The link below is to an article that takes a look at writing Dystopian novels during Dystopian times.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that takes a look at writing Dystopian novels during Dystopian times.
For more visit:
COVID-19 is changing the way we live. Panic buying, goods shortages, lockdown – these are new experiences for most of us. But it’s standard fare for the protagonists of young adult (YA) post-disaster novels.
In Davina Bell’s latest book, The End of the World Is Bigger than Love (2020), a global pandemic, cyberterrorism and climate change are interrelated disasters that have destroyed the world as we know it.
Like most post-disaster novels, the book is more concerned with how we survive rather than understanding the causes of disaster. As such, we can read it to explore our fears, human responses to disaster and our capacity to adapt.
Kelly Devos’s Day Zero (2019), and the soon to be released Day One (2020), use cyberterrorism as the disaster. Like Bell’s novel, Day Zero focuses more on how the protagonist, Jinx, maintains her humanity when she must harm or kill others in order to keep herself and her siblings alive.
A form of speculative fiction, YA post-disaster writing imaginatively explores causes and responses to apocalyptic disasters. (Some readers categorise YA juggernaut The Hunger Games – and the recently released prequel – as dystopian rather than post-disaster – others think it’s both.)
Many YA novels in this genre explore issues of survival and humanity following a catastrophe. In YA post-disaster novels, teenage protagonists must learn to exist in a fractured world with little support from elders.
When they are explained, the fictional causes of catastrophe can illustrate social concerns of times they were written in. Because of this, YA post-disaster books allow us to reflect on our current beliefs, attitudes and fears.
Davos’s Day Zero can be read as commenting on contemporary concerns about cyberterrorism and political corruption. Bell’s The End of the World Is Bigger than Love expresses similar anxieties, but is also prescient given the current pandemic.
War is the cause of disaster in Glenda Millard’s A Small Free Kiss in the Dark (2009) and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series. While Millard’s novel raises questions about homelessness, Marsden’s series expresses an anxiety about invasion from Asia. The author has expressed regret about this aspect of the books since their publication.
A latent xenophobia is also present in Claire Zorn’s, The Sky So Heavy (2013), in part because the nuclear disasters are attributed to “regions in the north of Asia”. Passive ideologies of racism that pervade some YA post-disaster novels are problematic, as are other underlying ideals that promote any form of discrimination.
Literary texts that reinforce fear about Asia, particularly China, are especially problematic in the context of coronavirus, which reportedly saw an increase in racist attacks.
Panic buying and the stockpiling of goods during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak established an “us against them” dichotomy in our “struggle to survive”, reminiscent of YA post-disaster fiction.
Not everyone hoarded food and items for themselves though. Others showed compassion, donating toilet paper and food to those in need. Because of this, we were confronted with questions about how we want to survive.
YA post-disaster novels allow us to explore similar questions of humanity. In these fictional worlds, teenage characters are faced with moral dilemmas about who to help and who to harm. How does someone look out for themselves while still expressing empathy and consideration for others? How can characters maintain their humanity if their survival means another’s suffering or death?
Tied up with the question about how we survive, then, is who survives. The protagonist, Jinx, in Day Zero is continually faced with this dilemma. As she flees the corrupt government, Jinx must decide who to help, and how.
While Jinx readily uses violence to overcome her aggressors, she eventually must shoot to kill to save her stepsister. Doing so, Jinx loses a part of herself and becomes “something else”; she must now reconcile her actions with her sense of self.
It’s not so far from the choices medical professionals in Italy, the United States and elsewhere have had to make about who to treat due to limited ventilators and a rapid influx of patients.
No matter the cause of catastrophe, the literary exploration of questions of survival provides opportunities for teenagers, parents and teachers to discuss a range of contemporary issues, including humane responses to disaster.
Given the current crisis we are in, perhaps it is time to critically read more YA post-disaster novels. If they hold up a mirror to our current attitudes and behaviours, they can help us reflect on our humanity, and on what and who we think matters.
Dystopian fiction seems so alluring during the coronavirus pandemic. As we eagerly await a return to normalcy, many say we can aspire to do better — whether we are talking about wealth distribution or global warming. What dystopian fiction does especially well is to show how we can do more than simply repeat.
