any other of his multiple best-selling stories. (Given his readership, I may be the lone holdout.). It’s fun to quote from his blurbs, though, such as this one for “Wool”:

“This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.”

Sigh. My annoyance with dystopian fiction circles around four things:

  1. it’s too easy;
  2. it stems from the unexamined – and mistaken – meta-story that we are separate from and superior to the natural world;
  3. it’s depressing; and
  4. since what we focus on expands, do we really want to keep storying such miserable future worlds?

On the first point, I don’t mean it’s easy to imagine and write a dystopian novel, but it is rather a no-brainer to project into the future the worst of our current civilization.

Indeed, genetic engineering, fascism, mass extinction and the triumph of science over art – all current events, let alone dark future scenarios – are the basis of Margaret Atwood’s chilling “MaddAddam” trilogy, which is one series I did read recently. Though it is imaginative and masterful, I have to question the value of spinning out three books to illustrate the potential effects of our adherence to #2 above.

On her website, Margaret Atwood has a long list of ways that she minimizes her impacts on the planet – among them, buying recycled goods, offsetting air travel with carbon credits, and gardening. If MaddAddam is intended as a warning to humanity, her ambivalence shows. What’s the point of waking us up, when she has such serious doubts about whether any of us — alone or collectively — can do a thing to change this trajectory? When she looks into the future, this is what she sees:

  • ruthless, sociopathic corporations in power;
  • complacent citizens, who avoid thinking about ethics;
  • stealing not just intellectual property but actual intellect, in the form of brain slavery;
  • rampant genetic engineering, including whole new species invented to grow human replacement organs;
  • violence and utter disregard for human life, especially in the cities that have been left to rot;
  • extreme effects of a power-over, domination and exploitation mindset: sex trade, trial by “spray gun” firing squads, prison “painball” (a survivor-type game);
  • ongoing effects of runaway climate change: spreading deserts, tropical weather in northern latitudes, extreme storms, no polar ice, risen seas;
  • no more fossil fuels, but clever technology to convert garbage (and possibly human remains) into oil; and
  • a longing for immortality: on the surface (spa treatments), at the genetic level (growing human organs for transplant), and an entirely new, improved, form of human beings invented by a mad scientist.

The trouble is, when you spend three books’ worth of time in that world, it has an insidious effect. This peek into a potential future doesn’t motivate me to fight corporations or genetic engineering; it makes their rampant growth seem inevitable. And think of Atwood’s own experience, given all the time it takes to write a novel, let alone three. If it’s not utter despair, it’s at least serious doubt about whether humanity has a chance.

It’s fair to assume that she recognizes the failure of our modern cultural stories, including our faith in the progress of technology to solve any problem. After all, she gives the most sophisticated “green” technologies – including solar panels and recycling – to the amoral bad guys, walled in their corporate compounds, safe from the chaos of the cities. In her world, these are the only people who can afford it, while everyone else festers with limited energy and primitive make-do.

Her protagonists, the “God’s Gardeners,” get many things right, including a recognition of our kinship with all of life. In one rare scene, a woman sets aside her rational mind’s objections to communicate with a hive of bees. The Gardeners don’t fare so well, though. They split, fueled by egos, ideological differences, and an argument about the use of violence in self-defense.

All in all, I don’t get the message that we have it in us to do better. And I’d rather not have to go through all that hell to get to some other, brighter future, as the last few pages hint. Why can’t we just get started on building that future right now? And this is my ultimate frustration with dystopian fiction; it’s a lazy indulgence that can lead only to ennui and despair.

If all the writers with imaginations as wonderful as Margaret Atwood’s would turn their prodigious talents toward storying that world, think what might be possible.


Postscript: I’m willing to admit that I could be reading this far too literally. Maybe Atwood has a deeper, psychological narrative going here. With the message that we have face, wade through, and integrate our own inner darkness — our refusal to come to terms with our own mortality, our violence (real and metaphorical), our isolation and control orientation, our disregard for the sanctity of life — before we can be ready to embrace the different ways of thinking and being that the last standing God’s Gardeners embody. Huh. I’m ready to ascribe those motivations to Atwood, but I still have my doubts about most of the other writers out there slinging dystopias.

4 thoughts on “The lazy indulgence of dystopia

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