The Unbound Writers co-sponsored a panel called “The Resurrection of Dystopian Lit” with the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. During Lighthouse’s annual LitFest, under a big sweltering tent, the panelists—Claire Vaye Watkins, Alexander Lumans, Thao Le, and our own Mark Springer—debated everything from what is a dystopia to whether it can be hopeful. Here are a few of our thoughts.
Lisa Mahoney, on Why It's Not What You Think
Let's get our terms straight, first. A "dystopia," according to Lumans," is really anything that is not a "utopia"—but that's not the same thing as a cacotopia. And an apocalypse is something different, and independent: originally it meant an uncovering, so in a way it implies a solution.
Break for definitions:
Utopia: an imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities. Sir Thomas More coined the term in 1516.
Dystopia: a community or society that is undesirable or frightening, translated as a "not-good place," an antonym of utopia. Examples include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Cacotopia, or kakotopia: (ancient Greek κακόs, "bad, wicked") more rare, it is often used synonymously with dystopia, except, for one, by Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, who said it was a better fit for Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four because "it sounds worse than dystopia." Jeremy Bentham proposed it in 1818.
Apocalypse: translated literally from Greek, it means a disclosure of knowledge, a lifting of the veil or revelation. Today it refers to any prophetic revelation, end of time scenario, or end of the world.
When I first heard "cacotopia," I wrote "cock-a-topia" in my notes, imagining a place where everything is cocked up. But that sounds increasingly like our world, doesn't it? In researching the impending western water crisis for their novels, Watkins (Gold Fame Citrus) and Paolo Bacigalupi (The Water Knife), found that many water problems they'd thought would make for satirical or nightmarish fiction turned out to be already happening: draining lakes like a bathtub, or cutthroat water-rights operatives. Soon, we'll face a real cocked-up-topia that everyone, even bleached and dyed politicians, will recognize.
But not all post-apocalyptic literature necessarily results in dystopias. After all, the original apocalyptic work, the Book of Revelation, hints at the original utopia (Heaven) following the crisis. If publishers worry dark dystopias are becoming too dreary to sell, maybe it's time for a utopian revival?
Theodore McCombs, on Everyday Apocalypses
Not all apocalypses are high-death-toll disasters, and not all dystopias are totalitarian states. Watkins pointed to Dept. of Speculation, by fellow visiting author Jenny Offill, as the apocalypse of a marriage. As Lisa notes above, apokalypsis means an unveiling, an un-hiding of the hidden, and although this originally refers to the angelic vision revealed to St. John—the eschatological violence of John’s vision is why we connect “apocalypse” with world-ending disaster—maybe it can meaningfully refer also to the way a catastrophe reveals the underlying fragility of our world. Isn’t it human nature to rely unthinkingly on the constants in our life that support us, while we deal with all of the anxiety of what’s uncertain? Maybe it’s the romantic partner we lean on while we figure out the mess of our career, or the job we thrive in as we deal with our mess of a relationship; or maybe it’s the “majestic and monstrously stupid” system of commerce that lets us eat fresh greens and drink coffee every day.
If we lose the partner—lose the job—lose the channels of food security—we gain an awful understanding of the thinness of civilization, of how dysfunctional our “reliable” connections are. Maybe we find our rock-solid relationship hides a deception or dissatisfaction (as Offill’s narrator does); maybe we see terribly into the exploitation and amorality of our capitalist infrastructure, comrade. This is why I tend to like dystopias more than cacotopias, because that ‘dys-’ captures a sense of something provisionally bearable, but off; a bone set wrong, rather than hell on earth. Though maybe the two are intimately connected: it’s only by unveiling the future worst, the boiling seas and scorching sun, that we behold the fragility and dysfunction of our present.
Mark Springer, wondering Do Androids Dream of Literary Fiction?
The panel discussion got me thinking about “serious” authors who transgressed into genre (transgressions I’m all in favor of). There are more than you might think. Maybe Blade Runner's Tyrell Corporation could rig up a variant of the Voight-Kampff machine to help us sort the true literati from the replicants? Here are a few that came to mind:
Margaret Atwood. When she won the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 for The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood was quick to distance herself and her novel from the science fiction genre, which in her mind was typified by pulp stories about talking space squids. She insisted The Handmaid’s Tale was “speculative fiction,” a categorization she felt was less restrictive—and more respectable.
Emily St. John Mandel. Twenty-eight years later, it was déjà vu all over again: although taking home the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award for her novel Station Eleven, Mandel is on record trying to (politely) avoid the sci-fi genre label. Like Atwood, Mandel wrote poignantly about a not-too-distant future in which things have gone horribly wrong for humankind.
