I pretty much instantly dismiss anyone who lists a book people are forced to read in middle school as one of their favorite books.
Also you can kind of view people's love for post apocalyptic settings as the opposite of this. Everything sucks, there are no resources, the war of all against all etc, but it's so FUN, because the story just focuses on how awesome and badass the protagonists are.
Thank you, that was interesting reading.
By the way, did you ever see Pleasantville?
Are you sure you ever read The Giver?
Because I'm certain the message was the opposite of keeping society frozen.
And I read a lot.
One interpretation: Keep society frozen the way it is now and don't dare consider improving on it, because all potential "improvements" inevitably lead to ultra-structured societies where we euthanize inconvenient people and suppress sloppy sexual desire because we don't really need it to reproduce.
Edited at 2012-02-06 02:59 am (UTC)
Granted, I didn't read it in school, so maybe I'm mishearing the lyrics and loving the song for the wrong reason, but that take is seriously dark. Who would write a book with that message?
The moral I got is if you quit examining, stop considering/reaching/feeling, then you might wind up in an ultra-structured society void of what makes life worth living; think for yourself and help your children learn to, because to fail at that is to invite terribleness most pervasive down the line.
I did hate Gathering Blue.
I retract "Who would write a book with that message?" because, like I said, I read a lot, and some writers are awful. I just don't like to imagine someone would write a kid's book (ostensibly) with that message.
The Giver was a dystopia in which the humans on that world were trapped in a frozen culture with no way of being more than mildly human and no easy way out.
Well, what I got out of it was that it was many children's first introduction to a society radically different from ours...
...and then the moral is "oh no, different societies are terrible and everyone gets killed and lied to, never do that."
The book may have supported change in the Giver's society, but only to make it more like our society.
The book may have supported change in the Giver's society, but only to make it more like our society.
That's a fair criticism.
2012-11-10 11:11 am (UTC)
Yeah, pretty much.
Gathering Blue was WEIRD. And all magicky-mystical.
Sounds like you are giving these books more credit than they deserve.
In the simple reasoning of I do not read much and do not like to think much but I have to be better than this logical guy (who, btw seems better in every way) because otherwise I am f**ed the person needs to have a coherent answer as to why, otherwise it feels somehow dishonest. Okay, he is more like a computer than I am, because he can come up with associations and knows more of things, I'll bite that. What can I do that a machine can't? Okay: feel, have emotions. Hence, emotions are good and whoever does not feel them is a loser. So far so good. Small step: these machine-like guys must be somehow emotionally crippled (why? If they are smart they have to understand it's good and develop - oh, must be because they lack capacity to feel them: they think they loathe emotions but in fact grapes are green, haha!), therefore, I am better than they are, QED.
Yeah, I think that's often the reasoning. To be fair, I have heard smart scientific people applying equally disdainful and skewed logic to people who are smart and nice but prefer art or something of that sort to reading: that person is talented and nice and popular - but I have to be better - so obviously that person has to be dumb.
Neal Stephenson came up with a catchy word "iconography" to describe these thought patterns...
ME: And in what world is it more efficient to force everyone in the world to change the name of every single country to an unpronouncable alphanumeric mishmash than to spend five minutes writing a lookup table??
That reminds me of thisdystopian world I read about the other day, where "scientists", in the name of "efficiency", were trying to force every to change all their units of measurement away from what they'd grown up with, what all their industrial processes were standardized on, etc, into this new system of measurement designed around make as many conversion factors as possible be powers of 10. As if a computer can't keep track of there being 12 inches in a foot or 5280 feet in mile.
The worst part was how heavy-handed the moralizing was. They had the movement start in this cliched evil empire, where "enlightened", "rationalist" revolutionaries had taken over from a bumbling, inept monarchy and replaced it with a "reign of terror", where in order to instill the new "enlightened" values on society, the revoluntaries started having everyone who disagreed with them about anything rounded up and beheaded. Then they went out and conquered most of Europe, imposing their laws and system of measurements on everyone along the way, and things spread from there.
Just because computers can process perverse systems with ease doesn't mean humans can :)
I shall never call August Thermidor, so help me God Emperor Augustus Caesar!
2012-02-09 01:08 am (UTC)
Truth is stranger than fiction. . . .
Because fiction has to make sense!
