Two Different Dystopias

There are two kinds of dystopia writing, the old kind that generally worked and the new kind that generally doesn’t. This is bad, because the new kind isn’t just a half-assed effort at what the old kind did well, it is in fact a new and different approach to writing dystopian fiction. It’s just that it’s also rubbish (the ones that get popular, anyway).

Old school dystopianism was fundamentally futurist, describing not necessarily what the author felt was most likely to be the future, but something that could possibly be the future if a certain course of action was followed through to its ultimate conclusion and nobody ever put the brakes on. 1984 describes a police state in which all global superpowers trend towards the same authoritarian surveillance state despite nominally having completely different ideologies. Brave New World describes a world where media becomes so entertaining and distracting that it becomes an effective control mechanism. Harrison Bergeron is about demands for equality reaching a maniacal extreme. Fahrenheit 451 is an Old Media author freaking out about how New Media is ruining the nation, but ignoring Ray Bradbury’s blatant ulterior motive, it does describe a world in which content becomes more and more inane but consumption remains consistent until no one can process anything.

What these all have in common is a clear line of descent from the present day (at the time of writing) to the state of the world when the story takes place. 1984 posits a revolution occurring soon after the date of publication putting the Party into power and discusses how they are slowly altering history so that earlier and earlier events are falsely attributed to them. Fahrenheit 451 has a villain with no reason to even know this shit monologue about how media has all been downhill since the invention of the photograph. I can’t recall if Brave New World ever has an explicit passage on the subject, and I know Harrison Bergeron didn’t because it’s short enough to be easily reread, but the idea is obvious: A trend already present in real life continued and nobody put the brakes on even after it reached the point of total insanity. Many of these dystopias are implausible in terms of futurism. My contempt for Fahrenheit 451 is obvious, but it’s also difficult to see how Harrison Bergeron could get as far as it did before being voted down. Well over half of all people are above average at something.

These dystopian futures aren’t all accurate predictions of the future, and some of them were written by an author who knew they were improbable, but who believed (rightly or wrongly) that they weren’t implausible. That they represented the plausible culmination of cultural and political trends at the time of writing, and while the author might think (and presumably hope) that those trends are likely to be halted before reaching a crazy extreme, the idea of the book is that it is a warning of what might realistically happen if people don’t put a stop to it, and that people failing to put a stop to it is a plausible result. Stories that are good at this, like 1984 or Brave New World, tend to have more staying power than stories that aren’t, like Harrison Bergeron or Fahrenheit 451, both of which are primarily popular amongst people who dislike the trend being criticized and want to believe it could plausibly ruin society no matter how implausible that really is.

The new trend in dystopian literature is different. The goal is not to illustrate the potential harm of a cultural or political trend taken to a crazy extreme, but rather to imagine the potential harm caused by a cultural trend (not even necessarily one that’s gaining steam or which is relevant outside of a small area) taken to a crazy extreme, with little or no effort put into explaining how the world actually got into this state. That might sound lazy, and often it is, but it doesn’t have to be. Without having to tie the dystopia to present day events, without having to explain how society actually ended up in such a state, the author is free to imagine any set of social rules or bizarre laws that they like. Instead of being a warning about a potential future, the dystopia is a thought experiment about a new (and invariably horrible) way to run a society. It has more in common with an episode of Star Trek in which the crew of the Enterprise beams down to a strange new planet than to the older form of dystopian fiction.

The problem is that this form of dystopian fiction is usually shit. Sometimes they work as stories, with interesting characters and good plots, but the actual dystopian setting is far more often than not a hindrance to the story instead of an asset. The question of “what if society were run by reality TV executives/split into factions each of which is formed around a single pre-eminent virtue/desperately in need of a next generation far more competent and adaptable than the one that preceded them” is given a stupid answer.

Hunger Games completely fails to provide any meaningful commentary on television culture because the books spend half their time embracing it and the other half completely misunderstanding the problem (it’s probably not a coincidence that most of this misunderstanding is in shifting the blame away from people working in the industry, a category that includes the author, and onto the people who consume it).

Divergent completely fails to explore the concept of societal factions and ideologies being each developed around a single virtue because it bases the plot of its entire first book on the idea that people who have more than one of these virtues are rare and also somehow threatening to the established order.