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel of the same title (2011), is a case in point. Set in 2045 in the city of Columbus, Ohio, it speaks of a world that has weathered corn syrup droughts and bandit riots.
People have now resorted to outliving rather than fixing the world’s problems. Accordingly, a virtual reality game known as the OASIS has become a refuge for many, including the central protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan).
Small wonder that the OASIS is so appealing. Within its walls, Spielberg pays homage to many aspects of popular culture. The video game Minecraft (2009) is a possible setting, and throughout the film, viewers watch Chucky, the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla in battle.
Entire plot sequences incorporate existing popular characters, music and stories. In a nod to Superman, Watts dons Clark Kent glasses to conceal his identity. And in a sequence worthy of the film’s 2019 Academy Award nomination for Achievement in Visual Effects, Watts and his romantic interest Samantha Cook (Olivia Cooke) dance to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” (1977).
The central conflict in Ready Player One arises when James Halliday (Mark Rylance), one of the OASIS’s creators, dies and leaves behind a seemingly impossible quest. The prize is his extensive fortune and total control over the OASIS. Watts’ competitors include the Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a loyalty centre that seeks to take over the OASIS.
The IOI is shown to be exploitative. Samantha’s father, we learn, borrowed gaming gear, built up debt and moved into the IOI in hopes to repay it, only to fall ill and die. Samantha stands to follow his example and her debt has already exceeded 23,000 credits.
What distinguishes the film — and its source material — is its exploration of how we negotiate with a social order rife with inequalities. This theme is particularly timely: COVID-19 has made apparent, for instance, the links between inequality and public health.
In the novel, the IOI’s corporate police arrest Wade, and he is marshalled out of his apartment complex and into a transport truck. As the vehicle moves, he peers out of its window and absorbs the changes that have befallen the world:
“A thick film of neglect still covered everything in sight …. The number of homeless people seemed to have increased drastically. Tents and cardboard shelters lined the streets, and the public parks I saw seemed to have been converted into refugee camps.”
The key term here is neglect. Wade is not alone in having forsaken the world. The virtual universe of the OASIS may have provided a convenient refuge. But choosing to escape the world’s realities has contributed to a dramatic rise in social and economic inequalities.
Both Cline’s novel and Spielberg’s film trace Watts’ growth into a better global citizen and his reconnection to the real world, so that his triumph can entail more than the regeneration of a flawed system. Spielberg expands on the novel by exploring what Watts does with his new-found wealth and power.
Watts shares his gains with his friends and together they take constructive steps towards improving both the OASIS and the wider world: they employ Halliday’s friend Ogden (Simon Pegg) as a non-exclusive consultant. They also ban loyalty centres from accessing the OASIS and switch off the virtual world on Tuesdays and Thursdays to encourage people to spend more time in the real world.
All of these actions seem commendable and they reveal how different Watts and his friends are to Halliday. Yet the film also exposes paradoxes inherent in fixing a broken system with its very tools.
In a recent article on the novel that I wrote with James Munday, a mathematics and statistics undergraduate student, we argue that any major change Wade makes to the OASIS, such as closing it for extended periods, demands that he and his fellow shareholders take on a substantial loss: their power is contingent upon the OASIS after all. But Wade seeks a more selfless and heroic win: creating a system that answers the needs of the many.
What Spielberg does especially well is to show the importance of imagining the world in new ways — and the temptation and problems with rebuilding a broken one in its own image.
In this, Spielberg harks back to a long genealogy of dystopian fiction, a genre invested in world building. The problems that Watts faces are anticipated, for instance, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), where we find an exploitative social system replaced by one even more so because it is more efficient.
Recently, Gregory Claeys provided us with an interdisciplinary map of the genre in his illuminating study Dystopia: A Natural History. In a short essay, he draws connections between the fears that we feel in these times of uncertainty to the genre’s central concerns.
As we collectively meditate on the world’s problems, why not imagine better worlds?
Masked people standing six feet apart. Empty shelves in the supermarket. No children in sight outside the school during recess.
