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Some questions from one of our readers

Christopher Newgent asked me to pose these questions to the Big Other community:

Can anyone think of a dystopian novel set in the past, in a more pastoral setting, where it would only take a big enough mob with pitchforks (maybe some black powder rifles) to overthrow a dystopian regime?

Can a dystopian regime, and thus storytelling premise, only exist in a more present or future age, when weapons exist on a government level that make a revolutionary mob easily disposed of?

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

34 thoughts on “Some questions from one of our readers

  1. Although the novels that immediately come to mind are set in the future, I’d say, since no era has ever been free of totalitarianism, a dystopian novel can be set in a pastoral setting, in any, really.

  2. 1. The New Testament. And the mobs didn’t even use pitchforks.

    Perhaps more seriously: How about Robin Hood? There’s no single definitive text, but it’s essentially the story of a popular guerilla movement that rises up against (and defeats) an iron-fisted tyrant.

    Or how about Twain’s A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT (1889)? Interestingly, Hank takes over the court by means of scientific knowledge and modern technology, but they eventually prove his downfall (and everyone’s downfall).

    2. I shouldn’t think so. Weapons and a military and so forth—Althusser’s “Repressive State Apparatus”—aren’t the only means a State has to “keep the rabble in line.” Ideology is first and foremost. Make people think they’re powerless, or that they have it good, and they won’t unify and rebel regardless of the reality of the situation.

    In any case, a sword is a pretty strong advantage in combat. I think any State that can equip troops with any bladed weapon and some training would have a military advantage against commoners. See Samurai fiction.

    Interesting questions! Hope this helps some.

  3. Thanks for posting this, John. And great thoughts, AD.

    A friend of mine on my blog post actually mentioned Old Testament stories–Hebrews/Egyptians, and so on. Got me thinking whether it’s ever been thought to sub-categorize slave narratives as dystopian lit.

    I guess I’m just wondering, taking a much more open position on what consitutes a dystopian novel, would historical narratives about the French Revolution and such also be included?

    How widespread an effect does a regime have to have for it to classify as dystopian? Especially given that many characters in dystopian narratives are limited in their view of the world by their oppressive regime’s propoganda, etc.

    1. Fantasy lit in general might be a rich vein here to mine. Requiring the aid of a stout dwarf wielding a sturdy ax. And a wizard to ward off the fell snares of rival necromancers…

      Dystopian lit could be thought of as a subgenre of fantasy. Or sci-fi, depending on what it’s like.

    2. In that context, I think a few of those books would qualify. I mean, the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe could easily be a dystopian figurehead.

      1. And if the White Witch qualifies, then the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz does, too. She usurps control of the Winkie Country, and enslaves the Winkies and the Winged Monkeys, after all.

        1. How about ATLAS SHRUGGED? When Galt and his fellow leaders of industry strike, society collapses, and becomes increasingly dystopian (and controlled by the government). Then, after it’s all gone to pot, Galt et al return to restore order (and give sanctimonious, long-winded speeches).

  4. I actually find the second question maybe more interesting, because I think: there is an element of any system of power that is about self-regulation and complicity, right, how power gets inside the heads of subjects, who we imagine watches from the center of the panopticon?

    One of the things that I think is a limitation of dystopian lit is that it is so often abt exaggeration and domination rather than the more complex interlocking systems through which people are managed. So whether or not such a text indeed exists, I think it *could* exist and would appreciate the opportunity to read it.

    1. Have you read Orwell’s Keep the Apidistra Flying?

      For some reason, with the concept of “Money (and lack thereof)” being the oppressing mechanism. But perhaps I’m reading that second paragraph wrong.

    2. I think this is related to some of the writing I’ve been doing about the dominant. Genres can be thought of as groupings of dominants, both in form and subject matter. If you’re watching a movie and it’s set in 1860s Arizona, and has cowboys riding horses and staging shootouts, you deduce that you’re watching a Western, which tends to contain those things (instead of other things, like rocket ships and big cities). Similarly, if the movie opens with a murder, and it’s foggy outside, and then a police detective arrives to motivate expository flashbacks by interviewing suspects, you (rightly) assume you’re watching a murder mystery.

      (David Borwell and Kristin Thompson have written far more exhaustively about defining genre in a similar way.)

