Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dystopian vs. Post-Apocalyptic Week 9: Connections and Ladders

I am very lucky to have some amazing friends who will talk to me about the little things that bother me and they don't judge me for it.  Kim, @KimMcCollum, was one of the first people that listened to me rant and rave about my annoyance about the confusion of dystopian vs. post-apocalyptic and I was lucky that I had her and our other roomie Jennie Smith to listen to me and inspire me to start this series. And you will see by her post below why I was inspired.
Dr. Kim McCollum-Clark is the English department chair at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. 

So I think I was there for the beginning of this series of blog posts.  Kellee and I were roomies (with the amazing Jennie M. Smith) at the most recent NCTE/ALAN convention in Chicago this past November, and of course we all spent a lot of time talking about books.  We shared our thoughts about the many titles, and Kellee shared her distinction between dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction.  Later, a longer Twitter conversation expanded on her notion, and it’s a very good distinction, indeed.  I think the reason the two kinds of stories get conflated, though, is how both kinds of stories revolve around examinations of political and social structures and how they affect individuals.

Utopianism has always been both a political concept—a form of critiquing existing political structures—and a literary genre from the very beginning.  As a literary genre, stories about utopias have always been ironic, calling into question the very existence of a perfect society.  The term itself, invented from the Greek, means “No Place”—when the author, Thomas More, could have called his invented country EU-Topia, or “good place.”  But every utopia asks questions about society as it exists now.   The utopia asks if we can do better than we currently have it now and answers, “Yes, and here’s how.” Oscar Wilde saw utopianism as essential society’s betterment.  “Progress is the realization of utopias,” he said.

Dystopias, of course, answer the same questions with a great deal of distrust and fear regarding human nature and our ability to “progress.”  Can we make it better?  No, they answer.  We are not likely to improve.  Every overt movement we humans take to rectify currently objectionable ways of living can be taken too far, and human life descends down a new, probably bad, road.

Every dystopian story calls into question very particular structures of an existing social or political order, twisting them in new (and usually bad!) ways, so that we see them, as if for the first time.  Our freedom to choose our life mates (in our current society) is made to seem strange in Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy, as the book opens with Cassia waiting for her society to choose for her.  The ubiquitous nature of our always-wired society is taken to a possible conclusion in M.T. Anderson’s Feed.  

The connection between the two kinds of stories becomes clear when we think of the kinds of situations that would make this kind of re-examining natural and believable.  Apocalyptic events, be they natural or manmade, create ruptures in all the social, cultural, and political structures, making this kind of rethinking a necessity.  Many (if not all) of the systems collapse, for a short time or for forever, and our expected ways of doing things fall down like dominoes.  World War 2 began to change the roles of women, many of whom didn’t want to give their jobs up for the men as they returned from the war.  In the graphic novel series Y, The Last Man, the simultaneous death of all male mammals (including humans) across the planet requires women who remain to react to the loss of men in many male-dominated professions.  The explosion of the super volcano under Yellowstone Park compromises all social structures in Mike Mullin’s Ashfall, turning people into looters, bandits, and even cannibals.

Dystopias and post-apocalyptic stories converge with great strength when the apocalypse is human-made.  The dystopian lens, with its distrust of human abilities and human nature, is proven right.  We couldn’t keep the biosphere whole! We unleashed diseases that cause zombies (too many stories to count) or vampires (Justin Cronin’s The Passage.) We couldn’t leave our wretched natures behind when we colonized other planets (Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy).  How can we then hope to build something better, to start afresh, to learn from our mistakes when the bare minimum requirements of living are unsettled?  

I am not trying to accuse authors of dystopian novels as being hopeless about the notion of progress.  Most criticisms of utopias generally rest on the fact that human nature is too self-centered and imperfect to make rational choices for the best future for everyone.   But even if an intended community is constructed with hope, how will its creators come to deal with those who oppose its goals and values?  This tension is the tension at the heart of utopianism and its literary children.  “Utopias are always faced with this dilemma as they attempt to move their dream to reality: is their dream compatible with the imposition of their dream: can freedom be achieved through unfreedom, or equality through inequality?” (Sargent 8).  

For that reason, hope in utopian terms is always extremely tenuous and almost always local.  Small communities may solve this problem in post-apocalyptic novels, only by ejecting dissidents or creating rival societies.  The recent novel Divergent by Veronica Roth begins with four such dissident communities that grow up in the shadow of an apocalypse.  Think about some of your favorite dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels and films: how do they address this problem?

When Kellee asked me to consider a post for Teaching Mentor Texts, my first thought was to do a “reading ladder” for readers of these kinds of YA texts into dystopias and post-apocalyptic fiction for adults, some of which even are studied in English classes in college.  The “reading ladder” is the brilliant concept of the awesome Teri Lesesne, our own @professornana. Teri is a professor of Library Science in Sam Houston State University in Texas.  Teri describes reading ladders as a way of carrying readers who enjoy certain kinds of books into texts of greater complexity and challenge.  But it was important for me, at least, to start with why I think we conflate the two kinds of stories so much (and make Kellee wiggle when we do it!)

