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Dystopia: A Lost Term?

by janderson on January 23, 2012

I am delighted to welcome my first guest blogger to The Ephemera today. Fellow dystopian author Leigh M. Lane from www.cerebralwriter.com has written a fantastic article on the state of the dystopian genre. I encourage everyone to check out Leigh’s books, World-Mart and Myths of Gods.


I want to thank Jeffery M. Anderson for opening his blog to me as a guest today. It’s a real treat to connect with other dystopian authors and readers and I’m glad to be here.

I would like to begin with an interactive test. Go to any social network and type into the discussion box the word “dystopia.” See anything interesting? Chances are, you’ll see the same issue in most word processing programs. The word comes up as a spelling error; however, you’ve made no error. Many programs simply do not recognize it as a legitimate word because it has become too rare to bother adding to their databases.

It came as quite a shock the day I finally realized dystopian literature no longer held the reverence it did back in the days of Orwell et al. Ask any given group of people to define the term, and you’ll be lucky to find one or two people who can do so adequately. The realization hit me when the reviews began to pour in for my recent release, World-Mart. While the novel was able to find some readership familiar with the genre, I was surprised when some readers rated it poorly because they didn’t like that it had a dismal ending. The first thought that came to my mind was, “This is a dystopia. What do these people expect?” Then, I realized that these readers did not know what a dystopia was.

I shared a blog post last month titled The 1984 Effect, in which I defined the public’s desire for escapism and happy endings as a sign of the times. Instead of embracing literature that works to highlight contemporary issues and effect change, most people would rather read books that take them as far away as possible from the evils of our world. While a little escapism every now and then is a good thing, I see the aversion to realism as a part of the complacency that plagues our nations, a problem that—like the world’s compounding problems—no one seems to want to address.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “dystopia” refers to the genre of literature opposite of “utopia.” Instead of portraying a perfect world, the dystopia paints a bleak picture of our future, often a prediction of what may come to be if people do not change their ways or face current issues. Like the utopia, dystopia is meant to raise issues in meaningful ways and make people think. Unlike the utopia, the ending is typically not very happy—but this is with purpose. Only through angst might people truly look at the problems around them and decide it is time to make a stand against them. Only by looking at the worst possible scenarios might they consider their opposite outcomes and how to achieve them.

In my dystopia World-Mart, corporate America has fallen to its extreme. Gone are the days of “mom and pop” stores, independent contractors, and the freedom to choose one’s own path. Because of reorganization prompted by the effects of global warming and antibiotic-resistant disease, “Corporate” owns everything, including government and church. Everyone is reduced to a polo shirt and a name tag, working either for the Marts (low income) or the Corps (middle income). Construction work is left to the “deviants,” those unfortunate enough to be descendants of a germ-line therapy for antibiotic resistant disease gone wrong (although the only real difference between them any everyone else is their eye color). If one wants to go grocery shopping, one goes to the Food-Mart; if one wants to get from point A to point B, one goes through Transportation-Corp; if one gets sick or injured, one goes to Medical-Corp.

Why did I write such a bleak story? Because I remember a time before the corporate takeover, when independent businesses were the norm, customer service was a pleasure, and people took pride in their work (because they made more than minimum wage, received great benefits, and loved their employers). Fast-forward to the present day, in which people fitted in matching polo shirts and khaki pants work for enormous corporations for little pay and few to no benefits, struggling to make ends meet, while high-paid CEOs rake in the cash. People are undereducated, stores are employed with uninformed “experts,” and no one seems to care. As a writer, I feel it is my job to address such issues through my literature.

So, I ask you to finish reading this short essay with an experiment of your own. Ask ten random friends to define “dystopia” and take a close look at the answers you receive. Go to your local “Mart” store and ask an employee how long he or she trained for the position—and then ask what his or her company last did to improve his or her quality of life. Then ask yourself: what has this world come to and where is it heading? Moreover, would you rather remain with the escapists or start thinking about what you personally can do to change it all?

Leigh M. Lane lives in the beautiful mountains of Montana with her husband and their two cats. She writes dark speculative fiction that often contains strong social and political commentary. Her novels Myths of Gods and World-Mart span billions of years of science fantasy past to just decades into a dystopian future, her imagination as vast as her books are fast-paced and unique. For more information, go to her website at http://www.cerebralwriter.com.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Harriet Parke January 23, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Dear Mrs. Lane:

I admire the fact that you write dark speculative fiction with strong social and political commentary. I firmly believe that is necessary in today’s world.

I have written a 70,200 word novel “Agenda 21, District 14″ about a young woman who grows to learn the brutal history of the dystopian world she lives in. It is a society where the earth is sacred and citizens are forced to walk friction boards to produce energy. She gives birth to a daughter who is immediately taken from her to be raised by the Authorities in the Children’s Village. She makes the dangerous decision to escape with her child but first she creates chaos to expose the evils of this society.

The manuscript is complete and has been professionally edited.

I have begun the grueling process of submission and would value your advic on how to proceed.

Thank you for your time.

Harriet Parke

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Leigh M. Lane January 25, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Harriet,

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to your question. The whole process, no matter what level you’re at, really is a lot of trial and error. If you haven’t already done so, set up a website and a blog and be as active as you can be with updates. 500-1000-word essays on your genre, your experiences as a writer, and everything else in between will help you to build a readership before your book sells. Don’t wait to build your platform until you have a book deal; you want readers to be looking forward to your release. I hope that helps. BTW, good luck!

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Pearce Hansen January 23, 2012 at 8:31 pm

I think dystopia’s heyday was when people thought they could actually AVERT the futures unfolded in those cautionary tales. Now that we’re living in this over-populated drag race future, folks have less faith in actually altering the course of human events in any meaningful way — hence their preference for escapism rather than punishing themselves with horrible scenarios they no longer feel to e avoidable. Before, dystopia had a social cachet, like the shared public tragedy plays of ancient Greece — now, it’s just masochism.

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