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A Brief Post on Dystopia

I’m really sorry for the brevity of this post, but I’m traveling in Europe on business this week and my insane and constantly-changing travel schedule has forced me to do a much shorter post today than I normally do. I’ll try and make it up to everyone with another more in-depth post later this week. In the meantime, here’s some brief thoughts on dystopias:

The folks at are celebrating a week of dystopia (I detect some irony in this, considering it’s the week when taxes are due in the US). As a result, they’ve got a lot of great bloggers and authors writing about dystopia as sub-genre of SF, or about particular examples of dystopian media. It’s early days yet, but already there have been two really interesting posts that I’d like to call attention to:

The first is an essay by Jo Walton where she asks Where does dystopia fit as a genre? She contends that the “classic” dystopian novels like Brave New World, We, 1984, etc. are not really science fiction. She readily admits that they have science fictional elements, but in both the essay and comment thread she makes the case that Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin were not writing science fiction because they weren’t readers of science fiction, the majority of their other (non-dystopian) writing was outside the realm of science fiction, they weren’t writing in their contemporary science fiction tradition, and they were relying on techniques more commonly found in mainstream literary writing than in genre.

She has a valid point that these progenitors of dystopian tradition are clearly different from their contemporary SF peers. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, science fiction (or “scientifiction” as some contemporaries preferred) was primarily confined to the pulp magazines, which were filled with stories by authors like E.E. “Doc” Smith, Theodore Sturgeon, John Wyndham, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft. Primarily under the influence of legendary editors Hugo Gernsback and later John W. Campbell the pulps had a significant focus on technology and predictive extrapolation, and with a predominantly young, male audience they tended towards more commercial adventure than satire.

The dystopias, however, are all first and foremost books of thought. Whatever “adventure” they contain takes a back seat to their themes. In that sense, it is perfectly fair to say that the early dystopians diverged from contemporary SF tradition. But does the fact that they diverge mean that they’re not SF? Or that they should be lumped with their “mainstream” contemporaries like Sinclair Lewis? I don’t think so. I think the early dystopias enriched science fiction by showing that technological extrapolation and world-building can be applied to philosophical and sociological themes. Fun as the pulps might be, most 1920’s and 1930’s SF wasn’t particularly meaningful.

I don’t believe one needs to read science fiction in order to write it. Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin all wrote amazing works of science fiction, set on certain technological precepts and then extrapolated them to their logical conclusions. That act is what makes their work science fiction. So what if there isn’t a single raygun or spaceship in any of the books? That fact shouldn’t matter. So what if they never wrote another piece of science fiction? That in no way diminishes the science fictional work that they did.

Okay, that’s enough of a rant out of me for now. I promised this would be a short post, and so I’m not going to go on at length on this. I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts though: are those dystopias science fiction? What about contemporary dystopias like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, or Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl? Walton seems to suggest that dystopia is more of a mainstream tradition than a genre one, but is that the case?

The second essay that I’d like to draw your attention to is one that’s a lot more fun: are you aware that the Jetsons is a dystopian cartoon? I certainly wasn’t, until I read this fun essay from Clay and Susan Griffith. What I found really interesting is how they argue that the 1980’s saw a significant shift in the United States’ perception of the future: from the up-beat mechanistic futurism of the 1960’s, to the down-trodden perils of technology in the ’80s.

This struck a particular chord with me because the day I read this essay, I had just finished reading Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird, a Nebula-nominated dystopian novel first published in 1980. The book is amazing, simply amazing: I might put up a more complete review of it later this week if I can find some free time. But it perfectly captures that transitional moment from Jetsonian push-buttan robotics to the bleak, soulless dehumanization that came to dominate in the ’80s (especially in movies like Blade Runner, The Terminator, 2001, etc.).

Since I’ve got to dash to another meeting, let me leave you with a question: what do you think about the 1980’s changing perception of the future? Was the perception changing? Has it changed since?

