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Monday, December 22, 2008

The Dystopia Tour

Okay, I'll admit it: novels about horrible future societies/lack thereof have always grabbed me. Whether Farenheit 451 Italic(Ray Bradbury) or The Sheep Look Up (John Brunner) or A Boy and His Dog (Harlan Ellison), I've always been a sucker for the "Here's the way the world is going to shit" school of storytelling. All the above-mentioned books are science fiction novels in the traditional sense; but I've also always enjoyed it when "literary" writers try their hand at it, and end up with Brave New World or 1984 or We by Eugene Zamiatin (1929, and arguably the foreunner of them all, though HG Wells's Things to Come predates it by a good 20 years).

Which brings us to these past few years, and this sudden raft of dystopia novels by "respectable" lit-fiction writers. There is of course The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which well and truly rocks, and also Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Pesthouse by Jim Crace, Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe, Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson. They're all men except for Atwood (who tried a different riff on the future-disaster idea with The Handmaid's Tale, years ago) and everybody is white; but Crace and Thomson are Brits, and Atwood's Canadian, while MacCarthy and Sharpe are Americans. So the interest continues to cross national lines, at least, even if it continues to apparently mainly interest men, and white men at that. (If you'd like to write your thesis about this, please feel free.)

So anyway. I'm in the middle of reading all these books, and what have I learned?

I've learned that McCarthy leaves everyone else in the dust. At least, everybody I've read. The Road is relentless in its grimness, it laconic linguistic power, and its mood. It's like reading the blueprint of a story, with all the embellishment burned away. (Appropriate image, that, given that the landscape itself is utterly incinerated.) There are two characters, a man and his son, and a few others who come and go. Everything is horrible to being with, and gets worse. It's a great book, in its totality of pessimism. He also writes like the Dickens, which keeps things from getting dull.

On the other hand we have The Pesthouse. Jim Crace wrote a couple great books, Being Dead and Quarantine--which is problematic in itself, but for other reasons--but he really falls down on the job here. For me, one of the joys of dystopian fiction is the way it frees you up to explore the big picture, the oh-shit-I-can't-believe-it's-come-to-this-ness of things. Unfortunately, apart from a few suggestions, Crace really doesn't take you very far. Essentially the story follows--like The Road--a road, as characters walk from west to east, hit the shoreline, and turn around. Then they head back. The story never strays very far from the road, which maybe helps the forward momentum (of which there isn't a great deal) but it also means that the big-picture view is pretty much forgotten. There's an interesting bit with a religious cult, which is for me the most interesting part of the book, but that's about it.

Currently I'm reading Divided Kingdom, a story in which the UK has been broken into four quarters corresponding to the four humours of ancient medicine--sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholy. The population has been forcibly relocated to live in these quarters. In my world, that's what I call an ass-kicking premise. Then in the course of the story, the main character contrives to visit all these different quarters, and see what's been developing in each of them, which turns out to be... hmm, somewhat underwhelming. I mean it's sort of cool, and it's just the kind of big-picture stuff that Crace's book lacks altogether. But it feels like a lot less than it could be. I mean, given the premise, he really could have taken it to extremes. But apart from a few cases (the melacholics' Museum of Tears, for example), he doesn't do it much.

So anyway, that's where I am now, about 20 pages out from the end. After this I'll read Jamestown, which seems a wackier book than any of these others, and give a full report. Somewhere in the hazy distance lies Oryx and Crake, but I'm not a huge Atwood fan so that may take a while. And after that I guess I'll read some different stuff. But you want to know something, none of these high-profile books can hold a candle to We.


Nicole Del Sesto said...

First, I got really excited thinking your next novel was coming out and it was called Dystopia. Once I got over that ...

I loved Oryx and Crake and The Road. Haven't read the others, but you kind of made me not want to. :-)

One of my all time favorite books is Into the Forest

I'm not sure if it is considered dystopia or not, but it's post apocalyptic Northern California, and it's a great book. Beautiful writing.

Nicole Del Sesto said...

p.s. I hope you'll post your findings on Jamestown. Sounds interesting. Also, Oryx and Crake is very similar to Handmaid's Tale in a lot of ways. It goes a bit deeper and darker, so if you didn't like Handmaid's you might not like O and C, but it was a favorite of mine last year when I read it.


Hey Nicole, you're so sweet.

I do have a dystopian novel somewhere in my head, yearning to come out... someday I hope to write it.

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