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‘The Way Is Open If We Want to Take It’: The Dystopian Spirit in 21st-Century SF

“I’m starting to think that if science fiction isn’t deeply worried about our present, it should be taken out and shot.” – Paolo Bacigalupi

[WARNING TO READERS: There are some spoilers in this column for the works mentioned. I have tried to limit them but it is hard to do so and discuss the works in-depth to give them their due.]

The title of this week’s column is taken from a passage in A. M. Lightner’s The Day of the Drones (which I was led to by Jame Donaworth’s chapter “Genre Blending and the Critical Dystopia in the Dark Horizons anthology) I like the quotation because it makes a strong statement about dystopia, particularly in its more recent iterations. It speaks to character agency and possibility, to the rupturing of the idea of the classic, monolithic dystopias of the past. It also exemplifies the development of new visions of dystopia; which, as I noted last week, Samuel R. Delany characterized as having “gone beyond this irreconcilable Utopian/Dystopian conflict to produce a more fruitful model against which to compare human development.” But in the new century, what has dystopia developed into in adult SF?

This week I would like to look at how writers of SF are using and elaborating the dystopian spirit. The best way to do this succinctly, but with some variety, was to focus on short stories, which I find are often ignored in analyses of dystopian literature. While they lack the vast detail of a novel, short stories can deliver the essence of dystopia with concision and emotional impact. Since I want to look at recent work, I decided to choose some stories from John Joseph Adams’ new collection Brave New Worlds. I recommend it highly for its combination of classic stories with newer tales that demonstrate the ingenuity that writers have garnered from the idea of dystopia. What do these stories tell us about the ways in which the idea of dystopia is expressed in SF, and do they address the concerns that dystopia has historically dealt with? Is Paolo Bacigalupi’s worry, which seems like a concern that dystopia could be used to explicate, being addressed by other writers?

What is remarkable is that the majority of the stories I found to be most powerful and compelling were concerned with population control or its antithesis. The first was Carrie Vaughn’s “Amaryllis,” the story of a future of scarce resources that requires draconian population control. In the end, the story is less about resisting the tenets of the social system and more about personal epiphany. The dystopian aspects of the story were muted, and I found myself wondering if it qualified as such, but it certainly exemplified John Joseph Adams’ criterion of telling us something about people, and the more I thought about it, the more I saw glimmers of Vaughn using the dystopian spirit to do something different.

The protagonist struggles to find acceptance in a society that has marked her as a pariah, yet it turns out that most of that rejection is in her head. What Vaughn does quite well is work subtly towards a series of reversals using a protagonist that is unintentionally unreliable. As she struggles with her past as an unauthorized birth and the impact of her mother’s poor decision on her present actions, we see the dystopian background, but this story becomes more of a dystopian/arcadian tale, of people trying to make a better life out of a dystopian situation. The system, while harsh in some ways, is comprised of people living in a small-scale society, and is not as totalizing as a high-tech dystopia. The surprises come rather abruptly, but are not jarring as we realize that this world has adapted to its dystopic foundation into a place where people can still be human. By the end the story’s progress feels very naturalistic, but not eutopic. This is a world of limited means and hard choices, but the characters find ways to live with that, and develop for the better.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Pop Squad” was one of the most brutal stories in the collection, and I found it to be very disturbing, but harshly focused on its point. This story of the costs of engineered immortality starts with a visceral shock and ends with what seemed to be a rather futile hope of redemption and cleansing. The first time I read the story the shock it engendered made engaging its complexity difficult, but with subsequent readings it emerges as a layered, if merciless, dystopian parable dressed in realist language. The cost of immortality, and the distanciation it bestows on its beneficiaries from their humanity, seems stiff at first but makes more sense as we get to the know the central character, a cop who is a member of the police force’s “pop squad,” who find women with children (pregnancy is illegal due to the use of “rejoo,” the drug that grants functional immortality to its users) and imprison and eliminate them respectively. Bacigalupi explores a paradisiacal dystopia, where no one who submits dies and daring to be stop the treatment is not just illegal, it is an ontological affront to those who do keep taking the drug.