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. To quote a wise muppet, “Always changing is the future.” Look beyond the specific gadgets and technobabble, and science fiction is all about the hopes, dreams, and fears of the writers and audience. Look at the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman series; they aired in the mid-70s, featuring technology later taken up by the cyberpunk genre. They were optimistic: science could make people better in both meanings of the word. Que the 2007 Bionic Woman remake: Jaime Sommers is saved by technology over which she has spotty control and is slowly killing her (the secret government agency in the first series was also much more benign). In The Day the Earth Stood Still (original), the messenger brought a warning about war; in the remake the message was about pollution, in both cases a projection of the real fear that mankind is capable of destroying the world. That our hopes and fears for the future will continue to change is a truism so common as to be a triviality. The stories we spin can’t help but change as well.

    April 12, 2011
    • The Bionic Woman and The Day the Earth Stood Still are really great examples! I had completely forgotten about their respective remakes. Of course, it’s also interesting to see the evolution of superhero tropes over time as well: Batman in the ’70s/’80s vs. Batman in the ’90s and today is rather fun too.

      April 13, 2011
  2. I think genre’s in general work against artistic freedom. Similarities between stories will always exist, whether purposeful, like Outland and The OK Corral, or unintentional, like Mad Men and The Wizard of Oz (think about it). But between the end of one genre conversation and the beginning of another, outside forces impact the agreements made in the first. I call this literary entropy (and will return to it in a moment).
    Scientists, like myself, fight hard to categorize everything. We employ tools like conventions, tables, and hypotheses for this task and for the most part we are successful because the physical world remains relatively the same day to day. The sun rising in the east, moving across the sky towards the left coast, and settling on the western horizon is an axample of our conventions at work (my apologies for sounding so professorial). Few people argue these conventions, mainly because there is nothing really to argue.
    So, as humans we want to characterize. It helps us acquire a perception of control over our world. But it can also limit our choices of what we allow ourselves to enjoy. Okay, now back to literary entropy. All non-living systems tend overtime toward disorder. It takes energy to overcome this disorder, so we humans take the path of least effort and categorize. When we categorize art, we lose all nuance from past threads of logical similes and the categories themselves become cage-like. The result is that some great works get unfairly characterized against other great works because we have no better place to put them other than, say, Young-Adult Dystopian.

    Yeah, I know I got all ranty and having a bookstore where every shelf was labeled “books” really wouldn’t work, but if it did, we could call it… “All-Ages-Utopian”.

    April 12, 2011
    • The idea of literary entropy is really interesting. It strikes me as an ecology or economic process: that there are systems within systems within this process (even if it escalates towards disorder), and actors within the system working to their own (sometimes opposed) ends.

      And I love the image of a bookstore where every shelf is labeled “books”. I know it’s not very practical or commercially viable, but the idea of art in chaos and serendipitous discovery really appeals to me. And if we were to make this imaginary bookstore infinite in scope, size, and inventory (making it downright Borgesian) then even better!

      April 13, 2011
      • I like your point regarding system level “ecology”. I am thinking of renaming literary-entropy to genre-entropy for this line of thought.

        April 13, 2011
  3. “I don’t believe one needs to read science fiction in order to write it.”

    Look at Margaret Atwood’s books. I don’t think she considers herself a science fiction writer, and yet “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Oryx and Crake” certainly seem to fit with what we’d call sf. Going WAAAY back, Mary Shelley’s generation predates the very term and yet “Frankenstein” is considered the first sf novel. Not a single raygun or rocket ship to be found. Ok, it’s not exactly dystopian either, but it illustrates the point I am feebly trying to make that the term science fiction is much broader than just space opera.

    April 12, 2011
    • Glad I’m not the only one to feel this way! Of course, it raises another question of does the author’s intent (and their own self-identification) matter?

      April 13, 2011

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  1. REVIEW: Mockingbird by Walter Tevis | The King of Elfland's Second Cousin

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