Thursday, July 25, 2019


There's a podcast series called Extra Sci-Fi, produced by people who also create podcasts on Extra History and Extra Mythology. All these short (usually around 10 minutes) presentations are entertaining as well as packed with information. Extra Sci-Fi, which has been exploring the history of science fiction, recently completed a sequence about dystopias and apocalypses. This is the first, from which you can follow the subsequent installments:

Extra Sci-Fi

It's interesting to view their survey of dystopian fiction over the decades and witness the changes in what kinds of dystopias and apocalypses resonate with readers as cultural conditions evolve. 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD are very different types of cautionary tales from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, for instance. However, it's worth noting how different 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD are from each other, too. Orwell's novel portrays a society that's horribly oppressive for almost everyone, with the possible exception of Inner Party members (and they're constantly watched, too). The proles seem to lead their lives in an attitude of indifference to the all-pervasive surveillance, but still those lives can't be very satisfying in a society of perpetual economic shortages. In Aldous Huxley's world, on the other hand, life is comfortable and full of pleasure. Transient problems can be easily solved by another dose of soma (a happiness drug with no negative side effects) or a fresh love affair. Everybody enjoys his or her work because they're all conditioned from conception to fit into their destined social and economic slot. The only discontented people seem to be a few of the Alphas with enough intelligence and self-awareness to realize what they're missing in this shallow lifestyle. Since "even Alphas are conditioned," though, most of them accept that it's their duty to behave "childishly" for the greater good. Only from the external viewpoint of the reader, and John the Savage as the reader's representative, does the society of BRAVE NEW WORLD appear dystopian.

Ira Levin, author of ROSEMARY'S BABY, wrote a superficially utopian novel called THIS PERFECT DAY. While not very original, it does have some points of interest. For example, the F-word in its sexual sense is commonplace, but terms referring to violence (such as "kill") are taboo. All citizens enjoy security and happiness as long as they obey the rules. Under the surface, though, this conformist society turns out to be cruelly oppressive. In this kind of world, naturally the hero is the character discontented and curious enough to probe beneath the surface and rebel against the ruling authorities' violations of human rights and dignity.

TV Tropes labels a dystopian society that looks pleasant, cheerful, and generally attractive on the surface a Crapsaccharine World:

Crapsaccharine World

The page includes BRAVE NEW WORLD and THIS PERFECT DAY as examples.

This topic came to mind for me while watching the third season of THE HANDMAID'S TALE. Like Margaret Atwood's novel, the TV series portrays the Republic of Gilead as a society that's oppressive and unpleasant for almost everyone except those who manage to reach accommodations with the roles they're forced into. Perhaps the children growing up in Gilead, if its regime lasts that long, will simply accept those roles as "normal." In the series, as opposed to the book (except in the epilogue set long after the fall of Gilead), we at least get some relief from horrors by way of the scenes set in Canada. The only people likely to be content in Gilead, the Commanders with their privileges, power, and material luxuries, still have to face competition from their peers, so they may not enjoy complete happiness either. Junior Commanders and the Guardians, one assumes, have to watch their backs all the time. The Wives, although pampered, lead very circumscribed lives, endure the monthly humiliation of the Ceremony (embracing a Handmaid while the Wife's husband ritually rapes her), and have no real power aside from their potential influence over their husbands. Presumably a Wife who becomes a mother (through the surrogate maternity of a Handmaid) may find fulfillment in her child. As for the common people, married couples have to face the lurking danger that an econo-wife who proves fertile may be forced to become a Handmaid. Then there's the threat of execution or a slow death in the Colonies as punishment for transgressions. The only women with any actual power seem to be the Aunts, who exercise control over the Handmaids and perform the vital function of midwifery.

Pioneering behaviorist B. F. Skinner wrote a book provocatively titled BEYOND FREEDOM AND DIGNITY. A society such as Huxley's in BRAVE NEW WORLD offers and generally provides happiness for all, except for the very few who still care about freedom and dignity. The world of THIS PERFECT DAY and Crapsaccharine Worlds in general seem to offer that promise of happiness, which works as long as nobody probes too deeply. Then we have the downright horrible dystopias such as 1984, THE HUNGER GAMES, and THE HANDMAID'S TALE, dooming all but the privileged few to a miserable existence. Maybe the underlying theme of all types of dystopian SF is that warped societies, including those that look pleasant on the surface, aren't good for anyone, even the apparently privileged elites.

Of course, as Cory Doctorow says in his blog on "fake news" (which I linked to recently), that kind of fiction doesn't give us predictions, but rather warnings: "If this goes on. . . . "

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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