Archive for the ‘dystopia’ Category
2012 is over. Now back to the regularly scheduled programming.
Hint: you might want to get yourself down to your local Waterstones* and grab yourself a copy of this. It’s on 3 for 2, so the price is right. It’s post-Ballardian eco-catastrophe cut to follow the lines of Heart of Darkness – just right for reading in the here and now. Perfect for the beach, the bath, the garret, the park, the couch, the sweaty summer bed, the well-worn scholar’s desk or anywhere else you might care to read it. And if you come by the Fitz afterwork on selected days of the week with your copy, I will, I promise, secure you an autograph from the esteemed author himself. **
* Obviously you can also buy it from your local independent. I think the author gets more if you do, you get ethical-hipster points, either way James Daunt will flourish even more than he’s flourishing, blossoms will bloom, etc etc. Or just grab it on 3 for 2. That’s the beauty – it’s your call.
** If you buy me a Taddy Lager, as Alpine is out of stock for the summer. But it’s Sam Smith’s, and therefore only £2.41.
Strange situation: not all that long ago, it seemed to me obvious that dystopian speculative fiction was one of the genres if not the genre best adapted to a left political stance. The drawing out of the inevitable ramifications of all this, the dramatic revelation of the crisis whose traces were already starting to streak the screen of things-as-they-are, the warning that the relatively bearable everyday was already pregnant with something much, much worse – these seemed to be close to the best one could do with narrative art today.
I even started writing some myself, a project that I’m constantly tempted to return to…. But honestly it’s feeling increasingly wrong-footed, if one would be even a mildly political narrative writer, to head in this direction given the way things are now.
Given that the fact is that the world over austerity measures, privatizations and rationalizations, and other efforts to starve out what vestiges of the welfare state remain are being sold to the public under the very brand of inevitable and interminable crisis. People sort of vaguely accept, I think, that things are bad and something needs to be done as it’s only going to get worse.
Depicted catastrophes tend to blur together into a generalized air of imminent expectation of the worst. We’ve seen two phases of this already, lately. Roughly the first stage with its quiet but persistent stream of “untimely” bleak visions amidst the high water marks of post-Cold War affluence, globalization, and tech bubbling. The second, much less discrete, came amidst the televised events and wild market swings of the first decade of the 21st century. The generalization of this atmosphere of imminent catastrophe – through films and books, news reports and editorials, the web, whatever – has served as a distributed and as if automatic PR machine better than any the right could have paid for in service of its quest to cut away the remainders of soft socialism. Even depictions of dystopian situations born of capitalism itself play into, I think, the message that those who administer capitalism need to have distributed right now…
Not a hard and fast position I’m taking here – just an inference, an intuition, that I’m trying to think through a bit. Of course I’m painting with too broad a brush, even if I’m just speculating at this point…
(Perhaps worth mentioning that I’m going to write something soon about Evan Calder Williams’s new book soon, once I’ve finished it….)
Funny thing. Not so long ago, it looked like the future when this sort of stuff was shown on TV. Now, just a few years later, it has the look of a made-for-tv period movie, set circa 2003.
The age of media-anticipated catastophe, of the mass-marketed dystopia, seems to have come and gone. Would be interesting to think ever so carefully about it, it’s relationship to where we are now. “Carefully” meaning without the backpocket mysticism of Jameson’s lesser advisees, mining the cover of Underworld for far more than it was worth.
Unfortunately, can’t do that tonight as I’ve gotta read a book for an overdue review, and it’ll really piss someone off if this looks like it took more than five or six minutes.
Benjamin Kunkel has a very fine piece in that most pro-dystopian of little mags, Dissent, on the warehouseload of apocalyptic and dystopian fictions that have appeared over the past ten or so years. (Henry, at Crooked Timber, objects to the piece rather harshly given the counterevidence that he’s mustered contra…) He does a terrific job on the politics (often bad faith) of the books, and what sort of relationship they have to the context out of which they emerged.