Kazuo Ishiguro. The Buried Giant is a literary-fantasy hybrid featuring bits of Arthurian legend, a dragon and a magical mist that makes the inhabitants of ancient England forget the past. It’s all woven together with the author’s typical understated mastery, but even before the novel landed on bookstore shelves Ishiguro admitted to being worried his readers might be “prejudiced” against the story’s fantasy elements.
Each of these novels portray a very different dystopia; the common thread is their literary authors worried their work will be mis-categorized and therefore misunderstood. So why take the risk of transgressing into genre? Why not toe the literary line instead? Is it even possible to write a dystopia without genre?
I can’t speak for any of these authors, but that won’t stop me from speculating: I think they wrote the books they needed to write. Dystopian futures, pandemic plagues, and dragons exist beyond the bounds of the genres they are commonly associated with, which means they can serve any story an author is committed to telling. Atwood, Mandel, and Ishiguro recognized this, and they allowed their imaginations to take them where they needed to go. The doubt and worry came later, as they always do when we’re trying to figure out how our stories fit into the larger world.
CS Peterson, on Young Adult Dystopias
Toni Morrison didn't come up with the famous line that literature should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," as one panelist quoted; but she did say this: "everywhere, everywhere, children are the scorned people of the earth." And when it comes to Young Adult fiction, too many adopt that dismissive blanket view that a first-person romance is the only literature to which hormone-addled teenagers can relate.
In discussing YA dystopias, Thao Le posed the question, Whose dystopia is it, anyway? She suggested an authentic YA dystopia would have to be "hell for a teen, not what an adult thinks hell for a teen would be.” What if there are so many YA dystopias not just because of market imitation and saturation—what if Collins's The Hunger Games and its imitators actually touch a nerve?
I teach. Over the past eight years, my students have chosen to study such child-appropriate topics as contemporary slavery, child soldiers, genocide, multigenerational work camps in North Korea, the physiological effects of PTSD and the experience of refugees. (They have also chosen to study candy, origami and desserts of the world too. They are kids.) My students have often mined The Hunger Games to help them find language to use when wrapping their minds around the horrors of children killing children, of war, class, power and powerlessness. In the movie adaptations, visual references to poverty like Dorothea Lange’s iconic photographs were not lost on them:
Adults have contradictory wishes. We hope our children grow up and change the world, yet we also try to extend innocence for as long as possible. Beware of looking on children’s games with an indulgent smile, thinking you have shielded them from real life. They play in earnest. Children know about dragons much earlier than their parents want to think they do.
Look skeptically at computer and television images...be aware of spin, gaze upon the young faces of the world's soldiers. Children forced to kill children? It's not just in the pages of a novel.
- Mary Quattlebaum, reviewing Mockingjay in The Washington Post
What would be hell for a teen? This is what I hear from my students: They fear losing passion, succumbing to complacency, stepping over the fallen bodies of the suffering as a condition of growing up. Their fear is not unfounded, and our "thoughts and prayers" are with them. While the many series inspired by The Hunger Games have sadly fallen into formulaic pandering, talking down to an audience they thought they'd nailed, genuine YA dystopia thoughtfully considers "what would be hell for a teen, not what an adult thinks hell for a teen would be."
This is the power of a dystopia, be it YA or adult: It holds up a mirror, it builds the language by which we name perils and possibilities that we would not see if we had not encountered them before in the world of a book.
Thao Le is an agent with Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency and a champion of speculative writers. Thao’s recent sales include Kathryn Tanquary’s middle-grade debut The Night Parade (Sourcebooks), Roshani Chokshi’s YA fantasy The Star-Touched Queen (St. Martin’s), and Elle Katharine White's fantasy of manners Heartstone (Harper Voyager).
Alexander Lumans is a writer and instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Story Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, American Short Fiction, and Sycamore Review, among others. During LitFest, he taught classes like “Tapping Into Your Weirdness,” which seems about right.
Mark Springer is one of Fiction Unbound’s founding co-editors and frequent contributors. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and co-author of the nonfiction book, The Steady Climb: A Family Journey from Mountains to Markets. Mark was doing his best to moderate the panel.
Claire Vaye Watkins’s book of short stories Battleborn won The Story Prize, among others. Her eagerly anticipated, recently released Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead Books) features a dystopian California wracked by apocalyptic drought, and was reviewed right here at Fiction Unbound.