As part of the Hive Construct tour, I am pleased to welcome author, Alexander Maskill to the blog, to talk about dystopian fiction.
This piece was supposed to be a listicle of my “top 5 dystopias”. When I got the suggestion I sat in my seat, staring at it, trying to parse what it actually meant. My favourite dystopias? The most dystopic dystopias? The dystopias which, while still dystopias, are the best five in the category? The dystopias I, in my own personal tyranny, would be most likely to implement upon seizing the reins of some small nation-state? The more I thought about it, the more I realised this was predicated on a fundamentally different way of thinking about stories than I am used to, and I could have written something insincere or dishonest trying to grapple with that question but it seemed more constructive to write about where I feel that disconnect is.
My own novel, The Hive Construct (out now in paperback from all good booksellers), tends to get categorised as “dystopian” due to the general sense that its setting, New Cairo, is a ‘Bad Place’, and it’s never sat right with me. I mean, I get it – it’s a useful marketing term that ties my book to a canon of successful existing works, rather than it being just another drop in the vast science fiction ocean – but I never thought to categorise it that way until I heard other people doing so.
For a start, I’ve never understood the attempt to delineate genre by some aspect of the story’s trappings rather than by the engine that drives the story. Well, no, I understand it, but I don’t think it’s a great way to understand and discuss stories. Calling a story “horror” tells you about what the emotional tenor is; the term “ghost story”, meanwhile, could be referring to anything from Casper to The Sixth Sense, and the term “superhero story” applies to both Kamala Khan-era Ms. Marvel and The Authority. We try to discuss stories by their most obvious qualities, and these may not be the most important or informative way to discuss them. I’ve had enough people in my life tell me “Oh, you’ll like [work x], it has [aesthetic element y] in it” that I can straight up tell you it’s a superficial enough way to talk about a work that it can be outright misleading. To me, “dystopian fiction” is less helpful than more traditional genre titles for actually looking at stories and figuring them out.
“Dystopian fiction” might not be especially useful as an analytical tool but it is incredibly useful as a marketing tool. Few mainstream novels are capable of matching the scale and thematic resonance of The Hunger Games, which makes capitalizing on its success hard. What isn’t so hard is finding another young adult-targeted story in which the setting is a ‘Bad Place’, and the main character fights the ‘Bad Place’ and the ‘Bad People’ who run it, and selling it to a hungry audience. People out there have an itch to scratch, and we in the publishing industry all make money when you guys use our products to scratch it.
(At this point I should probably throw in a disclaimer: I cannot stress enough that I sincerely believe the publicity department I work with at Transworld genuinely care about getting books they believe in into the hands of readers who’ll like them. I can believe that, because 1. I get to know them personally, 2. If the good ones are going to be anywhere, they’re going to be at Penguin Random House, 3. I’ve got something I’m trying to sell, and they’re helping me sell it and 4. They’re not trying to sell it to me.)
It also sands away the more potentially alienating aspects. One of the reasons I don’t feel like “dystopian fiction” fits my story is that while there are many exaggerated elements in its world-building, the socio-political factors that throw New Cairo into chaos aren’t really among them. Its systems are dysfunctional due to institutional biases, dehumanization and the fact that no-one at any place within the city’s systems understand any other person’s place with the immediacy with which they understand their own. The implication is obviously that the same is true of the real world. It’s not ‘Bad’, it’s out of balance. But the question then becomes, what does this say about the reader? If these systems exist, and the people within it are complicit in its dysfunctionality, is the reader one of those people? Because I’m fairly certain there’s at least some young adults in million-pound houses reading The Hunger Games who don’t want to think about which district they’d be in, and what that says about their own lifestyles.
Calling a setting a ‘Bad Place’, a dystopia, is often disassociative and reductive. It allows people to easily consume these settings as more fictional that in otherwise might be. It cushions the blow and moves the goalposts. We don’t live in a dystopia, dystopias look like that. Dystopias are set in the future and they’re dictatorships and the architecture is all black and spiky. We know on some level that dystopias are inherently a statement about our own society, because of course they are – any statement that a certain kind of society is ‘Bad’ is inherently political – but at the same time it also stresses the artificiality of the setting. Dystopia is comfortable because a dystopia is by definition categorically worse than our world – where a setting seeks to reflect our world, this can distort its message.
This was something I saw very strongly in the question I was originally asked for this post – what are your top five dystopias? Which are your favourites? Which jagged reflection of the worst aspects of society, which grim mirror in which to re-evaluate the world in which we live, do you like the most? Was I supposed to reply “Well, obviously ‘Exaggerated Fantasy USSR’ is the classic, and we all owe so much to ‘Consumption and Exploitation of Working-Class America By A Calculating And Protectionist Elite’ in this day and age, which I feel isn’t at all a rip-off of ‘Japanese Cultural Mores Around Deference To Authority Inherently Cheapen The Lives Of Its Citizens’”? The whole thing seems very disconnected from the reality that all the most well-implemented dystopias are reflections of actual struggles actual people face. The Thai military had to make the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games illegal after actual anti-coup demonstrators adopted it; do we really want to talk about why the setting they saw so much of their own lives in is our very favouritest dystopia ever?
These stories fall in the same cultural canon as, say, Harry Potter in a lot of ways, and I can’t help feeling like publishers and commentators are trying to frame this new crop of young adult works within the context of the original megahit crossover YA franchise, escapist connotations included even when not appropriate. Panem, Battle Royale’s Japan, New Cairo, these aren’t places where readers should go to escape – or at least, that’s a mindset which works against the grain of the way those works function. This was definitely the case with The Hunger Games, where in the wake of Twilight, the shipper aspect was heavily played up in marketing where it wasn’t necessarily appropriate or even all that important for The Hunger Games specifically. This bizarre reframing of a very political work is something I can’t help but see as fundamental to the entire “dystopian fiction” idea, including even the term itself. I think that where a work is obviously drawing parallels to the real world in a reflective manner, calling that setting a dystopia, a ‘Bad Place’, lessens our ability to examine the nuances of the political statements at its core. Worse, it gives us a justification for glossing over them entirely where it becomes uncomfortable to us.
But even with these concessions, the language of marketers, which often ends up being the language of the end users, is designed to grab your attention and sell you on a game using its most obvious elements, which may well be rather different to its most important ones. This is endemic in games too (as noted in Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark’s quietly revolutionary “A Game Design Vocabulary”) and here, as it is there, using the language of marketing to discuss art is like using the language of glue-makers to describe racehorses. These are two sets of language for two different pursuits that have few overlapping interests and many points of outright incompatibility, and I’ve gotten so used to the ‘author’ language that the ‘marketing/consumer’ language just seems completely alien to me.
The Hive Construct is published by Corgi this week.
Situated deep in the Sahara Desert, New Cairo is a city built on technology – from the huge, life-giving solar panels that keep it functioning in a radically changed, resource-scarce world to the artificial implants that have become the answer to all and any of mankind's medical problems.
But it is also a divided city, dominated by a handful of omnipotent corporate dynasties.
And when a devastating new computer virus begins to spread through the poorest districts, shutting down the life-giving implants that enable so many to survive, the city begins to slide into the anarchy of violent class struggle.
Hiding amidst the chaos is Zala Ulora. A gifted hacker and fugitive from justice, she believes she might be able to earn her life back by tracing the virus to its source and destroying it before it destroys the city. Or before the city destroys itself . . .
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