There’s just one thing that I’d like to say – I think it’s more additive to than critical of Kunkel. And it has to do with the very smart stuff that he has to say about the blurring of literary fiction and the dystopian/apocalyptic genres and what it has to do with literary character. Here’s a bit of it:
[S]elf-awareness is in short supply in contemporary apocalyptic novels. There self-awareness in general gives way to a savage imperative of survival, and any struggles taking place within people are superseded by the struggles taking place between them. One effect of this approach, noted above, is that the neoliberal apocalypse abandons the field of competing legitimate claims that is the terrain of politics for a stark flat choice between good and evil or else a reign of uniform cruelty. Still, if we can’t take these books seriously from a political standpoint, and their only real theme is love, do they at least succeed as romances? In a way it has always been a virtue of historical romance that its facelessly beautiful or handsome characters are also morally uncomplicated to the point of vacancy. The same is true of the heroes and heroines of our apocalyptic romances; they possess the sentimental virtue of moral perfection in a world otherwise evil, and the biological virtue of attractiveness in a world otherwise ugly. Their unreality as characters makes them ideal objects of fantasy—with only the effect of disqualifying them as objects of love or items of literature. This leaves the neoliberal apocalypse with its constitutive contradiction: exalting the sphere of private life—in modern times the arena for the fullest elaboration of individual personality—it promotes a basically zoological idea of humanity, where mating and survival are all that matter, and these efforts are pursued with an absence of reflection tantamount to instinct. Self-preservation and moral life become identical, and differences of character fade into insignificance: at this level we are all clones.
The main formal consequence, then, of a withered moral imagination has to do not with subject matter (love, crime, the future) but with character. Fictional character derives from moral choices made, contemplated, postponed, or ignored—morality is the page on which the stamp of character appears—and the signal formal trait of genre fiction is nothing so much as its lack of complex characters. This deficit entangles even an acknowledged generic triumph like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968, and the basis of the 1982 movie Blade Runner) in a certain incoherence. The ironic burden of Dick’s novel is to stick up for the warm-blooded humanity of androids (read: clones), and in this way imply the cold-bloodedness of any society that denies fully human status to some category of person. The rub, of course, is that such sci-fi humanism is quickly overcome with another irony, this one unintentional, since it is the hallmark of genre fiction to treat characters instrumentally, putting them through the paces of the plot according to their function as the embodiment of some general psychological or social category and failing or refusing to endow them with the individuality to be found among the livelier inhabitants of the traditional realist novel and, for that matter, the real world.
THIS IS the highly compromised “individualism” promoted by our collection of futuristic novels: individuality here means escape from the bad collective (cannibals, the corporate state) but does not entail real individuation. Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed. And this, it seems, is likely to be among the most accurately futuristic features of the “literary” genre novels: they will have been the harbingers of a literary sea change in which complex characters are rejected by critics and ordinary readers alike as morally unattractive (compared to generic heros), hopelessly self-involved (because capable of introspection), and annoyingly irresolute (because subject to deliberation). These prejudices are already articulate and operative whenever fiction is discussed, thanks in large part to the incomplete literature-genre fiction merger, and the prestige such prejudices acquire through that merger allows them to be expressed without the taint of philistinism.
In sum, when the contemporary novelist contemplates the future—including, it seems, the future of the novel—he or she often forfeits the ability to imagine unique and irreplaceable characters, can no longer depict love credibly, and responds to political problems by rejecting politics for personal life, albeit one made meaningless by interchangeable characters and a zoological conception of family and love. The result is political novels without politics, social novels without society, and romances free of love, amounting, in the end, to “literature” that isn’t.
Now, I happen to think that Kunkel’s absolutely right about the recession of the characterness of character once the stars of literature and genre align. I may have something a bit different to say about what it means and how we should take this recession – there’s a wee bit of Tel Quel Maoism on me that might lead me to applaud such a literary development. But that will have to happen another time. For now, I to perform an odd exchange with Kunkel. He’s a novelist writing a fairly scholarly piece of quasi Marxist literary crit here (which is what I do at my day job when I do it), so I’m going be the literary scholar that approaches the issue not via historical context and ideological analysis but rather in terms of the writerly situation at hand and what this shift has to do with it.
