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?