The social upheaval caused by COVID-19 evokes many popular dystopian or post-apocalyptic books and movies. Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 crisis has sent many people rushing to fiction about contagious diseases. Books and movies about pandemics have spiked in popularity over the past few weeks: stuck at home self-isolating, many people are picking up novels such as Stephen King’s The Stand or streaming movies such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.
Yet no one seems to fully agree on why reading books or watching movies about apocalyptic pandemics feels appealing during a real crisis with an actual contagious disease. Some readers claim that contagion fiction provides comfort, but others argue the opposite. Still more aren’t totally sure why they these narratives feel so compelling. Regardless, stories about pandemics call to them all the same.
So what, exactly, does pandemic fiction offer readers? My doctoral research on contagious disease in literature, a project that has required me to draw from both literary studies and health humanities, has taught me that a contagious disease is always both a medical and a narrative event.
Pandemics scare us partly because they transform other, less concrete, fears about globalization, cultural change, and community identity into tangible threats. Representations of contagious diseases allow authors and readers the opportunity to explore the non-medical dimensions of the fears associated with contagious disease.
Pandemic fiction does not offer readers a prophetic look into the future, regardless of what some may think. Instead, narratives about contagious disease hold up a mirror to our deepest, most inchoate fears about our present moment and explore different possible responses to those fears.
One novel that has grown in popularity over the past few weeks is been Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Mandel’s novel follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors touring a post-apocalyptic landscape in a North America decimated by contagious disease.
Mandel’s novel serves as a test case for understanding the cultural response to COVID-19. The current pandemic sharpens fears about the relative instability of our communities (along with posing an immediate threat to our health, of course).
Coverage of Station Eleven claims that the text is uniquely relevant to the COVID-19 situation. This response treats Mandel’s novel as through it predicts what will happen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Some news outlets even call the novel a “model for how we could respond” to an apocalyptic pandemic.
This is not the case. Station Eleven draws from apocalyptic literature, a narrative form that tells us more about the present than the future. Mandel herself has called Station Eleven more “a love letter to the world we find ourselves in” than a handbook for a post-apocalyptic future Indeed, Mandel herself publicly suggested that her novel is not ideal reading material for the present moment.
In fact, Station Eleven spends almost no time focused on the actual epidemic. The vast majority of the novel takes place before and after the outbreak. The medical details of the disease are less important than the rhetorical impact of the destructive virus.
Those fears in Station Eleven coalesce in scenes where communities must shift how they understand their relationship to one another. Characters stranded in an airport hangar, for example, must work together to build a new society that accommodates their shared traumatic experience. The pandemic in Mandel’s novel dramatically emphasizes to the characters not how to respond to a virus but, instead, how powerfully interconnected they truly are — the same thing COVID-19 is doing to us right now. Part of what pandemic fiction illuminates is how fears of invasion and the perceived threat of outsiders can diminish our humanity.
A virus crosses the boundary of your body, invading your very cells and changing your body on an incredibly intimate level.
It is unsurprising, then, that scholars see a strong relationship between contagious diseases and community identity. As anthropologist Priscilla Wald puts it, contagious disease “articulates community.” Pandemics emphasize how our individual bodies are connected to our collective body.
In Station Eleven, the villain — a cult leader prophet — continually denies his fundamental connection to those around him. He claims that he and his followers survived the epidemic because of their divine goodness and not because of luck. As a result, he engages in violent, abusive behaviours intended to quash the fear associated with interdependence — a common response to this fear.
The prophet in Station Eleven does not survive the novel; the surviving characters are the ones who accept that they cannot extricate themselves from connection to other people.
Contagious diseases — both in fiction and in real life — remind us that the social and cultural boundaries we use to structure society are fragile and porous, not stable and impermeable.
Although these works of literature cannot prophecize an imminent post-apocalyptic future, they can speak to our present.
So if reading a book about a pandemic appeals to you, go for it — but don’t use it as an instructional manual for an outbreak. Instead, that work of fiction can help you better understand and manage how the virus amplifies complex, diverse and multi-faceted fears about change in our communities and our world.