Now, I’ll cop to the fact that I’ve been trying to write novels for a long, long time. I don’t – as a rule, so far anyway – send them out because I’m never really satisfied with them. (Or maybe it’s because my parents didn’t congratulate me the day the acceptance letter came from Yale. Who knows…) I do try awfully hard, hard enough to drive me a bit off-kilter, but I’ll probably work it out one day soon once the academic work recedes (ha!) a tad. Anyhow, I’ve basically followed the trajectory in my own halting work from the literary frame (that is to say, heavily interiorized stuff having to do, in Kunkel’s phrase, with the “moral imagination,” etc) toward dystopian or catastropic stuff. (One last time, there’s an abortive start to something I worked on this summer here…)
And there are lots of reasons that this shift in my work has happened. Partly, it’s the fact that I’ve always been invested in this stuff (first two works of literature I owned were 1984 and Purgatorio… the latter, a weird but understandable pick for a Catholic kid) but now, suddenly, it’s become acceptably non-genre to write it, per Kunkel’s description. A desire to write politically engaged fiction also factors; it’s easier at least to seem like that’s what you’re up to even if, as again Kunkel describes, lots of time this stuff goes south when it comes to good faith political response.
But there is something else, beyond or beneath all these other reasons, that I think forms the basis of the ultimate impetus for me to turn to the genre-literary hybrid.
Aside from all the ideological and meta-ideological reasons, aside from the contemporary relevance and the attention grabbing cover art possibilities, one huge reason why the dystopian and apocalyptic registers have traipsed to the center of literary literary production is because, christ almighty, they give you the opportunity to write a proper novel with multiple characters (albeit, sure, you can or structurally must do flat ones, as Kunkel suggests) and a plot, dramatic tension, crises and outcomes. Actual events happen, there are dramatic sequences and meaningful interactions of the protagonist(s) with other people. Or to put it another way – yes, these genres, happily, even gloriously, are incompatible with interiority – especially excessive, neurotic interiority! The characters are actually too busy to think, to have actual thoughts. It’s hard to be depressed or anxious or frustratedly horny when the canibals are trying to cook your son. And if you’re otherwise occupied dashing through Falluja-on-the-North-Sea, one tends to forget about the battle with drink or the middle life crisis, the traumas of high school and the sexual rejection that happened during the ice storm. Whatever.
If you write, and write in the wide and persistent wake of modernism – if you cut your readerly teeth on Woolf and Joyce – you know what your problem is. You want to do interior work; you do it really well, at least better than other things. But when you give your novel-start to a friend to read, they respond, nervously: “You know, the extended section about midnight-masturbation while looking at internet porn is, um, thorough and I’m sure it gets to the bottom of the subject – as does the long bit where the young wife has a silent nervous breakdown about her career prospects, the wrong turn that she made when she chose to major in Fine Arts instead of Chemistry, but… I’ve read your other stuff and I like the bit where, you know, things happen and people talk to each other. You should, you know, have some of that here… It’s all a bit, um, claustrophobic….”
They’re right – you lack for plot… and anything else that’s properly in a novel except the angsty interior work. And for good reason, really. This is where someone comes in and screams that of course there are plots out there, you just have to cast your eyes a yard or two beyond your whitebread world of pocket inteligensia in order to see that shit is happening all the time. Remember this bit in Adaptation:
Sir, what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world –
The real world?
The real fucking world? First of all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There’s genocide, war, corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else! Every fucking day someone somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ’s sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!