      So the “dystopian” genere (or subgenere) “brings along with it” various dominant elements. Dystopian lit usually is
      . urban-centric;
      . concerned with how expanding technology reduces individuality and free thought;
      . rooted in “ordinary” (lower-class) protagonists;
      . follows a revolutionary plotline (or false revolution);
      . is satirical or moral in nature. (“Utopia” of course literally means “no place.” Satire is inherent in the genre, right from Moore–although it like all things can be removed. But there’s a tradition of using the form to disguise social commentary.)

      …Among other things. But just as any element of a genre can be removed, and replaced with something else—see AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS!—so too can the dystopian genre be tinkered with, hybridized, and innovated within.

      I’d love to see a truly pastoral dystopian novel. Maybe some episodes in the QUIXOTE could be read that way? Quixote himself might imagine he’s living in a dystopia. (Although they’d also be false pastoral, since that novel’s a parody of the pastoral.)

      GULLIVER’S TRAVELS is dystopic. As is Butler’s EREWHON. (And so too is Guy Davenport’s rewriting of the latter, “The Dawn in Erewhon.”)

  5. If it’s not obvious, I really appreciate everyone’s observations here.

    Seems dystopian lit can really encompass a great deal given a more general and open definition, peeling the sci-fi sorts of motifs from it and looking at it as more of an oppression-conceit genre.

    1. You should look for Judith Halberstam’s thoughts on dystopian texts, if they’re in writing anywhere — I’m not sure they are, I heard them in a panel conversation.

      She argues that due to its structure, dystopian lit is essentially a conservative form insomuch as it identifies an emerging trend or set of practices or norm or whatever socially/politically/culturally, then projects the most extreme negative repercussions of that trend, etc, somewhere down the line… so that ultimately, what is argued is that something about the way things currently are or have been ought to preserved, rather than proceeding along our current path. …This really resonated with me the first time I heard it and I felt made me better understand part of what I’ve always found slightly dissatisfying about these texts.

      1. I’ll have to take look into that, thanks!

        I wonder if what she’s talking about is related to an objection I’ve always had against some dystopian literature—not all of it but some of it, and especially a lot of contemporary dystopian literature. It’s the same misgiving I have about so much apocalyptic lit: that they seem (to me) to often stem from a desire to “break all of one’s toys,” so to speak—to revel in death and destruction. And to do so in a sadistic and nihilistic fashion. And I think that nihilism is fundamentally totalitarian (because the only authority it leaves one with, ultimately, is force—at least, it seems that way to me).

        I’d argue that McCarthy’s THE ROAD reads to me like this. Frank Miller’s writing gets like this at times, too (which is one thing I dislike about it). Both of those authors strike me as two who often express longing for totalitarian authority in their fiction. Miller seemingly adores the fact that Batman can accomplish what no other authority can. And Anton Chigurh is clearly the hero of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN—like Wolverine, “he’s the best there is at what he does.” (And what he does ain’t pretty.) (After the movie adaptation came out, of course all anyone talked about was Chigurh. Like Satan in PARADISE LOST, he’s by far the most fascinating character.)

        Although I’d never claim that all dystopian or apocalyptic writing is death-obsessed, or authority-obsessed, or totalitarian—far from it. Twain’s CONNECTICUT YANKEE seems to me pretty opposed to technology-based authority. Hank is an unsympathetic character, I’d argue.

        And please note that just because I think the above—or think that I think the above—doesn’t mean I also think it’s necessarily *wrong.* I’m trying here to express something I dislike, but I’m not trying to argue that such fiction shouldn’t exist. What’s bad for the goose might be great for the gander. I’m all for literature being free to discuss and describe all things, even what I consider horrible thoughts. And I like Sade’s work, so go figure. Although I think Sade’s ultimately quite moral—but that’s another argument entirely.

        I’m sure there are those who consider McCarthy and Miller very moral. Hell, I might even make such an argument myself, even as I wince at some of their writing. And I agree with Miller’s argument that one can revel in violent books and films but abhor it in real life—fantasy isn’t reality.

        But, as with extreme gore in horror films, this sadistic element of dystopic/apocalyptic lit has always made me somewhat queasy. And has never really been my thing.

