Monday, September 12, 2011

Types of Dystopos: Pangaea

Panem in The Hunger Games; Eurasia in 1984; the Magisterium of The Golden Compass

Tectonic theory posits that the earth is actually a series of plates floating on molten metal. The continents used to be smashed together in a giant supercontinent that geologists call “Pangaea.” It suggests a simpler world, where you could walk from one side of the extant world to the other; it’s a world that’s almost impossible to imagine as contiguous with our own, Brazil and Nigeria next door neighbors, Russia and Alaska and Canada all one big hunting ground.

In dystopian fiction, a similar move happens: in 1984, we have neither Great Britain nor Russia nor China but Oceania and Eurasia and Eastasia. In The Hunger Games, we have Panem (a word that is probably originally a play on “panem et circenses,” the Latin for “bread and circuses”, but also nicely captures the idea of a pan-encompassing nation-state).

The most obvious payoff of this condensation is that it allows authors to discuss geopolitics without offending anyone. (I make this point with Hunger Games in this post.) It also allows you to leap into a dystopia without overthinking how you get there: how did Big Brother come to power? how were the Hunger Games developed? (something about district 13, but…) Unlike the astroturf dystopias, the Pangaea dystopian novels leap into a world that is already alien—even the national boundaries only vaguely resemble our own.

In the end, this strategy also simplifies what might be an otherwise intractably difficult game of geopolitics. Try to play with the larger issues of politics, and you might end up like Orson Scott Card when he wrote the Shadow sequels to Ender’s Game; in EG, the world becomes a shadowy hegemony offscreen, but in the later sequels, OSC grew more ambitious and wanted to flesh out just how an Earth-wide nation could form in a matter of years. He wanted China to invade India—and then for India to revolt which would put pressure on Russia to—and the whole thing plays out like the latest game of Civilization IV.


The Pangaea dystopias hold behind them a fantasy of mix-and-match politics. 1984 depends on the fact that Eurasia and Eastasia are so easily interchangeable; The Hunger Games depends on a certain vagueness of time and place and distance and manpower (just how many soldiers are fighting how many and getting past who—)

The Golden Compass involves a pan-multiverse battle against God. The world that is not quite our world is a world more easily manipulated—smashing the world together in fiction is a concession that our own (nonfictional) world is not quite so simple. But sometimes I think we wish it was.

1 comment:

  1. I think the thing I love most about pangean dystopias is that you are left to figure out how big brother came into power all on your own.