There’s a particular sci-fi/fantasy subgenre to which I’ve always been partial: dystopia. Writers of all shades have been understandably fascinated by it, from George Orwell and Aldous Huxley to Isobelle Carmody and Joss Whedon. There’s a dreadful allure to the idea of society reaching¬†its technological peak, dissolving into cataclysm and then rebuilding from fragments, or else morphing into some non-functional travesty as the ultimate consequence of current politics. Dystopia is a potent combination of our most powerful fears and hopes: fear, that we will destroy utterly what is safe and familiar, and hope, that we might yet survive the experience. It evokes a deeply satisfying narrative cynicism, wherein the reader can sit back and feel utterly validated in their belief that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, because that’s what humanity does, as well as providing fertile ground for in-jokes, like future archaeologists confusing the jukebox and the iPod.

Still, there are different kinds of dystopia.¬†Forced to choose between the¬†societies of¬†Nineteen Eighty-Four¬†and Brave New World, the latter is unequivocally preferable: it’s certainly warped, but compared to the inescapable brutality of Orwell’s London, Huxley’s alternative of sex, clones and soma looks like a candyland. In books like Scatterlings and¬†Obernewtyn, Isobelle Carmody’s dystopia hinges on a struggling, semi-agrarian, post-nuclear holocaust world, where technology is elevated to¬†the¬†level of magic (and where actual magic makes an appearance, too).¬†Unsurprisingly, the most popular dystopia is also the kindest, stretching to the borderlands of straight sci-fi. To¬†paraphrase Joss Whedon’s summary¬†of his comic, Fray, this version of the future is much like everyone else’s: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and there’s flying cars. These four variations more or less encapsulate¬†the different subgenres of dystopia:¬†political warning (Orwell),¬† what if (Huxley), neo-feudalism (Carmody) and same-but-worse (Whedon). Creatively and imaginatively, it’s the latter two which hold the most sway; and¬†with examples like¬†The Fifth Element and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, it’s easy to see why.¬†

Because for all it hinges on distruction, dystopia can be devilishly joyful. We savour it,¬†not sadistically, but because¬†it represents the ultimate¬†escapism: seeing the rules and restrictions¬†of our own society wrecked, inverted and¬†removed. Just as children fantasise about blowing up their school, adults fantasise about society¬†crumbling –¬†not¬†out of anger or a desire to hurt, but simply because they, like their younger counterparts,¬†don’t always want to attend. On this base level, dystopia is the glee of¬†impractical opportunism: without actually having to live through a cataclysm, we thrill to imagine what role¬†we’ll take in the new order of things, or¬†wonder how¬†that order might arise. Although the characters struggle, the audience doesn’t: instead, we live vicariously through survivors of a world which would most likely break us.

We’re funny like that.

Since Huxley’s novel, brave new world has become synonymous with an ironic, stunted dystopia, drained of hope: we hear the phrase, and any laughter is mocking. But Huxley was¬†quoting Shakespeare, as his book makes clear: Miranda’s lines from The Tempest. A naive girl raised on an unknown island, Miranda has never encountered¬†villany or vice; and when¬†finally confronted with the prospect of other people – schemers, drunkards, sages and¬†politicians all –¬†she is overjoyed.¬† ‘Oh, brave new world/that has such people in’t!’¬† Here, then, is the ultimate source of Huxley’s cynical title, and a perfect metaphor for dystopia:¬†beautiful youth¬†embracing a more treacherous future than it can possibly realise.

Which is why, in another dystopian in-joke, the Reaver-world in Joss Whedon’s film Serenity is called Miranda. Meta-cathartic, ne?

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