Dystopan Literature Over Time

Came across this list on Goodreads, thanks largely to Molly Spring’s post (which I will reblog next since it’s pretty dawn awesome!). Basically, the table gives graphic representation to historical trends and the popularity of dystopian lit over the past few decades. Though it does preclude Yevengy Zamyatin’s We and Jack London’s The Iron Heel by a few years, it manages to pick up in the early 30′ with the creation of Brave New World.

Cataloging what led to the creation of that and all many subsequent dystopian classics, the creator of this infographic shows how our perceptions and tastes – as expressed through popular dystopian visions – have changed over time. In the end, the point seems to be that we’ve evolved from thinking simply that the state is the primary threat to human freedom in our world. Things like body image, reproductive rights, environmental issues, nuclear weapons, epidemics (both man-made and natural) and agism.

You might think that it’s making the point that people have more to worry about today than they did before. But personally, I just think it’s pointing out how the literature is evolving to focus on our own evolving sense of self and understanding of ourselves. You know the old saying, “the world isn’t any worse, you just understand it better?” Well, it’s a little like that. The literature isn’t any darker, just more complex. Quite the little romp too, if you ask me. 

The Post-Apocalypse in Sci-Fi

Thanks to the announcement of “Revolution”, and my impending lawsuit against NBC, JJ Abrams and anyone else who ripped me off, I’ve been thinking a lot about post-apocalyptic stories. This is a very fertile area, and some friends here once again had the foresight to mention examples in advance which I was sure to include. I tell ya, the more time I spend with people, talking about creative stuff, the more we seem to be on the same wavelength… creepy!

I sense another story in the making, so I better patent it soon lest someone try to steal it. You hear that NBC? PATENT PENDING! You too Abrams!

Anyhoo, here is a list of all the post-apocalytpic tales I was able to find from over the years. As usual, this list is just a sampling of some of the ones I and other people have read, watched, and generally enjoyed. In truth, there are far too many examples to list. So, also as usual, any additional suggestions are welcome.

A Boy and His Dog:
This novella, and the 1974 movie which it inspired, takes place in an alternate timeline where JKF survived his assassination attempt and history followed a different course. For starters, instead of the space race, western society focused on the advancement of other technologies, such as household androids, ESP, telepathy, and even animal intelligence.

This new tech race intensified the Cold War, which resulted in WWIII breaking out. This war lasted for many years and was fought with conventional weapons, until a peace was brokered by the Vatican in 1983. After 25 years of uneasy truce and economic turmoil, WWIV broke out in 2007 and nuclear weapons were used, leaving the Earth desolated and scarred. As such, the story takes place in 2024, where the survivors are forced to forage and fight for survival and men outnumber women by a significant margin.

The main character is Vic, a young man who lost both parents in the war and never received any real education or upbringing. As such, his only real concern is gratifying his sexual urges. His companion is a wise-cracking telepathic dog named Blood, the result of genetic engineering in the previous century. While he depends on Vic for food, Vic depends on him for guidance and education, which he accepts only reluctantly.

The plot revolves around the couple’s discovery of a place that is known in myth as “Over the Hill” or “The Promised Land”, an underground colony that survived the nuclear war. Vic finds himself lured in because, in spite of their self-sufficiency, the colonists need sperm donors to keep their reproductive cycle going. He learns that a totalitarian council rules the place and maintains authority by “disappearing” anyone who resists them.

After meeting a young woman named Quilla, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow the council. She asks him, “Do you know what love is?”, something which he has never before pondered. The two have a short-lived affair, which seems to be out of necessity since she soon needs to escape when their conspiracy is foiled and her friends killed. They escape to the surface to find that Blood has nearly starved in his absence. In a twist ending, it is implied that Vic kills Quilla and cooks her flesh to save Blood. He contemplates the question she asked him, and concludes that “A boy loves his dog.”

Chock of full of dark humor, irony and a pretty low appraisal of human nature, a Boy and His Dog remains a cult-classic amongst cinema buffs and fans of the post-apocalyptic genre. Though it was by no means as commercially successful, amongst its fans it is right up there with films like Mad Max and other such classics.

The Hunger Games:
Following in the tradition of such greats as Brave New World and 1984, The Hunger Games presents us with the a world where apocalyptic evens have given rise to dystopia. Though it not fully specified what these events entailed, it seems relatively clear that it involved nuclear war or some kind of global fallout, possibly economic in nature. It is for this reason that a tyrannical government has taken over control of the 12 districts in the future, ruling the nation of Panem with an iron fist.

Naturally, this oppression involves both police action and forced deprivation, with people in “the capitol” enjoying a lavish, comfortable life while people in the districts live in varying degrees of poverty. However, the truest symbol of the capitol’s power comes in the form of the Hunger Games, a death-match style tournament where every district must send two “tributes” – young people who either teens or pre-teens – to compete for the prize.

The story focuses almost entirely on Katniss Everdeen’s trials as she is unleashed in the arena, trying to survive against the other competitors while at the same time outwitting the game masters. Through all of this, we are made aware of the relationship between the Games and Panem’s odd social structure, where favoritism is common and it is treated as entertainment. We also see how it is used to keep the population of Panem divided, in a state of fear, and otherwise distracted.

