Using Banality In Dystopian Fiction

Well, I thought that I’d talk about dystopian fiction today. This is mostly because the dystopian alternate history novel that I’m reading at the moment (a novel from 2012 called “Dominion” by C. J. Sansom. Mild SPOILERS ahead) contains some absolutely perfect examples of one of the most essential (but easily missed) techniques for writing good dystopian fiction.

Although “Dominion” fits into the classic “What if Britain lost WW2?” genre of alternate history fiction, it is even more chilling than other things I’ve seen in the genre for the simple reason that – for some parts of the story – the dystopian elements are kept in the background. In some parts, the story almost just reads like an “ordinary” historical novel set in 1950s Britain.

Even though these “everyday life” elements of the story can slow the first half of story down quite significantly, they are there for a very good reason. By occasionally focusing on the banal, ordinary side of life – Sansom not only makes the story’s more obviously dystopian moments stand out more by contrast, but he also adds a significant amount of chilling realism to the story too.

After all, everyday life is usually ordinary, mundane and banal. And, by showing the characters having to deal with all of this boring everyday stuff (or even seeking refuge in it), the dystopian world of Sansom’s novel seems considerably more chilling.

Not only is this because it makes it easier to relate to the characters, but it’s also because it allows for all kinds of clever (and disturbing) social and political satire too.

For example, there’s one scene in “Dominion” where three of the characters stop off at a pub during a car journey. In the pub, they briefly overhear a few grumpy old men moaning about how the government (which, in the novel, is run by literal fascists) isn’t treating unemployed people harshly enough.

This disturbing dialogue segment could, almost word for word, probably be heard in some actual pubs during the early-mid 2010s (eg: during Iain Duncan Smith’s tenure as Work and Pensions secretary, when he tried to introduce an unlawful “work programme” ). This scene is an utterly brilliant, but very disturbing, piece of social and political satire. And it works because of how ordinary, mundane and everyday it is.

Likewise, the way that some of the many horrors in the story are sometimes pushed into the background also mirrors how people cope with the idea of bad things happening in the world.

In other words, showing the characters in a dystopian story sometimes focusing more on mundane everyday life (instead of thinking about all of the horrors that are happening out of sight) lends the story a chilling level of timeless realism. Especially in an age where, thanks to modern news media, we hear about all of the horrors of the world on a very regular basis.

In addition to this, a more obvious focus on the ordinary and everyday also helps to add a chilling sense of powerlessness to a dystopian story. For example, many of the more famous classic works of dystopian fiction deliberately avoid focusing on obviously “heroic”, powerful or influential characters.

For example, the protagonist of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a low-level bureaucrat, the protagonist of Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is literally a prisoner and the protagonist of Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451” is a low-ranking government henchman.

By focusing on characters who lead miserable “ordinary” lives in the dystopian worlds of these stories, the writers are able to create a chilling sense of powerlessness that you probably wouldn’t get with a more obviously heroic Katniss Everdeen -like main character.

Yes, your dystopian story obviously has to have moments of suspense, drama etc.. too. But don’t overlook the banal, the mundane and the ordinary too. It is these things that can really bring a horrifying fictional dystopia to life!

———

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Advertisements

Short Story: “Order” By C. A. Brown

The suit took a sip of coffee from his plastic cup and asked: ‘So, when exactly did you join this.. What did you call it? Society of Occult Hands?

Keeping a perfectly calm exterior, I said: ‘The Order Of The Occult Hand. For someone who sniffs out secret societies, you really haven’t done your research.

The suit was silent. For a second, I thought that I saw a flicker of anger on his face. A flicker of a smile must have crossed mine. Finally, he said: ‘Enlighten me then.

It’s an open society. Perfectly harmless. It all started as a running joke between a few American journalists back in the sixties. That’s the nineteen-sixties, in case your superiors want to know.

