Monday, February 09, 2015

Doubleplusgood: Convergence 2015 and dystopias

One of my favorite science fiction conventions in the Midwest is Minnesota's CONvergence. This year's theme is Doubleplusgood, a celebration of dystopian visions in science fiction and fantasy. They're raising some interesting questions for us to consider on the theme:
"Spend as much time as you like imagining new economic models, better systems for social justice, and the most delicious free desserts delivered to your doorstep. Someone else will look at your ideal world and immediately know it’s not for them. That’s the problem with utopian fiction—it’s hard to find any two people who agree on what their perfect utopia would look like. 
But it’s easy to agree that we wouldn’t want to live under the oppression of Big Brother’s totalitarian regime in 1984 or the theocratic dictatorship of The Handmaid’s Tale. We don’t want to spend each day fighting for survival in a post-apocalyptic setting like Mad Max or The Walking Dead. We wouldn’t line up for The Hunger Games or Death Race 2000. 
And yet, these settings draw us to them with undeniable fascination. They hold up a horrific funhouse mirror to our own society and allow us to imagine waking up to a world filled with different obstacles and possibilities. 
We can gaze upon the worlds of Metropolis, Ergo Proxy or Blade Runner. We can quest our way through Pandora in Borderlands. We can read of A Clockwork Orange, V for Vendetta or Minority Report. (Unless of course we are in the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451!) 
It’s fun to imagine ourselves as part of these worlds, safe in the knowledge that when the stories end, we’ll be back in our own universe with its familiar virtues and flaws. Dystopias are the science fiction and fantasy incarnation of, “It’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there!”

Be sure to check the convention out and consider attending!

I've spent a significant amount of time discussion dystopias, especially the ideas of 1984 in a variety of my classes, workshops and poems over the years. The Robo Sutra is one of my more recent examples. One question that comes to mind is how often do dystopias tie into the apocalypse? As I explore various iterations of the Laopocalypse, I want to be careful about any assumptions that the two are inextricably tied.

Yes, there are many scenarios where a dystopia is responsible, but maybe we need to start presenting what happens when you have Utopias and Shangri-Las facing the end. Do they do it with dignity, or does the earth still die screaming? Can you have a dystopia and the end of the world, but that apocalypse isn't because of the dystopia?

I imagine the final conversations might go something like "Well, I think you should know: You're a VERY dysfunctional society, and the world's going to end now, but it's because a free-market democracy halfway around the the world decided to make it a free-for-all extracting rare metals from the center of the earth.  It's not about YOU."

When I see a film like Blade Runner where we're presented with a future populated with Asians, I'm told it's supposed to be a horrifying vision of dystopia, but it doesn't seem like such a bad future to me. It becomes questionable in a beloved show like Firefly where futuristic Chinese culture is what holds most of the galaxy together. And the implication is that it's "obviously" a dystopia if European American mores and culture has been displaced.

One thing I find interesting is the consistency with which futurists writing dystopias insist there will be a new language and vocabulary to implement that dystopia. "If they're speaking strangely, it's one of the sure signs you're in a dystopia." You can see this in the Newspeak of 1984 from which CONvergence 2015 is drawing its thematic phrase "doubleplusgood" or the polyglot cityspeak of Blade Runner and the way Mandarin is sprinkled throughout Firefly. I do find it a bit odd that we rarely see African languages incorporated to any large degree in the vocabularies of the future.

We may need to consider a variation on Francois Truffaut's famous position that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because films tend to make war look exciting. Anti-dystopia films are caught in a particular bind. How do you create an indictment of a future no one wants to see?

Often, films have gone to cartoonish extremes of satire to make their point, only it inures us to incremental manifestations of those dystopias. You can see this in Brazil, Star Wars, and Planet of the Apes, among others. "Well, as long as they aren't running around looking like ACTUAL stormtroopers, we're OK."

Conversely, if you present a dystopia that's less satirical, you'll then find your work critiqued for historical accuracy and called out as propaganda by whoever you've painted as the agents of dystopia.

It will be interesting to see in the future how other Lao writers explore the themes of dystopia. I'm reminded of the adage that left-wing tyranny is just as odious as right-wing tyranny. One can make a fairly objective statement that it's been a long time since Lao have lived in anything not resembling a dystopia, whether the roots be colonial, self-inflicted, or an outcome of expatriation. So, I'd say we have a significant amount of territory to explore where our perspective can be meaningful.

But what are your thoughts?

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