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Three Dystopic Novels for Unpleasant Times

Great new fictions that force us to examine our rather alarming present.

Crawford Kilian 15 Feb

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

I used to think that science fiction by "serious" writers was a form of poverty tourism: some famous novelist would jet into our benighted third-world genre, take a guided tour of our slums, snap some photos and go home to make a fortune with a book full of stuff that we natives had already done, and done better.

Reading Northrop Frye set me straight. He could trace the pedigree of science fiction all the way back to Menippus, a Cynic philosopher in the 3rd century B.C. Menippean satire. As Frye described it, it was directed at intellectuals; it was intended to puncture their pretensions, not to entertain the masses. In its modern forms, Frye argued, Menippean satire looks at the world in terms of a single overriding idea: H.G. Wells's invasion from Mars, for example, or Karel Capek's robots.

The overriding idea of an ideal society has been around since St. Thomas More's Utopia, and plenty of modern science fiction writers have followed his example. More was satirizing European Christians by showing them a pagan society more orderly and humane than anything in Christendom.

Later writers, in turn, satirized More by turning him on his head and portraying dystopias -- societies that are appalling perversions of what we say we value. The early Soviet writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, in his dystopian novel We, inspired both Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984.

Preventing the future

Those writers, all intellectuals, were really portraying their own societies' utopian dreams. In fact, they blasted those dreams so thoroughly that straight utopias became almost unwritable (though Huxley gave it a try in his late novel Island). As Ray Bradbury famously said, the purpose of science fiction is not to predict the future, but to prevent it.

Now we have three recent dystopias by prominent intellectuals. Margaret Atwood has been here before in The Handmaid's Tale; MaddAddam is the conclusion of her dystopian trilogy. Chang-Rae Lee, the Korean-born American author of On Such a Full Sea, has published several brilliant mainstream novels about Asian immigrants. And Canadian-born Adam Sternbergh, author of Shovel Ready, is the culture editor of the New York Times.

All three clearly understand the ancestry and conventions of the genre, and of literature in general. Each understands that a dystopia is really about the present, not some unpleasant future. But each has a distinctive take on those conventions.

A key convention of the dystopia is middle-class fear of the violent underclass rising up to destroy their betters. This goes back at least to Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908), and his description of the nightmare revolt of the Chicago Commune.

In Lee's novel, the underclass dominates parts of the disintegrated U.S. known as "the counties," where law and order are precarious. Middle-class communities like "B-Mor" (Baltimore) serve the gated communities of the one per cent, known as the Charters. Atwood shows us a post-pandemic world of besieged survivors, threatened by "Painballers" who are addicted to violence. And Sternbergh's narrator hero, who calls himself Spademan, is himself a member of the underclass, a former garbageman turned hired killer in a New York wrecked by a dirty nuclear explosion.

As satirists, these writers have their social targets. Lee quietly derides the Chinese immigrants who have resettled abandoned Baltimore and want to have quiet, boring lives serving their shop-till-you-drop Charter customers -- who have the resources to entertain themselves in some very creepy ways.

The Church of PetrOleum

Atwood assails sentimental environmentalists and "bioweepies" who "save the bears" by subsidizing airdrops of human garbage on the Arctic tundra. But she reserves her sharpest barbs for "the Rev," leader of "the Church of PetrOleum, affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream PetroBaptists." It's an obvious shot at Stephen Harper's Conservatives: "Tell people what they want to hear, put the squeeze on for contributions, run your own media outlets and use them for robocalls and slick online campaigns, befriend or threaten politicians, evade taxes."

Sternbergh has a similar villain, a sexually perverted evangelist named T.K. Harrow promising heaven on earth by plugging people into a highly addictive virtual reality. (Christ harrowed Hell; Spademan harrows Harrow's heaven.) Lee gives us a society without any religion at all; even the secular people of B-Mor seem a little surprised at the absence of spirituality.

Each writer has fun satirizing other genres. Sternbergh's Spademan sounds a lot like Raymond Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe, and even more like Dashiell Hammett's anonymous and violent private eye, the Continental Op. When Lee sends his heroine Fan into the counties in search of her vanished boyfriend, she encounters violent people who might be outtakes from Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or the film version of Children of Men. Atwood also goes after the whole post-apocalyptic disaster genre: global warming, pandemics and genetic engineering that has produced pigs with human brains and Crakers, humans designed to be maddeningly dumb.

Sex and utopia

Sex has always been a key element of utopias and dystopias alike. In More's Utopia, everyone gets a free look at their intended mate, naked, before they marry. Utopia itself is a community of cities built around a womblike landlocked sea, where entry is possible only through a narrow, dangerous strait. And More tells us that Utopos founded his island state by cutting a canal through a phallic peninsula.

In Zamyatin's We, every citizen can demand sex from any other citizen, and every woman in Brave New World wears her contraceptive-laden Malthusian belt. Similarly, Orwell gives us the Anti-Sex League and Room 101 (which he said he chose to provide a rebus of female genitalia).

So Atwood's Crakers display blue genitalia when they're in heat, and the Rev devotes his private time to surfing online porn sites. Spademan is hired to murder T. K. Harrow's daughter because she has apparently become pregnant from an incestuous encounter with her father.

Lee is more understated in his dystopia: fan becomes pregnant from her first sexual experience, and her boyfriend Reg has been found to be uniquely free of the genetic flaws that doom everyone else to cancer. The Big Pharma companies in the Charters are therefore interested in both Reg and his unborn child.

Stories about storytelling

Utopias and dystopias are not generally strong on plot; we expect a kind of guided tour of the society, with frequent pauses for exposition. Sternbergh, having adopted noir and hard-boiled detective conventions, ignores the guided tour, grabs us by the scruff of the neck, and runs. I raced through Shovel Ready in a few hours.

Lee's plot, however, is far more diffuse. His narrator is the "we" of the whole B-Mor community, reflecting on what Fan's adventures say about them as a people. After chapters of rambling comment, his conclusion is too plotty, too tidy. We're left with the consolation of his gorgeous, meditative prose.

Atwood, meanwhile, is all over the map. If you're not familiar with the first two novels in the trilogy, you'll be lost. Worse yet, she abandons plot for a kind of metanarrative; MaddAddam is a series of overlapping and interwoven stories about storytelling. As a kind of textile art, it's magnificent, but it would be impossible even to hang on the wall, much less wear as a garment.

Will any of these books actually prevent the awful futures they foretell? No more than Orwell's vision of Room 101 prevented the National Security Agency. But all three force us to look at our awful present: Sternbergh looks at neurotic post 9-11 America, Lee at gated communities and the anarchic world where the Tea Party thrives, and Atwood at the oil-besotted Canada we are currently trapped in.

If nothing else, like Orwell they give us vocabularies to describe the mess we've got ourselves into. But they give us no advice on how to get ourselves out. That task is very much up to us.  [Tyee]

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