Dystopography

For a long time, I’ve had mixed feelings about the “dystopian” genre of fiction, and about its inclusion in the SF conversation. To the younger me, cyberpunk adherent that I was, there was an absolute disparity. The SF I loved was morally ambiguous, post-modern in the way Gibson is post-modern: not about paralysis, but about moving within something unchangeable.  This fiction didn’t make value judgments about technology, nor did it seek to separate the development of human traits, social structures, and politics from technological development. It recognized that they were linked, organic, and with this recognition made, it simply told stories. Bester, the proto-cyberpunk, did this too, and arguably better. In contrast, books like 1984, Brave New World, and the rest seemed implicitly moral, not to mention moralizing. They were “about something” in the way I disapproved of in almost every medium. They wanted you to be scared, to judge harshly; if you read 1984 and side with Big Brother, you’ve read it wrong. That’s a kind of patronization I dislike. It’s like a Spielberg movie, being told when to cry.

And then there was the moral itself. I might have prided myself on the amorality of my SF, but if it was to have a moral, it would certainly have been a pro-technology, progress-centric one. These dystopians were squarely opposite. How could so many people not see the differences here? It seemed to me you had two camps with irreconcilable values being lumped into one category because of the settings they shared, settings which I felt belonged to ‘real’ SF, the kind that wasn’t a promotion for some Luddite cave-commune.

Looking back, I see problems in a lot of these ideas. First of all, the assumption that the amorality would have given way, under pressure, to one particular opinion and not the other seems questionable at best. Oddly, Heinlein stands up in this fight a lot more than Gibson; Heinlein, definitely not a cyberpunk, and in some ways absolutely a moralizer, was the gung-ho “progressive.” In Heinlein’s novels, space travel ends war, saves humankind, and makes immortality practical; pioneering keeps Darwin happy, and free love finally breaks the bonds of jealousy. But Heinlein, for all his attempts at practicality, is guilty of something almost as bad as dystopianism – utopianism. A literary battle between RAH and Orwell is like Star Wars – good if you’re in a totemic, black-and-white, myth-as-tautology mood. It’s too much a dichotomy. There’s not enough grey.

Grey is where I tend to live. It’s more interesting, in my opinion, not to mention more realistic. I’m sure that Gibson, if asked, wouldn’t have some myopic opinion of technology and “progress;” as I mentioned, the acknowledgment of the inherent connection between technology and society would probably preclude such a view.  And Orwell? Who knows. But I think, as an adult as well as an aspiring writer,  I can understand a bit more: sometimes, you hold back some of the grey to give the work more impact. I just wish it had been clearer to me when was younger that one could have more nuanced views of these topics. I’ve grown past my own “progress at all costs” system of belief. It is, as I said about information in the previous post, not about the chronological newness, but rather the complexity, the true value.

Not that I’m giving the dystopians too much credit. In most ways, I think I was right. SF doesn’t have to support newness with abandon; it doesn’t really have to support anything. But I don’t think it can be good, or smart, if it’s built on fear-mongering, on extending the worst things in plain sight to their most extreme ends, on practicing what Vonnegut called “royal astronomy:” the constant insistence, since the beginning of time, that everything is about to end. Even if the S in SF is for “speculative” and not “science,” that’s not smart speculation. It’s effective, because it plays on our fears, but it’s not how the world works.

The one dystopian novel I really did like was We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It’s the most artful application of the tropes and structures of the dystopian novel (probably because it essentially invented them), and it seems more a reflection on the human response to oppression than sociological assumptiveness.

I occasionally hear PKD called dystopian. I disagree. I think what doesn’t work, what fails,  in Dick’s world, isn’t the country or the government, but rather the universe. Everything else is simply an emanation of that initial malfunction (this is not accidental; emanation theology is at the core of Gnosticism).  However, Dick does, on occasion, delve into the particular horrors and abuses of government and social oppression, and guess what? I love it. It moves me. It scares me. I empathize. I sympathize. Because he got it right.

The oppression of Radio Free Albemuth is simply too close to issues of the present to dismiss as Berkeley activist-politics gone the way of all things boomer-ey. The overwhelming, integrated, hidden-in-plain-sight “pusher economy” of A Scanner Darkly is not even slightly allegorical; that’s simply the way it is. If only Substance-D were a McDonalds cheeseburger, it would be a fully literal story.

As wary as I am of royal astronomy, as much as I disapprove of fear-mongering and wild extrapolation, things really are bad, and saying so in a responsible way is always brave and meaningful.

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