Chris Moriarty writes fantasy and science fiction for kids of all ages. Chris won the 2006 Philip K. Dick Award for her second novel, Spin Control, and her work has been shortlisted for the Lambda, Campbell, and Spectrum Awards. Chris’s latest book is The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, a YA fantasy set in New York circa 1900 that Cory Doctorow called “a great magic trick … one of those incredibly promising first volumes that makes you hope that the writer’s got plenty more where it came from.” You can visit Chris’s blog at www.SFness.com.
Mind the Gap: What’s Inside Your Dystopia?
Lately it seems like everybody’s talking about dystopias. Mostly they’re YA dystopias, and this is no accident. The last time I was in New York, I heard a litany of complaints from editors that The Hunger Games had let loose a floodgate of derivative dystopias that was almost making them wish for the good old days of meaningful and well-written books about sparkly vampires. Apparently we are riding the tail end of a serious dystopia fad that had publishers battling for market share and snapping up anything that could half-way honestly be billed as a YA dystopia. Now the bolus is starting to hit the market, publishers are royally sick of it … and pretty soon you will be too. Come meet the new boss: corporate publishing run on the fashion industry model. Everyone report to New York this fall to receive marching orders on next year’s Completely Spontaneous and Creative, Definitely Not Centrally Planned Change in Hemline Heights.
Okay, so the YA dystopia fad’s pretty much over, even if the
proles consumers end product users readers haven’t been let in on the news yet. So why would anyone still want to write a dystopia?
Well, because of that word it just took me so long to come up with. You know: readers. Real people, not consumer units. Real people like stories that have a point, stories that are about something. This is true even of popcorn reading.* Every science fiction story that’s actually about something is, in some sense and on some level, a dystopia.
Dystopia is about the gap between how things are and how we want them to be. That gap is called conflict. And though conflict is often invoked when writers talk about how to hook readers, most people never really unpack what it means in science fiction and fantasy. SF and Fantasy are transformational genres. They’re not just about getting a date to the prom or whether Elizabeth is going to marry Darcy. They’re about reimagining the world. So the central conflict of good SF and fantasy — the kind that readers remember and talk about long after they’ve read the final page — is not inside the book but outside of it. It’s the gap between the world the you and your readers live in and the world you and your readers want to live in.
So let’s talk dystopia. Not the fad. The actual item. Let’s talk about how to write good ones. And let’s talk about how to use the craft-level lessons of dystopia to make any science fiction book better.
According to the Standard Model of speculative politics, there are two ways to use science fiction to warp young minds and take over the multiverse: utopia and dystopia. Science fiction began as Utopia, progressed through a satisfyingly teleological progression of “naive” 19th century utopias that are only trotted out of the barn nowadays for us sophisticated post-utopians to chuckle at, culminated in the great mid-20th-century dystopias: We, 1984, Brave New World, &cetera …. and after that it’s
turtles dystopias all the way down.*
Nice neat story, isnt it? Except that, basically, we all know it’s bunk. And we know why, don’t we? Because of that gap thing. Because the real essence of any dystopia is a message from writer to reader: “Psst! Is anyone out there? Can you hear me? Things are F@#&ed up. We need to get out of here! There has to be a better way than this!”
And listen, my friends. Listen well, take warning, and keep a cautious hand on your wallet. The moment you propose any solution, however modest, to the woes of our sorry world … the moment you hint at any change, any destination, any vision however tentative of a better place … you’ve just bought yourself a chunk of real estate in Utopia.
Yes, Dorothy, you really did see that man behind the curtain. (Or should we say that woman in the wallpaper?) Crack open even the most bleak and cynical dystopia, and you will find a utopia folded into it like the fortune in a fortune cookie.
Or let’s put it another way: Dystopia is the subway station. Inertia (or readerly cynicism) is the gap you have to get your readers safely across if you want them to climb on your train. And Utopia is where the train is going.
Looked at in this way, the difference between dystopia and utopia is simply one of emphasis. A dystopia gets readers on the train by telling them how bad it is where they are now. A utopia does it by telling them how great things could be if they take the leap of faith and come along for the ride.
But there’s always a train, and last station at the end of the line is always Utopia. And if you don’t know where your train is going, then you’re not writing a dystopia. You’re just dialing up the angst and striking a pose for the camera. Which is fine. But it won’t win you loyal readers. Because if you want to write books readers care about, you need to know where you want to go, not just in the made-up world of your books, but in the real world too.
In other words, you need to have at least some good-faith idea of how to make the world a better place. For George Orwell that was a humane, Enlgish style of democratic socialism where proles could live decent and peaceful lives. For Tolkien it was a green and growing world where real estate developers didn’t bulldoze the entire universe and and Rings of Power were kept out of the hands of megalomaniacs. For Ursula K. LeGuin it is a society that abjures violence, lives lightly on the land, and treats men and women as equals.