So, in what follows, let me recommend some novels for those who love these genres and are ready for more!  I have avoided most of the famous, classic novels that fit one of these genres like Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World.  Those are great, but there are so many others!

I’ve divided them—not in dystopian and post-apocalyptic, but in “At Least Some HOPE” and “Distrust” categories.  Caveat lector—let the reader beware!

At Least Some HOPE 

Nation by Terry Pratchett (2008)  
I think this is a YA title, and Pratchett does, too, but I can’t believe it doesn’t get more love from our YA friends.  The apocalypse here is a tsunami that destroys Mau’s island home.  Mau returns from his manhood ritual to find his entire Nation gone.  But survivors from various cultures make it to his island, including a Victorian girl named Daphne.  This novel is amazing paired with Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the despair/distrust in the older novel and holding out of hope in the newer one makes for keen discussions. 

The Dispossessed by UK Le Guin (1974)  
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia
Ursula K. Le Guin is fascinated by utopian ideas, and I could’ve chosen lots of her novels here.  But The Dispossessed has a subtitle, “An Ambiguous Utopia,” so it got the nod.  In Shevek’s universe, dissidents actually moved OFF the PLANET to set up their own civilization.  Shevek is a scientist who wants to understand things about this sister world for himself, not through the cloudy lens of propaganda and corruption.  So he leaves Annares, his world, to return to the world his people left.  Le Guin explores the political philosophy of anarchism in Shevek’s home world.  No apocalypse here, just dueling versions of what it means to create societies from different values.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)  
Woman on the Edge of Time
A feminist utopia or mental illness?  Connie is a Chicana woman of our time who has been institutionalized.  The doctors say she is insane, but she says she can communicate with an idealized future.  Which is it? In some ways, it doesn’t matter, as the reader gets to consider a different set of gendered ways to live, create families, and build communities. 

Forty Signs of Rain and sequels by Kim Stanley Robinson (2004) 
Forty Signs of Rain 
An ecological thriller with a sense of hope, this novel begins the trilogy set in and around present day Washington DC.  Charlie is a political strategist for an up an coming politician who really seems to understand the stakes of the environmental crisis.  His wife is a big shot at the National Science Foundation, and she and her friends are trying to use science to describe and hopefully fix these problems.  Throw in some Buddhist monks from the worlds’ lowest lying country, and let the intrigue and bad weather begin. 


We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)  
Some scholars say this is the first ever dystopian science fiction.  Orwell read it, and very likely, Aldous Huxley did too. Zamyatin was a suppressed writer from Russia, earning the scorn of the Tsar before the Revolution and the Bolsheviks after it.  It’s easy to see why in his novel.  We takes place in the One State, a society that plans and controls every move of its citizenry.  D-503 (the protagonist has no name, only an identifying number) is a rationalist and engineer who fears his increasing irrational dreams and actions.  We was smuggled out of the Soviet Union after its suppression by the first Soviet censorship bureau.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) 
The Handmaid's Tale
After an unexplained apocalypse, the former US is remade into a theocratic state based on the principles of the Old Testament.  The protagonist, now named Offred because she has been handed over to “Fred,” recalls the day she lost her right to use money. Later, she loses her daughter and is re-educated as a “handmaid,” a servant and concubine for Fred and his infertile wife.  A chillingly plausible dystopia of the subjugation of women, The Handmaid’s Tale is often taught in AP classes.   Atwood also has a later set of dystopias, Oryx and Crake and its sequel, In the Year of the Flood.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1996)  
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Although many may know the movie Blade Runner, the novel from which it is based is much sadder. (I can’t read it without crying.)  Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, charged with catching androids from Earth’s colonies who are “passing” as humans. But he’s not really that hard-working.  He’s really just trying to make enough money to buy one of the few real animals left on the badly-compromised Earth.  The novel takes place in the course of one day in Deckard’s life, as Rick chases androids and humans, trying to grapple with what each “species” has become.  If the world becomes “post-human,” what is lost?
WHEW!  That was fun! I know this is TLDR (too long, didn’t read), but that’s what happens when you ask an English prof to the party!  I hope you stayed with me, Dear Reader, or at least scrolled to the bottom for the good stuff.  The thing is, these genres are so durable and long lasting that they invite us to compare all these visions of the world so that we may better see our own.   Thanks, Kellee and Jen for the invite! 

Hopefully the length did not frighten you, Dear Reader, because this post shows why you ask an English prof to come to your book party. 

Also, on March 31st, the last Saturday of the Dystopian vs. Post-Apocalyptic series, we want YOU to share your thoughts.  Jen and I will be hosting a blog hop so that you all can share your thoughts on the topic.  I hope you can join us!!!!! If you can, just schedule your post for that day and then check back here on 3/31/12 to link back and check out other posts. 

See you next week and may the odds forever be in your favor!

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