What’s The Matter With Dystopia?
Dystopia is flourishing. In the process, it is becoming routine and losing its political power.
If current fiction is to be believed, postapocalyptic wastelands will in the not too distant future be as common as parking lots, deadly plagues as widespread as the flu, and cannibalism no more unusual than a visit to McDonald’s. Dozens of writers have delved into the genre over the last decade, from newcomers such as Edan Lepucki (California, 2014) to old hands like Cormac McCarthy (The Road, 2006). Young adult novels in the genre abound, from Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy (2008–2010) and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series (2011–2013) to Lydia Millet’s Pills and Starships (2014). The scenarios stretch from hurricanes that devastate New York City, as in Nathaniel Rich’s eerily prescient Odds Against Tomorrow (2013), to global infestations of genetically engineered species that drive humankind to the edge of starvation, as in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009). The fall season of 2014 added a host of new offerings in the genre, including David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Michael Faber’s Book of Strange New Things, and Howard Jacobson’s J.
Dystopia as a literary genre by and large developed in the 20th century, in the shadow of world wars, totalitarianisms, genocides, and looming threats of nuclear war and environmental crisis — with a few earlier exceptions such as Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s Le dernier homme (1805) and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). Over much of the 20th century, it functioned as a powerful tool of political criticism, from E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), and (1932) to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1972), and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). From the crowd of more recent titles, Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl distinguishes itself as a text with similar visionary power, among other things because it looks at the collapse of the current world order from Bangkok rather than New York or London. But many other recent dystopias fall flat even as they continue to sell copies: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, and Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future point to some of the reasons why dystopias, far from unsettling their readers, have become familiar and comfortable. Their focus on details of everyday life makes survivalists hard to tell apart from hipsters, their portrayals of apocalypse tend to recycle well-known motifs from earlier science fiction, and their visions of the future serve mostly to reconfirm well-established views of the present.
Atwood’s MaddAddam concludes the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake (2003) and continued with The Year of the Flood (2009). In the first volume, as you may remember, the superbly talented bioengineer nicknamed Crake wiped out most of humankind with a lab-designed virus and replaced it with a new species, the Crakers, made from an innovative combination of human, animal, and plant genes. Humanoid in appearance but childlike and genetically deprogrammed from any tendency toward violence, culture, or spirituality, the Crakers were supposed to inaugurate a better future. Crake’s childhood friend Jimmy, one of the few survivors of the global plague, took on the task of shepherding them into their new life by telling them carefully crafted stories of origins and explanations of their present surroundings, converting genocide into genesis.
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