Opposite me, the suit took another sip of coffee. It was probably tepid by now. It was probably tepid when he got it. Hot drinks are probably too exciting for people like him. He nodded at me: ‘Go on.

All you need to join is to find some way to hide the phrase “occult hand” in something that you’ve written. Anyone who hears about it usually thinks that it’s a bit of fun and tries it out. It’s more like a meme, a virus-like idea, than an actual secret society. In fact…

I let a smile cross my face. I continued: ‘…You’ll have probably have to join it yourself when you submit your report. After all, you can’t very well tell your superiors about this without using the phrase in your report.

His face was blank. If the lighting wasn’t so terrible, I’d have said that his face probably went grey there and then.

Finally, he stuttered: ‘So, I’m going to be inducted? Involuntarily? Into this Order Of The Occult Hand. I’d bet anything that you’ve probably got connections. People in high places. I mean, I won’t really be in any danger… Will I?

Then, and only then, I allowed myself to laugh. This was starting to get fun, but he seemed like the kind of by-the-book robot who would probably insist on conducting a full undercover investigation into nothing. As fun as this would be, he had my name on paper and would probably come screaming back at me with a vengeance a few weeks later.

So, more than a little reluctantly, I said: ‘It’s a dead society. The printout from the old internet that I read said that it was exposed in the early two-thousands, about forty years before your organisation was formed. Apparently, the journalists then chose a different phrase. I don’t know what it is. But, for a while, everyone knew that it was a funny idea to include the phrase “occult hand” in things they wrote and it has spread from there.

A relieved sigh floated across the table. I continued: ‘As I said, it’s a meme. A joke. There’s no secrets involved. No connections. Just people from before all of this nonsense began having a bit of a laugh. In fact, I’m genuinely surprised that you didn’t know this. Surely your organisation’s private vaults probably include copies of...’

With a frown, he said: ‘That will be all. You may leave. Further inquiries will not be necessary.

After I’d been marched out of the pyramid, I hailed a cab. Then I took a bus. When the pyramid was well and truly out of sight, I ducked into a phone box and made a call.

Ten minutes later, I was sitting in the corner of a quiet French cafe with Steve. Picking up the phrasebooks on the table, we ordered. I paid with the few New Francs I had left in my bag.

Once the smiling waiter had shuffled away, I discreetly made the sign of the square hammer with my fingers. Steve made the sign of the granite anvil. We let out a deep sigh.

Finally, Steve whispered: ‘Congratulations. You entered the lion’s den and left in one piece. From what my contacts say, you even managed to rattle Martin Carthy. THE Martin Carthy. Circlemaster Johnson is very pleased.

Keeping my voice low, I asked: ‘Martin Carthy? That was Martin Carthy? I mean, there are no photos of him. But, I thought he’d be more… charismatic. So, I guess that I’ve passed the initiation.

Passed it? You’ve just skipped three levels of the circle. Johnson wants you as his personal assistant.

One Easy Way To Create Plausible Sci-fi Dystopias

2017 Artwork Convincing sci-fi dystopia settings

As regular readers of this blog probably know, I’ve been going through a bit of a cyberpunk phase recently. One of the interesting things about the cyberpunk genre is that it is, by necessity, a sub-genre of the dystopian science fiction genre. After all, most cyberpunk comics, games, stories, movies etc… wouldn’t really work if they were set in a perfect paradise of any kind.

After all, the dystopian settings help to add drama, intrigue and thought-provoking satire to the story. Not only that, the main characters in most things in the cyberpunk genre are traditionally “underdog” computer hackers of some kind, that the audience can use for vicarious rebellion. But, for today, I’ll just be focusing on how to create dystopian settings for comics, novels etc…

The easiest way to think about a fictional dystopia is that, to someone (or some small group of people), it’s actually a utopia. If someone is a dictator, then their country is -to them at least- a utopia.

After all, they have absolute power, massive wealth, constant praise from their supporters and they own an entire country. To a dictator, a dictatorship is heaven on earth. The perfect utopia. However, of course, for everyone else – that country is a dystopia.

