Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Dystopia

dystopia, novels of--narratives in which the ills of society are exaggerated for thematic effect; cautionary tales demonstrating social, moral, economic, sexual, and religious agendas allowed to run wild.

In the story-telling sense, utopias--stories of perfection and accord--are not really stories because they lack the major dramatic ingredient of conflict. Thus grace is boring, the fall from grace and its consequences a magnet for interest. If everyone gets along, is his brother's keeper, does not covet, etc, the reader will have little reason to continue because, redemption being precluded, there is no big finale to anticipate. If, however, a protagonist, say Ray Bradbury's Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451, has a gut feeling that there is something wrong about what he is doing, the reader begins to see the inevitability of Montag going up against something quite larger than himself, forced to deal with it.

Seen as a paradigm of a dystopia that cautioned against the consequences of war, The Iliad's most seemly character is Hector. His tragic fate elevates him to a role model for the conflicted protagonist. It was a dumb war to begin with, started when Hector's brother, Paris, made off with his prize from having judged a beauty contest. Hector's wife, Andromache, pleads with him to abandon the war they will surely lose, reminding him that were things to continue, she'd probably be taken as a prize of war and their son, Astyanax, would be killed. As devoted to his wife and son as Hector is, even though he agrees with her assessment, he knows he could not face life, even a life in exile, were he to turn from battle. Nor is Hector naive or insensitive. He well foresees the consequences, but feels obliged to continue, nevertheless.

The backstory conditions of the dystopia--See Brave New World, Logan's Run,1984, The Handmaid's Tale--is the unthinkable come to pass. The present-time narrative of the dystopia sets a protagonist with whom the reader can identify in motion to cope with it.

In its own idiosyncratic and memorable ways, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is welcomed company in the genre of dystopic fiction, offering forth its modern-day Hector in the form of the bombardier Yossarian. For all her bombast and philosophical sturm und drang, Ayn Rand easily is awarded membership in the Dystopia Society, primarily with Atlas Shrugged and its driven protagonist, Dagny Taggart, but not to forget Howard Roark of The Fountainhead. And not to forget the preternaturally bright Alex, protagonist of Anthony Burgess's enduring dystopia, Clockwork Orange.

Hints: There are seeds of dystopia in every satire, just as there are seeds of satire in every dystopia. If you were to look closely at Tess of the Durbervilles, Jude, the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge, you could find cause to think of Hardy as a writer of dystopian fiction. Hardy (1840-1928) was a close contemporary of another dabbler in the dystopic, Mark Twain (1835-1910).The 1950-90 science fiction era is larded with dystopic visions, one of many reasons why that genre became literature.

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