Combining gladiatorial combat with the concept of making the oppressed fight each other for the scraps from the head table, the games act as a form of dystopian social control and are also a very apt metaphor for teenage angst and coming of age! In the end, even those who survive are forever marked and must still fear for their lives, knowing that they are never entirely beyond the grasp of the capitol or the rulers who fear and oppress them.

Mad Max:
The franchise that made Mel Gibson’s career – may God have mercy on their souls! – Mad Max takes place in a post-apocalyptic Australia where law and order have broken down. As the franchise goes on, we learn that this was the result of a nuclear war which began after the world’s oil supplies ran out. As a result, gasoline is the most precious commodity of all, with roving bands of thugs and mercenaries fighting and raiding just so they can keep their vehicles running.

The story’s main character, Max Rockatansky, is part of the Main Force Patrol (MFP), a police force that is dedicated to maintaining order on the highways. After his family is murdered by gang members, he hijacks their fastest car and heads out on a personal mission of revenge. Having killed them all, he becomes a roamer, going from place to place in his V-8 Pursuit Special with only a dog as his companion.

In all subsequent movies, events focus on him becoming embroiled in adventures where he must help people in need, all the while looking out for himself as well. More often than not, his journeys take him to shantytowns that have been built around refineries, where small colonies of people are ruled by matriarchs, patriarchs, and are threatened by roaming hoards who want what they have.

In essence, Max’s journeys serve as a vehicle for the story which enable the audience to get a first hand look at what a post-apocalyptic landscape would look like. Key to this is the strange balance of modern and primitive, where gasoline engines, electrical appliances and guns co-exist with improvised weapons, brutal gangs, and lawlessness. All the while, you’ve got bands of people desperately seeking deliverance either in some fabled utopia or safe haven. In the end, the tone and feel of this movie set a new standard for apocalyptic movie making, one which has been imitated many times since.

On The Beach:
Next up is Nevil Shute’s classic tale of nuclear war and how Australia became the last remaining outpost of life and civilization. Published in 1957, during the height of the Cold War, this book was required reading when I was in school, and for good reason! Far from merely telling a tale of nuclear war and the fallout that resulted, it also delved into the psychology of the survivors, how they chose to live out their lives knowing that sooner or later, they would die like the rest.

Taking place in Australia, the story focuses on the lives of people and families who have relocated to the last safe place on Earth. This includes native Australians, ex-pats, and several American military officers who have fled south. Knowing that the Northern Hemisphere has been devastated and is now devoid of all life, the people initially resort to binge drinking and partying, but eventually turn to improving their lives through education, hobbies, and spending time with their families.

Things come to a head when a garbled Morse code reaches them from Seattle, prompting Towers (the American commander) and his fellow officers to mount a mission in their sub. When they arrive, they find that the signal, which is coming from an abandoned naval headquarters, is the result of a broken window sash swinging around and hitting a telegraph key. Their trip also determines that contrary to some hopes, radiation levels are not dissipating.

In the end, all services grind to a halt, people take their suicide pills, and Towers and his officers decide to sail their sub out to international waters and scuttle the ship. In the end, Towers chooses die still serving his country, and avoids having a romance with a woman (Moira) who loves him out of loyalty to his dead wife. The story ends with Moira watching from the beach, imagining him with her as she pops her suicide pill and dies.

What is most interesting about this story is not the plot per se, but the realistic tone it strikes. For starters, how the people of Australia and the government choose to confront the inevitability of death was told with a fair degree of understanding. Instead of looting, rioting, and generally resorting to barbarity, the people, by and large, choose to spend the time they have left enjoying themselves, being with family, and then ending it all painlessly. And the contrast between the people who chose to spend their time partying, versus the stalwart nature of Towers, was also a nice comparison, showing the range of reactions.

It is also interesting in how it speculates on how WWIII began. Rather than being the result of a stand-off between the US and the Soviets, the war began when second-parties, such as Albania and Italy, began bombing each other, forcing their allies to intervene. China and the Soviets even bombed each other when territorial disputes and the general chaos resulted in them invading one another. Thus, much like in WWI, we see a general state of war resulting from tangled alliances and arms races. Oh, the lessons of history…

Planet of the Apes:
Originally a novel that was published in 1963, this book went on to be adapted into film twice, first in 1968 and again in 2001. The story tells the tale of a group of explorers who go into deep space on an exploratory mission, but who end up finding a world where chimpanzees are capable of speech, build cities, wear clothing, and hunt humans for sport. In the end, the explorers flee back to Earth, only to discover that a similar fate has befallen it as well.

Ultimately, the story is being told in a note left by the protagonist, which is uncovered by a young couple who are taking a vacation in their space ship. It is only at the very end that it is revealed that they are intelligent apes, and they conclude that no human could have written this note, as they are not believed to be intelligent enough.

Though different in terms of its overall plot, much of the original story survived the movie adaptation. Here, the explorers were scientists who entered cryogenic sleep, hoping to wake up in a future where mankind was more evolved. Instead, they wake up to find that they are (seemingly) marooned on a mysterious planet where humans live in a primitive state and intelligent apes rule.

When they are attacked, all of the protagonist’s (Taylor, played by Charlton Heston) friend are killed, leaving him alone in a compound where humans are experimented on. He finds an unlikely ally in an ape named Zira who seeks to prove that humans are intelligent and hence worthy of rights (echoes of animal rights activists). All the while, Dr. Zaius, a conservative scientists, expresses strong doubts, though it is clear he is trying to bury Zira’s evidence.