Mckee is, of course, right. But also definitely not. While the better part of me would love to write the great novel of the Bhopal Disaster or of the rise and fall of Allende, I’m not up to it. Neither do I have the knowledge, nor the time to acquire it, nor really (honestly) the inclination. And if we turn back to the standard fare for novelistic deployment in America, we find that many of the old strands and tropes are looking a little depleted. There are only so many discovery of sex cum end of American innocence novels that can be written, and generally speaking they really do need to be set in the 1950s, which most of us don’t remember as we were born in the 60s or 70s (or, urp, 80s). The frontier – even the final one – has long since been closed. Adultery only seems unboring when you spice it with a new, newer, the newest low: a student, a younger student, his brother, all of his brothers at once, all of his frat brothers, old people, really old people. Boring… Lolita preemptively probably took care of entire line right back at the start, everything else is tired variation on a theme. And the Bildungsroman suffers in an era when at the same time meritocratic progression becomes so tedious rote and actual class-shift becomes unlikely if not impossible, that no one but Jonathan Safran Foer knows what to write anymore.
But it’s more than the simple expenditure of motifs. There was something about the 1990s that resisted fictionalization, the way that a high pressure system resists cloud formation. Periods that resist emplotment – both fictional emplotment and wider, socio-cultural sense of directionality and end-orientation – are psychologically tricky for everyone but maybe even trickier for novelists. (This is the point where I refer you to my published work on The Time Machine, a work that complicates Kunkel’s genealogies of the two forms he’s dealing with, as they’re both there at once – it’s knot in the lines that run from gothic to dystopia and from romance to apocalypse…. But oops, I’m a pseudonom-blogger so I can’t link to it… But the 1890s and 1900s, despite the memorable work that we retrospectively recognize now, were perhaps another such period…) The End of History meets the end of the histoire – the two ends are anything but unrelated. They called it decadence at the end of the 19th-century, a word which meant something a bit different then than it does today.
I’d rather not delve into strange causality, paranoid historicist envelope scribbling, but there is something in society that does not love empty time. Don’t ask me what it does about it. I definitely, definitely don’t want to suggest that it handles it by downing its own towers and collapsing its own markets. But that is, however, what its fiction writers start to do. Novelists who not long ago were invested in existentialist thrillers set along the Rio Grande turn to the flash and rumble to get a story started in its aftermath, just as filmakers who were busy with naughty threesomes turn to the extinction of the race and rise of biopolitically-minded fascism.
The apocalyptic and dystopian, in other words, bring plot and event during periods in which plot and event seem to have slipped down the drain of the tub where the boats are busy rising or not rising. In turning the everyday inside out, they expose the implicit, imminent sound of the other shoe dropping, the storyline that must be nestled amidst all this affluent absurdity. And if you need more proof, think about just how invested these works are that Kunkel describes in playing out emergence of the climactic event out of the banally everyday… or even, most hauntingly, the persistence of that everyday despite the start of the endgame, the plot to end all plots. Remember the first scene of Children of Men, where our period’s mostly characteristically ordinary action – fetching coffee on the way to work – gives way to the terrorist bomb blast and the walking wounded missing limbs.
As if bound to gesture towards the unfertile ground from which they grew, the works cycle back, time and again, the the issuelessness of the present that is interrupted by the advent of the catastrophe or the revelation of the inhuman face of power once the veil of liberal democratic upwardness has dropped to the floor. None of this is out of sync, I believe, with Kunkel’s argument – it just points to the way that these fictional developments are determined at the same time by contextual issues and immanent problems of narrative form. And in fact, one more turn of the screw brings us to the realization – one that we have to take care with, not be cheap about – that the contextual issues are themselves in part symptoms of a society-wide crisis in self-narration, an inability to get the story of the present and how it meets a future, or even has a future, straight.
I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering whether the tendency toward dystopian and apocalyptic hybridization of literary fiction and what Kunkel calls B+ movies will continue as the world and its artists confront the very real crises that surely await us all in next few years. It seems improbable that the jobless will want to read fantasies of dramatic joblessness, or the cashless will fantasize about a world without cash. But I’m even more interested, and alternative hopeful and skeptical, to see whether society itself as a whole will begin again to compose its own plots about the path from here to there, its own sequence of events that lead through crisis to development. Still, it’s far from given that these storylines, if they do emerge, are stories that we will want to read, much less take our place as characters in, whether we maintain our interest as individuals, as characters, or not.