This past Christmas when I asked my daughter for ideas for her, one of the things she mentioned was a trio of books known as The Hunger Games trilogy.  Dutiful father that I am, I looked it up on Amazon and therewith discovered that the first of the three books was already pending release as a movie this year and a trailer was available.  I clicked on the link – mistake.

Maybe my years are showing, but I have grown sick to death of dystopias and books and movies built around them.  I’ve seen my share of such on the big screen and read as many, whether you want to talk about classics such as 1984 and Brave New World or campy stuff like Logan’s Run and The Running Man or darker, more brooding works like P. D. James’ Children of Men.  It seems as though humankind is fascinated with the study of how many different ways we can live down to the lowest common denominator when the government or taken-for-granted conveniences of life break down.  With the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games, the producers and director appear to be going for real cinema verite, not sparing the audience the darkest side of human behavior as 24 children are selected from various districts of what used to be the United States.  Their purpose is to fight each other until only one survives, quite naturally for the mandatory entertainment of the general populace.

Stories such as these have come and go and the arc of such tales is very nearly predictable.  Great civilization is laid low, games invented to entertain the masses, feed their bloodlust, but mostly keep them under control, one particular person or persons manage to game the system and change things from the ground up.  While this pattern doesn’t reflect either Orwell’s infamous Oceania or Huxley’s utopia-on-the-surface, nightmare-when-you-look-deeper, too many of the books and movies of this nature I’ve seen over the years follow the same tired script I outlined above … and I’ve had a bellyful of it.

All I have to do is watch the news to see how truly fucked-up the world can get, whether it’s the Janjaweed going after refugees in Darfur or Taliban-inspired misogynists throwing acid in the faces of women who dare to go to school or religious zealots incensed that some cartoon or tweet on Twitter insults their deity or any one of a thousand other atrocities which happen on this planet on a daily basis.  It hardly takes any imagination to extrapolate downward from such examples into a mire of human misery, then imagine some plucky young protagonist who pulls humanity up by its bootstraps, sometimes against its will.  The plotline has been repeated so many times, it should be considered a cliché.

I would far rather focus on a positive, realistic view of the future, as expressed by Star Trek or Babylon 5, where there certainly continue to be conflicts and challenges, but where civilization checks itself before it careens down the slippery slope of devolution.  The model which says you have to fall all the way to the bottom to eventually reach the top is only one model and not necessarily true.  I would prefer to believe that mankind is sufficiently intelligent and aware to learn from its mistakes and is willing and able to prevent the kinds of disastrous futures represented by The Hunger Games and others.  It wouldn’t hurt to see more stories with an optimistic take on tomorrow than the bleak view represented by many of the works I’ve enumerated here.  Sure, it may be harder to be creatively positive than creatively negative.  Still, Gene Roddenberry and J. Michael Straczynski managed and very well at that.

So … could we have a bit more of James T Kirk and John J. Sheridan and a bit less of Winston Smith and Katniss Everdeen?

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Comment by Russell Pangborn on March 7, 2012 at 8:07am

Sorry - I did some random clicking and saw what looked like some of the same names from this discussion in a different thread.  I guess we didn't find common ground - maybe more to disagree about  - Lesson learned - don't mix discussions.  If I would have mentioned something about the Hunger Games to the whoever I thought was a Loren in that thread that person would have also thought I had a screw loose.  So much for ending a discussion on a positive note.

Comment by Loren Miller on March 7, 2012 at 6:15am

I said something about Obama?!? [Loren scans down his comments, finds bupkiss!] Uh, sorry, Russ, but I ain't said a thing about Barack in this post.  Trip to the optometrist in order?

Comment by Russell Pangborn on March 6, 2012 at 9:07pm

Well Loren I do agree with you on what you said about Obama.  Glad to see some common ground there.  Being a Canadian the level of hate directed at your current President does not affect me directly - but it disturbs me.

My main focus is for tolerance of differing opinions.  My wife is a very religious person and I am an atheist and we get along.  I wrote a piece about tolerance a while back masked in a discussion of bathroom graffiti and my horror about a comment made on CNN that was totally ignored.

In that spirit I am very tempted to make the trip to Washington for the Reason Rally. 

Comment by Loren Miller on March 6, 2012 at 4:12pm

Russell, it's not just that I'm tired of it, It's Overdone, too many times by too many authors.  It's an easy plotline to start from, but then, extremes are easy.  Creating a plot which improves on where it starts from without going to extremes?  Not so much so.

A rather different example which literally just occurred to me is Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising, a wonderfully credible, well-detailed, NON-NUCLEAR World War III.  Anyone can "drop the big one," whether thermonuclear or societal or otherwise, "and see what happens," but Clancy grasped one tough nettle there and in my case, made me believe it all the way from Singapore back to the States, not quite 20 years ago.

Dystopian future stories abound and have become too common.  Utopian stories without conflict are simply BORING.  How about: starting where we are, warts and all, and IMPROVE MATTERS - Improve The Human Condition - THROUGH CONFLICT ... without having to resort to starting from the basement?  That is, so far as I am aware, the minority occurrence and the more difficult script to write, and that is what I am asking for.

Comment by Russell Pangborn on March 6, 2012 at 3:31pm

Well I have the distinction of being in the minority of a minority online group. 

But I did not miss Loren's point.  He is tired of a genre of literature.  He is certainly entitled to bemoan it.  And Sophia makes the point that there is too much horror in the real world.

I understand all of your sentiments but stand by my comments.  You can regret the fact that people like me can enjoy a dystopian work but rest assured I also probably like some of the stuff you enjoy. 