We are headed towards a future that is hard to contemplate. At present, global emissions are reaching record levels, the past four years have been the four hottest on record, coral reefs are dying, sea levels are rising and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Climate change is the defining issue of our time and now is the moment to do something about it. But what?
Society often looks to culture to try and make some sense of the world’s problems. Climate change challenges us to look ahead, past our own lives, to consider how the future might look for generations to come – and our part in this. This responsibility requires imagination.
So, it is no surprise that a literary phenomenon has grown over the past decade or two which seeks to help us imagine the impacts of climate change in clear language. This literary trend – generally known by the name “cli-fi” – has now been established as a distinctive form of science fiction, with a host of works produced from authors such as Margaret Atwood and Paolo Bacigalupi to a series of Amazon shorts.
Often these stories deal with climate science and seek to engage the reader in a way that the statistics of scientists cannot. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012), for example, creates emotional resonance with the reader through a novel about the effects of global warming on the monarch butterflies, set amid familiar family tensions. Lauren Groff’s short story collection Florida (2018) also brings climate change together with the personal set amid storms, snakes and sinkholes.
Cli-fi is probably better known for those novels that are set in the future, depicting a world where advanced climate change has wreaked irreversible damage upon our planet. They conjure up terrible futures: drowned cities, uncontainable diseases, burning worlds – all scenarios scientists have long tried to warn us about. These imagined worlds tend to be dystopian, serving as a warning to readers: look at what might happen if we don’t act now.
Atwood’s dystopian trilogy of MaddAddam books, for example, imagines post-apocalyptic futurist scenarios where a toxic combination of narcissism and technology have led to our great undoing. In Oryx and Crake (2003), the protagonist is left contemplating a devastated world in which he struggles to survive as potentially the last human left on earth. Set in a world ravaged by sea level rise and tornadoes, Atwood revisits the character’s previous life to examine the greedy capitalist world fuelled by genetic modification that led to this apocalyptic moment.
Other dystopian cli-fi works include Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015), and the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004), both of which feature sudden global weather changes which plunge the planet into chaos.
Dystopian fiction certainly serves a purpose as a bleak reminder not to act lightly in the face of environmental disaster, often highlighting how climate change could in fact compound disparities across race and class further. Take Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (2015), a story of environmental disaster with a focus on gender and race relations – “illegal” Haitian refugees are bulldozed on the spot. A. Sayeeda Clarke’s short film White (2011), meanwhile, tells the story of one black man’s desperate search for money in a world where global warming has turned race into a commodity and circumstances lead him to donate his melanin.
It is this primacy of the imagination that makes fictional dealings with climate change so valuable. Cli-fi author Nathaniel Rich, who wrote Odds Against Tomorrow (2013) – a novel in which a gifted mathematician is hired to predict worst-case environmental scenarios – has said:
I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality, which is that we’re headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it’s the novelist’s job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?
As the UN 2019 Climate Action Summit attempts to bring the 2015 Paris Agreement up to speed, we need fiction that not only offers us new ways to look forward, but which also renders the inequalities of climate change explicit. It is also key that culturally we at least try to imagine a fairer world for all, rather than only visions of doom.
When now is the time that we need to act, the rarer utopian form of cli-fi is perhaps more useful. These works imagine future worlds where humanity has responded to climate change in a more timely and resourceful manner. They conjure up futures where human and non-human lives have been adapted, where ways of living have been reimagined in the face of environmental disaster. Scientists, and policy makers – and indeed the public – can look to these works as a source of hope and inspiration.
Utopian novels implore us to use our human ingenuity to adapt to troubled times. Kim Stanley Robinson is a very good example of this type of thinking. His works were inspired by Ursula Le Guin, in particular her novel The Dispossessed (1974), which led the way for the utopian novel form. It depicts a planet with a vision of universal access to food, shelter and community as well as gender and racial equality, despite being set on a parched desert moon.
Robinson’s utopian Science in the Capital trilogy centres on transformative politics and imagines a shift in the behaviour of human society as a solution to the climate crisis. His later novel New York 2140 (2017), set in a partly submerged New York which has successfully adapted to climate change, imagines solutions to more recent climate change concerns. This is a future that is mapped out in painstaking detail, from reimagined subways to mortgages for submarines, and we are encouraged to see how new communities could rise against capitalism.
