Still Dreaming Dystopias

It's a heartening fact about the human race that utopian fiction precedes dystopian fiction in the evolution of literature. If we assign the role of first recorded utopia to Plato's Republic (circa 350 B.C.), then the arrival of one of the earliest extant warning screeds about a hypothetical bad future doesn't occur till almost 2,000 years later, according to critic John Clute, who cites a British pamphlet from 1644 that limns the imagined horrors of the Restoration! Dreams of paradise arise from our edenic id, with visions of oppression and authoritarianism being later Cassandra-like impositions of the superego.

But as a legacy of the tumultuous and often disappointing and deadly 20th century, science fiction labors today under something of a dystopian pall. The crisis-heavy condition of contemporary life invites a pessimistic outlook: Envisioning what could go wrong is a lot easier -- and often more dramatic -- than imagining what could go right. Consequently, for every Rainbows End (2006) by Vernor Vinge, there are a dozen Forty Signs of Rain (2004) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

But a lot of this dark-and-dismal literary forecasting is often just atmospheric, setting up dictatorial straw men for the hero to rebel against. Every Luke Skywalker needs his Darth Vader. Only a minority of science fiction dystopias attempt to plumb the real existential roots of oppression, the flaws in humanity's nature that undermine our best attempts at organizing ourselves into social units.

One such arrives now from newcomer Ben Peek. With the gravitas of a Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro, Peek, in his debut novel, Black Sheep, crafts a quietly horrifying world displaced from ours by a century of time and an implosion of globalist attitudes. After worldwide racial wars wreak massive devastation, the UN asserts transnational supremacy and divides every major metropolitan area into separate-but-equal enclaves for Asian, African, and Caucasian peoples. No mixing allowed. Multiculturalism is a crime, with transgressors apprehended by the dreaded Segregators. Punishment is Assimilation: the literal bleaching of the offender to a ghost and the implantation of mind-control devices, creating a slave for society's scut work.

It's an ever-potent trope -- Rupert Thomson plumbed a similar schema in his Divided Kingdom (2005) -- and Peek puts his anomie-driven hero Isao Dazai, reluctant immigrant to Asian-Sydney, through a Kafkaesque ordeal, carrying the reader along through multiple milieus of this warped world, where the laudable attempt to gain stability has been perverted by totalitarian means.

It could never be said that George Alec Effinger was entirely serious about anything. But at the roots of his often hilarious fiction was a deep understanding of human frailty and failure. Call his work, in the phrase of Brian Aldiss, a "comic inferno." After Effinger's untimely death, preserving his work became an imperative for Golden Gryphon Press, and they now bring us the book Effinger labeled his favorite.

If Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, and Robert Shockley had heard only a rumor of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930) and then decided to collaborate on trying to reproduce that hypothetical Ur-text, they might possibly have come up with a novel as tragicomically unsettling as Effinger's The Wolves of Memory (1981). Exiled by a snarky, secretly suicidal computer named Tect to a planet that fosters Alzheimer's disease in human immigrants, Sander Courane must overcome his own personal limitations to win a pyrrhic victory against the demented machine.

This absurdist, melancholy novel is the centerpiece of the generous omnibus A Thousand Deaths, which also features seven short stories starring Courane. But Finger's trickster impulses insure that Courane dies and is reborn in a variety of contradictory, outrageously inventive roles. A combination of Kilgore Trout and Wile E. Coyote, Courane stood in for Effinger and his ill-starred life -- a biography heartbreakingly summarized in Andrew Fox's compassionate afterword.

The boot stomping forever on the face of humanity is sometimes envisioned as that of an alien conqueror. But it might also arise from other nonhuman forces lying concealed right here among us, as seen in Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, the new multimedia collaboration from artist Mike Mignola and scribe Christopher Golden. This novel emulates both the narrative complexity and the old-world creepiness of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), the chiropteran shadow of which still looms large over contemporary fiction.

On an alternate timeline, in the midst of World War I carnage, Captain Henry Baltimore dares to disturb a timeless evil ritual and thus unleashes the Red King upon the world. Civilization teeters from a new plague, and only Baltimore and his motley scarred companions -- Rose, Childress, and Aischros -- might be able to restore the cosmic balance.

Mignola's fluid B&W vignettes range from lurid to pensive, perfectly complementing Golden's stories-within-stories, journal entries, flashbacks and second-hand recountings that together constitute a deft Victorian pastiche. Occasionally the narrative apparatus threatens to overwhelm, but Golden always tosses another monster on the flames at just the right moment to renew the reader's shivers.

Finally, we approach another debut novel which utilizes its dystopian scenario in an exciting but essentially surface way, for the thrills of one man against an empire.

Every new generation of SF writers remakes cyberpunk -- a genre often laced with dystopian subtexts -- in its own image. Nowadays, that means liberal doses of Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski brothers. Witness the success of U.K. author Richard Morgan, whose Altered Carbon was optioned by Hollywood for a cool million.

In the same vein, we encounter Jeff Somers' The Electric Church. Assaultive and electrifying as a military Taser, this dystopia about a world unified under pitiless and clinically insane cyborg Monks features a hired killer, one Avery Cates, as hero. Hired by a worried top cop to bring down the marvelously named Dennis Squalor, founder of the Electric Church, Cates assembles a dirty half dozen of mates and proceeds to shoot up anything that gets in his way.

Somers' strategy of blending Invasion of the Body Snatchers with allusions to contemporary cults coats this profane, kickass thriller with a veneer of social commentary reminiscent of some Galaxy-era novel reinterpreted by Warren Ellis.

Given this range of recent dystopias, it's easy to say that science fiction will continue to favor worst-case scenarios over pie-in-the-sky futures for the near term. But perhaps that's just what the world currently needs.

About the Columnist
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award -- all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.

July 27: The American novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick was born on this day in 1916.

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