Why (So Much) Dystopian Fiction is Stupid

Today, I helped a student read "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, which meant that I ended up reading it myself for the millionth time (not really; it
From newser.com--of course, this claim rather
depends on the type of dystopia you fear most:
anarchy or Big Brother.
just feels that way). I've never cared for the story, but for the first time, I realized how monumentally silly it is.

It is extremely well-crafted. If nothing else, it is an example of good writing. But the premise is cartoonish.

I realize that the story is supposed to be a fable about how traditions can foolishly persist, even when harmful. Those traditions don't necessarily have to include human sacrifice (which in Europe was replaced with animal sacrifice back in the B.C.E.)--just any tradition that causes/exploits human suffering.

The problem is that all traditions, including harmful ones, continue for a mass of contradictory and complicated human reasons ranging from the economic to the sexual to the familial. And they involve everything from hubris, fear, shame, desperation, greed, and social climbing to love, loyalty, respect, sincerity, spiritualism, entertainment, comfort, nostalgia, and joy. How people react to traditions is never as simplistic as "The Lottery" implies. 

Even if one narrows the focus to "bad" traditions, "The Lottery"'s premise is still that a bunch of middleclass villagers in an American-like town would stone someone to death because unthinking acceptance of a past tradition is more powerful than cultural context, Freud's id/ego/superego, economic need, and the powerful inducements of self-serving justification. The whole thing happens in a vacuum--which any decent historian or anthropologist can tell you is blatantly inaccurate. (My standard of "decent" anthropologist/historian may be too high.)

In other words, taking "The Lottery" too seriously can lead to stuff like Rent.

Granted, most students read the story, write the essay, and move on to the "Tell-Tale Heart" (a much better exploration of the human psyche). Granted, too, many students pick up on the story's main point, think it has some value, and then shrug off the simplicity. As the student I was helping said when we reached the end of the story, "So the winner gets killed?! Why would people agree to die?" (Good question.)

Unfortunately, a story like "The Lottery" is an easy way for instructors to create supposedly profound discussions about LIFE AND STUFF. But I have my doubts--based on the questions I saw--that the ensuing discussion would actually ever tackle the premise. Would anyone be allowed to disagree with Shirley Jackson's theme without being branded one of those unenlightened masses who loves tradition? Unless the premise itself came under debate (this story is an inaccurate picture of humanity), I imagine the ensuing argument would be rather similar to listening to Creationists argue with Richard Dawkins.

And who cares?

This is how I feel about dystopian literature/art in general. I don't mind sci-fi that presents a ridiculous dystopian premise if the point is the story/adventure (The Matrix) or a specific relationship (Terminator) or, even, the complexity of human feeling (Equilibrium). But so much dystopian literature presents human nature as static. It's an adolescent view of behavior that appears rather often in higher education, as when one of my professors told me that all Puritans went to church (not correct) and therefore believed all the same stuff.

"No, they didn't," I said. "There were believers and non-believers and people who went for the social content and people who went for the spiritual content."

"But they were all going to the same church under the same authority," he said. "There was no outside influence, so they all believed the same."

I was stunned.  Setting aside people like Roger Williams, who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony, yet continued to correspond with many of its leaders (who rather liked him and found his ideas interesting if disruptive); setting aside people like Anne Hutchinson, who was very popular until she got kicked out of, well, everywhere; setting aside that more Puritan women than men were active church-goers (this is true across the board; women are always more active church-goers than men although men start more religions than women); setting aside that many of the changes to Puritanism, which led to differing forms and offshoots of Protestantism in the 1700s, including the First Great Awakening, happened from within; setting aside all the infighting that took place during the Puritan years over congregational leaders; setting aside the ongoing debates on witches in which Puritan leaders took various sides; setting aside the poems and essays of people like Anne Bradstreet and Jonathan Edwards (who wrote more than just "sinners in the hands of an angry God") which emphasize entirely personal and unique spiritual experiences; setting aside the reality that when a government releases its stranglehold on religious observation, people instantly parcel themselves into a range of churches and beliefs (it doesn't take another generation for people to "learn" to express themselves; they already know whether they are strident believers or indifferent believers or orthodox believers or non-believers) . . .