This is inspirational – and useful – but it is also is crucial that utopian cli-fi novels make it clear that for every utopian vision an alternative dystopia could be just around the corner. (It’s worth remembering that in Le Guin’s foundational utopian novel The Dispossessed, the moon’s society have escaped from a dystopian planet.) This is a key flaw in the case of Robinson’s vision, which fails to feature the wars, famines and disasters outside of his new “Super Venice”: the main focus of the book is on the advances of western technology and economics.
Forward-thinking cli-fi, then, needs to imagine sustainable futures while recognising the disparities of climate change and honouring the struggles of the most vulnerable human and non-humans. Imagining positive futures is key – but a race where no one is left behind should be at the centre of the story we aspire to.
This article is part of The Covering Climate Now series
This is a concerted effort among news organisations to put the climate crisis at the forefront of our coverage. This article is published under a Creative Commons license and can be reproduced for free – just hit the “Republish this article” button on the page to copy the full HTML coding. The Conversation also runs Imagine, a newsletter in which academics explore how the world can rise to the challenge of climate change. Sign up here.
In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.
A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, some see this administration as the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Trump’s apparent disrespect for truth is suspiciously similar to the manipulation of history in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. The crass, three-ring-circus texture of the current crowd in Washington recalls the degraded America depicted in Mike Judge’s 2006 cinematic farce Idiocracy. However, the English writer Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic Brave New World might provide the best dystopian gloss on our contemporary predicament.
Like most good dystopian fiction, Brave New World is not a prediction but rather a diagnosis of dangerous tendencies in Huxley’s present. One of the most striking elements of Huxley’s vision of the future involves factories in which infants are designed to perform specific social functions.
These Stepford babies are later conditioned through standardised educational practices. This motif is not primarily a cautionary tale about the potential abuse of genetic engineering. Rather, it is a commentary on existing class inequalities and the use of education to reinforce social obedience. It exemplifies the fundamental tendency of capitalism to convert humans into commodities, interchangeable and bereft of genuine individualism.
Certain aspects of Huxley’s dystopian society strikingly resemble our current situation. A lack of respect for history, a population conditioned to consume goods at breakneck pace, a tendency toward globalisation, and the pacification of individuals via an entertainment culture curated to squelch any inchoate rumblings of critical thought: all of these are hallmarks of Huxley’s and our worlds.
Born in Surrey, England, in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was a member of one of England’s most illustrious intellectual families. He also went on to become one of the most important English writers of the 20th century, though he was also important as a social and philosophical commentator — and spent the last 26 years of his life living in the United States.
His brother, Julian, was a prominent biologist knighted by the queen. Aldous and Julian were the grandsons of well-known naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley, a leading 19th-century advocate for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Aldous himself considered a career in biology or medicine, though he eventually turned to literature instead.
By the time Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, he was well established as a British novelist; works such as Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), and Point Counter Point (1928) arguably made him the most important English novelist of the 1920s, while also prefiguring Brave New World in important ways with their satirical treatment of British society.
A trip to the US shortly before the writing of Brave New World also contributed to Huxley’s formulation of his thoughts for the novel. (He moved there in 1937, where he would write more dystopian and utopian novels such as Ape and Essence (1948), Brave New World Revisited (1958) and Island (1962).)
In Brave New World, Huxley’s World State has arisen in the wake of a global war that nearly destroyed humanity. Its policies are officially driven by a desire to prevent a recurrence of this war at all costs. Stability and placidity in every aspect of life are of paramount concern. The public is protected from anything that might upset them and rock the social boat. However, the underlying goal is to ensure the smooth operation of the consumer capitalist economy and to remove any historical reminders that things might be other than they are.
Huxley presents us with the basic characteristics of his dystopian society through a loosely constructed narrative told largely from the point of view of Bernard Marx. An “alpha” who has been engineered and conditioned to be among the society’s intellectual elite, Bernard finds that his own individualist tendencies make him unable to function comfortably in this conformist society.