        1. This is interesting and makes sense to me.

          …I think Halberstam’s argument abt dystopian lit as essentially conservative is about something a little bit different… the example she was addressing might help better contextualize her argument —

          I saw her speak at a panel in response to a film called “Gendercator” at the Reeling Film Festival. The filmmaker behind Gendercator is a 2nd wave 70’s-type radical lesbian feminist, and the movie is abt a woman who falls asleep during the 1970’s right after Billie Jean King’s victory and wakes up in a future where transgendered folks, the biomedical establishment and the Christian right wing have formed an alliance, and are now forcing gays and lesbians to undergo sex reassignment surgery so they can participate in heterosexual couplings. It’s a movie that is at least subtly, if not utterly and overtly transphobic, and has been very harshly criticized by trans activist groups, and the filmmaker’s responses to this organizing have arguably been even more heinous than the film itself, w/ her basically denying folks their right to self-determination, saying transgendered folks don’t exist and all “female-to-male” transgendered folks are in fact lesbian women who are attempting to access patriarchal privilege.

          So not to get too far off topic… Halberstam argued the filmmaker identifies an emergent trend in Queer communities — the increased visibility of trans identities and communities — and then, through her text, says, We should not go down this road we’ve started down, we should stay where we are. And that the film sort of grossly romanticizes 70’s radical lesbian feminism as the moment in which folks should stay further foregrounds this.

          But she was definitely arguing that this is a structural condition of most dystopian storytelling, not confined solely to this film. So that you could use her framework to read Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, probably even Atwood, etc, and see that because they are structured as warnings against an imagined future, a future their creator imagines as the outcome of some direction we’ve just begun to head, makes them in some sense fundamentally an argument against progression (even if only progression down a particular path) and in favor of conserving something that pre-exists that path.

          In this way, utopian lit is potentially more revolutionary (if dramatically inert… although I’d really love to see somebody prove it doesn’t need to be) because it allows for the imagining of new possibilities and alternatives.

          My personal interest is in texts that complicate the distinction, whose political realities are as messy and complex as our own — for instance, by showing us individuals who may be simultaneously oppressed by and deriving privilege from a set of interlocking systems, or by showing individuals complicit in the same systems they seek to change — or by illustrating realities that may be read and interpreted differently by different readers.

          Some texts that fit that bill, for me, are Ron Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica television series and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (which I actually really like and have decided not to be embarrassed by)… or even Sam Delaney’s Dhalgren.

          1. I think this is interesting, and I don’t know the original film in question, but I don’t think I agree with this:

            “But she was definitely arguing that this is a structural condition of most dystopian storytelling, not confined solely to this film. So that you could use her framework to read Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, probably even Atwood, etc, and see that because they are structured as warnings against an imagined future, a future their creator imagines as the outcome of some direction we’ve just begun to head, makes them in some sense fundamentally an argument against progression (even if only progression down a particular path) and in favor of conserving something that pre-exists that path.”

            Because I don’t think that the argument between progress and conservation is that simple. For instance, they’re not always even the opposites of one another. I, for one, would like to see small, strong communities where people can walk and bike in safety to locally owned shops…is that a progressive dream, or a conservative one?

            Both progressives and conservatives are trying to write the unwritten future. Neither side is trying to leave things “as they are,” because things are always changing. So both “sides” are struggling to write what will happen. (We all knows what happen when one does nothing: things fall apart.)

            And both “sides” may be arguing that we shouldn’t be going down any particular path, and advocating a *choice* of paths. (The shame of it is that we’re usually given only two very similar paths, when there are really infinite.)

            If I wrote a dystopic novel in which I show a horrible future resulting from greenhouse omissions (I could set it in 2011 in Bangladesh, for instance), then I think it would take a lot of mental jujitsu to characterize that novel as conservative. You could argue that I’m trying to “conserve” the environment, or something, but that’s conflating a few different meanings of the word. Halberstam seems to be using “conservative” to mean “reactionary”: one who resists change, preferring to maintain the status quo.

            But, at the risk of repeating myself, “leaving things the way they are” is never really an option. Life is change. Bangladesh is already flooding; life there will be worse in 2011 than it is in 2010. And I think it would be pretty silly to read my novel as an argument for keeping things the way they are.