Loren you dissed a book and a genre I liked so I stood up for it. I'm not wrong and you are not wrong.  You can avoid those books if you want. Your post caught my eye so I jumped in.

Sophia the "too much horror in the real world" argument doesn't work for me.  

Possibly as a publisher you would only publish positive stories that do not show man's inhumanity to man.  That reminds me of the sanitized system where all children get a valentine and everyone gets an award when they are growing up and then they meet the cold cruel world as an adult and are in shock.

I humbly hope you all agree that instead of reading dystopian literature people should be reading true accounts of the real world.  Right now for me it is Samantha Nutt's "Damned Nations". This is a real eye opener into the mistakes made by the military of the developed nations outlining the depredation and turmoil overseas. That is way more depressing than Hunger Games because there seems to be no easy answer. There currently is no hero to save the day.  I can't do anything to solve it.  Samantha probably can't do much either unless her book gets read by enough people with a political will.

That makes me want to go watch the Hunger Games movie and fantasize once again about someone beating the odds and the system.

Comment by matthew greenberg on March 6, 2012 at 2:26pm

i don't want to hijack thris thread with Firefly (which i just recently caught during a Science Channel marathon), but i haven't seen the movie yet.  i need to buy it. 


as to your point, i guess most of the dystopia part happened in the events preceding the show. 

Comment by Loren Miller on March 6, 2012 at 2:16pm

I thought about Firefly, but I don't see the Alliance v Browncoats contretemps as being at the same extreme level.  Once the Alliance crushed the resistance, the people on the outer planets (for what you can see in 14 episodes) went back to their lives for the large part.  As for the core planets, I seriously doubt that anyone there so much as had their hair mussed.  As for Mal Reynolds and Serenity, he has his work-arounds to keep his and his crews' heads above water, and until River Tam was triggered (in the movie, Serenity), Mal had no desire to have any truck at all with the Alliance, Parliament, or anything having to do with them.  As to what happened in the wake of the events of the movie, I don't know as anyone can know for sure, though I imagine there is plenty of fan-fiction out there, speculating about it.

Comment by matthew greenberg on March 6, 2012 at 2:05pm

Loren, i guess you could add "Firefly" to your list.

Comment by Loren Miller on March 6, 2012 at 2:01pm

Russell, you miss my point.

Try this on for size: right off the top, how many dystopian novels can you name?  I put up three in my piece above and can add Lord of the FliesAnimal Farm (a stretch, maybe, but I still think it's apropos), Heinlein's "If this goes on..." from Revolt in 2100 (and throw in "Coventry" from the same book, while we're at it), Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (haven't read the book, though I've seen the movie) and throw in the entire "Left Behind" series just for fun (!!!) and that's just what I can come up with in this moment.  I shudder to think of the list I'd come up with were I to press Google into service.

I stand by my original point: there appears to be a fascination with mankind hitting rock bottom before he can rise to greater heights.  It's a repeated theme which I has utterly worn out its welcome with me.  Alternatives are out there, though I can't help but notice that they are far fewer and further between.  I mentioned two specifically, and I would like to see more.

Honestly, between Star Trek and Babylon 5, I particularly admire the latter for J. Michael Straczynski's ability to structure a story arc that doesn't depend on a dystopian theme to move the plot forward.  Certainly, it flirts with it, with the near-destruction of the Narn home world and a very similar fate for Centauri Prime, owing to the Drakh, and the subversion of the Earth Alliance government at the hands of President Morgan Clark.  Still, not one of those events are treated as a fait accompli by the involved parties, and indeed, counteraction ensues almost immediately from them.  It's as though Straczynski decided that "what can't be cured..." WASN'T going to be endured so long as he was steering the script.

And THAT is what I'm looking for: a plotline that doesn't depend on civilization's total or near-collapse as an extreme to drive it forward, something that can start from the here and now and use existing conflict to create interest rather than pushing the initial situation to an unrealistic extreme.  I don't pretend to represent anyone else other than myself here, but in that regard, my opinion remains as stated.

Postscript: I can still remember the first time I read Brave New World some 30+ years ago.  After my first exposure to Huxley's world, I thought I'd reread it for detail and found that I couldn't bring myself to do so, because that world so revolted me, even more so than Orwell's 1984.  The camel's back was straining even back then and at this point, said Dromedary is in need of orthopedic surgery.  Indulge in such fare if you wish.  I won't.

Comment by Russell Pangborn on March 6, 2012 at 1:06pm

I listened to the Hunger Games trilogy and enjoyed it very much.  I turned my daughter on to this series and she found it an excellent outlet away from the pressure of her studies at University of Toronto. She is at the top of her class and a few months away from her Masters. We like listening to books while working out on ellipticals and bikes etc.

There is room in this life to learn about and act on the injustices of this world and to also be entertained.  The series has some depth and although a younger reader is the target audience an old fart like me found pleasure in listening to this tale.  I confess to the same tastes in music - a simple pop song can captivate me as well as a Thelonious Monk or Mahler piece.

This book may not make your list of classic dystopian novels but it has connected with a lot of young people who may never read the books on your list.  I would prefer a young person doing some critical thinking about the corrupt, cynical government shown in the book rather than agonizing over the Twilight vampires or some other soap opera fluff.

I am very much with you about the outrage for how women are treated in Asia and Africa.  One of those women who overcame an oppressive set of beliefs was Ayaan Hirsi Ali the author of a fascinating life story - "Infidel".  She was inspired to think differently by reading western teen books where the protagonist was able to overcome obstacles.  So the cliched success of the main character in this series could be a legitimate inspiration to someone following in Ayaan's footsteps.  I can't complain about that.

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