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Dystopia

Over at the Inferior 4 (theinferior4), Lucius Shepard (lucius_t) was posting about dystopian films. A list had been sent to him of the supposed best fifty films, with a very Western feel.

Both of us agreed that most of the films on the list weren't dystopian.

It got me thinking, after that, about dystopian films and literature. I know, I know: a post about defining a genre. Well, yes, but in this case, it's kind of different. I'm not looking at it from the point of view of what is a dystopian work and what isn't, to somehow include one work, and remove another. I'm looking at it instead from the constraints that you would put on a piece of work, the limitations you would use to direct it thematically. Maybe it's the same thing, and as I look at that sentence I just typed, I'm willing to agree that it is, but it feels different in my head. Perhaps it is simply because it's not a saleable genre, a piece of literature ground to be found over for acceptance by the larger community (assuming you can get it, it's up for grabs, and that it matters to you, of course). The debates of what is science fiction and what isn't doesn't interest me overly, since at the end of the day, I don't much care. But a definition like dystopia is fun. It's about constructing a body of thought. Building a scaffolding in which you can form a point of view from, so you can analyse it, debate it, write it. It is in this mental mapping of what is dystopian, for example, that I would say Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian novel, but where I would also say that Stanly Kubrick's film of the same title is not. See, to me, the novel is about youth violence, and the way that it is exaggerated and distorted by adults in positions of power. It is, specifically, the final chapter of Burgess' novel that brings this home, and makes the point of it. Kubrick's film, however, has done away with the final chapter, and is instead a conversation about violence, both within society, and within the institutions who wish to correct it--yet it is, I believe, one without a specific conversation in the real world, a specific reference point from which you jump, and then begin to show the distorted mirror image of the world you live in. The film is too general, too broad to be considered a dystopian.

There are a lot of people, I think, who would view a dystopia as something much simpler, as something that is defined by class divides, by constant surveillance, by darkness, and by paranoia, to list a few. To me, however, it's not enough. To me, that means nothing. That's the human condition, give or take various degrees of each.

No, for me, it's the bounce of our own culture, that's what makes something dystopian, what makes it work.

Also, it's what makes it fun.

Comments

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exp_err
Oct. 8th, 2007 06:34 am (UTC)
here I am on LJ already (after my last post)
I tend to think of dystopias as failed utopias. Take somebody's idea of paradise and show how it might actually be a nightmare. "Animal Farm" is a dystopian version of the communist utopia. 1984 is a dystopia from the ideas that more surveillance will reduce crime and watching our language will improve the way we think (among others). Brave New World and Gattacca are in part dystopic views of a eugenic paradise.
benpeek
Oct. 8th, 2007 10:37 am (UTC)
Re: here I am on LJ already (after my last post)
i tend to think 1984 is much more a text about communist russia, myself. there's a great quote, in fact, on the back of the copy i have from a communist paper that says, 'this time he's gone to far.'
ataxi
Oct. 8th, 2007 07:35 am (UTC)
If we take "utopia" (drawing on More's original work) to mean the environs of a society that functions extremely well, I'm correspondingly happy with defining a "dystopia" as the environs of a (fictional) society that functions very poorly.

There is the minor difference that the word utopia ("no place") carries the implication of implausibility, whereas in many cases the creators of dystopias are keen for them to be considered plausible.

I don't agree that the term implies class divides, surveillance, or any other specific quality beyond inspecific societal dysfunctionality. But I do think the social aspect is key. And just as Utopia reflected caustically on More's England, so any dystopian novel will probably reflect on its author's social experience.

So films where "bad shit happens" are certainly not of necessity dystopian. But I'd argue that Kubrick's version of A Clockwork Orange is. It depicts a society in which the disaffect of the individual, resulting in violence, carries forward naturally to the brutalisation of said disaffected individual by the disaffected institutions consequent to, and reciprocally reinforcing, the disaffection of society in general.
benpeek
Oct. 8th, 2007 10:40 am (UTC)
i do agree that many authors tend to want dystopias to be plausible, though i'm personally (as a reader/writer, whatever), not so interested in that. that it is plausible to contain a suspecion of disbelief while reading is cool, but beyond that...

(Deleted comment)
benpeek
Oct. 8th, 2007 10:42 am (UTC)
I think part of the appeal is the human spirit, the survival instinct in all of us, whether that is raging against big brother or holding a stranger at gunpoint while you wave a geiger counter over them. But now I'm talking about postapocalyptic works I guess :-p

yes :)

see, personally, i don't reckon dystopic fiction needs the human spirit thing. in fact, in most dystopian fiction, the human spirit is crushed, broken, or finds a way to exist within the society at the cost of the individual. or so i tend to think in my head.
ataxi
Oct. 8th, 2007 11:09 am (UTC)
I should really read Black Sheep ;-)

As far as not needing "the human spirit" goes ... The Trial. Dystopia means humans encompassing their own doom in the incomprehensible systems of their own conception. This is why I wouldn't count a story like that of Dark City. In that setting, humans were enslaved by an external agency through no fault of their own.
"in fact, in most dystopian fiction, the human spirit is crushed, broken, or finds a way to exist within the society at the cost of the individual. or so i tend to think in my head."
I agree. This type of fiction is about the system at its worst. When the protagonists beat the house, that's not dystopian fiction, any more than it'd be possible for a supervillain to stage a bloody coup in a true utopia. Therefore, The Matrix is also out. Children of Men, on the other hand, with its ambivalent ending - who the fuck are "The Human Project" anyway, and how do we know they're the good guys? - is in.
benpeek
Oct. 9th, 2007 01:18 am (UTC)
of course you should read my book. did you not see its comparisons to atwood and ishigaru? heh.

i haven't seen CHILDREN OF MEN, yet. i've been pretty behind in movies this year, partly, i think, because i find it very hard to get excited by them at the moment.
mattdoyle
Oct. 8th, 2007 10:32 am (UTC)
I was going to say much the same as what others have, about utopias and such, and their relationship to the dystopic genre.
But then I got to thinking a bit...why is a dystopia so much more "plausible" and "saleable" than a utopia? People are quite happy to "believe in" a dystopia in fiction, and plent dystopias have been invented. But, if utopia and dystopia are supposedly at opposite poles of a sort of philosophical idealism, why should dystopia ring any more true than utopia? I find that a more interesting question.

Is it just because we know (or think) that utopias will never exist? It just seems like two kinds of idealism, utopia positive, dystopia negative...both strategically exaggerate and extrapolate certain aspects of society to whatever fictional end....but for some reason there is not a genre of "utopic" fiction. (I personally would hate to read what someone's ideas of a utopia would be, and would just think the writer is being naive and intellectually dishonest, but I'm cynical)
benpeek
Oct. 8th, 2007 10:43 am (UTC)
personally, i think it's hard--and perhaps, maybe, impossible--to write a proper utopian tale. if everything is perfect, after all, and everything gets done and is solved simply and reasonably, then, well, what purpose is there for a story?

(which is a bit of a simple statement, yes)
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