In time, Taylor escapes with the help of the two scientists – Zira and Cornelius – who sought to prove his intelligence, and they flee to the Forbidden Zone. This taboo area contains a cave where Cornelius claims to have found the remains of a non-simian civilization a year earlier. They are intercepted by Zaius and some soldiers, but they manage to convince him to enter the cave and see what lies within. There, they find a number of artifacts, including a set of dentures, a pair of glasses, a heart valve, and (the real prize of the collection!) a talking doll.

Zaius reveals that he already knew of this, and that the Forbidden ZOne was once a paradise that human beings turned into a wasteland. He lets Taylor and his new female companion go, but orders the cave be destroyed and Zira and Cornellius brought back to stand trial for treason. Taylor travels up the coast and eventually reaches the remains of the Statue of Liberty and realizes the awful truth. His party never left Earth at all, but has entered a future where human civilization fell, most likely after a nuclear war, and apes have evolved to take their place.

Between the novel and the film adaptations, the evolutionary allegory is clear. Due to its inherent barbarity, human civilization is destroyed, its people fall into decline, and nature is left selecting from its predecessors to fill the void. In a sense, Boulle and the film adaptations his book inspired were mocking the idea of humanity seeing itself as being at the top of the evolutionary pyramid. In another way, they were demonstrating that the very excesses that make humanity corruptible (i.e. vanity, anthropocentrism) are not reserved to them.

The Postman:
This science fiction novel, written in 1985 by David Brin, tells the story of a post-apocalyptic United States where warlords rule the countryside and terrorize the local people. Enter into this a drifter who stumbles across the uniform of an old US Postal Services letter carrier and begins using it and a letter bag to bring hope to a small community.

Initially, he trades the letters in his mail bag for supplies, not intending to take part in a forgery. However, the letters give people hope that there is a “Restored United States of America”, which eventually leads him to maintain the illusion. He then stumbles upon a facility in Oregon State University where scientists are apparently pretending that an AI they built is still working, as a means to maintain people’s hope that knowledge and science are being kept alive.

Together, they face off against a group of ultra-survivalists who are moving south through the region. The Postman and the scientists join forces to fight them, and in the end find that the survivalists are being beaten back from the south as well, by armies bearing the standard of the State of California. Apparently, the intersection of these symbols, the letter, the scientists, and the state flag, act as a synthesis to show the path towards rebuilding the shattered nation.

This book is not only a celebrated example of a post-apocalyptic tale of hope and redemption; it’s also a fitting commentary on politics and ideology in the modern age. Many times over, the super-survivalist Nathan Holn is parodied in the book, with the survivalists of the story being called Holnists. It is even suggested that it was the followers of Holn who destroyed the government in the not-too-distant future, not nuclear war, biological agents, or even economic fallout. So in the end,  we learn that the nation is wrecked by brutal and ignorant minds, and saved by a combination of true patriots, keepers of knowledge, and those motivated to help their fellow man.

The movie adaptation that was released in 1997 did very poorly, with many critics seeing it as the latest in a string of flops for Kevin Costner. Having not seen the movie, I can’t comment on its quality either way. All I know is, it’s a shame given the value of the source material.

Second Variety:
This short story by Philip K Dick, which was adapted into the movie “Screamers”, deals with the line between artifice and authenticity and is set in a post-apocalyptic world. Hence, much like Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, it is all about machines that can impersonate humans and what happens when technical progress gets away from us.

Though the movie was set on a distant world, the original story takes place on Earth, where World War III has taken place and Soviet forces occupy much of the US. This has prompted the US to develop a race of self-replicating robots that tunnel underground and pop up to slice the enemy to pieces. After many years of death and brutality, where the machines have turned the entire countryside into a mess, the US government has relocated to the moon, leaving what forces they have left on the ground in a series of bunkers.

The story begins when a unexpected message arrives in the US camp from the other side, asking for a ceasefire. The commander heads out to the enemy bunker to speak with the soldiers, who claim that new breeds of robots that can imitate humans have infiltrated them. Apparently, the underground facility that is making the machines has been producing all kinds of upgrades, consistent with its autonomous nature and aim to create better killing machines.

Suspicion soon turns everyone against each other, and eventually only the commander and a lone woman make it back to his bunker. There, he finds that humanoid-machines have taken over the base. They fight their way free, and the commander determines that they must fly to the Moon base and alert the government that the machines are threatening to take over Earth. When they make it to an emergency craft, the commander finds that it has only one seat and gives it to the woman. Shortly after she flies away, he is attacked by a group of robots, many of which look exactly like her…

Basically, this story tells the tale of how desperation led to the creation of a technology that was so effective, it threatened to completely destroy humanity, friend and foe alike. Much like nuclear devices and biological weapons, the “varieties” of killing machines proved to be a breed of weapon that was designed to fight a war, but eventually turned and consumed its own makers.

The Stand:
Stephen King’s classic tale of mankind’s fall and redemption, all taking place against the backdrop of the American countryside. Written in 1978, this story is based on the now classic concept of a government super-virus that got out and wreaked havoc on society, and those survivors who were left to pick up the pieces. Adding to this the theme of the Rapture and a post-apocalyptic war between good and evil, this book was steeped in metaphor and was a fitting allegory about good and evil and the eventual redemption of humankind.