Maze Runner never really finds any justification for the trials and tests that make up the entire first two books at all, since it turns out that all of the characters trapped in the maze and later subjected to the scorch trials are immune and always have been, and the reason they were put into the maze in the first place is because this will…somehow help scientists develop a cure from their immunity? Maze Runner even has a reasonably plausible point A to point B history for how there came to be a superplague to be immune to in the first place, it’s just that the reason why any of the things that happen to the immunes end up happening is always bonkers nonsense. It’s just an excuse to have an ominous authoritarian organization put a bunch of teenagers through arbitrary trials. Being a reasonably spot-on metaphor for high school doesn’t absolve the need to have an actual motivation for actions taken. There’s a reason why high school is in the state it is, even if that reason pretty much boils down to “it made sense in 1837 and we haven’t bothered to change it since.”

There’s another YA dystopian series, one which hasn’t reached the same levels of acclaim as the others (including having no film version), but which is actually reasonably okay at being a thought experiment. The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld is really dumb as futurism, because it posits a world in which an unknown actor invents a bug that causes all oil in the world to catch fire, bringing about the apocalypse, out of the ashes of which a new society is formed, and that society is…a post-scarcity image-obsessed environmentalist society that doesn’t seem to recognize the implications of matter reassemblers on your carbon footprint?

Uglies is a dismal failure as oldschool dystopian fiction, its pro-enivronmental message garbled to the point of incoherence by a failure to understand how global warming works and what the implications of a machine that produce fabric, metal, food, and drinks with equal ease and apparently with a carbon footprint so low that in one of the books the Junior Gestapo burn through a month’s worth of a regular person’s carbon credits in one night just by having a big bonfire and cackle about being above the law.

As much as the author loves his headbanging asides about environmentalism, though, the actual story is about the uglies, those fifteen and under who still look like regular human beings because it’s not safe to undergo drastically altering surgeries until sixteen, when everyone becomes pretties, surgically perfected supermodels who look as good as photoshop thanks to future medicine and have also had brain lesions applied to prevent them from concentrating too much and becoming troublesome for the shadow government, the specials, who are surgically altered into living weapons and brain modified to be near-sociopathic in their propensity for violence and control.

Scott Westerfeld has talked about how he had the first seed of an idea for the story when he first came to Los Angeles from (I think) New York, went in for a dental checkup, and found it bizarre that the dentist wanted to have a conversation about his teeth not because he was at any risk of decay, but because they were insufficiently glamorous. LA is also a city where you’re expected to submit a headshot with resumes, and it’s recommended you get it professionally done to help your odds of getting a job. Not just when acting, not even just for jobs that involve interaction with other people, but everywhere. IT guy? Headshot. High school teacher? Headshot. Janitor? Headshot.

Uglies is about this society taken to an extreme, and it actually works. As inane as everything to do with global warming is, the main premise, a society so image-obsessed that extensive plastic surgery to make people pretty is 1) mandatory and 2) comes along with surgical brain damage to make the populace easier to control in order to maintain the sinister shadow government who keeps the surgeries happening. That’s bugfuck insane and the explanation for how society got there is nonsense, but it’s also a footnote in the background. Once the society already exists, its goals are believable (existing power structures want to continue existing, and the Halo Effect is totally a thing) and the actions taken are sensible for completing those goals.

The new kind of dystopia is certainly different from the old kind, but if it were written with enough care to actually explore the implications of their crazy new societies, that would be fine. The reason why YA dystopias are shitty as dystopias isn’t that they fail to present a plausible future for our world specifically, but because they fail to present a plausible world at all. It would be fine if the means by which Panem’s authoritarian state took power were paid no attention at all (as they barely are), or even if they made no sense at all (which they don’t), so long as the current state of affairs made sense and was interesting. To the extent that it’s explained at all, however, it isn’t. I wrote that whole other article about why Hunger Games completely fails to be a criticism of TV culture, and I linked it above, so you can go read it there. Rather than restating all of that, I’ll just say that this represents Hunger Games failing to be any kind of dystopia. I’m entirely on board for a new trend where YA novels explore bizarre, hypothetical societies that have no relation to real world history or current affairs, but they have to make sense unto themselves, rather than being obvious author artifices where a huge number of people come together to solve problems in the most dickish and least efficient way possible, and then no one but the protagonist is able to undermine this incredibly flimsy society after 50+ years of corruption and abuse, nor does anyone else even seem to have tried.

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