May 14 2012 4:00pm

Unexplored Dystopias

As a deeply-rooted pessimist, I view dystopian fiction as the future we can most believably extrapolate from our present. We’re facing ecological crisis, economic crisis, overpopulation, constant war, killer drones, the internet killing all the things we used to love, Kardashians, unfair Wikipedia edits, obesity and, for Americans at least, the fear that our best days are behind us. These are downer times, so why will tomorrow be any better?

In that climate it comes as no surprise that dystopian fiction is the prevalent subgenre of speculative fiction crowding the marketplace today. From the oppressive state of 1984, to the neon-nightmare of Neuromancer, to the current Hunger Games wave, we have become very familiar with dystopias.

So familiar that you might wonder, has every good idea been excavated from the subgenre like ore from a sweltering deep-earth mine worked by gene-enhanced slave labor of the megastate? What’s left? What concepts haven’t been raided for dystopian reimagining?

Being a dystopia aficionado, I have a few ideas and only have so much time to write fiction. Here, free of charge, totally free for you to use, are some of my amazing ideas for writers:

Alas, Babyton: Children inheriting the earth and forming their own society, only to reveal the savage faults of human nature, is nothing new for dystopian fiction. But babies? Rising political tensions cause one side in a global conflict to release a biological weapon that wipes out every human being over the age of three and stops the physical aging at that point. The babies left behind must struggle to survive and rebuild civilization. Can they find enough food and water? Can they avoid wandering animals? Can they build a fabulous clockwork airship? Can their new society avoid the pitfalls that brought mankind so low or will they descend into a toddling romp of violence and reprisal?

Canada Rises: In this alternate history scenario, Canada does not just win the War of 1812, they crush the United States and usher in a 19th century of disarmingly polite Canadian imperialism. As the Maple Leaf spreads across North and South America, a power rises in the East to challenge them. The Empire of Tibet, helmed by a peace-mongering Dalai Lama, unites China beneath the flag of Buddha, setting the stage for a 21st century showdown between the two superpowers. Mounties battling monks, transcendental storm troopers, Sherpa commandos fighting sasquatch in the Himalayas, some way to work in an airship; it’s polite versus enlightenment and the possibilities are endless.

Reverse Bergeron Scenario: Athleticism, art and academics are rewarded by a society that seeks to elevate citizens of exceptional ability based on a supposedly meritocratic system. Those who are average or sub-average are expected to work and enjoy the fruits of their labors and never pointlessly aspire to better things. A failed high school athlete in his middle age joins forces with a stay-at-home dad who is working on an electronic album he’ll never finish, a Real Estate agent who devotes her free time to making dragon necklaces for craft shows and an aging hipster who has volumes of short stories she never wants to show to anybody because they’re all Mary Sue erotica. Together they plan to start a political revolution for the average with a bang by destroying the government’s floating airship. To stir controversy, including people with disabilities as part of the revolution could make this stupendously offensive.

Micro-managing Brother: The Orwellian superstate needs an update. Enter a government that manages every action you undertake, eliminating every possible instant of free will, through the use of hectoring personal digital assistants. Time to brush your teeth, citizen. Time to flip the pillow, citizen. Time to butter your toast, citizen. Your shirt need to be ironed, citizen. Sit up straight, citizen. Behold the airship above the city, citizen. We have allowed the devices that control us to slip into every facet of our present day, all we’re lacking is a cartoonishly evil force behind them. More cartoonishly evil than Apple. The perfect scenario for a teenage couple to risk everything by disobeying their assistants and texting society to freedom. 

These are just a few of my great ideas and, I will reluctantly admit, someone out there might have a better idea than mine. Anything is possible. 

Thank you to artist Nikki Burch for her wonderful Alas, Babyton comic.

Zack Parsons is a Chicago-area writer known for his acerbic humor at Something Awful, his non-fiction books like My Tank is Fight! and his contributions to various compilations. His debut sci-fi novel Liminal States, described by author Cory Doctorow as “vivid, and relentless, masterfully plotted,” was released April of 2012.

