Well that was fun. Huge thanks to Ken MacLeod, Chris Priest and Jane Rogers for being fine panelists, and to Adam Roberts without whose kindness I would not have been there. My apologies to anyone who was hoping to see Adam and/or Brian Aldiss, neither of whom were able to attend. Also thanks to the audience. We couldn’t see you for most of the hour, but when the lights when up at the end for audience questions we were delighted to find the tent packed.
Here’s my introduction to the panel:
The original meaning of the term “dystopia” is the opposite of “utopia”. It may have been coined by John Stuart Mill for a parliamentary speech in 1868. Utopia, of course, derives from Thomas More’s novel of that name (1516), although people have been imagining ideal societies at least as far back as the Greeks. Other early writers also tried their hand at the genre, for example Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666). Even Shakespeare, in The Tempest (1623), has Gonzalo postulate the creation of an ideal society (in a speech he cribbed from the French essayist, Montaigne).
Looking back, however, these early utopias can seem distinctly unattractive. More’s ideal society has slavery, and doubtless the likes of Jeremy Clarkson would be unhappy with the feminist aspects of Cavendish’s imagined world. The Victorians were keen on writing utopias, but pretty much since the First World War our imaginings have become much darker. We have written dystopias instead. Famous examples include 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Margaret Atwood, in her essay “Dire Cartographies”, suggests that utopia and dystopia are like yin and yang, each containing the seed of the other. This is made explicit in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which features two rival societies, one based on Libertarian Capitalist principles, and one based on Anarchist Socialist principles.
The critic Frederic Jameson has suggested that writing dystopias is a better way to address the world’s problems. Creating an ideal society from scratch is hard, but in a dystopia we can focus on one aspect of society that disturbs us and think about how to fix it .
But perhaps the word “dystopia” itself is changing. These days publishers appear keen to slap the label, “dystopia”, on almost any work of science fiction, especially if it is written for a YA or mainstream audience. I have even seen the term applied to A Game of Thrones.
There’s no question that books marketed as dystopian are hugely popular, especially amongst young people. But are they depressed about the state of the world? Do they desperately want to change it? Or are they just victims of marketing Newspeak?
We have with us today three fine exponents of science fiction literature, so I’d like to start by asking them to talk about their recent work, tell us if they think it is dystopian, and if it is why they chose to write that sort of book.
Actually only Jane’s book (the Clarke-winning Testament of Jessie Lamb) is remotely dystopian, but Ken and Chris know their science fiction inside out and were able to talk about other books they had written, and a wide range of other books.
The obvious question we had to tackle was why dystopias are so popular in the YA market right now. We looked at a variety of possible explanations, including this one:
Personally I think that wanting to save the world is a natural part of being a teenager, and I was struck reading Jane’s book that world saving is so much harder these days that it seemed when I was a kid. Maybe that’s just perspective, but the teens in Jane’s book seemed to understand that complexity of the world far better than I remember my generation doing. That in turn might lead to a desire to read about worlds that are more easily fixed.
Chris raised the issue that dystopias often get written in times of austerity, pointing in particular to John Wyndham and his cohort from post-WWII Britain who produced a style of SF that was more or less unknown in the much more affluent USA. Ken quoted Laurie Penny opining that kids today gravitate towards dystopias because they believe that they are living in one.
Special thanks to Jane for introducing Octavia Butler to the conversation, and for noting that People of Color writing SF are often painfully aware that they are the aliens in the standard narrative. I’ve made a point of including some books by non-white writers in the reading list.
The audience quickly picked up on the fact that much of what is marketed as dystopian fiction would be better described as post-apocalyptic. I noted that some post-apocalyptic work is better understood as “return to nature” utopian fiction (After London by Richard Jefferies being an early example). Ken defined a dystopia as a story in which, “An oppressive system takes on a heroic individual…and wins”. For more thoughts on categorization, see the SF Encyclopedia.
We were asked if dystopias were primarily aimed at capitalism, to which the answer is a very definite no. 1984 was in part inspired by We, a novel by Russian writer, Yevgeny Zamiatin. We were also asked if any books were written from the point of view of a supporter of the dystopia rather than the heroic rebel. Someone gave me a suggestion during the signing, but I’m afraid I have forgotten it. However, it did occur to me that Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country appears to advocate what many would regard as an oppressive dystopia.
There are a lot more books we could have talked about. Here’s a (very incomplete) reading list of dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature. Enjoy.
- The Begum’s Fortune – Jules Verne
- When the Sleeper Awakes – H.G. Wells
- Swastika Night – Murray Constantine (Katharine Burdekin)
- We – Yevgeny Zamiatin
- 1984 – George Orwell
- The Time Machine – H.G. Wells
- The Machine Stops – E M Forster
- Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
- The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
- The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth
- Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
- A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
- Make Room! Make Room! – Harry Harrison
- Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
- The Sheep Look Up – John Brunner
- Shockwave Rider – John Brunner
- Nova Express – William S. Burroughs
- The Holdfast Chronicles series – Suzy McKee Charnas
- The Gate to Women’s Country – Sheri S. Tepper
- The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
- The Last Man – Mary Shelley
- Earth Abides – George Stewart
- The City Not Long After – Pat Murphy
- I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
- Station 11 – Emily St. John Mandel
- The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
- The Chrysalids – John Wyndham
- The Stand – Stephen King
- The Road – Cormac McCarthy
- Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban
- After London – Richard Jefferies
- The Parable of the Sower & The Parable of the Talents – Octavia Butler
- Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
- A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller
- The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
- Noughts & Crosses series – Malorie Blackman
- Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
- Chaos Walking series – Patrick Ness
- Uglies series – Scott Westerfeld
- Orleans – Sherri L. Smith
- Dust Lands series – Moira Young
- Divergent series – Veronica Roth
- Mortal Engines series – Phillip Reeve
- Oryx & Crake series – Margaret Atwood
- The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf – Ambelin Kwaymullina
Other suggestions are welcome. And please remember that we’ve already acknowledged that the category is blurry, so by no means everyone (including myself) will regard all of the above as dystopian.