As much as I would love to, I’m not someone who finishes all the books she starts, most of the times due to my chronic impatience: “Oh dear, I’m wasting all this time reading this here when there’s a gazillion others over there I want to read as well!” (An absurd reasoning but, being a slow reader, my impatience is usually aimed only at myself.)
Out of the heaps I’ve bought throughout the years, the amount of books I’ve left with a marker somewhere on the first hundred pages is overwhelmingly higher than the ones I’ve read from cover to cover.
But there are times when, either because I’m choosing the right books or because I’m in a more grounded mental space, I find myself devouring everything I start and at a very constant pace.
Luckily, this month has been one of those times. And it’s all about dystopias which, I’m beginning to find, may be my favourite genre in literature.
My dad was the biggest sci-fi fan I have ever met. He would talk enthusiastically about this or that masterpiece by Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov or Bradbury – but I was never keen on stories I thought were only about spaceships, so I didn’t share his enthusiasm.
What I grew up to discover was that, contrary to popular belief, what bookshelves have marked as “science fiction” isn’t always about aliens or robots. Enters Margaret Atwood and her defense of the term “speculative fiction”. These are the other books. The ones that, while being about the future, are more focused on possible evolutions of society and political systems, than on interplanetary relations. Just think of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451. Not exactly about space invasions.
The first “grown up” book I read was Brave New World (thank you, Mom). I was around 12 so I must have missed a lot of the nitty-gritty, but I remember the overall mood of that particular society. And the word khaki. Followed Orwell and Bradbury and Atwood and other canonical masters.
Last month I found Facial Justice, an unknown book by an unknown author (to me) with a peculiar premise for a dictatorship:
To end envy (aka, “bad E”, the true root of all evil), you are only allowed a very short percentage of personality and the people born with above-average attractive features, are subject to a facial surgery that will turn them into average-looking people.
Although the book has very good points on how society in general reacts to those who are “better” (more talented, more attractive, more successful), there is no fear in the air. Instead, there’s a patronizing dictator (“Darling Dictator”) no-one has seen and everyone mocks, punishments that include absurd choreographies and a lot of mass mind manipulation that just doesn’t quite add up.
I’ve always been a fan of Once-upon-a-time stories. Just as sci-fi isn’t all about Mars, Once-upon-a-time is not necessarily all-round fantasy with talking dragons or white vs. dark wizardry.
They are stories set in places that don’t exist (or, at least, not yet) and tell you the big, consistent truths about human existence. There will be individual drama but you’ll always have a few Archetypes hanging around. The struggle of the hero and all the Joseph Campbell-isms.
I’m on the last dystopia of the year. The fabulous We, from Yevgeny Zamyatin (amongst other spelling options), notably famous for having inspired Orwell to write the story of Winston Smith and Big Brother.
Not wanting to sound too Vladimir Propp, the dystopian bones don’t vary that much:
1) A society where individuality is completely crushed;
2) A main character who may or may not be someone completely formatted as the regime intends, or a dissident secretly against the established power;
3) A love or lust interest that enters the scene and that corrupts/awakens the hero who will, consequently, throw caution to the wind and eventually meet their doom or undisclosed fate.
You can find this outside of science fiction and speculative fiction and fiction altogether: the notion that the true sense of being human is tied up with the sense of being our true, individual selves.
We can pinpoint several mechanisms that have been set in motion, all throughout History and even now, to tame or control the mob. In order to this, you create a sense of unification – an artificial, fabricated. Turn in into an entity of its own, an amalgam of individuals who are everything but. Sentimental as it may seem, the one thing that free us from the numbness is – if not love – emotion.
“Your feelings make you weak,” is a trademark quote of baddies all over fiction. Yet, the greatest irony is that, the true sense of unity we have always been able to give rise to, doesn’t come from sterile order but from emotional reactions, whether it’s compassion or sheer anger.
It is the turning point in all of these works. It is what makes us human, what makes each of us ourselves. And, at the end of the day, it is the catalyst for genuine unity.