Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why The Popularity of Utopias and Dystopias?

The latest YA novel craze is dystopian fiction. This sub-genre of science fiction has knocked vampire-relationship fiction off it's pedestal, which had pushed to the ground boy-wizard-goes-to-school-and-fights-enemies fiction. I find this trend interesting because it's really a turn from fluffy style fiction (sorry Twilight fans) to a fiction with ideas.

I may get in trouble for saying this, but vampire fiction to me was always about sex and abstinence. The cravings of the vampire were a metaphor for, well, you know. I understood the popularity of these books for that reason but never related to them. Dystopias come from a more universal place. I can't imagine anybody with some sort of political bent hasn't heard a news item and felt a cold chill about the direction the country is heading. Who hasn't worried about what would happen to our countries of one's political foes seized power? Hence the popularity of dystopias.

The best dystopic fiction takes a trend happening currently and projects it as guiding principle for an invented society. Some examples of this are Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale which is about elements of the religious right taking over an America, depleted after nuclear war. Margaret Atwood speculated what would happen if the religious right took control of what remained of America, giving it a plausible premise of post-nuclear chaos, and the repression that would occur.

From another point of view is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World which is about a world taken over by industrialization yet people are controlled not by the repression and secret police of The Handmaid's Tale but by their own pleasure principle. People are genetically engineered for certain jobs, with their abilities and especially intelligence modified for menial work or more advanced tasks. Yet everyone is somewhat satisfied by the ready and legal availability of drugs as well as a tradition of easy recreational sex.

Interestingly, I think Brave New World has been quite prophetic in the sense that it portrayed a society willing to give up much in exchange for pleasure. I consider how our society has given up communal life to a large degree in exchange for the pleasure of the virtual world. This began with television (or maybe radio), but western society has done a remarkable shift in its willingness to participate in public life. The “front porch” where we used to participate in neighborhood life is no longer our actual front porch, it's the internet and especially websites like Facebook.

In this vein, M.T. Anderson's YA book Feed is about a world where corporate advertising, especially internet advertising, has become a dominating factor of life. Approximately three quarters of young people have a “feed chip” surgically implanted in their skulls which enable them to receive advertising at all times based on their location and what they're actually thinking. As well, the young people in the book have developed a jaded attitude towards life in general; the book begins with a complaint about how a visit to the moon “sucked”.

Feed is a creepy vision, made much more frightening when one considers that this is actually happening with the location-based applications on most smartphones. Even in the last couple of days it has been revealed that Apple Computer stores the location of every iPhone user on a file which in turn is backed up to your local computer with iTunes. Does Apple actually read this file and learn exactly where every user of an iPhone has been? The company is mum about this so far, but suffice to say, this is a troubling corporate trend. (Disclaimer: I was an IT technician specializing in Apple computers in the 1990s.)

The Hunger Games novels are another YA dystopia based on control because of the scarcity of natural resources. The remnants of the United States are broken into twelve districts (there was a thirteenth, but it's fate after a rebellion is a mystery). The population is controlled with laws, police, and especially a years event called the Hunger Games. This is a government sponsored battle to the death between randomly chosen young people (although the poor tend to have a greater chance of being chosen, of course). The fight is the media event of the year with the explicit point that if the government can take any young person in the flower of their youth, they can doing anything to the captive districts. The story in itself is quite reminiscent of the myth of Theseus, who went to Crete with the tribute of fourteen Athenians in order to kill the cruel Minotaur that was to devour the young people. In this story, young Katniss can't defeat the evil government itself, but she can come to a surprising and self-sacrificing personal triumph.

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