            Orwell makes a fine example. He wasn’t arguing against some imaginary future: he was arguing against *the present*. He felt that British society following WWII was like the world he presented in 1984, or already disturbingly close to it. (Hence the book’s title, a very thinly veiled reference to the year he wrote it. Orwell was many things, but he was never subtle!) He expanded upon his fear, exaggerating it to more extreme lengths, but you can read 1984 as being about 1948: the war between Eurasia and Oceania etc. is the Cold War, which was very palpable by that time. And Orwell could see how during WWII states had consolidated control over radio and cinema (he knew a great deal about wartime propaganda), and also saw how that control could be maintained and extended in peacetime (and how daily life could therefore become something akin to Paul Virilio’s “Total War”). Orwell was arguing for radical change from the then-present, not the maintenance of the status quo.

            1. Oops, that should be “greenhouse emissions” above…but given how much attention poor Bangladesh gets in the North American media (down they memory hole with Bangladesh!), I suppose “greenhouse omissions” is apropos.

      2. I’ll have to look into that. That sort of dissatisfaction is what initially brought up these questions for me, and I think why I’m wanting to expand my current definitions on what constitutes dystopian lit.

        Currently, I’m reading WATCHMEN and LIGHT BOXES, and both in my mind have dystopian motifs, but looked upon in that light, are really uncharacteristic of the genre, I think.

        For instance, in WATCHMEN, the “regime” or “oppressor” as it were, isn’t so much a government (though I think you can still make the argument for this line of thinking), but the threat of nuclear war, and you see the shifting dynamics of power from the threat of nuclear war and governments to the superheros to Veidt’s Napoleanic idealism, etc. There’s no one static “Big Brother,” and what I’m assuming Halberstam would cite as the conservative conceit of extending the threat of nuclear war to an ultimate conclusion gets overshadowed by the fact that there are superheroes in the WATCHMEN universe, something that can’t be realized in our own world, and thus the idea that WATCHMEN is a cautionary tale if we continue down the road of nuclear proliferation falls apart. But, I’m willing to concede that might be a reductive look at Halberstam’s idea.

        Again in LIGHTBOXES, it’s a conceit that can’t actually be realized in our world, so to position it as purely cautionary falls apart. LIGHTBOXES also exists in a more pastoral setting.

        But in both books, I see distinct dystopian motifs, and was kind of hoping to garner a better and broader definition of the genre. Your thoughts on dominants is right up my line of thinking, AD, and given time in the future, I’d be really interested in your work on the subject.

        1. I haven’t read LIGHT BOXES yet, but I’d argue that WATCHMEN could definitely be categorized as dystopian lit. Nixon’s still president, and that’s already bad enough. And our heroes are outlawed by the state, which is part of what’s contributing (in their view) to the poor condition of their society. (Rorschach operates illegally, and is eventually imprisoned for it.) And you’re right that, by the end of the book, Veidt has supposedly “solved” that dystopia (at horrific cost)…but probably by supplanting nuclear destruction as the new dominant authority. And who knows what will happen in the sequel? The book’s final images suggest that Veidt’s new Golden Age won’t be long in the lasting.

          A dystopia is at heart “a society characterized by human misery” (Random House Dictionary), and the source of that misery can be many different things (not just a police state). Consider the dystopia presented in the Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon” (1969), where the cause of misery is extensive overpopulation:


          The threat of nuclear war is, I think, very dystopian. Part of what’s so terrible about nuclear war is that the doomsday devices are owned by remote political entities that citizens have no control over. They’re the ultimate Swords of Damocles (and they dangle over the entire world). One could argue that, following DR. STRANGELOVE (or even before that), the atomic bomb became the dominant authoritative threat of the Cold War. Instead of living in fear of Big Brother, and totalitarian control, one lived in a more existential dread due to the very real threat of nuclear devastation.