So, when thinking of ideas for fictional dystopias, just ask yourself “who benefits the most from this dystopia?“. This sounds like an obvious question but, thinking about it carefully will help you to shape your fictional dystopia into something that feels more dramatically plausible.

For example, a sci-fi dystopia that benefited technology corporations would probably look at least subtly different to a dystopia that benefited pharmaceutical corporations.

The technology company sci-fi dystopia would probably include a lot more surveillance (because the technology makes it possible), a lot more advertising (to sell technology), lower product safety standards and a social hierarchy that benefits high-mid ranking technology corporation.

It would probably also include compulsory social media use (again, for advertising and control), a ban on open-source software (to sell more proprietary software), stricter copyright laws (to protect corporate profits), planned obsolescence for most gadgets (again, to sell more technology repeatedly) etc…

The sci-fi dystopia that benefited pharmaceutical companies would probably include things like biometric surveillance (for targeted advertising of medicines), longer patent terms for medicines (because greed would come ahead of saving lives with cheap generic drugs) etc…

Once you work out who benefits the most from your dystopian sci-fi world, you will be able to extrapolate from that and come up with a much more plausible and detailed setting than you would if you just set out to create a fictional world that was a terrible place for no real reason.

If you remember that a dystopia is a matter of perspective, then you’ll come up with far more chilling and dramatically plausible dystopian sci-fi settings.

—————-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (27th November 2014)

Today’s painting is based on one of the later parts of a rather long dream I had a few weeks ago.

Whilst I won’t write an account of the entire dream here, the last part of it was set in this bizarre dystopic sci-fi factory/spaceship/prison, where you could tell someone’s social status by looking at what colour dress they were wearing (eg: someone in a blue dress was a wealthy scholar etc..).

This was also one of the few dreams I’ve had where I was actually a character in the dream (I was one of the lowly people wearing green in the background of this painting) rather than just a neutral observer or a carbon copy of my waking self.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Dreamt Dystopia" By C. A. Brown

“Dreamt Dystopia” By C. A. Brown

Writing Dystopic Comedy

2014 Artwork Dystopic Comedy article sketch

Although I’ve written about dystopic fiction before, I thought that I’d talk about one of my favourite genres of comedy today. I am, of course, talking about dystopic comedy – although dystopic comedy often has a lot in common with dark comedy there are a few important differences.

In a dark comedy, a lot of the humour comes from the grim events of the story and the irreverent and/or ironic way that they’re portrayed. However, in a dystopic comedy, the main source of the humour is the world of the story itself. Yes, you heard me correctly – the setting is the thing that makes the audience laugh.

The setting of a dystopic comedy is so hilariously crappy, run-down and/or dysfunctional that it can’t help but be funny. Perhaps it’s nothing more than an unusual perspective on our own world, like in animated shows such as “Beavis and Butt-Head“. Perhaps it’s set in a ludicrously bizarre and bureaucratic fantasy world, such as in many of Terry Pratchett’s novels.

Perhaps it’s a satirical caricature of our own world, like in the BBC’s brilliantly cynical “Monkey Dust” animated series or in a brilliant Warren Ellis’ novel called “Crooked Little Vein”.

Or perhaps it’s even an actual dystopic future, like in Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics, in a TV show like “Red Dwarf” or in a hilarious computer game from the 1990s called “Normality“.

Whatever it is, the main source of the comedy in a dystopic comedy is the setting of the story. And, as I said before, this is one of my favourite forms of comedy for so many reasons. Plus, it’s a type of comedy that works well in both visual mediums (like comics) and in prose fiction too.

I think that one of the reasons why it’s such a great form of comedy is because it’s usually at least slightly subtle – most of the humour is literally hidden in the background.

What this means is that your story or comic will have a lot more re-readability because people will notice new things every time that they read your story. Not only that, it also means that you can also include a non-comedy story in the foreground too if you really want to.

