Because I’m going to write about originality while feeling like I have absolutely nothing original to say about it. I think that’s how irony works. Alanis Morissette really messed me up.
Here is today’s conversation-piece. Some key points:
- The future will be horrible
- The future will be horrible specifically because oppression will finally affect white people
- The future will be horrible in all the ways it is horrible now plus many of the ways it was horrible in the past PLUS all the new ways we find to make things horrible in the future
- The future looks strangely similar to the last time we saw it
I think Star Wars made a good decision by setting itself a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away: it gets all the benefits of fantasy nostalgia by being set in the past (and using the Hero’s Journey, which is drawn from ancient myths, legends and folktales), and is able to be speculative without being put into the realm of prophecy – at least if we take that framing device seriously. I don’t expect many people do so it may be a moot point, but that is merely an opinion.
In any case, I agree with the notion that our recent boom in films about dystopian futures is getting kinda old. I mean it’s not bad enough that they’re adapting novels that have already gone out of style in the literary world, they have to reboot fucking Mad Max as well? Not to mention the almost comically dystopian imagery, soundtrack and dialogue in the Age of Ultron trailers. I am very concerned that this film is going to be dark for the sake of being dark rather than because it’s a good storytelling decision – I trust Whedon, but only to a point. He’s got his blind spots (tormented waif fetish anyone?) that irritate me, and while I assume he’s able to subvert dystopian cliches as much as any other kind of cliche, he does like his dark angsty melodrama, and for whatever reason I don’t like when he indulges in it. Time will tell I guess.
Why is dystopia so popular right now? I think social media has something to do with it; obviously 9/11 effects the Hollywood side of things, as well as the fact that adapting films from books is easier than coming up with original scripts, and then the 2008 economic crash may well fill in the rest. We live in a world where atrocities are no longer as well-hidden as they were even a decade ago, and aside from what that does to us politically, it also gives our storytellers a lot of material to work with, ghoulish as that sounds. A lot of being a storyteller is quite ghoulish, honestly. It’s why I try and take my ethics seriously when picking and choosing what to write about.
For example: I am particularly sick of the trope of the post-apocalyptic landscape being populated with marauding bands of murderer rapist cannibals; thankfully, since much of our dystopian film fare comes from YA novels, this particular cliche is kind of off the table of late. Yet at the same time it is a concept that bears consideration; if society did break down, if our social norms were scattered to the wind because social structure was effectively annihilated, one would imagine that rape would be a fairly serious threat, right? Well that’s the thing; rape is already a serious threat. We don’t need a dystopian narrative to tell us that, and in fact the way that so many well-known post-apocalyptic dystopias use rape as drama says to me that the threat of rape that we face in our own society is even worse than what’s portrayed in these stories, because in those stories at least it’s out in the open and everyone is aware of it. Even something as “realistic” as The Road falls into this trap; the bad guys are obvious anonymous strangers, and they are so outrageously deviant that they may as well be animals. Dystopia is hardly the only genre responsible for this, but it certainly has a unique way of framing it: as an epidemic that is as sensationalised as it is predictable – it’s prolific, but you can see it coming from a mile away, and everybody is aware of it. There is a consensus on what it means, and the only ones who disagree are so obviously evil that it basically doesn’t matter. It’s neatly packaged and easy to understand, and everybody agrees on that one understanding.
Right now, in the real world, we still have rape apologists and rape culture to contend with, never mind the actual rapists, who are not organised into roving bands of nameless sociopaths but, by and large, are our friends, family members and other people who know their chosen victims, who largely operate alone and slip under the radar, shielded by our consensus that certain toxic and dangerous sexual behaviours and attitudes are “just how things are” and “not a big deal”, swept under the rug and regarded as something of a social blasphemy to even think about discussing – it’s changing, of course, but that vein of our culture is still very much alive and well. Dystopia’s horrors are hardly resticted to rape, but I do think that in the same way as the use of rape as a narrative “flavour”, as a bit of “atmosphere” to make things seem really Dark and Edgy, so many of the horrors that our current dystopian narratives offer are horrors that we already face, only much more simplified and therefore nowhere near as terrifying as what we’re currently dealing with. In fact in a lot of ways, dystopia is quite utopian compared to what we’ve got right now, because dystopia is not often about deceit. Not clever deceit anyway. We know the bad guys, we know what they’re doing, and we can solve the problem through violence fueled by the power of love, individuality and being one half of a white, able-bodied, cisgender breeding pair.
This is just one reason why I feel dystopia, kind of like high fantasy, is letting us down as audiences by letting itself down in not really pushing the idea beyond an established parameter of tropes and conventions. But it’s also not the most pressing one to me; I don’t really want to pick on the obvious targets of race, gender, sexuality, age and ability to discuss “originality” or a lack thereof. I want to pick on the notion shared by all of these narratives that the future – and specifically the post-apocalyptic future – must necessarily be a horrible one. I mean seriously, what better way to unite all of mankind than to throw them in the blender together? If people were looting and raping and murdering all the time then nobody would trust one another, and that would not lead to a stable society – and we would be working towards a stable society, because history has shown that that’s what human beings do. Why would an apocalypse change that, unless it also changed our neurology in a fundamental way? Why wouldn’t we all band together and be nice to each other, for the best chance of survival?
Not all of us, because no society has ever been like that, but some of us, surely. It’s just never really explored; the closest analogue to that I’ve seen is something like THG’s District 12 where even the Peacekeepers have fallen in with the local community and everybody, while far from being the totally-subtle Amish analogue of Amity in the Divergent series, does get along and look out for one another, as much as they can. And even then it’s just not explored at all; it’s there, it’s a thing, and it is a thing precisely so that it can then be replaced by a worse thing and build tension.