          The police state is a bit of subject matter commonly found in the dystopian genre, but no single element is essential to the genre. As David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson put it in their classic text FILM ART (8th Edition, 2008):

          “Most scholars now agree that no genre can be defined in a single hard-and-fast way. Some genres stand out by their subjects or themes. A gangster film centers on large-scale urban crime. A science-fiction film features a technology beyond the reach of contemporary science. A Western is usually about life on some frontier (not necessarily the West, as NORTH TO ALASKA and DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK suggest). Yet the subject matter or theme is not so central to defining other genres. Musicals are recognizable chiefly by their manner of presentation: singing, dancing, or both. The detective film is partly defined by the plot pattern of an investigation that solves a mystery. And some genres are defined by the distinctive emotional effect they aim for: amusement in comedies, tension in suspense films.” (319)

          The two go on to argue that “genres are based on a tacit agreement among filmmakers, reviewers, and audiences. What gives films of a type some common identity are shared genre conventions that reappear in film after film.” Those conventions may be particular plot elements, themes, and/or film techniques (320).

          I’ve been trying for a while now to synthesize Roman Jakobson’s notion of the dominant with Bordwell and Thompson’s work, trying to explain how conventions shape the work at the expense of other conventions (certain conventions are dominant and essential for the work’s integrity), but also how those dominant conventions shift in importance over time—and therefore how genres shift in style, construction, and subject matter over time. (I’m also interested in how the dominant can be applied to our notion of larger eras, like Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism, etc.)

          I’ve put up a few posts along those lines, and more will no doubt be forthcoming! I’m trying to work a few things out in my thinking…

          This has been a real thought-provoking thread…

    1. Ah! Excellent! It’s a real shame that novel isn’t better known. I’ve always wanted to teach it, along with Lem’s “sequel,” MEMOIRS FOUND IN A BATHTUB.

      I’ve been working, ever so slowly, on a story that’s a sequel to Lem’s (and therefore to De Mille’s novel), entitled “Memory-stick Found in a Laptop.”

  6. Although not exactly pastoral, Rex Warner’s “The Aerodrome” is a somewhat low-key dystopian novel about an English village that comes to be dominated by the commanders of a neighboring airfield. The narrator, who hails from the village, becomes a member of the aerodrome in the course of this dominance, and is exposed to the clashing philosophies of rural England vs. modern fascism, and comes to see how such a transformation from the former to the latter could occur. It’s told in a rather soap-opera like style though, with big dramatic reveals at the end of each chapter (the narrator finds out his parents aren’t really his parents at the end of one chapter, and that his significant other is sleeping with a man from the aerodrome in another).

    Although the technology certainly exists for the airfield to mow down the village if they revolted, I figure it’s worth mentioning here since it’s a version of the 20th century English Dystopian novel that doesn’t involve the sci-fi trappings of 1984 or Brave New World. The introduction to the recent Vintage reprint of The Aerodrome contrasts it with 1984 and Brave New World’s brand of totalitarianism, calling the latter set relatively cartoonish in their exaggerations.

    Rex Warner also wrote another dystopian novel called “The Wild Goose Chase” about some brothers who go bicycling and encounter a society ruled by a tyrant who, among other things, changes the inclination of sporting fields during sport matches to favor the team he wants to win. But I haven’t managed to finish that one as the copy I was reading had to be returned to the library lending it to me at the time.

  7. By the way, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, Thomas Pynchon’s foreword to the centennial (2003) edition of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR is a wonderful read. Great analysis of the “Principles of Newspeak” appendix.

  8. FAHRENHEIT 451 is somewhat pastoral, now that I think about it. The firemen possess some futuristic technology, like the Mechanical Hound, and there are interactive videoscreens, but by and large suppressing books (and intellectualism) has caused the US to regress into a kind of “village anarchy.”

    Truffaut’s film adaptation makes this point harder than the book does (which is part of the reason, I suspect, why he eliminated the Mechanical Hound). (Although he does also give the police jet-packs.)


    But perhaps you’d agree that there’s something very quaint about Truffaut’s adaptation? It looks even more retro now, of course, but even in 1966 I imagine it was one of the least science-fictiony science-fiction films. (Part of that whole New Wave idea, a la Godard’s ALPHAVILLE, of filming the future using present-day locations, since the future had already arrived.)

    And I’ve always delighted in how absurd the film’s ending is, when they go off to live in the open air in the woods. Talk about pastoral! And for some reason the firemen, the state, can’t follow them there… (This is part of what contributes to that sense of village anarchy: that the state has rather small boundaries.)

    And see this regarding the role of the state in that novel:

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