Meant to post this yesterday, but was traveling for the weekend and got home exhausted. So this continues my one-year-long “tradition” of writing anti-oppression-related posts on MLK Day; it’s just late, sorry.
I’m working on a dystopian short story right now. It’s tough going; those of you who follow me on Twitter have probably seen me whining about it, until fellow SFF writer Nnedi Okorafor told me to stop whining and write! So I’m writing.
But one of the problems I’m having with this story is the fact that I keep pulling my punches. It’s set in the future, after a disaster has caused society to reformat itself along theoretically better lines. (Better for whom is one of the important questions of any dystopia.) In the story’s society, they’ve got big problems; I don’t want to spoil things if this story ever gets published, but in essence the human species has been reduced — by another group, which now controls them — to a just-enough-to-continue number. They have some autonomy, and so the continuation may, er, continue, if the humans are sensible about the way they do things, and if they’re lucky. Unfortunately, we can all guess how an existentially threatened population is likely to react; history gives us plenty of examples to draw upon. And “sensible” ain’t usually on the menu of options — unless one considers bigotry and senseless violence to be sensible.
So specifically, the humans have reacted by doing terrible things to themselves, and worse, to their children. But in addition to this horror, there’s a racial element that I want to be visible as a constant undercurrent of the tale. That’s because this society is descended from modern-day America, and in modern-day America, racism is a constant undercurrent. (Heck, it’s still an overcurrent, most days.) There’s also an element of sexism, given that my protagonist is female, and some heterosexism in that she doesn’t fit traditional gender roles, and classism given that her family lacks political and economic power, and so on. Basically the standard American dance card of social sins. But given my experience of dystopian fiction — I’m a fan — there’s a part of me that wants to remove all this complexity and reduce the story to just the point of dystopic divergence from our own culture. That’s what most dystopian stories do, after all. But all my instincts tell me that writing this story like other dystopian stories is exactly the wrong thing to do.
See, despite my fandom, I’ve also long had a problem with dystopian stories because of their persistent tendency to oversimplify human societies. Yes, some dystopias are thought exercises, not realistic stories in and of themselves; reduction is expected and even necessary in those cases. Animal Farm, for example: real animals don’t talk, and the allegory might have been muddled if their committees had worked along the lines of actual animal social behavior. (Male pigs wander, for example, while female pigs are the ones who form stable social groups. Really, the farm should’ve just been run by the girls.) But a good number of dystopias attempt realism, even positing the future of extant societies — which is where my problem lies, because a great many of these “our possible future” dystopias are written as if they’ve sprung forth from a vacuum, carrying little of the baggage of our reality. Take most of the classic dystopias, for example: Orwell again with 1984, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Lang’s Metropolis, Gilliam’s Brazil — as far as I can tell, none of these dystopias acknowledge the power structure of the societies from which they emerged, even when they should. The boys in Golding’s book don’t think about class, though they’re all clearly from backgrounds of some security and privilege (being well-educated and having never known hunger) and were probably well into the process of being inculcated with classist ideals by their previous (British) society. Brazil‘s and 1984‘s dystopias clearly draw some fuel from the current British hybrid of capitalism/socialism; both are clearly “what ifs” (the socialism and capitalism get out of control). But while both works definitely examine class, they ignore all the other hierarchical complexities that are so endemic in British society today. Are we to assume that sexism, religious strife, racism, and so on, will simply disappear when the revolution comes? If so, why should future totalitarianism be frightening to those at the bottom of current British society? Why would, say, the Romani give a damn whether they’re being curb-stomped by state police or by individual bigots who are unlikely to be prosecuted by the state?
Which is why some dystopias that I’m pretty sure are meant to be disturbing… aren’t. At least not to me. Because if a dystopia fails to acknowledge the ugliness of reality, then it’s only going to be disturbing to those who are privileged enough to escape that ugliness. For everybody else, it’s just Tuesday.
And I think this happens in dystopian works, over and over again, because we — as writers, as readers — tend to seek comfort in our fantasies. (In this case I’m referring to “imaginary stuff”, not the genre.) Yeah, even those fantasies meant to disturb us. Most horror fans, and I count myself among these too (I read a lot, OK?), have no problem with maneating monsters, serial killers, evil clowns, or even spiders (which, As You Know Readers, are ALWAYS EVIL), because even as these “frightening” things assault us, we’re simultaneously reassured by the status quo. In most slasher films, we know the black guy will die first, the slut will die next, the gay character will die tragically if s/he is even acknowledged to exist, and so on. We know bad things will happen, but in a way that confirms the order of society which we’ve all been taught to view as right and good. It’s not right or good, and it’s kind of screwed-up that we think so… but there you go. All systems resist change. This is how bigotry perpetuates itself.
So to keep from writing yet another ostensibly-scary dystopia that’s actually Not So Much, I’ve decided that I cannot write the typical from-a-vacuum future society. The trick seems to be crafting a dystopia that simultaneously assaults us with fictional and real horrors. For example, I much preferred Alfonso Cuaron’s film version of The Children of Men to P. D. James’ novel that it was based on — and I’m the kind of person who usually prefers the novel version of anything to the film version. But where James’ version explicitly depicted bigotry against immigrants as a core problem in the story’s dying society, Cuaron piles this onto the racism, sexism, classism, religious strife, and other bigotries that are already common in the UK of today. I found Cuaron’s version terrifyingly plausible; I found James’ version rather boring. Couldn’t finish it, in fact. Then there’s Octavia Butler, the grand dame of realistic dystopias. In 3 books of her Patternist quartet, she immerses us wholly in the PoV of a society of posthuman psionics; we empathize with these characters wholly. Which makes us complicit, in a way, in the series’ most chilling premise: that these psionics have enslaved the non-psionic humans — that is, the people like us — and brutalize them physically and even mentally. This — the empathy as well as the horror — works because Butler doesn’t hold back on showing where the Patternists got their values: they started out as the underclass of human society. They were the poor, the people of color, the queer, the non-dominant religions, the neuroatypical, and everything they’re doing to the humans in the future is a reflection of what was done to them in the past. Theirs is a society which has definitely inherited all the baggage of ours… and dialed it up to 11. I don’t know about ya’ll, but that is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.
But holy effing crap, is it hard to write this kind of dystopia. I’m beginning to understand another reason why the authors of the classic dystopias just elided the evils of reality: because confronting that evil hurts. Because — as with any trauma — it’s far more frightening to acknowledge one’s own oppression-inflicted wounds than it is to just pretend they don’t exist. Writing this story has become very personal for me, and that usually results in either my best writing… or the story’s death. Sometimes when I write things that are too personal, I don’t want to share them with the world. I don’t finish them, or I finish them and trunk them even if they’re good enough to publish, or I sabotage them to make them unpublishable — without realizing that I’ve done so until long after I’ve lost interest in going back to fix the thing. So I sincerely hope that this story survives its birthing-throes, and that I get something out of it that I’m able to share. (Especially after I’ve talked about it this much.) But even if not, I’m forcing myself to finish it. I have to, because I don’t dare let myself get into the habit of taking the easy option. I think all writers need to learn, however painfully, to step outside their comfort zones. Our work demands this. Our readers, many of whom face dystopian situations right here, right now, in the real world, deserve it. And how can any of us as human beings expect our world to improve, to shift toward the utopian rather than the dystopian, if we’re too afraid to confront our fears even in fiction? We don’t have the luxury of getting comfortable. Not yet.
So let’s see what happens.