Dissing the Dys-Dys

After reading Henry Farrell’s essay “Philip K. Dick and the Fake Humans” in the Boston Review, I felt compelled to comment.

Farrell’s essay is fascinating and well written, if somewhat unfocused. He begins by stating that literary dystopias suffer from a flaw in that all their mechanisms for controlling people are 100% functional. The devices used by dictators to keep people down always work. A more realistic depiction of a dystopia would include breakdowns, bugs, faults, etc.

He cites, for example, our own modern world where computers collect data on all of us, but the algorithms are glitch-prone and the software is just as likely to backfire against the programmers. Farrell then discusses how our cyber-modernity merges real and unreal, with bots, fake identities, avatars, etc.

Philip K. Dick

This, Farrell says, is Philip K. Dick’s future, not Aldous Huxley’s or George Orwell’s. The remainder of the essay delves into Dick’s books and that author’s themes of dysfunctional worlds and the blending of real with unreal. The essayist makes several comparisons between Dick’s stories and our world today.

Much of Farrell’s essay is a celebration of Philip K. Dick’s work. I haven’t read much by PKD, just the collection Minority Report and Other Stories, which includes “The Minority Report,” “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” “Paycheck,” “Second Variety,” and “The Eyes Have It.” These tales show Dick’s tendency to fuse real and unreal, and feature unexpected plot twists.

It’s a thought-provoking essay, and it provoked several for me. First, no author who writes a book set in the future has ever gotten it completely right. Nor does any author expect to. The human world is too complex to capture in a story. Orwell and Huxley weren’t writing to predict, so much as to warn. I’m sure the same is true of Philip K. Dick.

Even if all three authors had been in the forecasting business, it’s expected, not remarkable, that the one born in 1928 would come closer to envisioning our modern world than the ones born in 1903 or 1894.

There’s a reason technology never breaks down in most literary dystopias. The point of these stories is to show the effect of a well-functioning freedom-crushing government on humans, to show an individual’s struggle against that society, whether futile or successful. If the machinery of a dystopian regime were glitchy and error-ridden, that would lessen the intensity of the conflict.

“Brazil” movie poster
Scene from “Modern Times”

Moreover, writers other than Philip K. Dick have explored dysfunctional dystopias (hmmm…dys-dys?) before. For me, the 1985 movie Brazil, written and directed by Terry Gilliam, comes to mind. The 1936 film Modern Times, with Charlie Chaplin, could be another example. These depictions inject hiccups and goof-ups into their dystopias, making them not only humorous but also more realistic, more human. When done well, such stories still bring out the basic human-vs.-society conflict that is the essence of dystopian literature.

I commend Henry Farrell for his fascinating essay, with its detailed comparisons of PKD’s stories to modern life. However, I’m not ready to classify our real world as a dystopia, or utopia. We’re somewhere in-between. Things would have to get much, much worse before I’d classify our world as a dystopia, whether of the functional or dysfunctional variety. Sorry if it seems like I’ve been dissing the dys-dys, but that’s just me being—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Been to Utopia and Dystopia, and I prefer…

Judging from recent literature, the future looks bleak. The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, Delirium, Matched, Legend, and others paint visions of worlds much worse than our own.

Without question, these books sell well. Some have become movies. We readers have a fascination with dismal futures, possibly because:

  • They make our own present seem better by comparison;
  • We like to imagine the end result of current downward trends;
  • The character’s stakes are high, the conflicts larger than life;
  • We identify with being a victim of society;
  • It’s inspiring to read about characters making the best of things in the worst of places; or
  • Millennials, raised in the shadow of 9-11, actually believe their future will be worse than their present.

city-654849_960_720From the writer’s point of view, dystopias have this advantage—at least one of the book’s conflicts is baked in from the start. There will be some sort of man vs. society conflict going on. Whatever other conflicts are present, you’ll find a struggle between the individual and the state. By contrast, in utopias, conflict is harder to come by.

For this post, I’ll define utopian literature to refer to fiction set in a future world that’s better and more technologically advanced than our own, but is not necessarily a perfect world. Dystopian literature is fiction set in a future world worse than our own (with either more advanced or less advanced technology), it’s but not necessarily a completely hellish world.

spaceship-499131_960_720Utopian literature doesn’t seem to be selling as well as its dystopian opposite. Such books once rocketed off shelves. Almost all science fiction written in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s assumed society and technology would advance and life in general would improve.

Such utopian books didn’t portray perfect futures. The characters suffered from problems and challenges as dire as those in any novel. After all, if someone traveled to our present from almost any period in the past, they’d view our modern era as utopian, thanks to our long life spans, medical advancements, reasonably plentiful food, and readily available technology. We look around us and see no end of problems, but in the eyes of our ancestors, we all inhabit Utopia.

Does the prevailing literary mood reflect society’s predominant attitude toward technology? In the 1940-1970 period, could it be that the Space Race, combined with the baby boom (which produced a huge number of youthful readers), result in a yearning for optimistic literature?

Might it be that today’s readers no longer hold a positive view of technology? Has the rise of terrorism, increasing surveillance, climate change, cybercrime, and a fear of artificial intelligence biased the current book-buying public against science?

Possibly, but Baby Boomers had “bad” technology, too—namely, the Bomb. And Millennials have plenty to be optimistic about, such as driverless cars, household robots, 3D printing, hyperloops, missions to Mars, etc.

If each generation knew both good and bad technology, then why would they hold such different attitudes toward it? Or is it something besides a prevailing view of science?

Could it be all due to the Boomers alone? Maybe that “pig in a python” generation is, all by itself, influencing literature as its population ages. That is, when Boomers were young and optimistic, they preferred Utopia, but as they became older, sadder, and wiser, they pulled up stakes and moved to Dystopia.

Hieroglyph coverWhatever the reason for the current literary preference, some evidence indicates the reaction against dystopia and back toward utopia has begun. In 2011, author Neal Stephenson helped found Project Hieroglyph which seeks fiction and nonfiction depicting a positive future. The published anthology, Hieroglyph, is on my list of books to read.

I prefer utopian fiction. Being a techno-optimist, I prefer to think the future will be better than the present, and reading such books keeps me in that mindset. However, I’m not Pollyannaish; I know society could well backslide, much as the thousand year Dark Ages followed the Roman Empire. Further, I know readers of dystopian books don’t necessarily believe the future of the real world will be dismal.

Let me know your position on this spectrum. Do you read solely utopian, or solely dystopian books? Or perhaps you don’t care, so long as the book is good. Your comment may influence the type of fiction to be written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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