The story begins when a government facility suffers a fatal accident with the release of an influenza virus, a strain of super flu that is 99% infectious and fatal. Once it gets out, society begins to fall to pieces as everyone, including the government agents responsible for containment, become infected and die. Those who are left behind begin to be contacted in their dreams by one of two people, an old lady and a strange man, each telling them to make their way to one of two places.

The old lady, named Mother Abagail, clearly represents good and is inviting people to form a commune in Boulder, Colorado. The man, named Randall Flagg (who clearly represents the Devil) is bringing people to Las Vegas, where they are arming for an eventual war. In time, the two sides come together after a terrorist attack leaves several dead and Mother Abagail suffers a heart attack and dies. She asks that the main characters walk to Las Vegas to confront the evil there. They do, and become prisoners upon their arrival.

However, things come to a head when the Trashman, one of Flagg’s minions, shows up in the city with an atomic bomb. Obsessed with fire and having suffered a psychotic break, he seems intent to detonate the bomb. The heroes experience a vision where a hand composed of white light and the voice of Mother Abagail appears to them, telling them they will be delivered. The bomb detonates, and Las Vegas and all of Flagg’s followers are killed.

The story ends with the surviving heroes bringing the first post-apocalyptic baby into the world, a baby which is apparently immune to the super flu. With evil vanquished and the knowledge that subsequent generations will survive the plague, humanity’s future seems safe at last.

And that’s the first installment. Tune in again soon for part II, featuring more examples of post-apocalyptic tales. As I said, suggestions are welcome. Get em in before its too late!

The Hunger Games, a review (finally!)

It finally happened, I read the Hunger Games. Not that this should come as much of a surprise, I did promise I would after all. But it took me quite a while! Months back when I was doing a review of Dystopian Science Fiction – which earned me most of my current followers, thank you! – one of the biggest questions I was asked was “what about the Hunger Games?”

Yes, person after person wanted to know how this recent piece of YA dystopian fiction fit into the historical record. At the time, I really had no intention of reading it or doing a review. Not because I had anything against Collins or this book, but because I had not heard of it prior to the movie’s release. And I have this thing where I become resistant towards anything that becomes a big commercial deal. Maybe its a desire not to follow the trends, I don’t know.

However, as I began to look into the concept of this book, the desire began to grow to check it out. And though I did my best to avoid spoilers, I couldn’t help but check out some reviews of the phenomena and what is said about our culture. Here is an excerpt from one such article, entitled “‘The Hunger Games’: your kids are angrier than you think”, by Brian Bethune (Maclean’s Magazine):

“Imagine a life where possibilities are opening at a speed that veers unpredictably between exhilarating and terrifying. The familiar, precisely because it’s familiar and safe, still tugs at you, but even so, you want out because your old life constricts as much as it comforts. Besides, your social milieu, which often feels like an endless struggle to achieve, or resist being slotted into some arbitrary niche—pretty, ugly, smart, dumb, athlete, klutz—is changing fast. You feel driven—by inner need and outside pressure—to make choices. Meanwhile, the manipulative, often harsh, powers that be, who created the larger world they’re busy shoving you into, have clearly not done a bang-up job of it, either in their personal lives or as part of society. And they want you to get out there and fix their mistakes—just at a moment when worry over the imminent demise of their entire socio-economic structure is never far from the surface. It can be cruel and scary out there. Dystopian, even.

Chances are, anyone not imagining this life, but actually living it, is a teenager. And living it in an era of economic uncertainty, conspiracy theories and fear of environmental collapse. Western civilization used to produce literary utopias, but in the past century of world wars, financial panics, murderous totalitarian regimes and nuclear threat, dystopias have outnumbered sunny projections by several orders of magnitude. Pessimistic depictions of the future are now everywhere in popular culture. Teens and teen books are not immune to larger trends in society.”

What a perfect synopsis really. Not only is this book a look at a future where apocalyptic events have led to the creation of an oppressive, abusive state that controls people through scarcity and force. Not only is it a commentary on mankind’s fascination with reality tv and endless appetite for distraction. No, this book has the added dimension of capturing the angst and confusion of being a teenager, thrust into the world of adults and forced to work hard and compete for their apparent amusement, all the while reflecting on how it’s basically the older generation that have made the world what it is.

Plot Synopsis:
Not that it’s necessary since so many people have now read the book or seen the movie, but I shall give a bare bones summary anyway just to recap the selling points. The story opens on the nation of Panem, which is a play on the name Pan-America, a post-apocalyptic nation set in the not too distant future. Though it is never specified exactly what happened, what is clear is that what is left of North America is now organized into 12 Districts ruled from a central city known only as “The Capitol”.

We then see the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, a resident of District 12 located in the coal-rich areas of Appalachia. Her and her friend Gale are hunting, which is necessary to ensure their families eat well and supplement their meager incomes. We quickly learn that the Hunger Games are upon the 12 District for another year, that the names of two “tributes” are about to be drawn from each district, whereupon they will be sent to the Capitol to compete. When District 12’s names are drawn, Katniss is terrified to learn that her younger sister’s Priss, who is barely a tween, has been selected. She does the unthinkable and volunteers in her stead.

