The first panel on my schedule on Friday was “Improbable Dystopias?” (“A look at dystopian fiction—what makes some worlds believable, and others not?”), featuring authors Janni Lee Simner (The Bones of Faerie), Jason Hough (The Darwin Elevator), Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone), Pierce Brown (Red Rising), and Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant (Feed and Parasite). They probably also could’ve called it, “Most Terrifying Panel of the Con.” Seriously, the takeaway from this one is that WE ARE LIVING IN A DYSTOPIA RIGHT NOW! When I left the panel I had a strong urge to purchase hand sanitizer and not eat chicken for awhile. But in all seriousness, it was a great panel—lots of ideas, lots of audience interaction, and lots of time spent digging deep into many different aspects of the theme. As usual, I arrived 10 minutes late, but made it there in time to catch the tail end of some discussion of utopias giving rise to dystopias. Seanan McGuire then brought up the idea that there are also dystopias that didn’t start out as utopias, but rather as a frantic bid to fix things. She built on the idea by saying that if you want to see how a dystopian future could come to pass, you should go to the airport and have a look at TSA—lots of people doing what they’re told, in a pretty arbitrary way. She noted that over the course of 15 years, we’ve gone from being able to walk up to the gate to meet arriving friends and family, to getting manhandled by strangers, having our liquids thrown away, being subjected to the radiation box, etc. “What do we do when they start putting in those steps where the TSA takes over the buses? Who’s going to stand up and say no, I’d rather risk terrorism than have TSA agents at the Greyhound station?” she asked.
Laini Taylor also thought the airport example was a good one. She mentioned how when she’d been at the airport recently, she’d flashed back to the scene from The Pianist (“unfairly, exaggeratedly,” she added), when people are being herded out of the ghetto and they’re going along with it simply because they didn’t believe anything extreme could happen. Pierce Brown also had an airports-as-the-beginnings-of-dystopia story, mentioning how when he’d been sitting in the airport to fly to Phoenix, he was listening to the broadcast and realized that it sounded like something straight out of Total Recall or Robocop—“Due to increased security measures…” It was like all the sci-fi movies he grew up with in the ‘90s are real!
The panel agreed that as things escalate incrementally, you’re afraid to say anything about it or rock the boat. Janni Lee Simner added, “Dystopia gets out of control when we believe in the illusion of safety,” which I thought was a really compelling, and scary, idea. Talk then turned to the concept of the “boiled frog dystopia.” Apparently, if you try to put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out. No surprise, right? It’s not going to tolerate that. But if you put it in a pot of room temperature water and slowly turn up the heat, it will allow itself to be boiled alive because it won’t notice the tiny incremental changes in the water around it. (How this was all discovered, I do not want to know.) Seanan thought that these kinds of dystopias are the ones that feel the most realistic to her—the situation where something bad has happened, be it a bio attack or a terrorist attack, and we put in all sort of new measures that help us feel a little safer, and now we’d feel unsafe without those things. And if people want to look like they’re doing something about terrorism, they have to do something more extreme and go a little bit further, because you can’t dial it back. People would start to feel unsafe, even though their state of safety would be the same as it was before.
Janni noted that we’re at a time when, statistically, we’re the safest we’ve ever been, but we actually feel like we’re the most at risk. She highlighted this as an example of the element of perception, where we feel like we need more government control, or more of a dystopic setup in society. This moved the conversation in the direction of the media’s role in a dystopia, which Janni said is something The Hunger Games got really right. Pierce brought in the ideas that a) when the media or government pushes something (say, gangs or terrorism), that’s what we worry about, and b) there is a feeling of futility in dealing with a government agency or huge business, which conditions us to be inactive and helpless in the face of these powers and further upholds a dystopia. Laini agreed, also noting the prevalence of the suppression of individuality in dystopian worlds as a method of fighting against the possibility of a popular voice or folk hero arising, leading to a bland mass culture. Jason Hough noted that in that sort of culture and social milieu, people feel that if they’re not doing anything wrong, they don’t have to worry about it—and that puts them in a mass state of complacency.
Another big idea that came up often during the course of the panel was the concept of normalcy bias, or our instinct to think that everything is okay. Janni described it as people’s tendency to think, even if a fire alarm is going off and there is smoke billowing, “Is this really happening??” Laini said that she loves that term, and noted that something related that she likes to play with in her books is what it would take for a person to believe something supernatural was going on, to force them to override that “everything is okay” instinct. Jason’s example (and my favorite) was to ask when was the last time we heard a car alarm go off and thought, “Someone’s car is getting stolen!!” Pierce talked about how it reminds him of the scene from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when the killer invites the hero in for a glass of scotch, and even though he knows he’s the killer he goes in anyway, thinking it would be too rude to refuse. Janni commented on how we’re socialized not to offend anyone, and to feel like you could get in trouble for making waves (especially if you’re a woman).