We are also introduced to Mustapha Mond, a “world controller” who attempts to explain to Bernard the rationale for the State’s policies, including its rejection of literature and history as sources of wisdom.
Also important to the narrative is “John the Savage.” Born biologically on a “Savage Reservation” and brought up reading the works of Shakespeare, John grows to adulthood outside the controls of the World State. He is eventually brought to London, where he finds himself so unable to fit in that he is driven to suicide.
The lack of respect for history in Huxley’s world is encapsulated in the slogan “history is bunk”. The phrase is but one of many slogan-like modules of prepackaged “wisdom” that pass for public discourse. This particular phrase is attributed in the novel to Henry Ford – the central cultural hero of the society – who was at the height of his influence at the time Brave New World was written. A true forerunner of Donald Trump (but a much better businessman), Ford is an honoured icon of American capitalism even today. Yet, he was also an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a philistine with no respect for culture.
It should thus come as no surprise that the devaluation of genuine understanding in Huxley’s imagined world includes the suppression of most of the great works of world literature. This is ostensibly done because they might trigger strong emotions. The true reason is that such works are not easily reduced to consumer commodities.
The World State is the ultimate consumer society, even if it cannot match the marketing sophistication of today’s global capitalism. Designed along “Fordist” lines, this society is devoted to economic efficiency, but only in the narrow consumerist sense of boosting sales.
Not only are individuals treated like commodities, but they live in a world that is saturated with the ethos of marketing. They are constantly bombarded by jingle-like slogans that encourage as much consumption as possible. Individuals are urged to replace rather than repair, because “ending is better than mending”.
Huxley’s vision of a World State underestimates the staying power of nationalist rhetoric, of which Trump’s “America First” agenda is but one example. Yet, amid the mad scramble to exploit all potential sources of cheap labour, we have established trade networks that extend into all the nooks and crannies of the global market.
These networks involve individuals and institutions from a wide variety of cultures. When combined with the current trend toward the globalisation of world culture, these networks are so effective that a World State seems redundant, if only in terms of capitalist business practices.
Culture is key to the functioning of Huxley’s entertainment-oriented society. The populace is numbed by happy-making drugs that have “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”.
Huxley’s future humans are fed a nonstop dose of popular culture. Designed to amuse and stupefy, this breed of pop culture neither challenges nor inspires. Content is delivered via high-tech mechanisms which foreshadow our own world wide web. Artefacts such as virtual reality “feelies” (echoing the then-new “talkies”) seem highly familiar to a modern audience. As does their effect on the general population.
In Huxley’s world, even human relationships have been made an arm of pop culture. Sexual promiscuity is encouraged and emotional attachments forbidden. Relations between the sexes are just another form of entertainment. Sexual reproduction has become obsolete. Motherhood is an unthinkable obscenity and the parent-child bond has been eliminated. These details differ from Donald Trump’s recent proposed changes to abortion regulations, but they are equally misogynistic.
Frighteningly, although the characteristics of Trump’s America differ from the World State, the differences almost all make 21st-century America seem worse than Huxley’s nightmare consumerist world, from racial hatred to a looming climate crisis.
We are not just in danger of achieving a Huxleyesque dystopia. We are in danger of blowing past it to something Huxley couldn’t possibly have imagined.
If you’re a fan of the TV series, Westworld, you’re probably aware that it’s based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. What you may not know is that the concept has been kicking around for a very long time. While Crichton insists his dystopian vision had no “literary antecedents”, there’s at least one writer who may beg to differ. Charles Dickens imagined a robot theme park way back in 1838. Just like Westworld, the patrons of Dickens’ park are able to enact their “violent delights” on realistic humanoid androids.
In the short story titled: Full Report of the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything, a group of scientists meet to discuss a variety of proposals, including the classification of a one-eyed horse as “Fitfordogsmeataurious” and a snuffbox-sized machine for more efficient pickpocketing. The most vividly described of these outlandish ideas, though, is entrepreneurial inventor Mr Coppernose’s suggestion for a park filled with “automaton figures” which would enable wealthy young men to run riot without causing a public nuisance. Sound familiar? So, how do the two parks measure up?