Her partner/competitor for the games is a baker’s boy named Peeta, a boy who apparently has always fancied her. The two of them are put aboard the special rail car for transport to and from the Capitol where they meet their “coach”, their design team, and the frumpy lady who acts as their PR and etiquette consultant. As they travel in style, these people take turns prepping them, which mainly consists of cleaning them up and making them look presentable since the lead up to the games involves all kinds of televised appearances and interviews.

Their coach, a man named Haymich Abernathy, who was the last person from D12 to win, is a horrendous drunk who doesn’t seem to care what happens to them. This changes when an altercation aboard the train makes him realize that Katniss and Peeta have some fight in them. From then on, he curbs his drinking so he can advise them properly. When they arrive, they witness even more style and opulence, being placed in a private hotel, treated to lavish meals, and made to take part in a presentation ceremony where all districts ride out in a public arena.

Quickly, and with Haymich’s help, Katniss and Peeta distinguish themselves as the team to beat. On many occasions, hints are given that there is a bubbling romance between the two, one which may very well be real. Katniss also impresses her judges when she demonstrates her archery skills, something she’s spent years honing from hunting. By the time the games roll around, she is considered the contestant to beat, and Peeta quietly shares with her that he wishes there was a way to strike back at the people who are forcing them to compete.

The games begin shortly thereafter and half the tribute die within the first day. Bonds form as the kids from the more privileged districts, known as the Career Tributes, come together to eliminate other contestants, which is typical of the games. As the best equipped, best sponsored and best trained contestants – who, as the name suggests, spend much of their time preparing for this at home – a tribute from one of their districts is usually the winner. Their leader is a large, temperamental boy named Cato, who to her dismay, Peeta seems to have joined in order to hunt her.

Luckily, Katniss forms a bond of her own with a young girl named Rue, a young girl from District 11 who reminds her of her sister. Small, fast, and adept at climbing and hiding, the two become fast friends and assist each other. They even manage to take out a few of the privileged kids and manage to destroy their supply cache, a move which evens the odds considerable. Peeta also risks his own life to save Katniss at one point, a move which confounds her since she was convinced he turned on her. However, the move saves her life and causes Peeta to be several injured by Cato himself.

Shortly thereafter, Rue is killed by one of the boys. Katniss manages to take this boy out with an arrow, and sings to Rue until she dies. This is something she promised she’d do, as Rue was a lovely singer who sang regularly during her long hours picking orchard fruit. Remembering what Peeta said about getting back at the Capitol, she also moves Rue’s body to a more dignified spot and covers it with flowers, knowing that everyone in the Capitol is watching. She is given heart when she realizes that Peeta’s has not been declared dead yet and goes off in search for him.

She finds him camouflaged in an embankment and digs him up. He is mortally wounded, and Katniss spends the next few days trying to heal him. Due to their growing popularity as “star-crossed lovers” the Capitol announces a rule change, couples from a district can win together! Once he’s healed enough, Katniss and Peeta begin to enact a final plan to draw the last of their enemies out and kill them. When Rue’s fellow tribute dies and the girl named “Foxface” is accidentally poisoned by some berries Peeta picks, Cato is now alone. However, when they find him, the Capitol throws in another game changer.

All the previous tributes, now dead and taken away, have been bred into muttations – bio-engineered dogs that can stand on their hind legs, and that are smarter and more aggressive than your average hound. These dogs pursue the three tributes to the Cornucopia, the starting point of the games, where they trap them on top of the structure. There, Cato tries to take Peeta hostage, but Katniss takes him down with an arrow to the hand. He falls and is set upon by the mutts, and Katniss mercifully fires and arrow into his head to end his suffering.

In the end, the Capitol declares that the two of them must kill each other again, but Katniss and Peeta pull a fast one. Grabbing their store of poisonous berries, they resolve to eat a lethal handful together and force the issue. Seeing this, the Capitol backs down and declares them both winners! A hovercraft arrives shortly thereafter and brings them back to the Capitol for medical treatment and rest. When Katniss wakes up, she learns that Peeta is alive and well despite his many injuries, and she appears to be completely made over.

However, all accounts are not settled. Haymich warns her before the final interviews take place that her stunt with Peeta embarrassed the rulers of Panem and they are planning on retribution against them. There only hope is to make it look as if they did it for love, playing up the popular lovers angle and thus ensuring that the Capitol can’t touch them. This, they do, but Peeta is heart-broken when he learns that to Katniss, this was just a ploy to help them win. However, she privately reflects that she doesn’t know if her feelings for Peeta are genuine or not, and fears what will happen when they are separated upon their return to D12.

Overall Impressions:
Let me start with the criticisms first, since that is by far a shorter list. To begin, I felt that things were conveyed a little quickly and easily vis a vis the whole power structure of Panem. It’s in the first chapter when the Games are being discussed that Katniss conveys all the relevant details about the 12 districts, how their used to be a 13th, and how the games are used to control them and prevent further rebellion. In fact, I felt that the tone of the book was being pitched at a bit of a basic level.

But then of course, I remembered that it’s YA fiction. Of course it’s going to say these things up front, the intended audience is not yet familiar with dystopian fiction and its many subtleties. Slapping myself on the forehead and saying “A-doi!” I continued reading with a more open and less snobbish mind. And the book only got better from there, weaving a young adults appraisal of the world quite seamlessly with dystopian themes.