Talk then turned to the culture of fear. Janni explained how we’re really bad at math and risk assessment—even if it’s a one in a million chance, if someone gets e. coli from broccoli, no one will eat broccoli for awhile (though they’ll still get in cars!). But then Pierce told a story about how his mom wouldn’t let him eat cookie dough as a kid because of the risk of salmonella—he brought up the low chance of him actually getting it to her, then ate some cookie dough and got salmonella. After laughter at that one died down, Seanan cited salmonella as a great example of the culture of fear. She said we know exactly how salmonella got into eggs—the foundation chickens of major poultry farms were infected in the ‘70s, and they know where all the infected chickens are. She said it would cost $175,000 to replace them and they’d have to shut down big poultry for 6 months, but the food companies lose less money by settling salmonella cases than they would by shutting down for that length of time. To which Janni replied, “Well, if that doesn’t convince you we’re living in a dystopia…”
An audience member asked the panel if they thought any of the recent dystopian books like The Hunger Games or Divergent would make it into the ranks of classic dystopian novels, and what they thought makes a classic dystopian novel a classic. Pierce fielded the second question first, saying, “I think for me personally it’s the metaphorical nature of those books. I feel as though when people sit down to write dystopians now, they sit down to write a story. Whereas in the past with Fahrenheit 451 or Animal Farm, they sat down to tell a message.” Janni took on the first part of the question, and said that although she thinks The Hunger Games is not a perfect book, it’s enough of a critique of our society that she could see it hanging around. Seanan had a different take on the situation, noting that the biggest bar to entry in the echelons of classic dystopia may be that we think in trilogies now, whereas almost all the classics are single volumes, which teachers love to teach and school districts love to buy. The Hunger Games and Divergent are big, thick trilogies that would require a lot of money to be spent by a teacher or school, so from a purely fiscal standpoint they’ll probably stick with the one-and-done books.
When another audience member asked if anyone was familiar with dystopian literature that came out of the early Soviet Union, Pierce brought up the subject of propaganda in the Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba. It depicted America as a commercialized entity, and that thus their version of a dystopia was thinking of America as one big company. That, of course, made me think of my beloved Ready Player One, in which the big bad of that dystopian world is a single company gaining too much power. (Sadly, the book never came up during the course of the panel.) In a similar vein, Seanan added that a movie she’d recommend as a fantastic critique of modern society as a consumerist dystopia is the live action Josie and the Pussycats. She described it as a flat-out critique of modern American consumerism and the music industry, and I agree on both counts—that it’s a consumerist dystopia and that it’s fantastic. And hilarious! I totally recommend it. Anyway—this direction of discussion led to the conclusion that how exactly we fall apart will determine what the new dystopian classics are.
Another audience question led to a discussion of the dystopic influences of zombie novels. Seanan stated that to her mind, though dead people getting up and walking isn’t a thing that can happen, a medical disaster leading to a compromised infected population is very likely. Laini added that she thinks that’s part of why zombie stories are so popular, because you can so easily see something medical going wrong in our world. Though not zombie-related, both Laini and Janni recommended M.T. Anderson’s Feed as a great dystopian novel. The story involves an internet feed to your brain (which Laini noted is kind of the next step up from our smartphones) that tracks your thoughts and preferences, and uses that as a consumer tool for selling you things. Pierce noted a similarity to Minority Report, where they can recognize your eyes and face and show you the advertisements you supposedly want to see because they’ve been tracking your history, which is frighteningly like the internet nowadays.
The next audience question brought up the idea of two different kinds of dystopias—the authoritarian regime and the society of decadence, which Janni clarified as the dystopia of “decadence vs. restraint” and that of “chaos vs. order.” Pierce brought the idea back to ancient Rome, asking that if the unemployment rate was at least 70% in their empire, why do you think they had gladiatorial combat and so many festivals? Laini agreed that it’s cheaper to entertain people than to oppress them, and can accomplish the same thing.
Discussion perhaps inevitably touched upon the subject of Amazon, its move towards monopoly, and its feud with publisher Hachette. Seanan stated that Hachette authors are absolutely living in a dystopia right now. She knows people whose book sales have plummeted 60% since Amazon stopped stocking and selling their books reasonably. She said it’s the birth of a dystopia, and every time we speak up, the normalcy bias and don’t-rock-the-boat kick in.
Turning back to the audience questions, the next was about how to create a character who wants to overthrow the government or dystopia without making them a Mary Sue. Pierce defined a Mary Sue as “a perfect character, a paragon of all that is good and righteous,” and said that the best way to avoid that is to make them human—make them as flawed as all humans are, and have them make mistakes. Seanan took the opportunity to request that everyone remove the term “Mary Sue” from their vocabulary when talking about characters in original fiction. She said, “It is almost always used to denigrate women’s writing and teen writing. I’ve literally had people criticize original fiction by saying, ‘How come all the boys are interested in the protagonist?’ Well I don’t know, maybe because she’s the protagonist! This is her book. A Mary Sue warps the story. That’s why she is a bad thing in fanfic. If she is the main character of your book or he is the main character of your book, they’re not a Mary Sue—they’re a protagonist. So please, let’s get that out of our vocabulary. It’s not fair to anyone.”
Another interesting question from the audience: Do you think dystopias arise because utopias cannot exist? Jason responded that though something might be one person’s definition of a utopia, some other person would inevitably find some flaw in it. Seanan added, “I bet the Kardashians think we’re living in a utopia right now. If you’re in that top 1% you are absolutely living in a utopia. You can have anything with a snap of your fingers.”
Other topics discussed included the idea of “the chosen one” and their support networks in the context of a dystopia, how characters awaken to the dystopia around them and how they find themselves drawn into what becomes the story, and the idea of “easy to care, hard to act.” The latter is something we see in reality as well as dystopian fiction, as demonstrated by Janni’s example of a wounded stray kitten—people may see it and talk about how it’s so heartbreaking, but very few are willing to do anything about it. It’s easy to be the person who cares and feels for this poor cat, but harder to be the one who actually takes it home and cleans up after it.
It was a very enlightening and engaging hour of discussion, and left me with lots of food for thought with regards to both books I’ve been reading and the reality we find ourselves living in now. The panelists and moderator were really great, and the questions from the audience brought up all sorts of topics that enriched the panel. True, I may now know more than I’d like about boiling frogs and have a healthy/unhealthy fear of salmonella eggs! But I left the panel feeling like I’d been a part of some sort of dystopia salon, and it made me want to check out some of the books and movies brought up during the panel. To the library!
What are your favorite dystopian books/movies/TV shows? Do you agree with the points made during the panel discussion? Let us know!