Announcing New Project / Dystopias

Deciding on a next project is a hit-and-miss endeavor. There are no guarantees that it will automatically elicit interest in prospective readers, and in some cases, it may go against the conventional wisdom of what is big in the marketplace at any given time (as evidenced by success of many “young adult” fiction novels). When it comes to writing science fiction, all bets are off, since it runs the gamut from certain crowd-pleasers (military science fiction genre, which has a healthy and dedicated fanbase) to more experimental and sometimes less accessible works.

The reason I am bringing this up is because I have decided on my next novel-length project. Not surprisingly, it will be a science fiction novel, and space travel will feature prominently. But this time, I would like to explore another element of science fiction in the context of a future universe – the concept of dystopia.

I must admit, I am a sucker for dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. One of the reasons for my appreciation of settings such as Warhammer 40,000 (one of many sources of inspiration for this project –the actual novel will have nothing to do with that setting) is their dark, gothic, dystopian atmosphere, which makes for very different kind of stories and characters. A character living in a bleak, hopeless world will have very different motivations and perspectives from a character living in a more idealistic or hopeful universe. I find it fascinating to write characters such as these, not only because my writing style tends to work well with them, but also because they are so different from both myself and the people I am likely to run into in the real world.

Writing such characters forces a degree of immersion in the fictional universe in order for them to come to life. A dystopian character who realizes that he or she is living in a less than ideal world, and that there is not much hope for it to change any time soon, is unlikely to become a proverbial knight in shining armor, or a paragon of virtue. Adversity may have different effects on people, but if adversity is all he or she knows, the character’s outlook will be very different from my own, and probably from that of my readers.

So, what makes for a dystopia? Some authors use exaggerated concepts of real-world concepts to make a point. Orwell did that in 1984, creating a modern classic while simultaneously making a political statement. Some other authors use dystopian settings to provide a gritty world in which values dissonance is utilized as a narrative tool. For example, the aforementioned Warhammer 40,000 setting, or the Fallout series of games both utilize dystopian, dark worlds, but instead of making political or social points, those worlds are used as contrasting settings to our own, aiding with the reader’s or the player’s escapism and creating a deeper sense of immersion into a universe with divergent values.

In order for a fictional dystopia to work, it must be convincing. There must be a good reason for why things are the way they are, and why they are not improving. It can be an external threat such as unreasonably hostile entity or environmental danger, or it can be a social structure that makes life miserable for the majority of the population. In order for the suspension of disbelief common in science fiction to succeed, there must be compelling reasons as to why things just cannot get better.

Truth is, many dystopian societies in fiction do not stand to Occam’s razor. Their survival and continuation usually relies on static thinking, repression of alternatives, and lack of credible internal or external threats. It is hard to believe that Stirling’s Domination of the Draka could have developed into a massive global threat without the rest of the world taking notice and cutting it down a few notches long before it ran rampant through Eurasia. One would think that even the repressive Imperium of Man from the Warhammer 40,000 setting could, in theory, enter a renaissance with just a small amount of good management and rational thinking. The real-life examples of dystopian regimes are isolated, and are usually incapable of surviving on their own without external support – even the worst theocratic or totalitarian regimes don’t have a very good track record for longevity without a powerful and wealthy state sponsor or two.

As such, writing a dystopia is challenging precisely because a writer must come up with valid reasons on why it cannot be changed. If any reader can point out logical inconsistencies (“what stops someone from rediscovering old technology or ideas and applying them? How can an inefficient economic system support a repressive system without reform for thousands of years? Why can’t these people come up with an alternative way to deal with extremely hostile environment?”), a dystopia rings hollow. Therefore, the reasons for the dystopia must be ironclad, and must prevent any action a rational, thinking person would be able to take towards fixing it. After all, the point of a dystopian story is not to tell a story of the protagonists overcoming the Evil Regime (or what not). The point of a dystopian story is to create a setting that is so thoroughly negative that its very existence makes a point about human nature, or frames the types of stories that can be told effectively within it.

With this in mind, I am setting forth to write a dystopian, dark science fiction novel. True, some of my past works had dystopian elements in them – “Flight of the Locust” was set in a rather unpleasant future, and “The Keys of Death” took place in a post-apocalyptic, dying world. That said, salvation and seeking a viable future for humanity was a major theme in both. This time around, I am planning on exploring a world where there is not much hope, and the characters seek mere survival as opposed to triumph.

That, too, may reveal more about the aspects of human nature that we find difficult to comprehend. What is hope, and what would happen if hope was lost, not just on individual level, but by the entire society? What kind of culture would emerge, if it only seeks to make it through one more day, equating continued survival with triumph?

This coming project is a study of dystopia, a tale of characters seeking to come to terms with it and to understand both hope and despair. It is a story of things that are lost in a struggle for survival and of how individuals and societies prepare for their inevitable demise. And in the end, it is the examination of human spirit, and what it means to be human, both for the more conventional characters, and for the more exotic protagonists whose connection with humanity is frail and often awkward.

As I move further along the path of plotting out the novel structure and writing bits and pieces thereof, I will post bits and pieces for my readers’ enjoyment (or, as the case might be, derision). I am approaching this project with only two expectations – to write a novel that I would want to read, and to utilize everything I have learned as a writer to result in a story others can enjoy. And if it ends up reaching a wider audience through professional publication – well, that is the end goal, right?

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