Ashley Fox
1. A Fox
That last sounds has aspects of Charlie Brookers '15 million merits' the second episode (of 3) in his Black Mirror series. If you havent seen it, or heard of it I strongly urge you to check it out. Yesterday. (I still havent managed to catch the first one and am waiting till im flush enough to buy bites for it, as there is a certain scene which just isnt appropriate for wifi!)

Also if you dont know who Brooker is, then go read some of his articles in the Guardian, or, if you USA peeps can manage it, check out '10 o'clock news' an alternative view of the news. Then think of how Fox is so rampant in america and despair. :P
2. AlBrown
I always liked the scenario posed by Larry Niven in A World Out of Time, where immortality could only be gained by a treatment that suspended a person's growth prior to puberty, and a massive war broke out between the boys and girls, who (without any urge toward romance) hated each other enough to leave Earth devastated. Now that is an SF premise for distopia if I ever heard one!
3. MittensMorgul
Canada Rises could also have a paranormal/envorinmental element, perhaps a romance between one of the Sherpas and a rogue sasquatch who risk everything to flee north into Siberia. The Canadian forces crossing the land bridge left when the oceans were partially drained by rising global temperatures intercept our love-addled heroes. Together they find that love overcomes all differences, bringing the two global superpowers together in a giant festival of human dignity and polite compliments.
Luis Milan
4. LuisMilan
"Time to brush your teeth, son. Time to flip the pillow, son. Time to butter your toast, son. Your shirt need to be ironed, son. Sit up straight, son. Behold the airship above the city, son. Seriously, it's like you want to give me a heart attack, son."

Big Mother is watching you!
5. internetracecar
Or Big Smother, where King Koil and the other members of the vast bedroom cartel rule the world with a gentle fist in the wake of a terrible cataclysm that buries most of the earth beneath a layer of goose down. Elsewhere, the remnants of an insomniac populace battle one another under a ceaseless sun to entertain the Lords of Snore, Sealy and Serta. High above, in an airship kept aloft by a thousand dying dreams, the Lunesta moth plots the day when it might return to the planet and bring the gift of sleep to mere mortals.
6. Gerry__Quinn
I believe it was Sophocles who observed that in good times people want to be entertained by tragedies, whereas in bad times they prefer to escape into comedies. Small wonder then when more people live on the earth and live better on average than ever before; when the numbers killed in warfare drop by the decade; when the threat of massive global conflict recedes, and indeed drama has become as important for all sides as any other military objective; when people have so few real problems that they can goad themselves into hysteria over the sea rising a few millimetres a year, or persuade themselves that a bit of bad weather is a sign of the End Times... small wonder indeed that dystopias are popular now.

That said, fun ideas. Though not as good as Larry Niven's idea referenced in #2 above, which IMO kicks The Screwfly Solution into a cocked hat.
7. last years man
@Gerry_Quinn: Are you aware that many comedies are also popular? They are! Small wonder that as huge, evidently uncontrollable historical macro-trends threaten to merge together into negative synergies probably beyond the contemporary imagination... small wonder indeed that Adam Sandler and Vince Vaughn are two of the biggest movie stars in the world.
8. last years man
Also, I think the "Big Brother as gadfly micro-manager" idea could really be developed into something pretty interesting. If you throw in some at birth brain-wave reading nanochip implants and a dash of Discipiline and Punish, you don't even really need a cartoonish evil force behind things to control them; just a endless, ingratiatied, self-perpetuating bureacracy.
9. KindleReader
I'd suggest looking at John Nelson's Against Nature. It's a modern dystopia set in the post- 9/11 American landscape. It may be the first dystopia set in our current times. With the rise of Social Darwinism on the political scene and the sins of our recent past (torture, secret prisons, extraordinary rendition, military tribunals, wars built on falsified intelligence) still present in our rear view mirror, Nelson imagines we're one catastropic event away from dystopia.

The catalyst is a global pandemic and the plan for distributing an experimental vaccine mirrors our wealth distribution with the majority being left to fight for the crumbs.

I think the time is ripe for a resurgence of adult-themed dystopia!

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