That affront, and the entitlement that empowers it, gives the central character the empathic numbness required to do his job, to act inhumanly to preserve the highly artificial way of life, to keep the system of privilege in place. The dystopic system is kept in the background, but its effects are explicit in the actions of the characters, whether they embrace or resist it. The psychological effects are particularly well-handled in this story, and while Bacigalupi adheres to some of the essential components of dystopic fiction (the adherent who becomes alienated, the system that attempts to totalize but cannot encompass all people, the costs that any eutopia would engender), he subverts them too. The ending hints at redemption, but acknowledges the deep-seated power of the dystopia to keep people beholden to its gifts, to the point where it may only end when it collapses under its own pretensions. It demonstrates Sargent’s conclusions on the “ultimately dystopian nature of apparent perfection.” How do humans handle “perfection” and what sort of world might it produce?

James Morrow’s “Auspicious Eggs” combines satire with some very human characters in a world that is at once fecund and dissociated. Unlike the previous two stories, Morrow’s world is not concerned with reducing the birth rate, but maximizing it. In fact, it does so to the point that children are tested at birth for their level of fertility and copulation is mandatory when an individual is at their peak of fecundity. This is framed using a wildly improbable version of the Catholic Church, and the dystopia is not governmental but religious.

The satire appears not in the characters’ actions, but in their rationalizations of their actions and in the cultural context that surrounds them. We see the dystopia baldly in TV shows that blare the holy necessity of reproduction and more personally in the character of Father Connie, a priest who faces a crisis when he must baptize/drown an infant who will not be fertile when she grows up. The characters are forced to do things that are counter-intuitive, and that seem to make all of them miserable. The dystopia is unreal, but the struggles of the characters to adapt to their world is where the heart of this story lies. Like Bacigalupi’s central character, the protagonists in Morrow’s story go through the process of alienation, but in less linear ways, and attempt to escape their socio-religious prison. But the story’s ending refutes closure and does not provide any respite from the twisted world the characters are desperate to escape.

The final story I want to spotlight is Tobias Buckell’s “Resistance,” which on the surface is a classical dystopian story of a man trying to break the stranglehold of his government on society. It has echoes of space opera and SF adventure, but quickly develops into a deeper meditation on the dialectical dynamics of governance. Even a supposedly perfect democratic system can be dystopic, and no tyrant can exist without some form of acquiescence from the dominated constituencies. In Buckell’s story the will of the governed becomes their totalitarian prison, and there is no easy way to overthrow a system created to serve the people’s true will.

Buckell creates a contrast between two characters, a rebel from within the system and a mercenary from outside it. Together they set out to destroy the construct that runs the system, only to run into a philosophical conundrum that has no easy solution. The rhetoric of freedom is called into question by the personification of the system, who is only doing what people actually want; make decisions for them and make things run smoothly without the need for overt responsibilities for those being ruled. Democracy is a palliative measure to exonerate people from actively creating their own future. Changing the dystopic system that has resulted requires a combination of determination and audacity, of making a decision outside of both the implicit and explicit “will of the people.” The final decision, while definitive, does not create closure, but opens up a world of possibilities that the people being ruled may not be ready to embrace.

Looking at these (rather subjective) selections, tentative answers to the two questions I posed at the beginning start to emerge. SF literature has certainly developed a profusion of applications of dystopian ideas. While the stories I have selected show some classical leanings, each narrative proceeds in a different direction. Bacigalupi follows the classical progression most closely, while Vaughn ignores it. Each demonstrates the central idea of the editor, of “what it is to be human.” These dystopias contain varying amounts of social and political critique; the idea of dystopia is not a template, but an inspiration. None of them go into great detail about the workings of the dystopian system (although other stories in the volume go into some detail),and the workings are secondary to the effects on the characters. Dystopia in these stories has been humanized, in positive and negative ways, and it is less a machine that a context for human drama.

So where does that leave our second question, and by extension Paolo Bacigalupi’s opening query? This question is harder to answer, but my first thought is that SF as a literary field has become somewhat less focused on, less worried about the present. This is not because the genre lacks a focus on politics as a part of speculative storytelling, but because much of that work, while a product that may reflect some ideas and anxieties of its time, do not seem to focus vigorously on current concerns. There are some, certainly, but there seems to be no pervasive sense of “deep worry” across the wider genre. This is a point, however, that I would stress needs more consideration and surveying to answer more concretely.

