International aid, oppression, dystopias, Cosmos, and the future in science fiction…

Live Aid, Band Aid, USA for Africa: Did pop stars and hit songs help Ethiopia famine victims? is a very good read, which made me think of The Hunger Games. Stick with me. The article makes the startling but entirely logical point that democracies don’t suffer famines. Autocratic nations, dictatorships, suffer famine because the people have no power there; in fact, the famine is used as a tool to further control and oppress them. The Hunger Games has very effectively delineated these tools of oppression in a form that even young readers can understand. I guess that makes them more savvy than rock stars.

For related reading: How America’s leading science fiction authors are shaping your future. More on The Hunger Games and how it reflects our current societal anxieties, which helps explain its enormous popularity. Science fiction, like horror, reflects society’s fears, but unlike horror, it also reflects society’s hopes. Perhaps we do need more optimistic science fiction right now.

Have you been watching CosmosThe episode last night on the next great extinction was… unsettling.

A dystopia of our own making…

I recently was discussing with friends this new survivalist phenomenon. It is not so new, of course, but the meme that the apocalypse is coming soon has gone mainstream to an alarming degree, infecting people who otherwise seemed rational. Everyone seemed to know someone who had fully bought into the survivalist apocalyptic delusions that LaPierre espouses in this article, as one example. These same delusions are propagated every minute on the airwaves, and repetition leads to belief. These people are living in a dystopia entirely manufactured in their own worst imaginings of what humanity can be. They have decided that real life is a Mad Max movie and not what they see outside their own window.

When people manufacture a dystopia out of their most base assumptions about humanity and project that onto actual reality, in some ways they are elevating themselves in the ongoing story of our species. They live in a pivotal time, and by making themselves one of the elite who knows what’s coming and is prepared for it, they are positioned to play an important role in the climax of our shared story. The problem is that that their reality in no way resembles what the rest of us experience every day. And yet we must deal with the all-too-real side effects, which include more guns and gun violence, ineffectual government and neglect of the very real challenges that our species does face.

How easy it is for groups of people to come together and convince one another that the very worst is happening. Imagine what we could accomplish if we came together and convinced ourselves that the very best thing we could do is create a better world, for all of us.

A present-day dystopia…

Luther (TV series)

Luther (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We just finished watching the first two seasons of Luther on Netflix Instant Streaming. It is a crime series starring Idris Elba, and it can be very disturbing. One thing I like about it is that even though it is set in present-day London, it has a pronounced dystopian flavor. I was trying to come up with other examples of present-day dystopias in film or fiction — not set in the future, or in superhero-land, but in our world we live in — but I couldn’t.

A look ahead: Four possible futures

“It’s easy to imagine the end of the world, but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” – Four Futures

Why is it so difficult to see outside the box we’ve currently put ourselves in?

The author of this article imagines four possible futures based on combinations of scarcity or abundance of resources and a hierarchical or egalitarian social structure. Like all fictional utopias and dystopias, these postulations are not meant to accurately predict the future, but to point toward extreme potential end points of our current path. He draws heavily on science fiction to guide him, including the works of Cory Doctorow, Charlie Stross, Orson Scott Card and Star Trek.

For more fictional future takes, see my Dystopian Reading List.

Apocalypse vs. Dystopia: Some Definitions

Cover of "The Children Of Men"

Cover of The Children Of Men

I have noticed that two sub-genres frequently get confused: the dystopian story and the post-apocalyptic story. While these two areas of future storytelling may overlap, they don’t mean the same thing at all. So let’s define some terms, shall we?

We’ll begin with apocalypse. An apocalyptic story is one that depicts the end of modern human civilization as we know it, usually due to some cataclysmic event. A nuclear war, a meteor impacting the Earth, a zombie uprising, a 99 percent fatal epidemic — all of these things can usher in the apocalypse. A post-apocalyptic story concerns itself with what happens after that apocalyptic event, whether immediately following it or far, far in the future.

Often what happens is the rise of new societies. These societies may sometimes be dystopias. A dystopia is the opposite of a utopian society. Utopias are pretty much perfect, providing for the needs of all of their citizens. Dystopias, on the other hand, are usually oppressive, totalitarian and violent.

Utopian and dystopian societies do not have to arise out of an apocalyptic event, however. 1984 and Brave New World are both classics of the dystopian sub-genre that do not depict an apocalypse. Or take, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is often mis-classified as post-apocalyptic. In that novel, a fundamentalist Christian group overthrows the current government and establishes a totalitarian society that enslaves women. Although environmental degradation has caused widespread infertility, no true apocalypse takes place. In fact, the primary point of view of the novel is of a future society looking back on this time in history.

Compare that with The Children of Men by P.D. James (or the movie based on it). In that case, although the apocalypse has not yet occurred, it is anticipated, because every person has lost the ability to reproduce and no children have been born in a generation. The novel could even be classified as pre-apocalyptic in that sense. This situation has directly created a dystopian government, which took power to enforce order on the growing chaos and anarchy occurring ahead of the apocalypse. So The Children of Men is an apocalyptic novel, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is not, even though the subject matter is similar.

Sometimes the dystopian society is the cause of the apocalyptic event. This is the case in Margaret Atwood’s companion novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The futuristic society she depicts is overwhelmingly consumerist, with a huge gap between rich and poor. One character takes it upon himself to engineer a virus to wipe out humankind and start all over again from scratch.

While I enjoy dystopian novels of all kinds, I am most interested in those dystopias that directly arise from an apocalyptic event. There are numerous examples of these, which may be why the two terms are so often confused. One I recently finished reading was The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper. After a devastating war, a society of walled cities based on ancient Greece arose. The cities are governed by women, while the men are forced to live outside the city walls as soldiers. Another good example is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, where the human survivors rely on cloning to reproduce. The cloned generations gradually change, losing their individuality and other essential human qualities, and oppressing anyone who differs from the norm.

Or if it’s a post-apocalyptic utopia you’re looking for, you might try Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. Set in the far future California, it depicts an agrarian, idyllic society. Although they have access to technology — computer networks that survived the pre-apocalyptic civilization record their stories and occasionally provide information — they maintain an pre-Industrial Age way of life. Such an idealized lifestyle certainly seems unattainable without an apocalypse to first wipe the slate clean and allow us to start all over — and do it right this time.

Utopia or dystopia?

Any society left following an apocalyptic event — assuming there is more than one survivor — generally has a choice of forming itself into a dystopian or utopian society. In a dystopia, life is generally miserable and the people are oppressed, enslaved, poor and/or violent. A utopia, on the other hand, is an ideal society with a perfect socio-politico-legal system, where everyone is happy and all needs are met.

Not surprisingly, there are many more novels and movies about dystopias than about utopias. Jo Walton, in her review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopian novel Pacific Coast, explains why better than I can:

The problem with utopias is that they don’t change, and because in science fiction the world is a character, the world has to change. You can write a story set in utopia, but it has to be a small scale story of love and softball, because when you’ve got there, there’s nowhere to go.

The same issues that make utopias poor subject matter for novels might also make them rather boring places to live. Consider the utopian future of Star Trek: adventurous people had to take off for the farthest reaches of the universe just to find a little excitement.

Another caution is that one person’s utopia will certainly be another’s dystopia. A true utopia cannot be built by forcing everyone to conform to one person’s vision, because that would certainly require oppression, no matter how covert.

In the present, we live in neither a utopia nor a dystopia, and this will probably always be true, no matter what happens. Both are idealized — and simplified — visions of society. But if the population were dramatically reduced, it might be that much easier to impose a dystopia or utopia, at least for a brief time.