Dystopian fiction tends to draw upon the dark side of our imagination, be it young adult fiction where children are pitted against each other in a fight to the death or the classic dystopia where big brother controls our every move or thought. The real creative magic of dystopian literature is the links between contemporary society and the imagined dark, dystopian world of the fantasy society.
For me, I didn’t have to delve too far into the dark spaces of my psyche to come up with a plausible dystopian thriller. I merely had to collect news headlines over the past decade and imagine a progression into the abyss. In the years following 9/11, the news headlines read like an Orwellian dystopia with stories of secret prisons, torture, extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, domestic spying, suspension of habeas corpus, military tribunals, ignoring the Geneva Convention, and wars built on falsified intelligence.
As a fiction writer, I didn’t have to image some post-apocalyptic landscape as a backdrop for a dystopian society when there was plenty of darkness right in front of me. My formula for writing a modern adult-centered dystopia was to use facts and add in just enough plausible fiction and then blur the lines between.
In light of our recent past, I wondered how we would react to a catastrophic event greater than a terrorist bombing or a broken levy. In my novel Against Nature, I created a global pandemic; a disease without a cure and superimposed some of our post-9/11 reactions onto this new crisis. To spice up the story I made the disease-causing organism an extraterrestrial dust mite introduced to Earth in the wound of an astronaut. I also added in the recent rise of Social Darwinists on the political scene and what came out the other end was a frightening and all too plausible dystopia in the spirit of Orwell, Crichton, and Huxley.
To write in the dystopian genre you have to have a keen sense of the current landscape and be willing to look critically at your own society and then reflect on it. My catalyst was a global pandemic. At the heart of such a story line must be the vaccination plan. In the recent Hollywood film Contagion, the vaccine for a mutated strain of avian flu is doled out by lottery and all the citizens wait in line in an orderly fashion. I guess it feels good to feel good, but is that realistic?
I wondered how we would dole out an experimental vaccine for a fatal and highly contagious disease that was spreading unabated across the globe. I thought the lottery storyline was too naïve and unrealistic. Would we really distribute an experimental vaccine in such an egalitarian way? In Against Nature, I wanted the vaccination plan to mirror our wealth distribution. We live in a society where four hundred Americans control almost half the wealth of the entire nation and twenty percent of Americans control ninety-three percent of the national wealth while the vast majority is left to fight over the pocket change. Would the top 1% of wealth controllers wait in line with the masses? In a crisis, would we suddenly become egalitarian? Are eighty-percent of us expendable? Would the Wall Street banker get the vaccine before the day laborer or the venture capitalist before an inner-city pre-school teacher?
In creating a vision of pandemic America, I thought about the story of the Titanic as a parable. How would our society behave if we began to list and take on water? Who would be in the lifeboat and who would perish in the icy waters?
I think as a fiction writer you have to ask those questions and view the world through different lenses. To write a compelling dystopia you have to be more than just a good storyteller; you also have to be a social critic. You have to look at your own society from outside the fishbowl and be willing to move away from your own comfort zone. You have to examine faith, gender, and class from many perspectives and peel back the layers to expose the roots of social structures. When you do that you create a blended narrative that is quite complex. Fiction, like life should be many shades of gray.
In my writing, I try to avoid predictable endings where everything is wrapped up in a tidy package and we feel hopeful that good has trumped evil and the poor all end up wealthy and self-actualized. A good narrative in any fiction genre should be more complicated than that. In the dystopia genre, it’s imperative that we see the reflection of our own society in the pages of the fantasy society. I think that’s the most important ingredient. Sometimes we need that reflection to shake us from our moorings and make us think about our world a little differently. It’s what makes the journey to the dystopian fantasy world worth the trip.
John Nelson is a retired Air Force Master Sergeant and former Special Forces Medic—Air Commando. His novel Against Nature is available as an eBook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple iBooks and from the publisher www.wildchildpublishing.com
Visit his blog for reviews of Against Nature: http://johngnelson.blogspot.com/