Very interesting read. Thanks.
2012-02-06 06:13 am (UTC)
"The underlying moral of all dystopian fiction is that radical attempts to improve society using science and reason will in fact create horrible societies that lack everything good about being human."
You really, really haven't read much dystopian fiction. Read the short story collection Brave New Worlds compiled by John Joseph Adams. There are dystopians based on all kinds of ideas from extreme theocracy (IE: the religious right wins) to corporate states. Quit dismissing an entire genre because you're ignorant.
Perhaps I am defining the term "dystopian fiction" to refer to a certain narrow sort of dystopia - I did say I wasn't talking about eg 1984ish stories.
2012-09-28 01:13 am (UTC)
It might be good to come up with a better term then; I think the way most people understand that word "dystopian" will necessarily include things like 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, and Heinlein's "If This Goes On...." (Incidentally, the election that brought Nehemiah Scudder to power in Heinlein's future history was that of 2012. We actually had some Scudderesque candidates running in the Republican primary -- Perry and Bachmann are Christian Dominionists, and Santorum seems to favor a Catholic theocracy. Mittens doesn't appear to fit the bill, though, White Horse Prophecy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Horse_Prophecy) or no, and anyway, he appears to be losing the general election.)
Dystopias are a genre now? I thought they were just a trope.
I wonder how much of America's (and to a lesser extent, Europe's) idea and worship of "rugged individualism" has to do with the theme of governmental/bureaucratic micromanaging you see in dystopian novels again and again. (In addition to the books you've mentioned, it also comes up in the Swedish SF book Kallocain.) It seems that too much in *either* direction would be a Bad Thing, but authors seem to drastically prefer to tackle the "government micromanaging" version far more than the "Hobbesian state of nature" version. Maybe, like, Mad Max?
Read "Silent Leges" by Jerry Pournelle for a somewhat conservative libertarian take on why anarchy sucks. Or "Cloak of Anarchy" by Larry Niven on why the fun kind of "anarchy" requires the existence of an advanced non-anarchic host society to function.
Thanks! I'm always on the lookout for new reads.
"Dystopias are a genre now? I thought they were just a trope."
The difference between a subgenre and a work-defining trope is generally pretty thin.
You're assuming that the choices are between freezing society as it is right now forever and attempting to create a better world. You're forgetting that in real life, revolutions usually lead to worse worlds. This was very, very amply demonstrated in the 20th century -- Russia, Italy, Germany, China and Iran -- of the dictators running these societies, only the Iranians did not claim to be creating a scientific and technological utopia, and they claimed to be creating a religious utopia. Dystopic science fiction is in part a reaction to this possiblity.
But yeah. There's nothing about scientific or technological progress per se that makes this inevitable. Especially not stupid alphanumerics. And really, absent the Conditioning process, Alex would have to be killed or locked up for life, and I don't think that it's really all that terrible to destroy a man's ability to enjoy classical music after he's destroyed other people's lives -- if anything, Alex was getting off fairly lightly (actually, he also lost the ability to engage in violence in any form, but then he'd pretty adequately demonstrated that he couldn't be trusted with that capacity).
It's odd that even though Communism is one of the obvious inspirations for dystopian literature, one common feature of all of them is that dystopias are really economically efficient and rarely have overt state-sponsored violence.
It's like they're conceding the point to Communism on all of the areas where they could actually fight it, and then inventing a bunch of fake accusations against it instead.
There's no excuse *now*, but in the early 20th century a lot of people didn't realize Communism was actually a nasty system to live under. It looked like it worked. The arguments against it were, by necessity, idealistic. And so a lot of anti-Communist memes come from there. Shuddering against enforced conformity. Add that to the mid-twentieth-century shudder against *American* forced conformity, and you have the modern YA dystopia. Forced conformity actually does suck. And teenagers and children are much more conscious of it, and pained by it, than adults. Somehow a lot of us stop worrying about it because we're busy worrying about other things.
Being told who to marry is pretty much a standard feature of most traditional societies since forever
By which I mean, most traditional societies people idealize unquestioningly are terribly dystopian when examined closely.
