D is for Dystopian Diatribe – A Spectacle Without Dragons
“You are in error, no one is screaming, thank you for your cooperation”
-The Computer, “Paranoia” tabletop RPG
There is no Kriss, you are mistaken. There certainly wasn’t such an individual taken from a cabin in the dead of night, and even if there were, that individual certainly wasn’t taken to a forced-labor camp to play video games until her thumbs bled. We would never do any such thing to a citizen of our fine republic. Honest, you can trust us. In fact we are the only people you can trust, others may mislead you, attempt to sway you in your resolve with seditious or heretical lies. You must not fall to their treachery, you must listen only to our guiding voices. Always we watch over you, for you are our children. Remember your duty to us, your gentle fathers, and report suspicious or treasonous behavior immediately, your swift resolve and decisive action save citizen’s lives. Have no fear, for when you report we take determined action. You are safe with us.
The Revolution May Not Be Televised, But Our Dystopia Has Been Commodified:
How the satire and parody of the traditional Dystopian novel has been subverted.
We’ve been had, tricked, given less than we were initially promised. The venerable progenitors of the Dystopian novel had specific goals, observations, and warnings for us, the readers. Whether it was Orwell writing about communism’s transition to fascism through anthropomorphic animals, Forster warning us about the perils of technology replacing basic human experience and eliminating the human condition by convenience, or even Bradbury fantasizing about a world without books, all of these writers had a greater purpose to their writing beyond the bleak worlds they presented. They wanted us to “feel” their stark worlds, to become claustrophobic along with our protagonists, to feel the crushing weight upon them. And because, unlike our protagonists, we actually HAVE a vision of a better world (in comparison-for sake of argument), we can better relate to all that these literary denizens have lost. For us the hopelessness is even more profound, as Gaiman wrote “what power would hell have if those imprisoned were not able to dream of heaven?”, they cannot imagine a different world so we suffer that knowledge for them. For these authors their terrible worlds are merely the vehicle to drive their fevered epiphanies to our collective consciousness, stories grim and final for us to experience so that we will pay attention, so that we will remember. It’s why books like “1984” are still a model for both politician and anarchist alike of what our world could become if we do not heed what it foretells. And this brings me at last to my point, that in modern Dystopian literature this spark of greater purpose is all but lost.
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine Michael Bay directing a boot stomping on a human face forever, in slow motion.”
An unfortunate trend that I often decry is mistaken or misguided innovation. Say that you observe the wheels of a car and think to yourself that they could be re-imagined or improved upon if they were square….or on fire (if you’re feeling edgy). And while you might delude yourself into believing that people will acknowledge and even approve of your bold new take on the wheel, the root of your mistake is that you have forgotten that the wheel served an original purpose beyond spectacle, and once created it cannot be reinvented, no matter what the sales brochures say.
We see this thought process in modern remakes of old movies. Production teams convinced they can re-tell the story better than the original when all they’ve done is change how the story is presented, with none of the spirit kept intact. Worse still are those movies and books “inspired by” older works, always convinced they’ve found a new winning permutation of the original that could possibly live up to the relevance that their primary source material delivered. Like re-imagining “To Kill a Mockingbird” with ninjas (Yes, smart-ass, that would be funny, but that was NEVER the point of the original, and you cannot say that it would carry the same weight).
It’s spectacle, dressed up in gold finery, covering a void where meat should be. We get the barest skeleton of greatness, trussed and presented in HD, but without real substance. Michael Bay made “The Island”, a terrible re-imagining of “Parts: The Clonus Horror” which was itself a terrible film “inspired” by Huxley’s “Brave New World”. The movie “Equilibrium”, decided to lump multiple dystopian works together, destruction of art from “Fahrenheit 451”, restriction of any emotion other than concern for the state from “1984”, but it did have new ideas of its very own! It added future elements from “Bladerunner”, and included cool “improved” martial-arts action with gun katas. Guns and martial arts together for the first time (assuming you’ve never heard of John Woo), THAT was their fresh new addition to their Frankenstein merging of dystopian novels. From this we have our own bleak vision of the future, bland copies of great stories that will eventually have bland copies made of them, onward to infinity, as we are further and further removed from what made the original story great.
This vacancy of depth can be seen across the spectrum of genres in book and film. “Silence of the Lambs” was a unique psychological thriller (carried heavily by Hopkins). The development of Lecter as a character was deep and treacherous, Buffalo Bill was in his own way terribly frightening and still believable, and the characters were fleshed out and interesting in their motivations. Now compare that to the movie “Se7en” (look at the title again, that is how it is freaking spelled), the film focused entirely on the ever-more-outrageous killings of its primary antagonist, an utterly bland and two-dimensional moronic character that would not be equaled in pointlessness until “Saw” gave us Jigsaw. It added nothing to its source interests except the spectacle of their outrageous killings (and even those couldn’t hold a candle to the deathtraps of Vincent Price as Dr. Phibes)
This is what had been brought to our literature as well, people focused so acutely on the spectacle of the setting or situation that they never give pause or thought to a greater meaning or relevance. Dystopian novels more focused on what overwrought totalitarianism can be created, no greater meaning or significance, just malevolence for malevolence’s sake. A graphical update for the surroundings, futuristic settings or new action sequences or narrative, no need to think up any new ideas, just reach for the old standbys, you don’t have to think up an overarching message either, that’ll just bog down the slow-motion explosive action you’re going to stuff into your work until the sides burst. But a dystopian novel needs to have that message, that parody of conventional society or societal ignorance at its heart, a core that the author deeply feels and has meaningful and relevant thoughts pertaining to this lesson. This hidden foundation makes the setting real, real enough to feel it scraping at your very bones as you read it, real enough to sense it metastasizing deep within your constricting bowels. It is not merely a new variation of the stories we already have. It is not just coming up with a new set of societal cruelty for the antagonists to visit upon the populace because they’re just evil and you simply cannot imagine any greater depth for them that what you would find in a mud-puddle. But this is what we are given, repackaged irrelevancy.
Dystopian novels warned us of dark futures born of willful ignorance, of what we sacrificed for sake of convenience or safety, and now they ironically, or perhaps even as tragical poetry, have been turned into a vehicle for vapid fluff. Setting and spectacle are what is delivered, a slightly altered location, a small twist in the monsters presented. Perhaps that is their ultimate evolution and the conclusion of their jagged point, that they can be de-fanged, all potency removed, deep meaning evaporated. Destroyed, not by burning, but by acceptance. By being consumed and imitated through generation after generation, each iteration of the original idea being subtly altered and made eerily comical and fake, like a smiling mannequin. As each new reader exposed to the theatrics becomes enamoured with the grand display while becoming disinterested with the core message, I can foresee a day where we all can win the victory over ourselves. I love Michael Bay.
Geoff has been harassed for months to write something for me and finally when the topic that he felt impassioned to talk about, that he could write about without offending to many people, came up he took over. I had not been doing anything other than writing up reviews or before that concocting recipes. I think he got a distinct pleasure out of forcing me to kill dragons while he expressed his opinion on the status of dystopian genre today.
Geoff resides with the author of Cabin Goddess, is a musician and writer himself. He rarely shares any of his work so this was a real treat! Oh and I promise NO real dragons were injured or killed during the drafting of this diatribe on today.. the day for D! (His ABOUT page has ALL that there is to KNOW about the sexy Man-Beast!)