Not only that, a unique setting is often one of the most memorable things about a story, comic, TV show, videogame etc… And, since the settings in dystopic comedy stories are, by their very nature, unusual and often hilariously crappy (in a good way) they’re likely to stand out from all of the “ordinary” stories out there.

So, how do you make this type of comedy?

If you’re writing a prose dystopic comedy story, then you can add a lot of comedy by just including small descriptions of the settings or things, showing how your characters react to the settings, showing things malfunctioning in hilarious ways and/or showing small things that happen because of the settings. It’s that simple. Sort of.

The only possible difficulty is coming up with tens or hundreds of funny little ideas – although if you have a cynical enough perspective on the world to love dystopic comedy, then this probably shouldn’t be too much of a problem for you. But, if it is, then just try parodying various things.

For example, here’s a description from my short-lived “Ambitus” sci-fi/comedy series from last year, which is something of a “Star Trek” parody: “Two full-body scans later, Jola had found himself in the cramped and dusty secondary bridge with all of his bridge staff. The atmospherics were playing up and the techs who had been assigned to fix it were just about visible through the porthole by the obsolete navigation console. They were wrestling with what looked distinctly like a giant frozen Bucolian squid.

If you’re making a comic, then it’s just a case of coming up with lots of funny little background details and/or making everything look slightly run-down and grungy. Not only that, you can also do all of the things which you can do in dystopic comedy prose fiction too. Again, it’s that simple.

For example, here’s a page from the very first (badly-written) webcomic I ever posted online back in 2010. Although the art in it is nowhere near as good as my current art, this page will give you a good example of how you can use the setting for comedic effect:

[Click for larger image] "Yametry Run - Episode 16" By C. A. Brown

[Click for larger image]
“Yametry Run – Episode 16” By C. A. Brown

So, yes, although dystopic comedy almost requires a slightly cynical perspective on the world – it’s relatively easy to write and/or draw and it is both fun and memorable to read.

——————-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why I Love Dystopic Science Fiction.

For my  international readers, "Radio 1" is a mainstream pop music station in the UK.

For my international readers, “Radio 1” is a mainstream pop music station in the UK.

Since I can’t think of any good advice about writing, art or comics at the moment, I thought that I’d take a break and talk about one of my favourite types of science fiction today. If you want advice about actually writing dystopic fiction, then check out this article I wrote last year.

Anyway, one of the things which made me go from being mildly interested in the sci-fi genre to being absolutely fascinated by it back when I was a teenager was probably when I discovered dystopic sci-fi.

In case you’ve never heard of this sub-genre of sci-fi before, “dystopic sci-fi” refers to any story set in a future where the world has really gone to hell in a massive way. Most dystopic sci-fi stories tend to feature totalitarian governments of some kind or another, but they can also take place in post-apocalyptic settings and corporate-controlled worlds.

I don’t know exactly what the first dystopic sci-fi novel I ever read was, but it was probably George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” which I read when I was about thirteen.

I’d seen part of the film adaptation for it in an English lesson at school (since we were studying Orwell’s “Animal Farm” at the time) and there was something about the gloomy, oppressive atmosphere of the film and the mysterious machinations of the totalitarian Ingsoc government that fascinated me enough to want to read more about it.

Not only that, as a nascent splatterpunk fan and aspiring horror writer, I was also morbidly curious about exactly what macabre horrors lay within the dreaded “Room 101” too.

Ok, I was mildly disappointed when I actually read the “Room 101” scene (James Herbert wrote this kind of scene much better about thirty years after Orwell wrote his novel) but there was just something about the novel that really fascinated me.

In many ways, I think that part of the appeal of it was the kind of “there but for the grace of god” feeling that I got when I realised that I lived in a world which was much better than the one in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

Yes, I was thirteen at the time and was too naive to develop a healthy sense of cynicism about politics and the world, but there was something curiously uplifting about reading stories set in worlds much worse than this one.

