Thursday, September 8, 2011

Types of Dystopos: Astroturf

Examples: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451

I just finished Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the many “classic” dystopian novels that make up this genre’s history—and I was struck by Atwood’s decision to set her novel so close to the founding of her dystopia, Gilead.

New regimes are sometimes forged by revolution, born of sweat and popular dissent—created by grassroots movements that call and clamor for change. Few dystopias arise from this, if only because where they end up is ultimately a population of people too miserable, or lethargic, or both. Instead, as in Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian system just springs into life, a fake grassroots movement—astroturf. Extremists in Handmaid’s Tale gun down the American Senate; we have intimations that the caste system of BNW was developed by scientists and World Controllers.

Having an astroturf dystopia means that some of the characters in the novel will have that unwieldy double-consciousness: living in a brave new world, with memories of the one still passing away from history. We have a strange sense that people born into an environment won’t challenge it nearly as much—and so it is an interesting opportunity to have someone who has seen two worlds. Offred, the narrator of Handmaid’s Tale, remembers spending her childhood and adolescence and twenty-something years in a world just like ours; it makes her thoughts and feelings more akin to our own, to see a world of constant order and danger and repression, all the while comparing it to the world she knew before.

This kind of dystopia facilitates one kind of scene that you rarely see in other dystopias: the villain comparing the two worlds, the one that was ours and the one that is theirs. In a deleted scene from F451, Captain Beatty has an apartment full of books and talks about censorship with relish; in Brave New World, Mustapha Mond believes that the world he has created is certainly more bland, but infinitely happier than the one he has replaced.

In the end, these astroturf dystopias tend to come apart at the seams. The authors of these books seem to agree that when you change a world from the top down, those millions of people who remember the old ways won’t. F451 ends with a megaton blast that blows away the dystopian city as quickly as it swept away the world before—Handmaid’s Tale ends with a report from a professor who studies Gileadean literature, showing that Gilead rose quickly and fell just as quick.

Not all dystopias are born of revolution, however: others are created from centuries of drift, slippery slopes, and slumps. I’ll write about that next week.

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