In purely physical terms, Dickens’ park is much smaller. The series’ showrunner, Jonathan Nolan, has indicated that Westworld covers around 500 square miles, while Coppernose suggests a more modest “space of ground of not less than ten miles in length” for his park. But both demonstrate a similar attention to detail when it comes to creating a realistic environment for their patrons to explore. Westworld offers trading outposts, farmsteads and wide open plains populated by robot cowboys, saloon girls and the Ghost Nation Tribe. Coppernose’s park strives to recreate a version of semi-rural England using “highway roads, turnpikes, bridges [and] miniature villages”, inhabited by automaton police officers, cab drivers and elderly women.
Delos Incorporated (the company which owns Westworld) expects its players will use these environments and android “hosts” to engage in both whitehat (heroic) and blackhat (villainous) activities. Meanwhile, Coppernose assumes only the most base and destructive behaviour from his park patrons. This is evidenced in various design choices, such as the “gas lamps of real glass, which could be broken at a comparatively small expense per dozen”, and the vocal abilities of the automatons themselves which, when struck, “utter divers groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete and the enjoyment perfect”.
Yet this advanced speech technology isn’t the only thing Coppernose’s automatons have in common with Westworld’s hosts, as demonstrated in George Cruikshank’s illustration. Here the lifelike robots are shown to be operational despite missing limbs – something we’ve seen during diagnostic sessions with Westworld’s damaged hosts in the repair lab.
While Coppernose doesn’t provide specific details of any maintenance crews, it seems he has a similar rotational system in mind when he suggests a stock of 140 automatons, with around half kept in reserve so that broken units can be exchanged. However, rather than the spooky warehouse filled with dormant hosts seen in Westworld, Coppernose has a far more space-saving storage solution, keeping inert robot police officers on shelves until needed.
Although its never been explicitly explained in the show, showrunner Lisa Joy has described the “good samaritan reflex” as a safety measure programmed into all Westworld’s hosts – including the animals. This ensures that if a guest is at risk of endangering themselves or another guest, a host will step in to save them from harm. Humans don’t fare so well in Dickens’ park – Coppernose advocates the use of “live pedestrians … procured from the workhouse” for the wealthy park guests to run down in their cabriolets.
However, this is where a theme only lightly touched on in Westworld is brought to the fore in Dickens’ text: the disparity between justice for the rich and the poor. Coppernose’s affluent young adventurers must attend a mock trial following their wild and destructive behaviour, where wooden-headed automaton magistrates side with the defendants rather than the robot police attempting to prosecute them. Dickens describes this process as “quite equal to life” serving to underline the inequality at play in the justice system.
While Westworld primarily focuses on what it means to be human it does hint at this same idea: that we’re inclined to overlook the bad behaviour of the rich and powerful. When wealthy park patron “Man in Black” kills hosts indiscriminately, security chief Ashley Williams says: “That gentleman gets whatever he wants.”
Of course, now that Westworld’s robots have gone rogue, the Man in Black may not go unpunished in season two. Perhaps the retribution Dickens would doubtless have liked to have seen will be delivered not by the courts, but the robots themselves.
For children and adolescents, the tyranny of adults can make any world dystopian. Real or fictional – no apocalypse required. But how does our Australian young adult fiction (of the dystopian variety) differ from that being produced in the US? And why do teenagers love dystopia so much?
In recent years, we have seen quite a few blockbuster novels produced for adolescents in this genre. You will no doubt have heard of at least one of these dystopian trilogies from the US: The Hunger Games (2008-2010) by Suzanne Collins, Divergent (2011-2013) by Veronica Roth and the Uglies (2005-2006) by Scott Westerfeld.
Australia has a strong tradition of dystopian fiction for young adults as well. Tomorrow, When the War Began and the accompanying six books in the Tomorrow series (1993–99) by John Marsden is, of course, one of the favourites, although it isn’t set in a post-apocalyptic world – rather, we see teenagers fighting and surviving in a current war.
Lesser known dystopian Australian novels – although no less noteworthy – include Taronga by Victor Kelleher (1986), The Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody (1987-2015) and, more recently, The Tribe: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (2012) and The Disappearance of Ember Crow (2013), both by Aboriginal author Ambelin Kwaymullina.