Because in the end, the real genius of the book comes through amidst all the entertaining and well-paced format of the story. Between Katniss’ confusion, angst, anger and the ongoing struggle to stay alive, the dystopian flavor of the whole affair really shines through. We see that there are very clear and obvious distinctions between the Capitol and the outlying districts, that these become more evident and appalling the further one ventures out, and that disparities between districts are exploited for the sake of entertainment and control.

This is especially true when it comes to the Career Tributes, who have it better than the others and stick together as a way of guarding their shared sense of privilege. The way the outlying districts, as personified by Rue and Katniss, form similar bonds is held up as the flip-side to this, where a shared sense of deprivation and abuse push them together to resist their common enemies. And what I found brilliant about this was how it demonstrated that for the dispossessed, it’s not just the oppressors who they must fight against, but also those they have bought off with scraps from their own table.

But even more brilliant was the way this was so relatable to young adult readers. In their own way, teenagers experience dystopia every day by simply having to endure the unfair and privileged environment known as high school. With its cliques, ruthless sense of social judgment, bullying and constant pressure to perform, always at the behest of a system dominated by adults, it must seem like an arena in which their very lives are at stake. Many people speak of “teen-age” drama and how silly it seems to them, but I challenge those people to look back at what being a teenager was like and to tell me drama isn’t precisely what every moment of every day is charged with.

I can now see why this book resonates with young people and adults everywhere. Not only was it a good dystopian themed story, combining several classical elements in a way that hasn’t really be done before; it is also a perfect allegory for growing up and being forced to step into a world not of your own making; all the while feeling like everyone’s against you. Between those forcing you into the game and those of your own age trying to kill you, adolescence is very much like living in a totalitarian state and fighting your own for the entertainment of others.

I get it, people. I see why this book is a big deal now. However, I often wonder if others really see its for its inherent value. Sure it’s entertaining, relatable, and chock full of stuff that young people love – empathy, romance, pain and angst. But it’s allegorical depth is what I think makes it truly valuable as a science fiction and dystopian read, especially to the young. By describing a dark world from the point of view of teenagers, it basically captures what all teenagers know already. Life can be totally unfair, oppressive, aggravating, and just generally suck!

Personal Note:
Feel free to skip this part if you don’t feel like a heavy read. But I assure you, it’s relatable…

In my work, I’ve often been subjected to the drama of the young and find myself sympathizing one moment and wanting to pull my hair out the next. But always, I enjoy the moments when I’m able to talk to a young man or woman and feel like I’m getting through to them. There’s nothing more rewarding when you see that glimmer in their eyes that says “they get it!” It’s little wonder then why my worst job experience was in an environment where the words “f*ck off”, “you suck”, and “I hate you” were so common.

It made me angry, it made me sad. But more than anything, it made me feel powerless. How do you help when the disparity of your positions makes it impossible? But of course, after I left, I kept hearing how the new teacher was constantly being told “Mr. Williams was WAY better than you!” Funny, they kept comparing me to the last guy too 😉 But I think it made me appreciate how much life can suck for young people, especially kids growing up in poverty, broken homes, and living with the legacy of abuse, defeat and blatant racism. As if these kids don’t have enough problems without a dark legacy hanging over their heads.

Under the circumstances, it’s amazing any of us make it out of our teen years, let alone the majority of us. That was another thing that happened regularly in my old job posting, teen-age suicide. With all the problems and complications of life and their age, some kids truly feel like there’s no way out. In addition to thinking life sucks, they become convinced that it isn’t worth living. But what seems to do them in is the fact that they feel so alone, and can’t express their feelings and lighten their load. If more kids understood just how un-alone they are, far more would make it to adulthood. I think we should all take a moment for those who didn’t…

Dystopia and Deathmatches in Sci-Fi

Battle Royale:
This controversial story, also adapted into a film, takes place in an alternate universe where Japan is a member region of a totalitarian state named the Republic of Greater East Asia. Alluding to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of WWII, it is clear that this a world in which Japan won the Second World War and continued on the path of fascist Imperialism.

In any case, the story revolves around what is called “The Program”. Under the guise of a “study trip”, a group of junior high school students from a fictional town are gassed on a bus. They awaken in the school of an isolated, evacuated island and learn that they have been placed in an event where they must battle each other to the death, or all will die.

Officially a military research project, it is a means of terrorizing the population, of creating such paranoia as to make organized insurgency impossible. Every year, fifty classes are selected to participate where students from a single class are isolated and are required to fight the other members. It ends when only one student remains, with that student being declared the winner.

Their movements are tracked by metal collars, which contain tracking and listening devices; if any student should attempt to escape the Program, or enter declared forbidden zones, a bomb will be detonated in the collar. If no one dies within any 24-hour period, all collars will be detonated simultaneously and there will be no winner.

Banned in many countries (the novel and the film) because of its controversial and graphic nature, Battle Royale has gone on to inspire such books as The Hunger Games.  Combining a Lord of the Flies-style appraisal of human psychology with a indictment of reality TV, this story remains one of the most effective pieces of modern dystopian literature featuring death matches.

Dune:
Fans of Dune will remember the lovely scene in the novel where Count Fenrig travels to Geidi Prime to speak with the Baron. Once he arrived, and in honor of Feyd Rathau’s birthday, he was treated to a gladiator match between Feyd and a slave gladiator. This is a common feature on Geidi Prime where death matches are considered public entertainment and every major city has its own arena.

