Guest Post: For Dystopia Use Real World Institutions by Jordan Thomas Smith

Jackson Operative - Jordan Thomas Smith

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?

Review: The Last Circle by Gretchen Blickensderfer

the last circle

Title: The Last Circle
Author: Gretchen Blickensderfer
Genre(s): Near-Future Dystopia
How To Purchase: Kindle | Barnes and Noble | iTunes | Booksamillion.com (Paperback)

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Note: I received a free copy of The Last Circle in exchange for an honest review.

“If you will not be saved, there will be consequences.” Based upon platforms and quotes from Conservative political and church leaders, The Last Circle chronicles the rise to power of a United States Evangelical theocracy and the small group of Pagan and LGBT friends who must escape the country to survive. A terrifying chase through the southern states tests the limits of their friendship and someone from among them is secretly tipping off their pursuers.

The quote that encapsulates the book’s premise opens chapter fifteen:

“When the Christian majority takes over this country, there will be no satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody the right to practice evil.” — Gary Potter, writer, Catholics for Political Action

The Last Circle creates this vision in vivid detail. Social and economic conditions have become difficult, and people are looking for guiding light. A man named Stephen Palmer is all too happy to step into the shoes of President and transform the country into a place he had only dreamed about.

That place is a place of concentration camps named “Salvation Centers.” It’s a place where homosexuals and Pagans must flee to the Mexican and Canadian border for amnesty. It’s a place where neighbors turn on one another, and where hatred and fear and starvation are the currencies. It’s Auschwitz; it’s the Crusades; it’s every terrible condition under every despotic regime man has ever created.

On the book’s website, the author describes how she researched the beliefs of extreme right-wing evangelical Christians to create this book. But I would need to do no research to know that what she presents is fact; I am quite familiar with this rhetoric. This was the atmosphere I grew up in, a small town in the Midwest where the condemnations and judgments were espoused regularly in sermons, in casual conversation, in after-school Bible studies. None of the extreme belief encapsulated in the book surprises me. It all hits home a little too hard.

Still, all of this begs the question: Why? Why does The Last Circle assert such extremes? In this day and age, we as reasonable people living in a technologically advanced society would never allow that. Or would we? That’s a question you will have to answer for yourself after you read it. My answer is that it’s the only solution. If you promise your followers to root out evil, you’d better be willing to take each and every measure necessary. Fear-mongering. Lying. Torture. Killing. Otherwise, how else will you get the job done? It’s one of the reasons I tried so hard for years to force myself to believe, only to be unable to accept this philosophy. It’s one of the reasons I walked away.

The Last Circle made me think. A lot. It made me think about the past I came from and what I believe now. It’s a powerful book with a message for all of us, one that we hopefully will never have to face.

But. As books go, I found it a tad frustrating. The writing was visual and distant, reminding me more of a movie than a book. I found the enormous cast of characters (the Pagans and LGBT group escaping the Palmer regime) difficult to keep straight. One of the big reveals–who is this Gwen that is telling the story of the last circle to the media?–was confusing because I thought I’d simply missed her introduction, losing her in the shuffle of so many people.

However, I feel that this book has a big enough idea presented in a realistic, albeit confrontational manner, that I would recommend it as food for thought. If you’re interested in the political and religious hot button issue of church versus state, I would give this a read. If nothing else, it will give you something to chew over long after you’ve finished reading.

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Review: Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Title: Divergent, Divergent #1
Author: Veronica Roth
Genre(s): Young Adult Dystopia

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Title: Insurgent, Divergent #2

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Title: Allegiant, Divergent #3

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I wanted to like the Divergent series. I really, really wanted to like it, since everyone else does. Far be it from me to criticize something just because it’s in pop culture. Despite Twilight‘s brainlessness, I devoured it. Despite the Hunger Games‘s excessive angst, I enjoyed it (although the first is the best and it devolves as the series goes on). But in these books, the publishing industry seems to be trying to capitalize on a dystopian trend without thought to what it’s promoting for us to consume.

The books were easy to read, the protagonist was likeable enough, and her struggles were difficult and potent. However, as I finished the first book and started the second, I found myself wondering why Tris’s difficulties seemed hollow. The storyline was all right, and the themes it explored were thought-provoking. But as I thought more about it, I tried to understand this society.

I found myself wondering: Where’s the rest of the world? Why does this only take place in Chicago with no mention of other places? Hunger Games is very clear that different cities exist. In Divergent, the rest of the world is left as a mystery, and not a good one. Young people are naturally curious, and Tris has propensity for Erudite. How could she not wonder about it?