There are many similarities between the Australian and US novels. All of those mentioned above are post-apocalyptic and all indicate a man-made disaster involving war, environmental destruction or nuclear disaster.
The Obernewtyn Chronicles are post-nuclear-holocaust and Taronga is post-war, probably nuclear. The events of The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf play out after a man-made environmental disaster.
The US novels cover similar ground: events in The Hunger Games follow an environmental disaster and war, while Uglies has an original disaster – a virus that infects petroleum products and causes them to explode, resulting in widespread environmental degradation. In Divergent, it’s a bit harder to tell which disaster struck, but it was probably a war.
Other commonalities between the US and Australian dystopian novels are feisty heroines, persecution of individuals because of special abilities and a primitive future that looks like our past – that is, communities living basic agrarian lifestyles, whether openly or in hiding.
All of these novels depict oppressive regimes that persecute the young protagonists – the burden of creating a more inclusive, fairer and more tolerant society is carried by the younger generation.
With so much in common between the Australian and American novels, is there anything that sets our home-grown dystopias apart from their US counterparts?
There are two main points of difference: the role of the natural environment, and the use of technology or “the fantastic” to fight battles and change society.
In Obernewtyn, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf and Taronga, the stories are set almost exclusively in a natural – rather than an urban – landscape. Those natural worlds are not distinctly Australian. Obernewtyn feels far more like a European landscape.
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf seems to be set against a hybrid of the two, with some local elements, such as a forest of tuarts and peppermint gums, but with some unfamiliar wildlife such as “saurs” – giant lizard- or crocodile-like carnivorous reptiles. Taronga is split between a very recognisable Australian bush and Taronga Zoo, Sydney.
But it’s not just the use of the natural world that distinguishes the Australian texts – it’s also the relationship the young characters have with the environment and animals.
In all three Australian novels, there are characters who have the ability to communicate with animals via telepathic means. There are differences in the role of animals in these stories, but animals are always characters, not just companions, pets or beasts of burden.
Both Taronga and The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf include elements of Australian Aboriginal legend and connection with the natural world. In the Australian novels, the characters are at home in the wild, at one with nature and find support in the natural world. The environment can be harsh in these novels, but it also provides comfort and sustenance.
Of course, Uglies and The Hunger Games are not devoid of nature. The rebels in the Uglies series are referred to as “Smokies” and live a rustic and somewhat precarious life in the wild; while protagonist Tally Youngblood admires the beauty of this natural setting. Her time with the Smokies is spent trying to bring order to the natural world. The Hunger Games protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, has to survive in the simulated “natural” world of the arena – using skills to hunt for food.
These relationships with the environment and the animal world are one area in which the Australian novels make use of the fantastic as a plot element.
In The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, most of the young characters (including the protagonist, Ashala Wolf) have special abilities that are the cause of their persecution. This is the same literary device used in The Obernewtyn Chronicles. Abilities include telepathy (with people and animals), control of the environment, healing powers and superhuman physical abilities.
In Taronga, both of the young protagonists (Ben and Ellie) communicate with animals – Ben through a telepathic link and Ellie through strongly developed empathy. In all three books of this trilogy those shamanic abilities allow the youngsters to succeed against adult adversaries.
The US teen characters have well-above-average physical and mental abilities, but these are less intrinsic qualities and more the result of training or surgery (Uglies) – they are technical skills of fighting, knife throwing or shooting, and are not linked with anything mystical or with the greater natural world.
All of these stories are set in worlds rich with technology, surveillance equipment, advanced computers and a blurring of the man/ machine interface, with the exception of Taronga, which was written before our current computer age. But Taronga is themed on a spiritual return to nature and an escape from the urban world.
Perhaps Australian authors cling to a romantic ideal of childhood and see that the solution to environmental degradation and war can only come about through a return to nature. Maybe their US peers envisage technical skill as the attribute most needed in the young to save the human race from annihilation.
Given the huge success of the American novels, it appears that this picture of themselves is the one contemporary adolescents prefer.