Or, you know, whatever. John Scalzi’s idea of a better world is one in which there are fewer hypocrites and we at least make some kind of good faith effort not to screw over the poor, sick and helpless at every possible opportunity. I’d like to ride that train, and that’s why I enjoy his books so much. Similarly, J. K. Rowling definitely does not heart racists and bullies, and Suzanne Collins clearly thinks kids should stay in school and watch less television. EvenTwilight is transformational fiction in its own way. It contains a concrete and compelling vision of the good life that clearly has deep meaning for legions of fanatically enthusiastic teenage girls. I’m not sure I can articulate that vision without lapsing into snark. But I’m no longer a teenage girl. And even when I was I wanted to be the hero, not swoon over the hero. But, hey, everyone’s utopia is someone else’s dystopia.
Okay. So where has this little exercise in redefinition gotten us? What practical writing lessons do we see when we crack open the fortune cookie of Dystopia to reveal the secret Utopia hidden inside it? I would argue the following:
- Know your target and beyond. A good rule for Utopias, and not just for firearms safety. If you’re writing a dark, brooding dystopia but you can’t identify the utopia inside it, then you’re flirting with empty-teen-angst fad dystopia. Great if your book is coming out in the next six months. Not so great after hemlines change next year.
- When you set off to slay a dragon, you’re more likely to survive the mission if you sneak up sideways on him instead of ringing the doorbell. This is what Dystopia does. It’s a sneaky sideways rhetorical move that lets you scare readers onto the train instead of wasting a lot of time standing on the platform making speeches about single payer public healthcare and not oppressing alien life forms.
- Pure dystopia doesn’t work because it doesn’t give readers anything to run to. Every effective piece of science fiction depends on the writer’s ability to skillfully work the interface between utopia and dystopia. Even the Psychopath Freak Boy in A Clockwork Orange loves Beethoven. And even in 1984, Winston falls in love, and the birds sing, and there are frogs in the hedgerows, and the proles occasionally get to eat something besides boiled cabbage.
- Pure utopia doesn’t work because it doesn’t give readers anything to run from. If you’re writing toward the utopic end of the spectrum (i.e., if you want the fortune to be poking out of the end of the fortune cookie where readers can get at it without even cracking the cookie open), then you might want to do what Ursula K. LeGuin did in The Dispossessed and cut back and forth between your utopian society and a different society (real or imagined) that foregrounds the things you want to change and reminds readers that even if your utopia ain’t perfect, it sure beats doing nothing.
And above all, never forget that there are no perfect worlds. The tension between dystopia and utopia goes beyond mere rhetoric because it is embedded in a deeper reality: that all social systems come with costs, and all societies distribute those costs unequally among individuals. There is no society that does not sacrifice some kinds of freedom to other kinds of freedom. There is no utopia that’s not someone else’s dystopia.
Every lasting work of science fiction and fantasy has acknowledged this fact. I mean, look at Middle Earth for instance. No, I mean really look at it. As soon as you do, you start to notice things. Like, for example, that elves are racist as all hell. And that there’s obviously some kind of secret required meeting at which all kings have to swallow stupid pills before ascending the throne. And that the Riders of Rohan probably aren’t really the kind of people you want to turn loose on the neighborhood shtetl without adult supervision. And that the apex of social life in the Age of Heroes seems to be attending multi-hour amateur epic poetry slams.** So, really, don’t we all sort of know in our heart of hearts that life is going to better for us proles when wizards and elves and heroes push off across the Western Sea to
colonize Ireland let hobbits make the world safe for democracy? Except, of course, that when the elves finally do leave, it’s so freaking boring that half the hobbits you’d actually want to hang out with decide to sign on for the amateur epic poetry cruise after all.
No perfect worlds. No perfect solutions. Readers, who are not stupid by a long shot, know this. And if you remember it, you’ll write books that take readers seriously and invite them to dream about changing the world with you. That’s what science fiction and fantasy do when reader and writer both show up on the page with their souls in working order. And that’s a pretty awe-inspiring thing if you ask me.
So all aboard, folks, and mind the gap. Next stop Utopia.
* I have a very modest friend called Nancy Holzner who writes urban fantasy and proudly calls her own work “popcorn reading.” Her current so-called “popcorn book” series began when she read some totally cliché cover copy about a hero struggling with his personal demons. She thought it would be fun to turn the cliché into fantasy, so she started writing about a sword-slinging “shrink” who goes around Boston slaying people’s personal demons. Presto: action-packed urban fantasy about a character who helps people with the same Big Problems readers struggle with in real life. The books have done well. Duh.
** Except, um, for that feminist utopia thing. But that’s not really science fiction. I mean, come on. Girls write it.
** But hey, if amateur epic poetry slams are your thing, don’t let me kill the buzz for you.