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Dystopian Dissent

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Benjamin Kunkel has an article called Dystopia And The End Of Politics in the Fall 2008 edition of Dissent. He never manages to integrate the two parts of his title – the politics unconvincingly bookends the literary analysis – but it is still an interesting article. Interesting doesn’t mean good though. He surveys a clutch of recent literary SF novels like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Houellebecq’s The Possibility Of An Island, Crace’s The Pesthouse and McCormac’s The Road before getting bogged down in generalisations like “the signal formal trait of genre fiction is nothing so much as its lack of complex characters.” It is notable that his only actual example of a genre text is Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which is now fifty years old. When he moves beyond specific texts to wider trends the partiality of his selection becomes obvious:

This, in turn, owes something to the fact that, while both dystopia and apocalypse fall under the heading of science fiction, they descend from different prior novelistic genres… Dystopia, generally speaking, is a subgenre of the gothic or horror novel, in which the hero or heroine discovers a barbaric truth (the nature of society) lurking beneath a civilized facade, and incurs the traditional gothic-novel penalties of madness, isolation, ruin. Never mind that dystopias often propose an antiseptic horror free from the gothic elements of shadows and decay; their atmosphere of cleanliness and rationality only serves, as in a hospital, to underline the ambient dread. The apocalyptic narrative, on the other hand, derives genetically from the historical romance or adventure story; the noble and free hero’s rescue of an innocent woman and/or child from danger has been a staple of such fiction since the time of Walter Scott. The only difference is that the historical romance is set in the past and the apocalyptic one in the future.

There is no reason to believe that horror, adventure and SF and hence dystopian and apocalyptic narratives are genetically distinction rather than hybridised and Kunkel doesn’t offer one. The idea that apocalyptic fiction is simply temporally re-located historical romance is the sort of judgement you could only leap to if you had just finished Crace’s dreadful novel. I agree that apocalyptic novels by their nature are striped of complexity and reduced to the “zoological”, that is my complaint with even exemplary examples like The Road, but it seems a long way from there to his conclusion:

In sum, when the contemporary novelist contemplates the future—including, it seems, the future of the novel—he or she often forfeits the ability to imagine unique and irreplaceable characters, can no longer depict love credibly, and responds to political problems by rejecting politics for personal life, albeit one made meaningless by interchangeable characters and a zoological conception of family and love.

Written by Martin

20 December 2008 at 16:29

Posted in criticism, sf

Tagged with ,

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