Setting all that aside, my response is still . . .


Sure, any human organization appears monolithic on the outside. But once one begins to examine its inner workings, one discoveries a multitude of disagreements, offshoots, oddities, and randomness. So the paleontology department appears seamless on the outside; okay, now, go talk to some of the researchers.

I'd expect a professor to know this.

But monolithic commentary on culture is an easy way to deal with the universe (and still look insightful), just as dystopian fiction is an easy way to deliver supposed profundities about human nature. And maybe, like the true classic Lord of the Flies, it is a good place to start.

But not to end.


Eugene said...

I find it ironic that those who make a big deal of "diversity" can get so adamant about seeing individuals only in terms of a group identity. According to this world view, groups are diverse; people aren't.

Star Trek epitomizes this perspective: there's a great diversity among the humanoid alien races but little diversity within them (except for a couple of troublemaking outliers).

The Klingons being a "warrior race" like the samurai ignores the fact that only 10 percent of the Edo period population were samurai, and most of them were bureaucrats who couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag.

As I commented about Granite Flats, I think writers resort to these dramatic generalizations because it's easy, and then in a perversion of Occam's Razor, what's easy becomes what is "true."

The dystopian setting makes it easy to create good guys, bad guys, and conflict, and to come up with a self-evident moral to the story. But that doesn't make it an accurate depiction of human society.

The greater irony is that so much of the secular left has essentially adopted a medieval mindset: people are whatever their castes define them to be and the dominance of the State shall never be questioned.

Kate Woodbury said...

I have to admit, Star Trek existentialism doesn't bother me--probably because it seems to have so little to do with the stories that end up being told. Having said that, I do shake my head over the whole idea that (1) a planet must be united to join the Federation; (2) encountering an alien culture will automatically unite a planet (this idea shows up quite often throughout much sci-fi).

Once again, Stargate proves the exception to the rule. I just watched Season 8, and in one episode, the team's arrival sets off a complex series of events. A fundamentalist group, which always claimed that aliens came through the ring, gains credence and followers when SG-1 arrives; it stages a coup against the government. This government is currently at odds with another government which takes military action when the coup goes through.

Like many 1-hour television programs, the episode has a quick resolution but like many Stargate episodes it allows for the fact that this planet is going to be a mess for awhile.

The SG-1 often creates problems when it shows up (which doesn't stop it from showing up!). It also tends to make treaties with individual groups rather than with entire planets--which just makes a lot more sense in regards to human (alien) nature.

I confess, however, that I often miss the sheer positive spin of Star Trek: TNG. It's the nicer side of fuzzy liberalism, the side that sees the future as full of potential. Frankly, I miss 80's optimism. And it's why I get so disgruntled with dystopias. The kind of thinking that gives rise to dystopias can just as easily give rise to utopias. One is not automatically more "realistic" than the other just because it's "gritty."

In fact, considering Roddenberry's surprisingly prescient view of workplace conditions in the future, sometimes dystopias are far, far more unrealistic.

Eugene said...

When Perry "opened" Japan in the mid-1800s, the government split down the middle. One side wanted to accept the inevitable and accept trade with the outside world, while the other wanted to kick the foreigners out and slam the door closed.

The shogunate soon realized that the latter option was impossible, though they had a devil of a time convincing the fanatics. Trying to keep both sides happy only annoyed everybody equally and the central government itself turned into a showcase of political dithering and incompetence.

Finally, the free traders buried the hatchet with the isolationists, decided that their real enemy was the shogunate, convinced the emperor to support their side, and overthrew it in short order. Then the whole country set out to assimilate foreign culture and technology in one fell swoop.

If history had stopped with the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, then it was all good (for Japan, at least). But the actual process took a century, with some pretty huge setbacks along the way.