And what better place for this kind of entertainment than Geidi Prime, a world run by ruthless overlords and characterized by harsh, perverse brutality? And that was the point after all. The Harkonnen’s were the bad guys in this tale and everything about them, their appearances, ethics, and homeworld was designed to match.

Robot Jox:
Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world where conventional warfare is forbidden between nations, Robot Jox tells the tale of a gladiator-style sport where giant mechs do battle in open arenas. This is how the two super-nations – the American-influenced Western Market and the Russian Confederation – work out their differences.

Of course, espionage and betrayal remain an integral part of the games, mirroring the Cold War. What’s more, the games often rigged to ensure that one bloc can get a leg up on the other. And in the end, the entertainment factor is also a driving force behind the games. In a post-apocalyptic world, the masses need some form of entertainment to distract them from the shock and horror of their daily lives.

The Hunger Games:
Following in the same vein as Battle Royale and Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games tells the tale of a not-too-distant future where the United States has degenerated into a tyrannical government ruled from a political seat known only as “The Capitol”. Every year, the rulers of this city force all the outlying districts to send two young people – one boy and one girl – to compete in a free-for-all known as the Hunger Games.

The purpose of these games is simple, to keep all districts in a state of awe and fear so they won’t be able to contemplate another uprising. Years back, it is said that the 13 districts committed to one such uprising, the result being that District 13 was destroyed. The remaining twelve now send their competitors and try to exploit the incentives, which just happen to be rations.

Throughout the book, several things are made clear about the games which highlight its satirical nature. Satirizing reality TV shows, we learn that the games are televised, incentives are offered to keep the games going, and contestants draw sponsors based on their popularity. In addition, extra elements like romances and collaborations are encouraged to ensure that the games remain interesting and dramatic.

In the end, the games serve the purpose of keeping people down but also exploiting their destitute nature by offering them a shot at something better. When the games are over and only one person remains, they will receive enough rations to last them a lifetime. Many times over, it is also shown how life in the capitol is opulent and comfortable, whereas the outlying districts are malnourished and must do things like hunt illegally for food. And of course, the farther the district from the capitol, the more difficult life is, another aspect which the capitol exploits to ensure its continued survival.

The Running Man:
Written by Stephen King under the pen name Richard Bachman, The Running Man is also a near-future dystopian tale set in 2025 where the US has become a totalitarian state because of economic fallout and wide-scale starvation. For a population dogged by hunger and martial law, the only real source of enjoyment is a televised TV show where convicts are forced to engage in gladiator-style combat against seasoned “hunters”.

Aptly named “The Running Man”, the show begins when a series of “enemies of the state” – i.e. convicts – are released into a massive arena where they are pursued by a group of network-employed hitmen. For every hour they remain alive, they earns 100 dollars, plus a bonus for every Hunter they kill. If they survive 30 days, they earn a total of 1 billion “New Dollars” and a full pardon. Or so they say…

Though the novel and the movie differ in terms of plot and resolution, the basic elements are the same. In a future where the vast majority of the population is indigent and desperate, brutal spectator sports are seen as the only outlet. In both versions, much is made of how popular the games are and how important they are to both the network and the government, hence why every attempt is made to ensure that the Hitmen always win.

This serves to reinforce the notion that enemies of the state will always lose when faced with the governments brand of justice, which in this respect is similar to a show trial. It also ensures that the most profitable business in that day and age, since the show grosses billions of dollars in sponsorship and betting on convicts is also a big side-business, stays up and running. So in addition to serving as a source of social control, the games are also an example of corporatism, where the government has a lucrative arrangement with its biggest corporations.

Unreal Tournament:
Don’t laugh! Yes, this may have been a glorified (and gory) first-person shooter in it’s time, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also inspired. Though gamers cared little for the storyline, the fact remains that Unreal Tournament actually had a dystopian theme that drew from several classical sources. Set in a future where the Earth government creates a no-holds-barred arena deathmatch game to settle disputes between deep space miners.

However, when it became clear just how profitable and popular the games were, the games expanded to become an interstellar affair where anyone could fight and the prizes were astronomical. In turn, the corporate responsible for creating the games also became incredibly powerful and used every tool in its crooked arsenal to make sure that competitors were in good supply and things always worked in their favor.

Any player who survived long enough to make it to the end would square off against the companies own cyborg. If they were fortunate enough to kill him too, they received the grand prize and rank of Tournament Champion! All of this, though it took the form of a first-person shooter, calls to mind all the previously mentioned examples of dystopian science fiction and psychological realism. By pitting the desperate, the brutal and the avaricious against each other, a company was able to make an obscene amount of money and keep people blind to the true abuses of power in their universe.

Final Thoughts:
In the end, all of these examples have one thing in common. Whether the setting is a post-apocalyptic world or just a destitute nation dealing with economic downturn, the element of social control is always there. By throwing the powerless, hungry and greedy into an arena and ordering them to kill or be killed, a government ensures that it not eliminates potential threats but channels discontent into something truly atavistic and brutal. Though this is in many ways inspired by the Roman example, modern developments seem to be the true inspiration.