In addition to this, another reason why dystopic sci-fi fascinated me so much was because the main characters in dystopic sci-fi stories are almost all rebels or dissidents of some kind or another. This, of course, allows you to vicariously experience rebelling against authority when you read one of these novels.

It’s also probably why dystopic sci-fi is both incredibly popular amongst teenagers (eg: things like “The Hunger Games”) and why actual totalitarian governments throughout history almost always ban everything in this genre.

And, on a subconscious and subjective level, as someone who felt a bit like an “outsider” (for various reasons) – dystopic sci-fi was probably one of the few genres that partially mirrored how I saw the world and my place in it.

After all, the protagonists of dystopic sci-fi novels who have to fit into the soul-eroding orthodoxy of a deeply bizarre, but supposedly “ordinary”, world in order to survive.

Dystopic sci-fi is one of the few genres where being strange or different in some way is pretty much mandatory for the main characters. As such, it can never really be a completely “mainstream” genre in the way that, say, detective, romance or thriller fiction might be.

Yes, it might be a popular genre (especially in movies) but it can never really quite be mainstream.

So, yes, this is why I love dystopic sci-fi.

———-

Sorry that this article wasn’t particularly informative, but I hope it was interesting 🙂

Five Tips For Writing Dystopic Fiction

2013 Artwork Dystopic Fiction Sketch

Along with splatterpunk horror fiction, detective fiction and 1950s-1980s science fiction, dystopic fiction was a genre that I absolutely loved when I was a teenager. I still find dystopic fiction pretty interesting, especially when it’s combined with sci-fi (eg: in cyberpunk stories) but I don’t seem to be quite as fascinated by it as I was when I was younger.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with this genre, it basically covers any type of story which is set in a dystopia (the opposite of a utopia/paradise). Whilst some writers use dystopic settings purely as a way to make a story interesting, other writers use them in order to make a political point or to explore current social issues.

This article will mostly focus on political types of dystopic fiction although the points in this article can obviously also be applied to non-political dystopic fiction too. If you live in a country where there is serious political and/or religious censorship of literature, then it goes without saying that you should be extremely careful if you plan to write any dystopic fiction.

Anyway, without any further ado, here are five tips which might help you if you’re planning to write some dystopic fiction:

1) Story first, politics second: Yes, you might want to write a world-shaking dystopic story about what would happen if a particular political ideology is allowed to gain too much influence or if a particular issue isn’t addressed. But, when you’re planning your dystopic story, politics shouldn’t be the first thing that you should be thinking about because, in practical terms, it isn’t the most important part of your story.

This might sound slightly counter-intuitive, but the main reason that people read a story is because they want to be entertained, enthralled and amazed by a good story. If they want to learn about politics, then they’ll probably read non-fiction instead. Stories which are nothing more than thinly-disguised political tracts tend to get very boring very quickly.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t include politics in your dystopic story, but it means that your story should have a compelling and interesting plot in it’s own right. In other words – after you’ve come up with an interesting plot, then you can work out how to add politics to it.

A good way to test this is to think about whether your story would still be readable and interesting if it didn’t contain any politics of any kind. If it’s still interesting without politics, then that means that you can go ahead and add politics to your story.

2) Ubiquity: Like how ‘war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength’ (in George Orwell’s excellent “Nineteen Eighty-Four”), when it comes to dystopic fiction, less is more.

In other words, once you’ve set up the premise of your story, it is usually a lot more effective to show the effects of your dystopic settings in more subtle ways and leave some details to your readers’ imaginations. For example, it can be a lot more dramatic/dystopic/disturbing to show that a friend of the main character has just mysteriously “disappeared” than it could be to actually show him or her being arrested by the regime’s secret police force.

