With the success of the Hunger Games series, we’ve seen a rebirth of the dystopian genre. In contemporary Young Adult (YA) dystopian literature, the backdrop is often a nebulous post-apocalyptic landscape where children are at the center of the story. It’s been a successful formula and has revitalized the genre. I hope the success of YA dystopia will motivate publishers to also revitalize contemporary adult-centered dystopia.
In some of the classic dystopia such as Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, the major theme was totalitarianism. The fear of world dominance by a Soviet-style dictatorship was a real and tangible danger in Orwell’s time and the novels reflected those fears. They were cautionary tales that showed us the road signs that could lead to such a dystopian society. Aldous Huxley, writing a generation before Orwell wrote Brave New World, a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific and social changes that were taking place in the 1920’s. Both Orwell and Huxley were social critics. They looked at their society with a critical eye and imagined a dystopian future based on what was going on around them.
In my novel Against Nature, I built a story based on the Orwell/Huxley model of contemporary road signs that may lead us down a wicked path. The news headlines in the years following 9/11 read like an Orwellian dystopia with tales of secret prisons, torture, extraordinary rendition, domestic spying, suspension of habeas corpus, military tribunals, ignoring the Geneva Convention, and wars built on falsified intelligence.
As a fiction writer, I didn’t have to imagine a post-apocalyptic landscape or Soviet-style take-over as a backdrop for a dystopian society. The news headlines provided me with plenty of material; all that was needed was a little imagination. My goal was to use contemporary events, add in some plausible fiction, and then blur the lines between them.
Based on our recent past, I wondered how we would react to a catastrophic event greater than a terrorist bombing or a broken levy. In Against Nature, I created a global pandemic: a disease without a cure and superimposed some of our post-9/11 reactions onto this new crisis. I added in the recent rise of Social Darwinists on the political scene and what came out the other end was a frightening and all too plausible dystopia in the spirit of Orwell and Huxley.
Writing in the dystopian genre takes a keen sense of the current landscape and a willingness to look critically at your own society. My catalyst in Against Nature was a global pandemic. At the heart of such a story line must be the vaccination plan. I wondered how we would dole out an experimental vaccine for a fatal and highly contagious disease that was spreading unabated across the globe. In a recent film about a global pandemic, the vaccine was doled out by lottery and the citizens lined up in such an orderly manner.
Would we really distribute an experimental vaccine in such an egalitarian way? In Against Nature, I wanted the vaccination plan to mirror our wealth distribution. We live in a society where one-percent of Americans control half the wealth of the entire nation and the bottom eighty-percent control only seven-percent. Is this inequality a sign of a healthy society? In a global pandemic, would we need to save everyone or only the top twenty-percent to preserve our national wealth and power? Would the Wall Street banker get the vaccine before the day laborer or the venture capitalist before an inner-city pre-school teacher?
In creating my vision of pandemic America, I used the story of the Titanic as a parable. I wondered how our society would behave if we began to list and take on water? Who would be in the lifeboat and who would perish in the icy waters? What are the road signs in our contemporary society that points us toward a potential dystopian future?
As a fiction writer you have to ask those types of questions and be willing to view the world through different lenses. To write a compelling dystopia, you have to be more than just a good storyteller; you also have to be a social critic. You have to look at your own society from outside the fishbowl and be willing to move away from your own comfort zone. You have to examine faith, gender, race and class from many perspectives and peel back the layers to expose the roots of our social structures. When you do that, you create a blended narrative that is quite complex. Fiction, like life, should be many shades of gray.
With Against Nature, I tried to avoid a predictable ending where everything is wrapped up in a tidy package and we feel hopeful that good has trumped evil and the poor all end up wealthy and self-actualized. A good narrative in any fiction genre should be more complicated than that. In the dystopia genre, it’s imperative that we see the reflection of our own society (warts and all) in the pages of the fantasy society. I think that’s the most important ingredient and that’s what I look for in dystopian literature. Sometimes we need that social self-reflection to shake us from our moorings. We need to be transported out of our fishbowl and look back in from a different perspective. It’s what makes the journey to the dystopian fantasy world worth the trip.
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Visit his blog for reviews of Against Nature: http://johngnelson.blogspot.com/.
The U.S. is ground-zero for a mysterious global pandemic. The disease is highly infectious and kills its victims within two weeks of exposure. It’s neither bacteria nor a virus and all traditional treatment regimens have failed.
Serena Salus, a radical scientist, discovers the organism is an extraterrestrial dust mite brought to earth by a shuttle astronaut. The government contends it’s a genetically-engineered organism created on earth by enemies of freedom.
Dr. Salus uncovers a vile plan for distributing her experimental vaccine and finds herself in a deadly confrontation with powerful forces that’ll stop at nothing to control the distribution of her vaccine.