Dec 15

Regular readers of this site (or even the new ones who are quick on the uptake…meaning all of you, of course! :) ) will I think have picked up two things about my personality by now:

1.  I don't suffer fools gladly.  (I do suffer because of them, though.  I suffer even more when I'm one of them, which happens more than I like to admit.)

2.  I'm a bit of a contrarian, or at least a skeptic, when it comes to "conventional wisdom."

Both of these characteristics stem from my sense that we tend to, well, settle for things more than we should.  Vaccinate children for everything which we neither had nor needed to concern ourselves with twenty years ago (including chicken pox…vaccinating against chicken pox?!?)?  Sure…everyone says it's a good idea.  Accept widespread civil rights abuses to protect against imminent (so we're told) terrorist attack?  I guess…everyone agrees that some sacrifice in personal liberty is a necessity.  Believe that the contestants on American Idol are the best singers in America?  Well…if they won the vote fair and square…

Yes, there is safety in numbers, and comfort in feeling that you're not on your own.  When it comes down to it, in fact, most of us would much rather walk with the marchers than against them–and there's often a good reason for doing so.  Despite my serious qualms about the Amazon review system (and Harriet Klausner, patron saint of the "amateur" reviewer), I must admit that there is a benefit to it when dealing with significant numbers.  One person telling me that x book is terrible and I should avoid it isn't particularly helpful; fifty people telling me the same thing, some with evidence to support their claims, is more likely to give me pause–not because I'm a thoroughgoing democrat (although I suppose I might be :) ), but because the simple law of averages suggests that of those fifty people, a few of them are likely to have some similar tastes to my own.  Or to put it another way, they can't all be smoking crack, or at least not the same kind (and if they are, they might be on to something).  The bottom line is that it's reasonable to assume that there is something off about the book, film or theater production in question if everyone who read or saw that particular thing said similar things about what was off about it.  Sometimes, then, broad consensus is worth taking into consideration.   

The problem, of course, is that broad consensus is notoriously fickle and inaccurate–so that millions of people can think Sanjay is a good singer, while others who saw the Emperor's lack of clothes a long time ago think their fellow AI watchers really are smoking crack…which they are, by the way, if you saw some of his performances *shudder*.  (This fear of fellow citizens' crack smoking habits also applies to politics, but not in this post.  :) )  I thought of all of this while reading a book jacket the other day that promised "a frightening new vision of a dystopic future."  Now I would hope that a dystopic future is "frightening"–that's kind of the point–but what gets me is the "new" part.

How is this new?

The idea of dystopia was first conceived, at least as a separate term, by John Stuart Mill (who kicks lots of ass, by the way…one of the few philosophers where you don't have to pull out the "he was a man of his time" excuse to defend some of his ideas (you listening, Rousseau?)) in 1868.  A vision of a world gone horribly wrong would have been new in, say, 1869.  I'll give you a few decades grace period, though; if you want to count H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895), go ahead.  But basically, by the time we hit the 20th century the idea of a post-apocalyptic, near future dystopia is well established.  And you can rack up the names from there, in books and films: Brave New World1984Fahrenheit 451Planet of the Apes (you blew it all up!).  Mad MaxBrazil (I don't care that it's directed by a Monty Python cast member, it's still goddamn depressing).  The MatrixV For Vendetta (advertised as an "uncompromising vision of the future"–I guess a compromising vision would be one where we weren't all soulless automatons ruled by faceless bureaucrats).  And of course, I Am Legend (now in its fourth incarnation; where else could you get Will Smith acting the same role as Charlton Heston and Vincent Price did?).  And the list goes on and on.  I'm sure this is indicative of our culture's disassociation with itself, and reflects our worries about our increasingly soulless society.  I'm sure that it serves as a warning to all those who have ignored the collapse of our civilization's basic morality.

But when it comes down to it, I just find the whole goddamn thing as boring as hell.

First of all, the dystopic visions are founded on the exact same speculations as the utopic ones, with the same flimsy evidence and the same rampant leaping to conclusions.  And while I will gladly accept that the near-future dystopia tales can have startling resonances with our current society (it's not that hard to imagine the government restricting civil liberties when it, well, already does that), I think being drawn to those resonances says more about our complaint reflex than it does about a greater claim to truth.  Think about it for a moment: life is often terrible.  Awful.  There are times when it seems hard to go on.  And yet for the vast majority of people, life is often also positive, exciting, fun–hell, sometimes even fun.  Now certainly there are a subsection of people who deal with worse things more of the time than the rest of us–but no larger, I suspect, than the subsection of people who deal with better things more of the time than the rest of us.  In other words, most of us get through basically okay, highs and lows in roughly equal measure.  Yet visions of utopia are dismissed as Candyland fantasies while visions of dystopia are called "brave" and "uncompromising."  Second, the "we're all going to die tomorrow" stuff has been done…a lot.  And if nothing else, it would be nice to, perhaps, try something new for a change (which ought to be a goal of all speculative fiction writers)–like imagining a world where destruction isn't the inevitable conclusion.

But maybe we like being depressed, you say.

Well, no; you could argue we just like being realistic.  But my point here is that the vision of a future wracked by death, disease, and universal despair is just as unrealistic as the vision of a future wracked by joy, happiness and cinnamon rolls (which is maybe the greatest possible future I could imagine), and so I'm starting to wish for some critical balance here.  My own work is hardly all sunshine and light, but I'd like to think there's at least the possibility of hope within it…and without that hope, I think I'd rather curl up and cry than waste time writing about how terrible everything is.  So for a little while, I think I'm going to bypass the section of the bookstore or video shop dedicated to the uncompromising visions of the future and look for works willing to compromise just a little on the possibility of hope.

Sort of a cinnamonrollia, if you will.  I could dig that kind of vision.        

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