Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Nearer Dystopias: “Maddaddam,” “On Such a Full Sea,” and the Terror of the Familiar

(Warning: mild spoilers ahead, but nothing that would, in my opinion, lessen the enjoyment of any of the books under discussion.)

If there’s one thing we can take away from the recent IPCC reports on climate change and the various responses to them, it’s that shit just got a lot more real. Gone are the days when the debates focused on CFCs, or polar bears, or even the unfortunate inhabitants of island nations who, many of us could reassure ourselves, were very far away.

Not anymore. The crops are dying, food and water shortages are going to exacerbate global security problems, basic necessities are about to get a lot more expensive, and by some accounts it’ll only be a few decades before things start to get very, very ugly.

Given the sudden closeness of the dark future brought on by climate change, it’s not surprising that dystopian novels are starting to look a lot more familiar. I grew up on filmic and literary dystopias that seemed distant and unreal, if well-crafted and infused with real-seeming characters. The too-perfect society of The Giver, the post-apocalyptic worlds of Children of the Dust, I Feel Like the Morning Star, Mad Max, and Solarbabies, the totalitarian or soulless space-worlds of Crystal Singer and This Alien Shore. These stories took place on space stations or in underground cities, or remnants of civilization that bore little resemblance to the present-day world. These were vivid worlds with (sometimes) believable characters who acted in believable ways, but they might as well have been Narnia or Middle Earth for all that they resembled my own reality.

All that’s changing. With two of the latest versions of dystopia, Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy and Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, dystopia begins to look eerily familiar. As well it should. In 2014, we are clearer than ever about what form the near future will take and what hardships will shape our everyday lives. They no longer come in the form of spaceships with lasers or black-visored armies of machine gun-wielding soldiers. Rather, dystopia is a place where everything has been destroyed slowly, a tiny piece at a time–by apathy.

In both Atwood’s and Lee’s worlds, things aren’t horrible. They’re not even unrecognizable. In Atwood’s case, things initially seem normal, if a little drab, at least for those human beings lucky enough to be employed by a major “corp” and thus afforded luxuries like security, sanitary living conditions, enough food to eat, and a comfortable place to sleep. Gradually, though–the slow, horrifying reveal is one of Atwood’s trademarks–we come to realize just how dramatically the world has changed. Huge swaths of coastal communities are underwater, their citizens turned into refugees. There is no government to speak of, only the CorpSeCorps, a sort of military police force financed by the small number of corporations who seemingly run the world. The world is divided into the relative comfort of “corp”-sponsored life and the “pleeblands,” a wild expanse where anyone unlucky enough not to be employed by a corp ekes out a precarious existence.

Chang-Rae Lee’s world is also one ravaged by environmental devastation, with the world divided into wealthy “charter” communities who live in luxury (though their inhabitants still fall victim, at fairly early ages, to what appear to be varying forms of cancer), working-class immigrant communities who live spartan (if at least safe) existences and serve the charters, and the wild expanse of “counties,” similar to Atwood’s pleeblands, where a kind of wild west mentality prevails, without any of the romance.

In these nearer dystopias, we learn, almost everyone’s lives are constantly on the verge of collapse.  In Atwood’s world, offend the wrong Corp and you could be summarily executed without a trial. Live in the pleeblands and you might be raped, sold into slavery, or murdered. In Lee’s world, even the wealthy “charters” live a precarious existence–the cost of everything is so high that even the smallest financial difficulty could see a family booted out into the wilds of the counties. For everyone, life expectancy is made even more fragile by disease, natural disasters, and for the non-charters, severely limited access to medical care.

So much of this is familiar, and that’s what makes it terrifying. Both worlds are essentially an imagining of what happens when the only infrastructure, security, and welfare are provided by and for those who can pay for them. Thus in the “counties” and the “pleeblands” there is no police force, no one to fix the potholes in the treacherous roads, no street lights, no medical facilities except for rogue doctors who take payment in flesh. Crime goes unpunished, unless punishment serves the interests of those in power: child porn and public executions are entertainment for the eternally bored and apathetic residents of Atwood’s world, while in Lee’s world the wealthy charters keep street children locked up like exotic animals in a zoo.

Atwood and Lee also understand what a world with an ever-widening income gap looks like. The charters and the “corp” residents are utterly divorced from the world that those who serve them inhabit, insulated in bubbles where they devote their time to skin rejuvenating, plastic surgery, mindless entertainments, and staving off ageing for as long as possible. In Lee’s world, there is the slimmest of chances that a commoner might score well enough on an exam to gain entry into charter life, but for the majority of the population precariousness and basic survival will be their lot.

Dystopian fiction has often focused on the moment of the apocalypse and its immediate aftermath–think of The Road or 28 Days Later (really, almost any zombie film ever made). The tension comes from the spectacle and shock of the sudden change, throwing characters who had led seemingly normal lives into a state of chaos. In Atwood and Lee’s worlds, though, the event is long past, and the characters have all–sadly, horrifyingly–adjusted to the aftermath. They live lives of quiet mediocrity, distantly aware that they are perched on a precipice but denying the precariousness of their existence right up until the moment of death.

One small detail of these worlds strikes me as especially heartbreaking: the death of art. In Atwood’s world art still exists, but artists live in rat-infested dorms while scientists and producers of high-end goods live in comfort and security. The only remaining use for creativity is in the selling of luxury items to the wealthy. Lee’s world doesn’t even bother with creativity for the sake of sales. People stopped reading ages ago, and no one seems to have the energy or the time to create or appreciate anything but mindless soap operas and sensational tabloid stories. In both worlds, cheap entertainment, porn, and public executions serve as a kind of mind-numbing drug, a way to help the precariat momentarily forget their fragile state of affairs. The creation of meaningful, purposeful art has no place in these worlds.

How appropriate, then, that it took two great fiction writers to do what years of warnings and hard data have thus far failed to do: create a sense of terrified urgency.  Atwood and Lee would probably have no place in the worlds they created–but only artists of their caliber could have envisioned them.

3 comments on “Nearer Dystopias: “Maddaddam,” “On Such a Full Sea,” and the Terror of the Familiar

  1. Kathryn
    April 24, 2014

    It was a fun day this past summer when I realized that the documentaries I was watching on Netflix were more or less describing the situation in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

    I love the Atwood trilogy, so I’m looking forward to reading On Such a Full Sea. Thank you for the recommendation!

  2. tarotworldtour
    April 24, 2014

    Thank you for this fantastic post! I first became engaged with dystopian fiction around 2010 and thought it was peaking in 2011 when I wrote a graduate school (library school) paper on the topic… only to find it is going just as strong three years later. I read installment two and three of MADDADDAM and could once again see Atwood’s relevance to contemporary situations. Privatization is not our friend in the big picture, though it is preferable for those enjoying it privileges. The future is not quite that gruesome as she describes but we are headed in that general direction. I will seek out the work of Chang-Rae Lee also.

  3. gradland
    April 25, 2014

    Kathryn, someday we’ll hit some sort of literary / sociocultural singularity where there’ll be no difference between documentaries, CNN, and dystopian novels (or maybe we’re kind of already there).

    Tarotworldtour, what was the focus of your grad school paper? It’s interesting how “peaks” in certain genres come and go (or maybe the focus just changes shape)…

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Lindsay Nelson

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