So in light of this new, mind-blowing, totally commonsense and objective evidence, why are dystopias all dark and gritty and hopeless? Well, let’s look at some basic storytelling shit. Any good story needs conflict; that’s what They All Say, and if They All say it it must be true. Never mind that certain cultures tell stories almost entirely without conflict, such as Japanese narratives (from what I’ve briefly learnt at uni at any rate; anybody from Japan feel free to correct me), and that writing advice is often constructed with a mind to sell a story rather than tell a story, whether the advice-givers are aware of that or not. So if we need conflict, what better source of conflict than the end of the fucking world and having everybody, even the white people, living under an oppressive regime?
(Quick aside: yes, white people do live in oppressive situations; but not because they’re white. Not in the West at any rate. It’ll be because they’re poor, or uneducated, or queer, or disabled, or whatever. NOT because they’re white. Maybe you can argue that within a micro-community, like a predominantly black ghetto in America, the small white population might be marginalised because of racial tensions in wider society, where non-white people are treated like shit for being non-white. A wider society that includes and defines the racial politics of this hypothetical micro-community. Just so we’re clear on that.)
Why is nobody disabled in dystopia, unless they’re also evil or destined to die? Why do all our heroes in dystopia look pretty much the same as our heroes in every other genre, despite the massive variance in settings and worldbuilding between them? (That question obviously applies to said other genres, too.) Why does the entire world devolve into this dog-eat-dog mentality in the wake of an apocalypse, and why do they never get past it? I mean there’s the fact that, again, that’s how life is right now and there seems no great reason for why that should change – but at the same time, even in our current dog-eat-dog world there is still room for friendship, for love, for camaraderie and empathy. I would actually think that in the desperate scenario of an apocalypse, those qualities would be just as galvanised as the negative ones, if not even more so, because everybody is suffering together. The people who tried to manipulate others for material gain would be shunned once they were discovered, because that kind of behaviour cannot be tolerated in a life-or-death situation where you’re depending on others for your own safety. That just makes sense to me.
So okay, there’s one way to put an original twist on dystopia: take the one thing that makes dystopia feel dystopian and then just invert it. You can still have people living in a shithole without having it so that everybody suffers from Post-Apocalyptic Asshole Syndrome; there can still be horror and uncertainty without it having to make everybody and everything so bleak and heavy. There’s this cliche about how you only ever really know a person/yourself when everything goes to shit, but so often the answer to that is “they’ll eat each other”, and it’s just so narrow – and disingenuous, both in terms of not relating to reality but also in terms of dropping the ball completely in terms of storytelling and using your imagination. There’s nothing wrong about grimdark futures where everything sucks, but it’s like anything else: take it in moderation.
Another thing that could happen is that they could not only explain how the world got into its sorry totalitarian state, but make that the entire story. There’s a fair bit of evidence that fear causes people to vote conservative, for instance, so in that light it makes sense that people may well consent to the formation of a totalitarian state, or at least not outright rebel against it and just passively let it happen. That’s something to explore, because there’s also the opportunity to see what possible alternative world-rebuilding plans people tried to make work before the totalitarian regime ultimately won out, how that divided people, etc. A dystopian post-apocalyptic story where the premise is not overthrowing the Galactic Empire but simply different people with different approaches to trying to rebuild the world – or, of course, build a new one – seems like a much better use of the genre to me. For that reason I really need to make time to read Parable of the Sower, because that seems like what it’s about. My point is that only ever coming in after things have been already set up takes a lot of potential idea-exploration out of the story, and it would be nice to see it get more focus.
I’d really like to see what a post-apocalyptic dystopian world might be like from the point of view of somebody who was already visibly marginalised and vulnerable in the pre-apocalyptic world. Somebody living with disability or mental illness, for example; somebody who isn’t white, straight, cisgender etc.; somebody who may already live in what is effectively a dystopian world before the rest of humanity joins them. Again, Parable of the Sower seems like it ticks all the boxes in some way or another.
And I would really like to see a dystopian future story that isn’t so monolithic; how did different regions and cultures adapt to the change? Surely it wouldn’t all have been exactly the same across the world. I mean what is the world like beyond Panem, for instance? What do other governments look like? That was the one cool thing about World War Z (the film, as I haven’t read the book that I hear is a collection of short stories rather than a single unified narrative) that no other zombie film I can think of ever bothered with: it showed us how the world was reacting to the fallout. Not in any real depth, but at least it was incorporated into the story.
And yes, these are all ideas I’ve got kicking around for my own, eventual, One Day When I Have Time post-apocalyptic dystopian story. If only I could be this original when it comes to superheroes …
I saw Insurgent the other night, and while it was perfectly watchable and quite entertaining, it just didn’t seem particularly important. I like the way that the dystopian and totalitarian setting serves as a metaphor for how teenagers are viewed by society (certainly if you are a teenager yourself, though who knows perhaps that’s changed since my own teen years, but I doubt it) and think it really does work, but in terms of the setting in a more literal sense … it’s pretty basic. And it doesn’t have to be. I think that’s the main thing; these stories don’t have to be so samey, perhaps even less so than high fantasy, because high fantasy has been entrenched in our popular culture for a lot longer and therefore has a harder time unshackling itself from the stereotypes it helped to create.
I hope it changes. Because if even the Marvel Cinematic Universe is heading towards grimdark dystopia, we’re gonna need some kind of variety.
Or I guess we could just stop watching movies.
Just keep your grimdark dystopia the hell away from my Star Wars, Disney …