Today I host author Jordan Thomas Smith, whose forthcoming novel, Jackson Operative, releases in May. Today he’s here to talk about stumbling across familiar brands in dystopian stories.
When you’re reading a story set in the future it’s a great dizzying pleasure to be in a world you’ve never seen before. The shock and fear of the new technology and the new society create a thrilling, addictive sensation. As an aspiring author of futuristic fiction I try to think of ways to heighten this sensation for the readers, to try to give them as much dizzying sensation as possible. One way to do this is by featuring in a dystopian story some futuristic versions of current real world institutions or brand names. In the film Minority Report (an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel “The Minority Report”) we see Tom Cruise as the protagonist driving in a futuristic version of a Lexus, shopping at a future version of a Gap store and seeing future versions of ads for Guinness – personalized with his name since retinal scanners that he walks by can identify him moments before the ad plays.
The use of real world brand names enhances the dystopian feeling created in a story because it makes it so much more real. Brands like Lexus, The Gap and Guinness are ones many of us have interacted with, maybe purchased. Seeing that these real brands may very well continue to exist into the future and the way they might look then suddenly links us to the future, puts it in understandable and familiar terms. It also forces us to confront how things will change from the way they are now, and this is more jarring than when you’re presented with some made up brand or institution. Hearing about a futuristic soft drink company that never existed could be kind of interesting. Seeing an ad for Coca Cola in the future though, now that’s interesting. Coca-Cola is perhaps the most ubiquitous brands in the world, with a rich and complicated history. The use of a Coca-Cola ad on a massive outdoor advertising screen in the film Bladerunner (also based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) pulls you forward into the world of that film. You’re many hundreds of years from now at a time with human-like androids, flying cars and Mars-colonization, but there’s something you totally recognize right in front of you.
While seeing our known brand names in dystopian stories can be strangely enthralling, perhaps a far more portentous idea is the future versions of government agencies. Probably even hearing this sentence causes the hairs on most people’s necks to stand up as they imagine a future CIA or FBI that wants to spy on what every single person does. Indeed, some would say the revelations by Edward Snowden about what the NSA was doing to collect information from social networks was like something out of George Orwell’s darkest daydreams. Notice though that in 1984 Orwell was writing about the idea of a new, fictional government that had sovereignty over both England and America. He didn’t choose to make his book about a future version of the actual British Government. We also see some kind of new imagined government as what is ruling society in Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Children Of Men, V For Vendetta (at least a new form of government seems implied), The Hunger Games, Divergent, and several other dystopian stories as well. In fact, I have trouble thinking of an example of a dystopian story that writes about a future version of our actual real world current government. The novel and film of Minority Report is one of the few examples I can think of where the implication is that the government in the story is a continuation of our current US government. Surely there must be other examples, but it seems far more common for dystopian authors to write about a fictional government.
Why not explore the idea of conveying a future version of our current real government? Why not take advantage of how it makes reader’s hairs stick up on the back of their neck when they think about a future version of the CIA? In my own novel (in the final stages of revision) I wanted to write about the way the Federal Government’s Medicare Department might deal with the issues surrounding genetic engineering services if such services are available. Would Medicare (or perhaps also Medicaid) pay for genetic engineering sometimes? Should Medicare do so if it was necessary to ‘fix’ an unborn child so they wouldn’t have a congential disease? Should Medicare pay for any family to make their kids simply less disease prone? What if Medicare can pay for genetic engineering for all kids which makes them smarter?
Without getting too much into these or other particular questions in dystopian stories, framing those questions in terms of a real societal institution makes them much closer to the reader. Why separate the reader from the characters by placing the characters in a new government with entirely new brand name consumer goods? Why not use the shared cultural and institutional frameworks we already have in place to speak to the readers? Getting back to brand names, I think Walmart, Starbucks, Apple and Google are surely great candidates for being featured in dystopian stories, as each seems a little dystopian already (and I say this as someone who has bought from or used those each of those companies many times).
Thanks, Jordan! You can add his book, Jackson Operative, to your TBR list on Goodreads or look for it on Amazon at the end of May. He also blogs about an array of similar topics to this one on his website.
Tell us, what ways would you like to see real world businesses or government or other public institutions conveyed in dystopia?