Today we welcome Greg Hickey, a former international professional baseball player and current forensic scientist, endurance athlete, and award-winning screenwriter and author. His debut novel Our Dried Voices was a finalist for Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Science Fiction Book of the Year Award. It depicts a future colony where humans live without disease or hunger, where every want is satisfied automatically, and there is no need for labor, struggle or thought. Interested readers can start Our Dried Voices for free at Greg Hickey’s website. Greg lives in Chicago with his wife, Lindsay.
One random commenter wins a Kindle copy of Our Dried Voices.
The most compelling dystopian stories start from a utopia. Here’s how and why they work.
The dystopian fiction genre has undergone a renaissance in the twenty-first century, buoyed by fears of climate change, political instability, mass surveillance, and instant, unlimited entertainment. But the word “dystopia” originally developed as an antonym to “utopia,” coined by Thomas More in his 1516 book of the same name. Utopia derives from ancient Greek and translates as “no place.” Nowadays, most people think of utopia as having the same meaning as its homonym “eutopia,” meaning “good place.” Dystopia, then, is a “not-good place.”
With these definitions in mind, let’s ask why anyone would want to write dystopian fiction, that is, a story about a “not-good place” (as opposed to science fiction or even general fiction). On one hand, pessimistic stories also trace back to the ancient Greeks. Greek writers divided their stories into comedies and tragedies. Tragedies were dramatic tales of human suffering that created a cathartic response in their audiences. This catharsis was supposed to redirect the audience’s anxieties outward and improve their capacity for empathy and moral insight. Audiences watching Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex would feel horror, shame and pity at the title character’s downfall, simultaneously alleviating their personal anxieties and encouraging empathy and moral debate. A similar effect occurs in the horror genre. No one actually wants to get chased by an ax-murderer, but many people enjoy the thrill of living the story vicariously in a physically safe environment.
On the other hand, dystopian stories have a slightly different aim. Inasmuch as they tell of human suffering and the eventual triumph or defeat of the human spirit, they can evoke a feeling of catharsis. And to the extent they involve fast-paced action, they can inspire a vicarious thrill. But the real goal of dystopian fiction is to get the audience to push back against the imagined society. And it is in the context of this goal that the utopia-turned-dystopia proves so effective.
Remember the Pepsi Challenge? Pepsi representatives would go to shopping centers and other public spaces and give people two white cups: one with Pepsi and one with Coke. The Pepsi reps asked people which soda they preferred in these blind taste tests. Imagine you’re one of the people asked to take the Pepsi Challenge. If you already know you like Pepsi more than Coke, it’s no big deal to you when the Pepsi rep reveals that you indeed chose Pepsi. But if you think you like Coke and then pick Pepsi on a blind taste test? Mind. Blown. That switch in preference is way more powerful than reaffirming you really do like what you thought you did.
The same is true of dystopian fiction. You know the world of The Hunger Games is bad three pages into the book. There’s no big reveal that completely shifts your worldview. You don’t like Coke, and sure enough, you still don’t like Coke when kids are forced to fight to the death. In contrast, wouldn’t it be great if the police could predict and stop crime before it even occurs? Sign me up. But as Philip K. Dick (and later, Steven Spielberg) taught us in The Minority Report, that world could have some messy consequences. The Minority Report succeeds in part because Dick inverts our preconceived notions about justice and law enforcement. In contrast, Suzanne Collins has to work much harder to draw compelling insights out of The Hunger Games.
We can look at a work of dystopian fiction as an argument for why a society should not have certain characteristics. The Minority Report makes us question our attitudes toward crime, justice, determinism and free will. But stories cannot be arguments; they must also entertain. The Minority Report is not a philosophical treatise on the criminal justice system. So dystopian stories make a compromise. They present an argument by way of a story.
In logic, this technique is called reductio ad absurdum (Latin for “reduction to absurdity”). One person presents a positive argument (e.g. we should develop technology to arrest criminals before they commit crimes). His opponent extends the original argument to an inevitably ridiculous, absurd, impractical or otherwise unsatisfactory conclusion (e.g. someone could hack this preemptive justice system and frame innocent civilians).
In this way, a promising utopia becomes a dystopian nightmare. The story forces the audience to confront its erroneous assumptions head-on. And therein lies much of the satisfaction of great dystopian fiction. A great dystopia compels us to engage the aspects of utopia and dystopia within the story, weigh them against each other, and ultimately examine our beliefs about the best structure of society.
There is no satisfaction in seeing that what we believe to be bad truly is terrible. Dystopian satisfaction, perhaps even catharsis, comes from the realization that we don’t have all the answers.
One random commenter wins a Kindle copy of Our Dried Voices. Here’s more about the book: