Dystopian fiction predates the First World War, but the 1914-18 cataclysm gave it a huge boost. Modern industrial society had unleashed its own deadly technology on itself in a way scarcely anyone had believed possible, killing millions and brutalizing millions more. (Scarcely anyone: HG Wells in his 1913 novel The World Set Free writes of an atomic war and its aftermath.) The rise of unabashedly authoritarian regimes around the world in the years following the war did nothing to assuage fears. Future dystopias seemed much more ominously credible than they had before August 1914. Books and film have been rife with them ever since.
Typically a dystopic tale takes the perspective of a fairly ordinary person (albeit sometimes an offspring of someone important) who becomes a rebel more by happenstance than intent. He or she then struggles against the power structure until final victory or defeat, according to the whim of the author: Metropolis, Brave New World, 1984, etc. A rash of recent entries is aimed specifically at young adults: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and so on.
In an article in The Guardian, Ewan Morrison complained that these recent entries are libertarian propaganda. There is something to this, whether or not it is intended by the authors (I doubt it), and whether or not one shares Ewan’s objections to it (I don’t). An example of what he means is the brutal suppression of the Black Market in District 12 by the thugs from the capital in The Hunger Games; the illegal free market had helped make the lives of the residents bearable, which puts free markets in a sympathetic light. Arguably this subtext is almost inevitable: rebellion can be only against authority. Nonetheless, a few authors have managed to escape it by narrowing their ideological targets. Margaret Atwood did this in her 1985 A Handmaid’s Tale, which was made into a movie in 1990 that received very mixed reviews.
Written at a time when the Moral Majority was making a lot of noise, A Handmaid’s Tale envisions a future in which the US is under the boot of a radical and murderous Christian theocracy that makes the Taliban look sweet, gentle, and moderate. Due to the effects of pollution in the “Republic of Gilead,” most women are sterile. Those who are not are held in sexual slavery; a “handmaid” is a surrogate breeder for a bigwig’s sterile wife. Reviews of both book and movie, as one might imagine, tend to track the religious politics of the reviewer. Regardless of how one feels about the message, though, Atwood crafts a good tale with well-honed English that is a pleasure to read. She shows an easy familiarity with Western classical culture that is increasingly uncommon among the presumably educated.
There is another attraction to dystopian fiction besides unease about the general future of the world. There is unease about the future of our individual selves. Dystopian novels can be metaphors for this. Ultimately, we all face aging and death; it is hard to get more dystopian than that. Atwood also dealt with this directly in her most recent collection of stories, Stone Mattress. My experience with her earlier work prompted me to read it over the past few days.
At 75, Margaret is more reflective than ever about mortality. In the nine tales of Stone Mattress, many of her characters are in the last decade of their lives (barring major actuarial anomalies). They face not just current day to day challenges but the unresolved issues of their past, which are resurfacing precisely because the time to resolve them has or soon will run out. In the first story Constance is a frail white-haired author of a popular fantasy series called Alphinland. Constance faces a hero’s journey: a harrowing nighttime walk to the corner store and back in snow and ice during a power outage. She has mental conversations with her deceased husband and complicated lingering feelings about Gavin, the love of her youth. Gavin was a self-involved poet who carelessly cheated on her with a young woman named Marjorie. Gavin and Marjorie, unknown to either, exist in Alphinland; Constance trapped them respectively in a wine cask and a beehive. In the next two tales Gavin and then Marjorie are the primary characters, both also aged and reflective. Other tales vary in style. There is one about a girl with a genetic disorder that turns her into a vampire-like monster. The eponymous tale is of a woman’s late but just (if not legal) revenge. In the final tale “Torching the Dusties,” Wilma in her retirement community is beset not only by imaginary little people but by an all too real violent youth group called Our Turn whose members are furious at the outsized consumption of scarce resources by the old.
Once again, Atwood’s work is superbly written and wonderfully atmospheric. Stone Mattress may not make you feel better about your future, but it will make the present more enjoyable. That counts for something.
Margaret on the beginning of the lane: the influence of childhood fairy tales: