Saturday, March 9, 2013

Notes on Dystopia

At the Solstice MFA Winter Residency, I attended a class on writing Dystopian literature taught by the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey.  We discussed a few novels during the class (The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi and 1984 by George Orwell) and delved into some of more intricate characteristics of Dystopia.

Firstly, we discussed the idea that there is no such thing as objective time.  It is relative in every way (the experience of time), regardless of the ways we have discovered in measuring it.  When you extract all rigidity from time itself you open yourself up to alternative time-lines and alternative nows.  In one 'now' you are married, in another 'now' you are not.  How many nows, how many yous?  The possibilities are endless.  The alternative nows are what Dystopia is all about.  True, these stories are often placed in the future, but that is a future that 'could' happen in the now, or a future that the 'now' is helping to create, or, most vitally, it is a now that is already happening this very moment, but we just don't or won't realize it.  In Bacigalupi's story, the backdrop of war and child soldiers is terrifying and upsetting, but it is also a reality: In several parts of the world, there are children who live this life everyday.

Dystopia is a juxtaposition of the possible and the actual, the future and the now, the there and the here.  It is wrought with all the things that keep you up in the night.  Not just monsters, but broad ideas and abstractions that chill you to the bone.  The goal of this type of writing is to make the strange familiar and make the familiar strange and to upset habituality. Suddenly going to the market place to buy apples becomes a dangerous and alien experience, while searching dead bodies for gold teeth becomes just part of the morning routine.   Dystopia draws its power from destabilizing characters, events, settings, and even language. For more information on this concept, Laura recommends an essay by Charles Baxter called "On Defamiliarization" from Burning Down the House.  Another source, one that I highly recommend, that some might find valuable are Anne Bogart's essays from A Director Prepares.

In terms of the overall concept of a story, it should be rooted in something concrete that your audience can relate to or at least understand.  Essentially, find the Hurricane Sandy in your story and make people respond to your abstract idea.  Think to yourself, what might be the worst outcome of 'now,' and study history and human nature because plausibility is what makes Dystopia such a frightening genre.   Study regimes, dictators, and hegemonic power systems.  Ground the 'now' of your novel with the horrors of things that have already happened.  And never forget that your characters are the key.  Put your main characters in the center of the problem, don't skirt around the society through the eyes of a casual observer.  In 1984, the main character works in the records department that allows him to see clearly all of the corruption and censorship around him that others might not be privy to.  In The Drowned Cities, the characters are directly caught up in the conflicts of the war lords and the direct fallout of unsuccessful peace keeping missions.  Show us this unrecognizably familiar new world from within.

Amanda LaFantasie (Skoora) © March 2013

1 comment: