Friday, February 20, 2015

Why Dystopia is Important and Positive: Part 1

Back in January I had the privilege of speaking on a panel about Young Adult fiction's recent focus on dystopia. I was on the panel because I asked very politely that if there was going to be a panel on dystopia that they please let me speak on it. I care a lot about dystopia and the role it's playing in the literary discourse right now (if you don't think science fiction is literature, you're on the wrong blog). I think themes of dystopia are a beautiful, poignant and well-timed contribution to a debate that's been going on for hundreds of years all over the world. However, I also think people can be ignorant of this, looking only at the moment and seeing it as nothing but pessimism or, care of old man Brin's cane-shaking, formulaic story-telling.

David Brin hates this movie. I'm just happy to have an excuse to post
Jennifer Lawrence's face on my blog.
The panel -- at the CoSine SF writers conference in Colorado Springs -- was a wonderful thing to be a part of. I feel like all the right questions came up. The moderator and audience didn't want to know just the 'what' and the 'how', but also asked about the extremely important 'why' of dystopia, which I loved. Someone even asked about how the non-English-speaking world portrayed dystopia, which is just a beautiful question to ask, and I wish I could've answered it better, but at the time I really didn't know. Which is why it's nice to be able to go back and revisit the topic like this.

During the panel I was able to deliver, in brief, my take on the history of utopian thought beginning around the time of American colonization and how that twisted into dystopia in post-industrial America. My panelists made some wonderful points about how modern, highly visible terrorism has managed to present harsher realities to the new generation at a younger age than expected, and how this makes YA dystopia natural. I loved this point. I want to expand on all of it and really lay out why dystopia is the way it is and why people should stop complaining about it. Or at least frame their complaints in a more constructive way, fully aware of the discourse that they're commenting on.

The case against Dystopia

Some criticism is base. To hear it from David Brin, "[His] own chief pessimism about our future is rooted in Hollywood's absolute determination to undermine our confidence with pummeling after pummeling of relentless pessimism" (this said in response to a Popular Mechanics article holding Star Trek up as the gold standard for inspirational sci-fi). Brin has strong opinions on films such as The Hunger Games and the Divergent series, viewing them as uncreative, formulaic, risk-free films made according to a money-making algorithm.

A more thoughtful argument is that science fiction inspires people, that SF writers haven't been doing that job recently, and that it has lead to a dearth of innovation. Neal Stephenson, in his much-lauded article Innovation Starvation, helpfully breaks that statement down into two parts. The Inspiration Theory observes that sci-fi directly inspires people to become scientists, engineers, and inventors. The Hieroglyph Theory proposes that sci-fi inspires unspoken visions which unfy groups of scientists whose specializations are disparate, smoothing out communication and making "big things" possible.

Stephenson's article is the perfect place to start any modern conversation about dystopia, because it so firmly strikes the root of the problem while so perfectly avoiding the question of value in pessimistic literary works. Stephenson is less concerned with making a literary statement and more concerned with doing his humble part to leverage his position as writer to affect change in society. His Hieroglyph Project is a beautiful and hopeful idea.

You can hear him talking about it in a video on MIT if you like. There's also a fantastic radio interview with Kathryn Cramer, co-editor of the Hieroglyph anthology that resulted from Stephenson's project.

This book is important.
Stephenson's arguments in Innovation Starvation are so convincing and his points are so good, that it's no wonder his article has been sourced over and over again by detractors of dystopia.

It is true that "we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima when we have the possibility of clean nuclear fusion on the horizon." It is true that "[China's] space program, like all other countries’ (including our own), is just parroting work that was done 50 years ago by the Soviets and the Americans."

It is all so true. Is dystopia to blame?

I think the answer requires understanding what dystopia is, what utopia is, and where and why they've emerged. In my next post we'll flash back to dystopia's tragic backstory and learn why it is such a pitiable, if often unlikable, character. After that, I want to discuss why it's an important present perspective and what it is bringing to the table, why it's valuable, why we should appreciate it. Finally, I'll do what I failed to do during the CoSine panel and present at least one international perspective on the growth and value of dystopia.

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