Had an argument recently in the comments of an article about uncontacted tribes. Everyone is on board with the notion this neolithic lifestyle must be preserved, and apparently I'm the only one that thinks living like a fucking caveman in the 21st century has to suck. But hey they don't have to worry about mortgages (<---actual argument used!) I'm sure that will be a great relief when they're dying of one of a thousand easily prevented maladies like a burst appendix.
That may rather reflect the prejudices of our times than any actual dystopian nature.
Has the reign of free choice in marriage brought a reign of matrimonial bliss?
Everything I've read actually suggests forced marriages are happier and more successful, since both parties realize they'll actually have to put energy in to making it work.
There's also the little assistance of not going into it with grotesquely inflated expectations.
2012-11-10 11:16 am (UTC)
In addition, there is a middle ground between Romantic Passionate Mairrages, and Forced Arranged (or even Arranged With The Minimum Acceptable Level Of Consent) mairrages.
Very interesting, thanks for writing! One nitpick: in the movie, and I think in the book A Clockwork Orange, the Beethoven thing isn't a necessary side effect of the treatment; when they realise it's happening, instead of changing the soundtrack, they say "Here's your punishment element perhaps".
I only read the book, but I definitely don't remember that. In fact, I seem to remember an ad hoc explanation that classical music has a lot of passion and "violence" to it, and so activated the conditioning that way.
Burgess was not really writing a dystopia...
One of the problems of discussing this is the vagueness of the word dystopia itself.
If you define it as a work which describes a society, a culture, fundamentally different from ours in a negative way, then A Clockwork Orange is not much of a dystopia.
At no point does it explain anything about the current state of affairs or even what kind of political regime it is set in.
The point of the novel is that an extremely antipathic character becomes, because his free will is mutilated, a pathetic figure, worthy of compassion, a toy in the hand of the people he encounters.
I find it strange, though, that this entry doesn't mention Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451.
« Oh noes, if people watch too much television, they're gonna end up in a haze of confused stupidity and the government will somehow burn all the books for the lulz »
Can't get a Roomba lest the Terminator kill me.
2012-02-07 04:50 pm (UTC)
I loved the Giver! I got it at a book giveaway at my school when I was about eight. But I loved it because I missed the message of the book. I thought it was about a society that was different and homogeneous and restricted and generally disturbing, but far better than our own. Making sacrifices (bureaucrats choosing your life for you, etc.) and stupid mistakes (the twin thing isn't even necessary) and having seriously odd ways of solving problems (suppressing genetic variation as a cure for racism) and yet still completely worth it.
I like it much less now, because I can see the cheap shots, the parts where the writing is less than stellar, the narration clutching its pearls at OMG THEY BAN SEX, the drawbacks that Lowry missed (so they just Release people who can't ride bikes?). But when you're eight and you don't even know what autonomy or sexual thoughts are, a society where people lack them makes you go "Ooh, strange and nifty!", not "Pass the smelling salts.".
There was actually a logical reason behind the classical music thing in "Clockwork Orange" related to the aversion-therapy/conditioning/brainwashing. If a movie without a Beethoven soundtrack had been used he should have been able to still enjoy classical music (though his inability to defend himself would still have been an issue).
I would interested to see a study comparing people conceived with in vitro fertilization vs the regular way had any statistically quantifiable differences.
I never read "The Giver" in school; I read it in my early 20s and thought it was a pretty good buildup but just sort of fizzles at the end. Much like "Catcher In The Rye", it strikes me as one of those things that needed to be read at a certain age to 'get it' (and clearly not everyone gets it then). The idea from that book that interested me the most were the pills the character took to avoid having sexual attraction to others. We need those pills in real life, although I suppose the people who would most need to take them probably wouldn't. I suppose parents could start slipping them to their kids as "vitamins" when they hit puberty. (And I'm talking separately from some kind of chemical castration pill, which is kinda permanent.)
Weird, I entirely agree with all the criticism and warnings in this essay, and yet am absolutely addicted to reading this sort of distopia and love them. Why would I seek out an entire genre of books that I rationally hate the moral philosophy of? *goes off to ponder*
2012-11-07 06:00 pm (UTC)
One way of parsing WWII is that the Allies were actually efficient and ruthless in pursuit of their goals of victory, whereas the Nazis had made efficiency and ruthlessness into goals themselves.
One way of parsing your utopian fiction is that its against efficiency or logical and orderly social arrangements as goals in themselves.
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