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!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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The Joy Of… Old Paranoia (In Fiction)

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Well, with Halloween approaching, I thought that I’d write about an absolutely fascinating type of fear-based fiction. I am, of course, talking about older works of fiction that either reflect public fears that didn’t come to pass and/or predicted feared events incorrectly.

This was mostly because I ended up reading parts of William LeQueux’s “The Great War In England In 1897“. Although I unfortunately didn’t have time to read the whole thing, I read the first 60-70 pages, the final chapter and the plot summary on Wikipedia. This was a novel that was first published 20 years before World War One began and it predicted a major European conflict… incorrectly.

Form what I read, the novel predicted a short European war (in 1897) in which France and Russia attempt to invade Britain after learning of a secret alliance between Britain and Germany. The novel alternates between narrative storytelling and stern lectures about the state of the British military in the late 19th century. It’s kind of like a cross between a melodramatic thriller novel and a paranoid political tract. It’s chilling, thrilling and occasionally unintentionally hilarious.

But, it made me think about a lot of other old stories, films etc… that tried to scare people about threats that either never came to be or which weren’t quite the thing people should have been worried about. A good cinematic example of this is an American film from the 1980s called “Red Dawn” about the Soviet Union attempting to invade the US.

The subject of Cold War-era fears was also handled in a much more “realistic” and chilling way in another 1980s film called “Threads” (about the aftermath of a Cold War nuclear conflict in the UK). This is a film which still somehow manages to maintain the power to chill, depress and disturb even when watched today – although that’s mostly due to the writing, acting and style of the film. Yet, I imagine that it would have been significantly more disturbing to watch during the 1980s.

Stories and films about old fears are absolutely fascinating for a number of reasons. The first is, of course, that they’re oddly reassuring. After all, reading stories and watching films about feared events that never came to pass (or at least didn’t come to pass in the way that was predicted) makes us feel better about the fears of today. It makes us think that, in the future, we’ll be able to sit back and laugh at the present day too. And, in the age of Brexit and Trump, we need all the reassurance we can get!

The second reason why this genre is so fascinating is because it’s a subversion of the “alternate history” genre. After all, whilst things that fall into this category might currently be seen as “alternate history” stories – they were, of course, about alternate futures when they were written. So, like with old science fiction, these stories give us an insight into how people used to think about the future.

The third reason why this genre is so fascinating is because it reminds us that people have always been paranoid about something. In this way, these types of stories are strangely timeless. They remind us that our modern fears about things like Brexit, Trump, terrorism etc.. aren’t unprecedented, they’re just the modern incarnation of a tradition that has existed for most of human history.

Finally, this genre is fascinating because it is designed to be attention-grabbing. It is designed to shock and horrify. It is designed to keep people reading or watching out of morbid fascination. This lends these types of stories a timelessly vivid and energetic quality which – for example – can make a novel from 1894 read like a modern thriller novel or “mockumentary” film.

So, yes, stories about old fears are, paradoxically, very much products of their time and yet surprisingly timeless at the same time. They’re both reassuring and disturbing, and they give us an insight into how people used to think about the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Does Dystopian Science Fiction Actually Change Anything?

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Ever since I discovered the genre when I was a teenager, I’ve been a fan of dystopian science fiction. Hell, I even read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” twice when I was about thirteen or fourteen. If I remember rightly, I was absolutely fascinated by the ominously mysterious, yet creepily fascinating, world that the novel is set in. It was a little bit like the vintage 1970s-90s horror novels I enjoyed reading at the time, but it also contained sci-fi too.

Not only that, the cyberpunk genre has been one of those “dystopian” types of science fiction that I’ve been fascinated with for a long time. In fact, I read my first cyberpunk novel when I was about twelve ( one of the “Tom Clancy’s Net Force Explorers” books, I can’t remember which one) without even realising that it was cyberpunk.

Since then, I’ve had something of an on and off fascination with the genre. Most recently, I’ve become fascinated with the genre again because it has proven to be an amazing source of artistic inspiration (like in this recent sci-fi comedy comic of mine).

The cyberpunk genre is often labelled as dystopian science fiction and, whilst there are certainly dystopian stories, films, books, games etc.. in the cyberpunk genre, it never really feels “dystopian”. Not only does the cyberpunk genre often feature breathtakingly beautiful neon-lit cities, but it often includes enough intriguing background details and dark humour to offset any depressingly “dystopian” elements of the genre.

The most recent example of this that I’ve seen is in a computer game called “Technobablyon” that I mentioned yesterday. I’d played some more of it and found myself playing a part of the game (that involves solving a grisly murder) that should have been disturbingly horrific. However, thanks to the dialogue from the characters and the sheer weirdness of the solution to the mystery, this part of the game was more of a hilariously farcical dark comedy than a disturbing glimpse at where a technology-filled future could lead:

Talking of dark comedy, a while before I played this part of the game, I was curious about another work of dystopian science fiction – Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror” TV series. I’d been vaguely thinking about getting it on DVD since it was something that should have appealed to me – given my cynical sense of humour. Yet, when I read a few plot summaries on Wikipedia, I realised that it was actually serious dystopian science fiction…. and not in a fun way.

The story outlines I’d read seemed depressingly bleak and genuinely frightening. Even a mere description of some of the technology-based storylines in the series filled me with a real sense of paranoid dread. It was probably where technology might lead to in the future, and it terrified me. This is, of course, what dystopian science fiction is supposed to do.

It’s supposed to show the audience where the future could lead, in the hope that the audience will somehow prevent such a terrible future from coming true.

But, it doesn’t work. When I read those descriptions, I realised that there was literally nothing I could do to prevent any kind of dystopian future. I mean, it’s a long-standing joke that governments don’t see “Nineteen-Eighty Four” as a warning, but as a manual. Extending surveillance (and censorship too) seems to be part of the psyche of many major political parties, so it happens regardless of which one wins an election. The left and the right are just as bad as each other in this regard.

Dystopian science fiction is supposed to be like a vaccine – giving people a small dose of something terrible in the hope that it will prevent something even worse from happening in the future. But, this comes with the assumption that people can actually prevent worse things from happening.

In a more optimistic age, when real news mattered more than fake news, when people cared more about things like free speech and privacy, when people debated ideas instead of being lost in filter bubbles and the many left-wing/right-wing echo chambers on the internet etc… this might have been true.

But, in this modern world, dystopian science fiction is just another genre of entertainment. It can be a really cool one, or it can be an extremely depressing one. But, I think that the argument that it can actually change the world for the better has long since been proven wrong.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