Better Natures vs. Worst Instincts

Clouds, storm

photo: Alias 0591, creative commons license

Were you, like me, puzzled by the preponderance of dystopian fiction in the young adult category a few years ago? I don’t know whether it started with the post-apocalyptic The Hunger Games trilogy or merely came to a head then, but it seemed adolescents couldn’t escape these bleak takes on their future world. Might they even give up on it?

Disasters, manmade or otherwise seem ever-more likely—an earthquake near the Pacific Coast,  coastal flooding up the Atlantic seaboard, asteroids hurtling toward Earth, Kim Jong-Un, the Rise of the Ultra-Nationalists. So many ways for our world to be royally screwed. In fiction at least, the frequent aftermath of calamity is a society that is, well, dystopian.

Recent analyses suggest that in the current world political climate, the political cataclysms that breed dystopias have put the genre on the rise again. Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have increased 9500 percent since the inauguration of president Trump—and at least for a time, it topped the Amazon bestseller list.

Cory Doctorow in the April Wired argues that disasters don’t inevitably end in dystopias. “The difference between utopia and dystopia isn’t how well everything runs,” he says. “It’s about what happens when everything fails.” He suggests that here, in the nonfiction, disaster-prone post-election real world, “we’re about to find out which one we live in.” Do we respond by helping each other, or do we see survival as a zero-sum game, in which one person’s gain is another’s loss? He reminds us that, on many of the Titanic’s lifeboats, at least half the seats were empty, as people already saved did too little to help their drowning fellow passengers struggle aboard.

A dystopia can be created when we’re persuaded that our neighbors are our enemies, not our mutual saviors and responsibilities.

The belief that when the lights go out, your neighbors will come over with a shotgun—rather than the contents of their freezer so you can have a barbecue before it all spoils—isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s a weaponized narrative. (Emphasis in the original)

Unfortunately, there’s all too much of that kind of thinking in today’s political narrative. Doctorow has thought extensively about what makes a better versus a worse future. In his new novel Walkaway (published today, affiliate link below), the questions he tackles underscore the importance of the narratives we tell ourselves. Do they lead us to work toward utopias or succumb to our worst instincts?

For Further Consideration

  • Many classic novels have described dystopias, as cautionary tales and authors’ predicates to a sentence that starts “If this keeps up . . . .” Here are 10.
  • A “spectacular” television version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale begins April 26 on Hulu.

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”–Part 2

Billie HolidayFiction editor Beth Hill has written excellent advice to authors in her Editor’s Blog essay, “Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain.” I covered four of her points here on Friday.

Here are two more and an example from Cormac McCarthy:

  • It isn’t necessary to stop the story’s action to define what something is or how it works, Hill says. These are digressions and most readers don’t like them. Many authors enjoy doing the research for a book (I do!). They aren’t just making stuff up, they’ve grounded their work in reality. They want to share. And probably shouldn’t. That said, readers of some types of sci-fi and techno-thrillers expect to be given an understanding of the science and mechanics behind the story. Authors who write in those genres get a little slack on the “how stuff works” front. I read a terrific military novel lately (The Empty Quarter), where Amazon reviewers criticized it for not explaining every acronym and term. I wasn’t bothered, thinking I’d figured most of it out, but reader frustration was great. So it may be that a careful balance is needed.
  • Hill says if a character speaks several languages, she doesn’t need to repeat her words or thoughts in more than one of them. Writers should pick phrases or opportunities to use the second language when the meaning will be obvious by word form or context. Cormac McCarthy uses a lot of Spanish in The Crossing, and even though a not-to-be-specified number of decades have elapsed since I had high school Spanish–which certainly never touched the topics McCarthy writes about–I had no trouble following. This exchange between several Mexican men and two young Americans takes place after an old man has drawn them a map of where they want to go and walked away (McCarthy does not use quotation marks):

When he was gone, the men on the bench began to laugh. One of them rose to better see the map.

Es un fantasma, he said.

Fantasma?

Sí, sí, Claro.

Cómo?

Cómo? Porque el viejo está loco es cómo.

Loco?

Completamente.

In this and in many different and subtle ways, McCarthy confirms the reader’s understanding of what is said without a mechanical translation of every phrase (or, by extension, technical term). By the time I finished this book, I was following so well, I thought I could actually speak Spanish!

Again, I encourage you to take a good look at Hill’s full essay. Avoiding overexplaining will help keep you in step with your readers, which is what every writer wants!

The Man in the High Castle: Guest Post

Man in the High Castle, Philip K. DickGuest-reviewer David Sherr gives 5 stars to this 10-part Amazon Studio Series production, which he binge-watched one recent weekend. Says David:

The Man in the High Castle is a complex story of espionage and betrayal based on a 1963 Hugo Award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick. It’s produced by Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner (1982), based on another of Dick’s dystopian tales, and Frank Spotniz (The X-Files). The story provides an alternative history: Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany win World War II, and the United States is under totalitarian rule.

While very few movies are as compelling as the book that inspired them, this one holds true to its source in essential plot and character development. (This Gizmodo review describes some of the differences, for fans of the book.) The series is perfectly paced with tight dialogue and uniformly superior directing and acting. The cinematography is exquisite—lingering shots in muted color settings.

Man in the High Castle

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in Man in the High Castle

Among the production’s leading actors are Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke KleinTank. One particularly outstanding and subtle performance is that of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the melancholy but kind US Japanese Trade Minister, Nobusuke Tagomi, in the accompanying photo. (You may remember him as Chang in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Academy Award-winning film, The Last Emperor [1987], or Eddie Sakamura in Rising Sun [1993], based on a book by Michael Crichton.)

The artistic director, costume designer, and set designer all deserve kudos. The film depicts technology, clothing, hair styles, and vehicles that appear to be from at least a decade earlier than 1962, when the story is set, which is consistent with a point in the story-line about how progress is inhibited by the effects of fascism.

The Man in the High Castle became available for Amazon streaming on November 20. It’s billed as “season one,” so there may be more to come.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%.

Guest review by David Scherr. Contact him at dmsherr@gmail.com or on Twitter: @davidsherr