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Dystopias Are Made Of People. - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Dystopias Are Made Of People. [Jul. 19th, 2015|10:34 am]
Marissa Lingen

So some people have read my new story, “It Brought Us All Together,” and even talked about it, which is always great. (Hurray, readers!) One of the things they’ve said is that a few people have described it as dystopian. And I am not opposed to people thinking of it as dystopian, but it doesn’t strike me that way personally, and I was trying to figure out why.

(Note that “fight about exact genre boundaries” is one of the most boring kinds of fight in the world, yes? So what I am doing is descriptive, not prescriptive. I am describing my idea of dystopia to you rather than telling you it should be yours. If you have completely other ideas, fabulous, would love to hear about them. Clear? Okay good.)

For me a dystopia is about human relationships. It can have bad government or bad lack of government, but the dominant relationship between people on average in this society needs to be exploitative, destructive, or otherwise negative. If not, I don’t see it as a dystopia.

This leads to me sounding really hard-core, saying things like, “Oh, sure, it’s about a fungus-ravaged landscape, but I just don’t see that as dystopian.” But I don’t. It’s not about fungal plagues not being bad enough, it’s that they’re on a different axis of bad than dystopic/utopic/non -topic society. I could write a utopia set in a crashed spaceship inside a volcano–if the people in that culture were on average good to each other.* I could write a completely depressing dystopia in a green and pleasant land.** Because the challenges the universe hands you feel different to me than the challenges other people give you gratuitously.

And “gratuitously” is important, because “hey, my family is dying of fungus in their lungs” is an other-people challenge! It really is about dealing with other people. It’s just…dystopia is if the government infected your family with this lung fungus on purpose. Or if an evil corporation controls so much of the world that it can withhold cures for the fungal plague that is ravaging the landscape. The bit where people just flail around and don’t entirely know what they’re doing and some of them are jerks but most of them are at least okayish…that’s not dystopia, for me. That’s life.

*Actually…if half a dozen of you want that, I’ll make a good go at it.

**This one not so much.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


From: dancing_crow
2015-07-19 04:14 pm (UTC)

count me as one of a half dozen?

Because I would really like to see a utopia in a volcano.

So C. J. Cherryh's Union and Alliance books are less dystopian and more Life, using your axes. Also about the corrupting power of power, but.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-19 04:48 pm (UTC)

Re: count me as one of a half dozen?

Yeah, the degree of the corrupting of power matters from book to book, I think.
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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2015-07-19 04:34 pm (UTC)
My working definition of a "utopia" is a work that explores a moral premise by envisioning an entire society that lives by that premise, usually because everyone in the society chooses to do so. Conversely, a dystopia does the same thing for a harmful or destructive moral premise, though often it's one that people are compelled to submit to. If you're not exploring the moral idea, you're writing something else. As you say, the physical setting is irrelevant.

I think that means that we more or less agree on what counts as a dystopia.

Your story set in the volcano actually does sound potentially interesting. The other one just sounds grim and not much fun to read.
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2015-07-19 08:43 pm (UTC)
I'm putting in a good word for Jo Walton's The Just City, which is definitely about exploring a society based on a complex ideal, if not exactly a moral premise.
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2015-07-19 04:41 pm (UTC)
DailySF just published Melody Marie Sage's "The Alchemist's Wife", which is arguably a utopian story set at the end of the world.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-19 04:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks for pointing that out!
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2015-07-19 04:46 pm (UTC)
I think a couple things that may be prompting this reaction are that A) desperate events often motivate or give cover to people's desire to be awful to each other, and thus are correlated with though not necessarily causal re: dystopian behavior, and B) the authoritarian defaults of American schooling often look (or in fact are) dystopian in one or more ways.

There's probably more going on there, but I am not yet awake enough to articulate it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-19 04:49 pm (UTC)
I completely agree with you about people using circumstances as cover for their awful behavior. Sometimes it's awful behavior they've convinced themselves is good and sometimes not, but that's a major source of the correlation, I agree.
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From: aamcnamara
2015-07-20 12:33 am (UTC)
Having been homeschooled and in various loosely organized schooling systems up until high school, "the authoritarian defaults of American schooling often look (or in fact are) dystopian in one or more ways" was staggeringly apparent to me upon entry to a large public high school and it confused me endlessly why nobody else noticed.

See also: one of my pet theories about why dystopias are so popular with young adults (i.e. they live in one).

In other words, yes.
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[User Picture]From: brooksmoses
2015-07-20 05:34 am (UTC)
My high school was designed by an architect who clearly looked at the original Panopticon and thought it was a good idea to emulate (albeit in a single-story version).

The only exterior windows were in the hallway doors, so every so often teachers would send a student out with a hall pass to see what the weather was like outside.

Edited at 2015-07-20 05:38 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-20 11:48 am (UTC)
We had exterior windows in some of the classrooms--not in the part of the school that was adjacent circles, though--but they were very narrow and did not open. One of the ongoing Ralston conversations was exactly which drug the architect had been on.
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From: diatryma
2015-07-22 11:43 am (UTC)
One of the junior highs here is Right, one is Too Small and LEED-lovely, and one is Soviet Bunker with additional This School Is A Maze and The Secretaries Hate Maps. It's horrible. Plus they have some sort of evil climate control that leads to condensation on the desks sometimes. Awful, awful, awful.
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[User Picture]From: dormouse_in_tea
2015-07-19 05:20 pm (UTC)

count me!

I'm VERY gung ho about abandoned societies making good.
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2015-07-19 05:37 pm (UTC)
If I had a walnut shell to gild it would be on its way to you now, because you have put it in there.

I, too, would like the volcano story.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2015-07-19 05:43 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-07-19 06:08 pm (UTC)
I only just now read your story, prompted by your entry, and I feel so grateful. You understand what it's like when you don't react to a tragedy the way people expect you to. Thanks for writing it so well.

And I like your mycological plague.

(And I wouldn't have characterized this as a dystopia at all; like you, I reserve that term for bad governments)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-19 06:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: aedifica
2015-07-20 12:07 am (UTC)
I enjoyed the story, and I had to send Christopher the line "…and extroverts are like house plants, they get all shriveled and sad if you don't talk to them. Water them. Whatever." even though I'm sure he had already seen it. :-)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-20 11:47 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mkille
2015-07-21 03:38 am (UTC)
(Also read the story when you posted the link, also liked it a lot!)

I guess I can't see where the story possibly *could* be a dystopia. It doesn't seem like people's understanding of society and who they are within it has changed at all from the status quo. It would be like calling a story set during the great flu pandemic of 1918 a dystopia, or Dresden during the fire-bombing of World War II. Terrible things are happening, and that understandably changes people's behavior, but their identities haven't broken continuity. (That's actually part of what makes it work as a story in the first place.) It could easily be set during the origins of a dystopian society, but it's not there.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-21 12:53 pm (UTC)
Hrmmm, so....

My personal experience is that the aggregate matters a lot, and you can tip the status quo into a pretty dystopian setting without changing any of the people or their understanding of who they are within it. A story set during the great flu pandemic of 1918 wouldn't be a dystopia automatically--but I wouldn't be surprised if some regions stumbled into dystopia during that crisis, and then back out again. I don't think there has to be a break in identity continuity for that to happen.

Stories can be post-apocalyptic and non-dystopian, but I think the reverse can also happen.
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