Posts Tagged ‘dystopia’

I’m a huge fan of the film Snowpiercer. It’s an exciting, action-packed story and a powerful modern fable. That’s also why I thought it would make a terrible TV show.

Snowpiercer is a parable about inequality. Following an environmental cataclysm, humanity has been reduced to the inhabitants of a single massive train, constantly rolling around the world. The inhabitants are strictly divided by class, with the wealthiest few living in spacious carriages at the front, the poorest crowded together in the rear, and a range of other ranks between. Pushed to the limit, a group of the train’s poorest inhabitants set out on a revolutionary journey to overthrow the hierarchy by fighting their way to the front of the train. As messages go, it’s not subtle.

As a film, it works because, in the short space of a couple of hours, you’re carried along by the pace of the story. You don’t pay attention to the things about life on this train that don’t make real-life sense, like how they’re managing to feed everyone. The film’s train works as a symbol, not a coherent reality, and you can brush over that for a two-hour parable. Not, I thought, for a long-form television story.

It turns out that I was wrong. The makers of the TV show have found a way to expand upon the setting of Snowpiercer, by showing us the other side of the fight for control of the train. Instead of portraying the train as a functioning self-contained system, we’re shown that it’s constantly on the brink of collapse, the people in charge struggling to hold things together. It’s like the middle third of Seveneves, where experts are desperately trying to save what’s left of humanity using the dwindling resources of a broken orbital armada. Viewers look at Snowpiercer‘s train-bound society, say “that couldn’t work”, and the characters look back at us and say “we know!”

This changes the nature of the story. The morality of the film was clear and simple – oppression bad, rebellion good. In the show, it’s more complicated. The people holding down the poorer class are doing so because they think it’s necessary to save humanity. I’m not sure that’s a good message to make relatable right now, when we’re seeing real-life authoritarians throwing around justifications for cruel and brutal behaviour. It’s certainly an argument though, and it will be interesting to see where the show takes a more nuanced and complex, but still tense and intriguing, version of its story.

In the age of the YA dystopia, it’s easy to find fiction that looks at what disaster might come our way and how we might survive. What I haven’t seen much of, and one of the things I really enjoyed about Dylan S Hearn‘s Second Chance, is that this book goes beyond that immediate speculation into a world where humanity has survived its own recklessness. Then it takes a step back and asks, what was the cost of that survival?

Mystery and Suspense

Second Chance is a tight, well-placed near future thriller. A young woman has gone missing, vanished despite the near-ubiquity of electronic surveillance. Many people are interested in uncovering, concealing or using the truth about her disappearance. A politician who will automatically lose her seat when her popularity falls. A detective from a private police company. A data cleanser, a type of researcher tasked with identifying and containing information that might harm his employers.

These plausibly cynical takes on modern professions are one of the book’s pleasures. Things are slightly exaggerated, but in an entirely believable way.

The real joy thought lies in the plot. As each of these people follows their own agenda, their motives mixing the selfish and the noble, the plot twist and turns, maintaining a high level of suspense.

Stripped Down Prose

I was initially thrown by the sparseness of Hearn’s storytelling. There’s very little physical description, and so little attribution of dialogue that I occasionally wasn’t sure on first reading who was saying something. This book is concerned with showing the structures of the world and the minds of the characters, not outward trappings and appearance. If you’re looking for something richly descriptive, or need a lot of description to bring an imagined world to life, then this probably isn’t for you.

But once I got used to it, that stripped down prose really worked for me, and for the sort of story being told. It lets the plot flow smoothly and swiftly without needing to simplify intentions or events. And when details came through, especially during the book’s tumultuous final act, they are all the more startling for that.

An Exciting Read

I really enjoyed this book. Reading it alongside the heavy exposition of Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic and the dense intellectual sprawl of Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman, it was great to have something that cracked along at such a pace, that was smart but still easy to read. I’d totally recommend it.

Full disclosure: Dylan and I know each other through our blogs, and he’s written very nice reviews of my books. He sent me a copy of this book to read. I don’t think I’m being biased in my review – if I don’t like something I generally just don’t write about it. But I felt I should be up front about this.

Picture by thierry ehrmann via Flickr creative commons

Picture by thierry ehrmann via Flickr creative commons

Day after day, I’m currently writing science fiction with a grim setting. And I’m enjoying it. I’ve also enjoyed reading and watching quite a lot of science fiction that has that darkness to  it. The harrowing dystopia of the The Hunger Games. The post-apocalyptic teen angst of The 100. Hell, I’m still a fan of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 setting, even though I haven’t played or read anything set in it in years.

It seems almost perverse to take pleasure in such dark futures. After all, this is science fiction, a form designed to show the amazing and wondrous things that the future could hold. So why do we do it to ourselves? Do we find hope in seeing people struggle against the darkness? Do we find failed futures more convincing? Do they act as a warning? Is it just easier to create conflict that way?

It genuinely perplexes me. There are so many potential explanations it’s hard to work out which are relevant, never mind common for those creating and experiencing this sort of fiction. So I’ll ask – do you enjoy dark science fiction, the stuff where bleakness plays a larger part in the setting than hope? And what about it appeals to you?

Among the most fascinating things about books are the people who work with them. Whether they’re writers, collectors, publishers, librarians, or any of the many other people whose lives connect with this wonderful art and the business around it, I’m endlessly intrigued by how people think about books and writing. To explore that further I’m going to be publishing a series of interviews with people who deal with books in different ways – I’ve already lined up a couple of indie authors, a bookseller, a slush pile reader who’s studying the short story market, and a collector of antique editions. If you’d be interested in taking part as an interviewee then please let me know and I’ll get in contact.

Today I’m kicking this off with an interview with Victoria Randall. I discussed Victoria’s novel Get On Board Little Children in a post on science fiction and the population ‘problem’, but today we get to learn a bit more about Victoria and her writing.

After all the preamble, here’s the interview…

Tell us a bit about yourself and your book

I enjoy writing but take long hiatuses between books. My first book, The Witchstone, came out in the seventies; then I got busy raising kids and pursuing a nursing career. My next, The Ring of the Dark Elves, was published in 2003; and the Children in Hiding trilogy from 2013 to 2015. Obviously, look at any library or bookstore and you will see stacks of books, multitudes of them worthy of reading,  many very valuable. We have to pick and choose, so adding dreck to an already about-to-topple pile never appealed to me.

Get On Board Little Children

 Why did you choose the idea of population control as the one to explore?

This idea found me. I read the news frequently, and I noticed that whenever a news story came out about child abuse, many commentators would say “we really ought to require a license to have a baby.”  It’s a reasonable stance.  We need a license to drive a car or motorcycle, get married, start a business, and of course bringing a new human into the world is a much more complex and important project.

The problem is that then you get the government involved, and the notion of punishment. And you might end up with a situation such as in China, which is deplorable. So I thought I would explore what might happen if a license were required here in the US.

 How did you go about developing the idea and working out details?

I’m still working on that, with the third book, City of Hidden Children. I decided to take it in stages: Book One is about the challenges faced by a woman who is pregnant with an unlicensed child. Of course if it were set in China, it would not end well. But in the USA, we still might have possibilities; partly because even in my dystopian future, the dream of America as a land governed by and for the people is still alive in people’s minds. Book Two is about a small child who is seized by the government, and her mother’s struggles to reclaim her. Book Three is about that same child, grown to adolescence, and the struggles she faces in coming to terms with her status as a non-citizen.

How did you go about getting published, and why did you pick that approach?

My first book was published by Pyramid. It was nice; the advance was enough to buy five acres in Oregon to start a homestead. That didn’t work out, but I still have part ownership in “Bird Farm.”

I tried working with an agent to publish subsequent books, but that did not work out. So I published the second book through a POD company. Expensive, and the book cost too much to buy. So now that self publishing through Amazon is available, it seems ideal. Of course you have to market yourself, and I don’t have time to do that, but at least my books are out there. And it’s been fun learning how to create books for myself, both ebooks  and paperbacks on Createspace.

What’s next for you writing-wise?

I’m working on book three, City of Hidden Children. My cover artist, Brandon Graham, suggested that I publish the trilogy as one volume, so I might do that. Brandon is my second son, and he’s a graphic artist, two time Eisner award nominee and the author/illustrator of King City, Multiple Warheads, and the Prophet series.  I’m  pleased that he agreed to create my covers because he’s a very busy guy.

Last question – what have you enjoyed reading recently?

I usually read several books at once. I just finished Syncing Forward, by W. Lawrence, and David Robbins’ The Empty Quarter, both excellent.

On my to-read list is Andrew Knighton’s Riding the Mainspring. [interviewer’s note – look at Victoria’s impeccable taste! or blatant pandering to the interviewer – who can tell?]

Currently I just started Second Chance by Dylan Hearn, which looks very good, and am wading through a splendid 900 page book titled Team of Rivals, the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Abe Lincoln is my hero, and it’s fascinating to read about what he had to face during the Civil War. Did you know that a member of his cabinet was accused of being a “fanatical bigot” because he opposed slavery? And that the Emancipation Proclamation was called “a fatal mistake,” a “radical step,” because it freed the slaves, who were considered less than human?

First, in my books, I try to tell an exciting story. But beyond that, they are about the inestimable value of each person, in the hope that some reader’s heart, somewhere, will be touched to appreciate anew the intrinsic worth of her unborn child.

* * *

Thank you to Victoria for taking the time to be interviewed. I’m totally with her on being a huge Lincoln fan, though I haven’t yet mustered the courage to tackle all 900 pages of Team of Rivals – one of these days. And while I don’t share all of Victoria’s views, it’s always good to see authors using fiction to explore the issues that concern them. You can find out more about Victoria and her books on her webpage – please go have a look around.

When I was growing up science fiction and fantasy TV was a rare and precious thing. My dad, my brother and I would set time aside for any episode of Doctor Who (old school) or Star Trek (repeats and then the thrill of TNG), because that was what there was. Then came the X-files, Babylon 5, Buffy – suddenly there’d be two speculative shows on TV in the same week, maybe even three. A new dawn of nerdery seemed to be upon us!

These days there are so may science fiction and fantasy shows, and so many ways to consume them, that I have to pick and choose. Something like The 100 can be out there for a year before I even hear of it. Fortunately I heard of it three weeks after Channel 4 started showing it, so laid low by a headache one evening I lay back and caught up on the first three episodes.

It was a pleasant surprise.

Wait, it’s not the 4400 sequel?

Like me, you may be disappointed to discover that The 100 isn’t the post-apocalyptic sequel to flawed but intriguing The 4400. Instead, it’s the story of a bunch of teens dropped into an Earth recovering from nuclear war. Will they be the harbingers of humankind’s return? Or will they all die of radiation poisoning, leaving us to watch twenty episodes of trees, glowing butterflies and rotting corpses?

In case you can’t guess, this trailer explains a little bit more.

 

It’s clearly a YA drama, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it’s based on a book.

Did they just do what I think they just did?

If you hate dramas about teens then you’re going to hate this. There’s no escaping that. And if you get annoyed at trend-jumping television then you’ll spend the whole time screaming ‘I read The Hunger Games already!’ Honestly, I don’t even know whether I’m going to stick with this one. It has potential to be awesome, or to descend into Lost-meets-the-Vampire-diaries meandering tedium. I have no idea which way it’s going to jump, and that’s part of why I’m still watching.

This show clearly wants to be seen as Lord of the Flies in space. But its commitment to that wavers. There was a shock moment at the end of the first episode that made me grin darkly and rub my hands together as they committed to the concept’s horrifying potential.

Then the second episode pulled back from all of that. Dammit, I thought, they’ve lost it.

Then came the last five minutes of episode three, and another ‘holy cow’ moment that was particularly surprising from American network television (dammit, it’s hard to discuss this without spoiling it).

Based on what’s happened so far I fear bitter disappointment from episode four. But for now at least I’m going to keep watching. Partly because I’m the kind of guy who wants to see Lord of the Flies in space, but more than that, just to see if this show turns into something darkly brilliant or collapses into a compromised mess.

Either way, I’ll get to witness something terrible.

If you’re in the UK you can catch The 100 on 4OD. If you’re elsewhere in the world and have seen it already, does this thing work out?

Should we ever make our readers pity our characters?

It might seem like a natural way to build empathy and support. But when we pity a character we aren’t just acknowledging their suffering. We’re seeing them as vulnerable, as a victim of others or of circumstances. Pity is about seeing the weakness and suffering of others from our own position of strength.

This is a dangerous thing in writing. If we start to pity a character then we see them as less powerful, less in command of their own destiny. We aren’t seeing their ability to cope, we’re just seeing their suffering and, in a sense, belittling them into the role of victim. Doing that to a protagonist can really undermine them.

Of course it can also add depth and nuance. Look at The Hunger Games. Katniss is a complex character. Feeling pity sometimes plays into that. But it’s part of why she isn’t really a strong role model, for all that she’s a wonderful character. This isn’t someone idealised. It’s someone in trouble and turmoil, unable to take control of their life.

Big damn fashion hero

Big damn fashion hero – not words I ever expected to type

By contrast, Cinna the stylist takes a brave action in Catching Fire that has terrible consequences for him. Should we pity him? Or, given that he’s making a sacrifice for others, should we just admire his nobility, not weakening that with pity? Is there room for both, seeing a strong character laid low by his circumstances, forced to choose between right and safety?

My own thoughts on this are still half formed, inspired by an email from the Raptor but still seeking clarity. So what do you think? Is pity the right response to a character like Cinna? Is it a feeling we can nurture towards characters without undermining them? How is it best used in writing, and can you point out some good examples?

Help me think this one through please internet.