Likewise, signs that your characters are living in a dystopia should be fairly subtle, but fairly ubiquitous (eg: everywhere). This will lend your story a certain level of realism, since dystopic regimes in the real world often try to subliminally reinforce their power over their people by placing subtle signs of their presence pretty much everywhere (eg: propaganda posters & films, political symbols, soldiers & police officers on every street, portraits of political leaders in public places, surveillance cameras everywhere etc…)

Plus, it can be a lot more effective to show the effects of your dystopic setting on a more “ordinary” and “everyday” level than it can be to show them on a larger, political level. For example, showing someone lowering their voice and looking over their shoulder before telling the main character a political joke about a dictator can be a lot more effective and dramatic than showing a speech by the dictator in question.

3) Don’t copy Orwell: Yes, if you are even slightly interested in dystopic fiction, then you should read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, since it is one of the most well-known and influential works in this genre.

However, you shouldn’t copy it to any significant extent – even if you substitute your own politics for Orwell’s.

This might sound counter-intuitive, since “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is one of the most influential dystopic novels ever written. But, because it is so influential, most of the things in it have turned into cliches. I mean, in the UK, there’s a (fairly crappy) reality TV show called “Big Brother”, there’s a (much better) comedy TV show called “Room 101” and Orwellian metaphors are pretty much par for the course when describing our unusually high number of CCTV cameras and/or anything illiberal which our Government has done.

Yes, it is admirable to be inspired by the influence which Orwell’s novel has had on the world, but you shouldn’t try to acheive the same thing by copying his style/plot/settings. Not only is this somewhat cliched, but it will make your story less relevant too.

Remember, Orwell was writing in the 1940s, when totalitarian communist and fascist regimes were still a major issue and a major threat to Europe and America. These days, although there are still a few communist countries in the world, most of them aren’t totalitarian in the way that the 1940s Soviet Union/Eastern Europe was (and, thankfully, there are no longer any fascist dictatorships in the world either).

As such, whilst “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was extremely relevant to readers in the 1940s-1980s, Orwell’s concerns probably don’t translate as well into the modern world. So, if you’re writing a dystopic story that takes a lot from Orwell’s story, then you’re going to lose some of the dramatic influence which his story once had.

4) Extrapolate from the media: One good source of ideas for dystopic fiction is the media. This, in some cases, is because there’s usually a lot of discussion about controversial subjects and issues which can make good topics for your stories.

Just remember to look through the media thoroughly before choosing a subject to write about because, if an issue is very prominent, then it might have got “old” by the time you have finished your story (or lots of other people might have already written dystopic stories about the same subject). So, it can be a good idea to use your imagination and/or look for smaller or lesser-known stories which have the potential to become major issues in the near future.

For example, if you had written a dystopic story about mass surveillance of the internet two or three years ago, then it would have been deeply shocking to quite a lot of people. However if you started writing one today, then people might not be so affected or shocked by it, given all the stuff in the news over the past couple of months about mass surveillance of the internet by the British and American governments.

But, in other cases, some types of news media can be works of dystopic fiction in their own right and this can be a potent source of inspiration in a slightly different way.

More politicised forms of news media (eg: certain conservative news shows in America and certain right-wing tabloid newspapers in the UK) have a vested interest in presenting the world in a slightly dystopic way in order to influence people politically and/or to attract more customers.

If you’re looking for examples of how to portray “realistic” political propaganda or to show the effects that it has on people, then these politicised newspapers and news shows can be a very good model to base your story on.

5) Base the story on your own fears: This is a really obvious point, but the most effective dystopic stories often emerge from the writer’s own fears and concerns. If you don’t personally care about the issue you’re writing about, then it will probably show in your story and it might put your readers off. But, at the same time, caring deeply about an issue is no excuse for political lectures and/or bad writing in a dystopic story either.

So, although it can still be a good idea to take inspiration from topics in the news, make sure that they are topics which you care deeply about.

—–

Anyway, I hope that this article was doubleplusgood 🙂