Friday, April 22, 2011

Dysto-mayto, Uto-mahto

In fiction, dystopias come in lots of shades.

There’s the oppressive gloom of social and governmental dystopias like V for Vendetta and Minority Report. The bleakness of ecological and environmentally skewed stories in the vein of Waterworld and Soylent Green. The menacing darkness of tech-induced hells such as The Matrix and The Terminator.

Mega-corporations. The post-apocalypse. Zombies.

But as varied (and as good) as these are, their premises are just dismal points plotted along the same grayscale continuum. The despair is widespread, the oppression equal opportunity.

How do you like your steak? Charred, burned, or just overcooked?

Many dystopic settings are points along the same grayscale contiuum.
But some of my favorite takes on dystopian futures come in vibrant colors. They have blue skies and fresh air. The food is good, and the tech is great.

Or if not - even if life never strays from beneath the dome of a city - at least the people are happy.

That’s because these dystopias are only selectively oppressive. To all but an unlucky few, the world is actually easy street, and the bacon is plentiful.

Novelist Toni Morrison said:

"All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in."

One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. And in worlds like this, the discrimination makes the outlook even MORE bleak for the have-nots – those on the outside looking in. Misery loves company. But when you’re the only one running from the Sandman while all your friends are partying at a drunken orgy (as in Logan's Run), things tend to suck just that much more.

The world of Logan's Run.  A great place to live...until it isn't.

The up side of Dystopia.

Even when you do have Jenny Agutter along for the ride.

That’s why I find the horror of a world like the one in Logan’s Run, or the real-life antebellum south more disturbing, more compelling than the more monochromatic premises so common in dystopic fiction.  So add some smiles to your dystopic story.  Maybe even throw in a tree or two.  It makes the bleakness and despair that much more complete.


  1. Totally agree, Kerry. Dystopic stories ARE often too gray. Movies pull this off better than a lot of me, anyway. Especially when the author relies heavily on descriptions. Gray, gray, gray, cold, hard, empty, gray, gray, dead...snooze. I like a green surprise here and there. Oh! And am I the only one who wonders why the only fabric available for characters' clothing is gray or black? I'd love to see a badass dystopian chick in a hot pink satin corset :)

  2. But that's part of the reason the protag rebels against a dystopic society, is to be free of the dreary grey scene. If there were smiles, things wouldn't be so bad, it would be tolerable. I don't want it to be tolerable for my character. I want my character to stand up and scream "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!"

  3. @Rhiannon - I agree. The gray stuff tends to work better on film. But I've read bleak prose that's really good, too. I just think it takes a special kind of morbid skill to pull it off throughout an entire book. As for the satin pink corset, seems like there should be more discussion about that. Somewhere ;)

    @S.E. - I was probably too opaque, because I also agree. I wasn't suggesting the protag should smile - just everyone else. If NOBODY is happy at all, there's a solidarity among all the oppressed. And in that, a kind of comfort.

    So I just meant things could feel even worse for a protag who's the only one having a bad time of it. Makes it even harder for him to give the "mad as hell" speech.

  4. I think the grays and blacks are borrowing from the film noir aesthetic and, as Kerry points out, works best on film. Add flashing colored lights and neon and the reflection from perpetually rain-drenched streets, and you get the Blade Runner look.

    Also, a number of dystopian futures often show the consequences of pollution and other enviro-horrors gone bad. Hence, acid rain and gray skies and air pollution. So the colors are still there but muted from all that grime and gunk floating through the air.