Then I started to wonder further. Why do these kids have to pick a faction to stick with for the rest of their lives? God forbid I made a decision like that when I was sixteen. I’m a totally different person now. While teenagers in our society do get forced to make decisions that affect the rest of their lives, we all have the capacity to change our fates. It might be difficult the older we get, but mechanisms still exist.

I was happy to see that some of the questions about the society itself were answered in the third book; however, I didn’t like the answer. I now know why they were insistent on people only clinging to one virtue, but it doesn’t seem natural nor does the setup into factions make sense. I just don’t believe that the people who created the society were that dumb. I get the whole back story–but it doesn’t mean that the founders wouldn’t have tried to make it operate within the confines of human behavior.

As I thought about this, other things started to bother me:

The entire “factionless” concept made no sense. First of all, if people are cast out of society, they’re going to band together. People gravitate toward one another. Why was anyone surprised by this? Secondly, why was anyone cast out of factions anyway? What’s the point? It just seems like a recipe for disaster. And, finally, wouldn’t the Abnegation take in the rejects? That just seems like something they would do.

The more I think about these books, the less I like them. Struggles are only meaningful in fiction if they stem from something believable. The more I read the books, the more I found myself unable to suspend my disbelief. The more information I got on the founding of the factions, the less I was able to buy into the premise. And as the third book progressed, the heavy-handed morality lesson–set within the confines of a society that made no sense–grated.

I really liked Tris and Tobias (although at one point, I feel like Ms. Roth created conflict between them just for the sake of conflict). Overall, their interactions and choices seemed natural. Allegiant had a solid, well-thought-out, realistic ending.

But I just can’t believe the world they live in.

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Review: There Comes a Prophet by David Litwack

Title: There Comes a Prophet
Author: David Litwack
Genre(s): Young Adult Dystopia
How To Purchase: Kindle | Paperback (Amazon) | Kobo

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A thousand years ago the Darkness came—a terrible time of violence, fear, and social collapse when technology ran rampant. But the vicars of the Temple of Light brought peace, ushering in an era of blessed simplicity. For ten centuries they have kept the madness at bay with “temple magic” and by eliminating forever the rush of progress that nearly caused the destruction of everything.

A restless dreamer, Nathaniel has always lived in the tiny village of Little Pond, longing for something more but unwilling to challenge the unbending status quo. When his friend Thomas returns from the Temple after his “teaching”—the secret coming-of-age ritual that binds young men and women eternally to the Light—Nathaniel can barely recognize the broken and brooding young man the boy has become. And when the beautiful Orah is summoned as well, Nathaniel knows he must somehow save her. But in the prisons of Temple City he discovers a terrible secret that launches the three of them on a journey to find the forbidden keep, placing their lives in dire jeopardy. For a truth awaits them there that threatens the foundation of the Temple. But if they reveal that truth the words of the book of light might come to pass:

“If there comes among you a prophet saying ‘Let us return to the darkness,’ you shall stone him, because he has sought to thrust you away from the light.”

There Comes a Prophet was mysterious at first. I wasn’t sure if this was standard fantasy fare or something else. As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that this is a far-in-the-future dystopia where people live without technology and in rural areas. The longer I read, the more I enjoyed it.

The voice reminds me a great deal of Anne McCaffrey, especially the books I most recently reread, the Harper Hall trilogy. As we follow the three friends, Nathaniel, Orah, and Thomas, their emotions are told in stark simplicity but with maximum impact. On several occasions, one sentence reframed an entire relationship, event, or assumption; at the beginning, I was convinced of one thing, but by the end, I was certain of another.

I’m a sucker for the evil religious monolith archetype, so I really enjoyed how it fleshed out the story of love, friendship, and sacrifice. The fantasy world was new and interesting. It kept me thinking, “How would I have reacted if I’d been brought up with those assumptions?” The fear of “the teaching” was palpable and confusing to me as it was to the characters.

The grammar was crisp, the language was clear, and the plot moved along at a steady pace. I honestly have no gripes with this book. The use of third person omniscient meant that I didn’t fall in love with the characters as much as I would have if it was told a different way. But I still rooted for them.

There Comes a Prophet was quieter than many of the dystopians exploding onto the big screen right now, but its underlying theme of hope for the future made me love it. I give it a solid 4 out of 5 stars.

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