Friday, March 31, 2017

The Measure of Our Dystopia

My novel, or so I am told, is "dystopian fiction."  It is a story of, to get to the root of the word dystopia, the mythic "bad land," a place of speculative cultural negation.

On the one hand, this makes sense.  When the English Fall is a story of the world's collapse, of the catastrophic failure of the systems and structures that make our lives possible, told in the simple, plain language of an Amishman's journal as he watches in growing horror.  

On the other, though, I do wrestle with that term, because what I've written isn't a classic speculative dystopia.  There are no games in which young people are forced to fight to the death for the amusement of all.  There is no patriarchal theocracy that forces women into chattel servitude.  The weak and the failed are not systematically but humanely exterminated by human beings who live perfectly regimented lives in a world without color.  Monsanto does not partner with local hospices to provide us with delicious meat alternatives.

I craft no bizarre spin on society.  Other than a technological collapse, what my novel presents is quite simply us.  It's a story about our society, exactly as it is.  It is utterly familiar.

Is that dystopian?

I think it is.  Even by the standards of my childhood, ours is a dystopian culture.  Not a joyous, hopeful future, but a drab, ignorant, shallowly anxious one, one that...like projected in the All Our Wrong Todays, the delightful recent novel by Elan Mastai...seems to reflect a wrong turn taken somewhere.

I have a peculiar measure for dystopia, honestly.  That measure is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, one of the great classics of the dystopian genre.  It was my first dystopia, read back in seventh grade, as a bookish and inquisitive lad fond of picking up books from the library that weren't "kid's books."  It blew my mind.

The world Huxley describes is a future of vat grown clones, each designed for a specific purpose in a great machine of a world defined by caste.  It is a place of utter regimentation mingled with pervasive pleasure-seeking, a bizarre mix of drug-enhanced entertainment and caste.

So against the Huxley Measure, how are we doing?

Not so well.  I would contend Huxley's bizarre Brave New World a much, much happier world than the dystopia we currently inhabit.  In Huxley's vision, every person...cloned though they may be...has a place, and knows why they exist.  The Betas and Gammas go about their lives knowing they are needed, blissed out on soma and the pleasure of endless orgy-porgy entertainment.  They do not know illness.  Work and leisure are theirs.  The Epsilons, with intellects barely above those of animals, are nonetheless utterly contented to perform their menial duties.   The Alphas, who look out over their culture like supermen, are free to act as they wish..even to the point of being permitted...with blessings...to leave the system entirely if they find it represses their creativity.

Happiness.  Freedom.  Contentment.  Pleasure.

Huxley creates a peculiar horror, the horror of a society designed to provide place, purpose and happiness to most of those who participate in it.  It is inescapable happiness, relentless purpose, so all encompassing that it somehow brutalizes our nature as homo sapiens sapiens, as his Savage discovers.

The Amish, of course, side with the Savage as they look to our dissipated, distracted, anxious emptiness.  They have always seen all of us as inhabiting that "bad land."  They're already sure that we "English" inhabit a fallen realm, part of a a broken and selfish world, one in which the fundamental purpose of humanity has been subverted.  Ours is a dark world, from which they have to remain judiciously separate from in order to preserve their souls.

So is this a dystopian novel?  From our perspective, perhaps not.

But from the perspective of the Amish?  Of course it is.  All of our stories are.

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