Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I Prefer Green Slave Girls

As a tender lad I read exactly one dystopian novel, 1984. Being properly inoculated against the genre, I went back to reading Heinlein, Asimov and pretty much any book with a spaceship on the cover.

The future of my past was nifty. NASA was sending men to the moon and Star Trek was in its first run. I was expecting a future of rocket ships, flying cars, jet belts, and green Orion slave girls. Sure there were some nuclear war nightmare scenarios like On The Beach, or Dr. Strangelove, but they were the exception, not the rule.

Contrast that with now. Contemporary writing trends are dystopian up the yin-yang. Want to read an American rip-off of Battle Royale? There's a dystopian novel for that. Want to read racist claptrap about saving pearls? There's a dystopian novel for that, too. Does YA stand for Yet Another dystopian novel?

Is there market pull for bleak or is this just producer push of bleak? I'm not going to put on my tinfoil hat. But I will note the power of group think. If you have an island wherein folks don't "know anyone who voted for Nixon," then you should expect some insular attitudes and a disconnect from the market. Certain things will go without saying about what's right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly. Surprisingly, humanism is in decline among the Anointed.

I think the decline of humanism is at the root of the rise of dystopianism. I recently had someone tell me that Snow Crash had a dystopian setting to better illustrate the humanity of the protagonists. I wasn't all that sure Snow Crash was dystopian.

This raises a question in my mind. Maybe the lines are fuzzier about what is and isn't dystopian. Was A Clockwork Orange dystopian? I'd say that it is more U-topian than DYS-topian for the following reasons:
  • The dole kept Droogs in spiffy hats
  • Nobody was homeless except for a drunk
  • There was free medical care
  • No polluted air or water
Nevertheless, the society of Clockwork Orange was not all beer and skittles. (When I saw the movie I thought, "what a compelling argument for the 2nd amendment." A small handgun discretely brandished by a putative rape victim would do marvels to concentrate a Droog's mind, but I digress.) The evil depicted in Clockwork Orange stems from the in-humanity of the Droogs. How is a society that solves all the social problems listed above capable of producing the likes of this?

Perhaps a more idyllic setting should be considered: perhaps a Village in rural Pennsylvania seemingly at the end of the 19th century. Though The Village is civilized in ways that are light-years beyond Clockwork's England, the Village lives in constant terror of what lies beyond the pale. And this society proves equally capable of producing a murderer as Clockwork.

Is The Village a dystopian tale? Probably not, though it demonstrates the same lesson as Clockwork Orange: the fault is is not in our stars, but in ourselves. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man. Put fallen man in an ideal setting, be it socialist utopia or Elysian fields, and he'll bring in some measure of depravity.

So, do we give up? Does the world suck, it's falling apart, and in the long run we're all dead? Ah, now that's probably a better question than dystopian or not.

Though there is the demonic in each of us, there is also the angelic. Though we've fouled our nest on planet Earth, we've also cleaned things up. Though many children go to sleep hungry each night, many more are fed or overfed. The world has gotten better at solving world-hunger problems in my lifetime. Though we are fallen, we aspire to be better.

Graph life expectancy over the last century. Look at standards of living over that time. Can we make these improvements long-term sustainable--and build upon them? Or will we fall back into a dark age of "bad luck?"

I think that's up to us to make happen. Each of us can contribute in our own way (or give up in our own way). And if you're a writer, I think that means writing stories that will inspire the reader to get up and invent a jetpack or a flying car. I've written about that here.

And I hope you'll decide that I've written that sort of science fiction here.

Here is Robert Heinlein's "bad luck" quote is in full:
“Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded- here and there, now and then- are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.This is known as "bad luck.".”

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