The way is still open, if we are willing to take it.

8 Comments on ‘The Way Is Open If We Want to Take It’: The Dystopian Spirit in 21st-Century SF

  1. “I’m starting to think that if science fiction isn’t deeply worried about our present, it should be taken out and shot.” – Paolo Bacigalupi



    I’m getting a bit sick of all this death to the unbeilvers type stuff.



  2. This question is harder to answer, but my first thought is that SF as a literary field has become somewhat less focused on, less worried about the present.

    I think its several things at work:

    The future, as it looks right now, is not shiny and happy. I wouldn’t say its crapsack, but anthologies like Shine *feel* artificial. Worn Futures seem to be the default assumption, and that can be hard to write. People are still writing it, and sometimes being prescient–look at Walter Jon Williams and his work having parallels with the revolutions in the Middle East.  Other writers, too, take on the near and mid term future: Paolo Bacigalupi. Or Greg Bear’s thrillers cum SF. Or Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered trilogy.

    “Future shock”. Its very hard work to write near-future science fiction, because change is happening so fast, that stuff gets outdated or unworkable rapidly. So writers are drawn to writing in other contexts.

    “Future fatigue” I think we’re in a cycle where stories of the road not taken is appealing  I think this is part of the appeal of Steampunk at present.

    I think it is valuable for the field to continue to engage the Heinleinan question of the present: If this Goes On.  That question implies a very big IF. Things can be changed, and SF can suggest or inspire change by showing the results of inaction. 

  3. When it came to writing my own dystopian model, I had the here and now very much in mind. Of course, I finished the manuscript some years ago, and since then ‘here and now’ has very much grown into it. Since the new Government came into power here in the UK, it has become quite startling how they are steering the country into the back story I envisaged for the novel — austerity cuts that threaten a wider divide between between rich and poor, rising unemployment, and political unrest leading to civil disturbance paving the way for a strong arm leader to exploit the crisis to sieze power. As for the previous Labour Government, they seemed determine on building up the foundations of the surveillance state. The novel was playing with the idea of a society where it is a dystopia for the ‘losers’ and a utopia for teh ‘winners’, but in the background there is an overbearing state keeping tight control — being a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’ in this state depends entirely on staying off the state’s radar. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong and it descends into chaos — hopefully what’s happening in UK politics won’t find itself resonating further with the book.

  4. @Paul: yes, I think what you’ve written here makes sense.  It seems more likely that worn futures, meathook futures, and dystopias lie ahead.  If that’s where we”re at, it would be great to see more SF (and fantasy!) deal with not just the possible futures, but what we are making of the present and the moments in front of us.

    Thanks for the author reminders, esp. WJW.  There are some authors writing stories relevant to the current moment,  but unless something happens like that synchronicity, that work seems to get drowned in military adventures and bio-thrillers.

    @Mark: that’s great. but also scary. I think that focus on the current moment can give us good ideas and contexts for a compelling story, and also shine a light on what’s going on.  I think we could use more of that, blending art, relevance, and entertainment.


    And yeah, I hope the situation doesn’t resonante further with our backstory either!

  5. In case folks are interested in more ruminations about this topic, Paul Raven over at Futurismic uses this column as a jump-point for launching into a discussion about SF and how it does and does not engage the near future. Well-worth a read!

  6. Hejsa!

    This looks so interesting! How many columns do you plan on writing in this series?

  7. Great idea Mark, sitting here I carry on seeing this bleak future unfolding… unless we can do something to radically change the course we are on. I would be interested to see how close or different our thougths would be, so you already have sold your first copy 😉

  8. @Lisa: I hadn’t thought of where to take this theme, but I do like the idea of a longer series.  The next two columns will be about other topics, but after that I’d like to come back to the topic.  I think there’s a lot to discuss, and a pile of literature to engage.


    @AndyW I think that is very much in the spirit of what Paolo Bacigalupi was referring to in his declaration.  The SF genre has a number of tools for stories and linkages to interested audiences that examining the present, and wondering where it might go and how we can influence the future, could be fruitful, entertaining, and artistically satistfying.  I’m looking forward to reading Mark’s work too.

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