Like all dystopian literature, it seems that developments within the late 19th and early 20th century were the crucial factor. It was here that writers and social commentators truly came face to face with humanity’s abundant capacity for distraction, atavistic behavior, and indifference to suffering. That is another thing that all these pieces of literature have in common. Whether it is the brutal cynicism of those who profit from the games, or the uncaring nature of those who enjoy them, a disgusting lack of empathy runs through them all like a vein.

For what is worse than exploiting misery for the sake of entertainment? It’s one thing to persecute people directly, but making the oppressed and exploited fight each other for the scraps off your own table? That’s a real dick move!

Speaking of which, stay tuned for my review of The Hunger Games. I’ve finally gotten to the end of the book and will sharing my long-promised thoughts on them real soon! Thank you all, and remember: don’t let the bastards pit you against each other! FIGHT THE POWER!

15,000 hits! Weeeee!

Wouldn’t you know it? As of yesterday, on May the 4th of all days, I discovered that my hits tracker had just broken 15,000 views. I could scarcely believe it! This little blog which I started just over a year ago to publicize my thoughts on sci-fi and share my writing seems to be reaching far more people than I ever thought possible. Yes, what stated as a humble hobby to one day be able to write for a living seems one step closer to becoming true. I’m feeling happy, grateful, and a little smug… I’d like to chase that feeling!

So here’s what I’m thinking. Over the next few days I totally want to complete my reviews of the Star Wars franchise in honor of the Star Wars Day. And this will include the newer movies since someone was kind enough to ask me what I thought about them (thus enabling me to talk some more!) After that, I will be finishing up with my posts on Data Miners, which I’ve decided I will stop after chapter 12. First ten percent is free, you gotta follow the links to get the rest 😉 And of course, I will be getting back to what’s become a segment-in-itself, the Cool Ships thing. And of course there’s Crashland and all our work over at Grim5next to talk about, plus that review of Hunger Games I promised way back when. Gotta get on that before the movie’s finished!

So that’s my plan for the next few weeks and months, part of my hope to maintain this momentum and the lovely following I seem to have built up. Thanks be to all of you for making this little hobby of mine work. Now if I could just make it pay, I’d really be in business 😉 Good day all!

The Hunger Games: Dystopia in YA Lit

First up, some news for those who asked. Back when I started this dystopian thread, a lot of people asked about The Hunger Games. This was understandable, given that its a modern take on dystopian sci-fi, and currently very popular since it’s being adapted into a movie. In fact, I got so many questions about it that I had to add an addendum to one of my posts, warning readers that it wouldn’t come up, so not to ask. However, somewhere along the line I also promised that I would tackle and review it at some point.

Well guess what? I just bought a copy! Yep, just as soon as I’m done my most recent reviews and posting chapters of my own upcoming novel (Data Miners), I will get around to reading this modern take on the classic dystopian novel. And, as a preamble, I thought I might include an article that I recently read in MacLeans. There, the author sought to shed some light on the issue of YA dystopian fiction, with particular attention being given to The Hunger Games. It raised some very interesting points before getting into the story, and so I thought I’d share them here.

Excerpt from ‘The Hunger Games’: your kids are angrier than you think by Brian Bethune:

“Imagine a life where possibilities are opening at a speed that veers unpredictably between exhilarating and terrifying. The familiar, precisely because it’s familiar and safe, still tugs at you, but even so, you want out because your old life constricts as much as it comforts. Besides, your social milieu, which often feels like an endless struggle to achieve, or resist being slotted into some arbitrary niche—pretty, ugly, smart, dumb, athlete, klutz—is changing fast. You feel driven—by inner need and outside pressure—to make choices. Meanwhile, the manipulative, often harsh, powers that be, who created the larger world they’re busy shoving you into, have clearly not done a bang-up job of it, either in their personal lives or as part of society. And they want you to get out there and fix their mistakes—just at a moment when worry over the imminent demise of their entire socio-economic structure is never far from the surface. It can be cruel and scary out there. Dystopian, even.

Chances are, anyone not imagining this life, but actually living it, is a teenager. And living it in an era of economic uncertainty, conspiracy theories and fear of environmental collapse. Western civilization used to produce literary utopias, but in the past century of world wars, financial panics, murderous totalitarian regimes and nuclear threat, dystopias have outnumbered sunny projections by several orders of magnitude. Pessimistic depictions of the future are now everywhere in popular culture. Teens and teen books are not immune to larger trends in society.”

Wow. Quite the preamble. What I liked best about it was the way it summed up the origins of dystopia. In my own posts on the subject, I noted that dystopian literature was recent compared to utopian. But I failed to note that the truest examples of the genre only really emerged around the turn of the century. And the particulars of what inspired it seemed to have everything to do with the trends of industrialization, rationalization, class conflict and the increasing pace of change. These things have only become more pronounced as time has gone on, and with the addition of such issues as environmental destruction, gender equality, and racial bigotry.

Or, as the case appears to be with The Hunger Games, issues of age. Here we have a story where the young fight for the entertainment of the old. Or at least, that’s one angle to the story. The issue of authoritarianism, reality TV, violence as entertainment and environmental catastrophe breading totalitarianism – these all appear to be present throughout, either as part of the background or as running themes.

I look forward to reading it. Review to follow, just give me some time! And here is the link to the full article (spoiler alert!):
http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/04/02/dystopia-now/