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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Dystopia


Many years ago, while in graduate school I had a part time job at a Doubleday bookstore managing the paperback department. The majority of sales were represented by three genres: Romance; Mysteries; and Science Fiction. I got to know the folks who were regular buyers of each, the largely female buyers who snatched up those paperbacks with cover art featuring heaving bosoms and sculpted chests; men and women, mostly middle aged who specialized in serial mysteries; and the Sci Fi and fantasy crowd who fit no obvious pattern. For the most part, no one would describe the majority of these books as great literature, though there were of course some notable exceptions. At the time I regarded most as mind candy, a form of escapism that television, movies and the Internet draw upon for source material.


With access to so many books but little time for reading outside of required texts for school I tended to limit myself to classics and biographies. Perhaps I was a literary snob, but that changed when I was persuaded to read a science fiction novel by a friend. Frankly it changed my mind and I have continued to read science fiction to this day. I am a sucker for great writing and there is a lot of it to be found albeit much of the science fiction on the shelves of most libraries, a limited selection to be sure, are space soap operas and comic book riffs. I take some good-natured ribbing about this aberrant habit from my more well read friends who share some disdain for most pop genre fiction.


What continues to attract me are the possibilities that science fiction offers a writer. Not merely the invention of plot and character as all writers may indulge in, but the freedom to create entire universes unbound by the conventions of physics and biology as we know them. To the extent possible science fiction lets us imagine life outside our human experience.


In the post war era of the 50's science fiction was well outside the mainstream. Cheap paperbacks with flashy covers sporting rocket ships and aliens tended toward optimistic and utopian themes. Throughout the 60’s science fiction gradually became a little darker but also reflected a growing fascination with space and the race to land on the moon. The future, as portrayed by the many writers at the time was ripe with new opportunities and revelations and a clear moral message. Good still triumphed over evil, humanity prevailed. It was still escapism but largely benign.


By the 70’s, as we again became engaged in war and rising social and political unrest, fantasy reigned as young readers discovered Tolkein and similar works. The struggle against darkness was appealing but it was during this period that science fiction began a long descent towards the dystopian, where for the most part it remains today. The message was clear: we have seen the future, it’s worse than we thought, the end is near.


Literature and particularly futurist literature is so often a reflection of our collective zeitgeist; our fears and our aspirations. Sci Fi today is largely cynical, dark, and bleak, replete with anti heroes and heroines, megalomania on a vast scale and less than happy endings.


The theme is often about power, those who covet it, those who abuse it and the dire consequences that follow. It is hardly escapism, more an expression of angst and fear. Good still triumphs over evil some of the time, but there is a lot of collateral damage and the moral lessons, if any, are clouded by pyrrhic victories and frank pessimism.


We have every good reason to feel this way given the present state of affairs. To paraphrase the cartoonist Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy and he is us. Sci Fi readers today are less preoccupied with existential threats to humanity at the hands of some alien race, and more convinced it is our own hands that are wrapped around our throats. They may be right.


I don’t want to be accused of trying to snatch optimism from this seething landscape but I am actually encouraged by the trend. Writing has always been a form of therapy both for the author and the reader, a space in which to explore our anxieties and imagine pathways out of the dark. If the imagined future is dystopian, I believe it is so because we want so badly for it to be brighter, better and more hopeful. Behind every cynic is a lapsed idealist.


If we imagine a bleak outcome for mankind, the product of greed, lust for power and inhumanity it is our most profound fears manifesting, but we must remember it is fiction not science. Our collective unconscious projects a future we hope against hope will not happen. Reality is however a work in progress; a future as yet unwritten. Science fiction remains what it always has been, a mirror not a crystal ball. We have not put a period on the last sentence.

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