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?

Guest Post: “But I Can’t Do That”: Re-Examining Our Rules for Reading by Karen A. Wyle

Today is another very special day! I am excited to host author Karen A. Wyle. I enjoyed her most recent release, Division, so much that I reached out to host her on Magic & Mayhem. She’s here today, sharing her thoughts on self-imposed reading customs.

One of my daughters had surgery not long ago. Knowing she would have weeks of limited activity, she decided to make the best of it and reread the Harry Potter series. It had been years since her last immersion in the books, and she found herself irritated or frustrated by passages that had not bothered her before (or not as much).

At one point, she was grumbling about having half of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to slog through before she could reach her favorite section (featuring “Dumbledore’s Army”). I timidly suggested: “How about skipping ahead? After all, you’ve read the book how many times before?”

My daughter’s spluttering outrage at my proposal came as no surprise. I used to have my own rules for reading — rules I never thought of doubting or reassessing until I was a good deal older than my daughter. I finished every book I started. I never peeked ahead. When I reread books (as I habitually did), I reread them entirely and in order.

I don’t know which book finally triggered the first rebellious impulse. I do remember feeling a combination of lightness and disorientation, like a boat loose from its moorings, when I actually decided to close the book I was no longer enjoying.

It’s easy enough to justify putting these rules aside. Life is short (and getting shorter, from my perspective). There are so many books out there. (And it’s so easy to get them, in this era of free and inexpensive ebooks!) I read for pleasure, or for knowledge, or for self-knowledge. If a book is no longer providing me with any of these benefits, why not go in search of one that will?

But why did I follow these rules in the first place, and why do so many others still treat them as unbreakable?

There’s respect for the author, and for all the work and talent the author invested in the book. In light of that impressive and intimidating commitment, how can we begrudge a few hours or days of our time? I expect we also tend to harbor an irrational fear that the author will Know — will somehow sniff out our cavalier rejection of what the author worked so hard to lay before us. That’s hardly likely, unless we take the trouble to publish a DNF (did not finish) review.

There’s the fear that we’re bailing too soon: that if we only kept reading for another few pages, the book would reel us in, and provide us with a moving or thought-provoking or entertaining experience that we’d have been sorry to miss.

For some of us, lack of commitment, the failure to finish what we’ve started, is a pattern that goes well beyond our reading habits. Discarding a book unfinished reminds us of skills never mastered, courses never completed, careers never actually begun.

Hmmmm. Leaving aside the superstitious fear of omniscient authors, these are good reasons to keep reading! Should I reconsider, repent, and resolve never again to discard a book after ten, twenty or fifty pages?

Well, no. I may, after all this analysis, try to give each book a bit more of a chance. But in the end, I’m going to trust myself. Most of the time, if a book and I are meant for each other, I think I’ll know. And if it isn’t meant to be, I’m going to let go, gracefully and without remorse. We’ll agree, the book and I, to see other people. We’ll both be happier that way.

P.S. I showed this column to my other daughter, who told me that she has quite a different reason for reading all books in order. When she reads fiction, she becomes thoroughly immersed in the story. If she were to skip about, the experience would lose some of the reality she cherishes — and she would feel strange exercising an ability denied to the characters.

Thanks for your thoughts, Karen. It’s only been within the last year that I have been able to abandon books. I even created a Goodreads shelf to give myself “permission” not to finish them. But it’s still tough to put one down.

What do you guys think? What kind of self-imposed customs do you have? When did you first allow yourself to stop reading a book–or do you slog through the entire thing cover-to-cover no matter what?

Come back on Monday for my review of Karen’s Division!

Guest Post: Mike Hartner on Speculative Writing

Today is another very special day!

I am honored to host Mike Hartner on my blog. On Monday, I will post my impressions of his latest release, I, Walter. Meet Mike:

Mike HartnerAnd now, Mike’s thoughts on why he loves speculative fiction:

One day, oh so many years ago… when I was young and dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, I read this story.

It could have been Heinlein or Bradbury. The more I think about it, even with the many years of fog that has clouded the story and the author, I’m more certain it was Bradbury than Heinlein. But, I could be wrong. After all, I was a semi-typical kid, and I went through my sci-fi/speculative period in my late pre-teens/early teen life.

In this story, the main character is a child. On a distant planet. In our solar system. He lives in metal tubes. Imaginary homes, that I used to liken to very large sewer pipes, or space-station modules. And one or two of them would resemble telescopes. They were windows, trying to find the sun. And they would eventually find the sun, maybe one or two days a year.

This story was depressing as all H!. But it left an impression on a child growing up in the Prairies, a place where sundogs were regular sightings in the winter time, and clear skies weren’t. Even today, as I live through the wet and cloudy winters of the Pacific Northwest, there are days when I can relate to that character.

Whether I’ll ever find that story or its book again is immaterial. What will always be important is the impression.

About Mike

Mike Hartner was born in Miami in 1965. He’s traveled much of the continental United States. He has several years post secondary education, and experience teaching and tutoring young adults. Hartner has owned and run a computer firm for more than twenty-five years. He now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, with his wife and child. They share the neighborhood and their son with his maternal grandparents.

If you’d like a sneak peak at his book before my review goes up on Monday, you can find I, Walter on Amazon. You can also check out more of his writing on his website.

Guest Review: Ciara Ballintyne on The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett

Did you know that today is a very special day? It is!

Today marks my first guest review, written by the talented Ciara Ballintyne, author of Confronting the Demon. Stay tuned on Monday for my own review of her book, the reading of which prompted me to contact her to do this guest post. Meet Ciara:

JM0130BCiara has chosen to review a book that influenced her own writing, The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett. OK, OK, I’ve talked enough, let’s get to what Ciara has to say:
185px-The-last-heroTitle: The Last Hero, Book #27 of Discworld
Author: Terry Pratchett
Genre(s): Adult Humorous Science Fiction

Cohen the Barbarian. He’s been a legend in his own lifetime.
He can remember the good old days of high adventure, when being a Hero meant one didn’t have to worry about aching backs and lawyers and civilization. But these days, he can’t always remember just where he put his teeth…So now, with his ancient (yet still trusty) sword and new walking stick in hand, Cohen gathers a group of his old — very old — friends to embark on one final quest. He’s going to climb the highest mountain of Discworld and meet the gods. It’s time the Last Hero in the world returns what the first hero stole. Trouble is, that’ll mean the end of the world, if no one stops him in time.

A long time ago, the first hero stole the secret of fire from the gods. Now, the last hero, Cohen the Barbarian, together with his Silver Horde, is returning it. With a vengeance.

I said SILVER HORDE. Silver, you know? SILVER? Your hair! Oh, never mind…

It’s not silver for all the loot they stole, see?

Cohen is the disc’s answer to Conan – eighty years old in the shade, with dentures made from troll teeth (diamonds) and tough as old boot leather (possibly tougher, and certainly stringier). The Silver Horde may not always be able to hear what’s going on (one of them even uses an ear horn) but they can always beat it into submission (even from the seat of a wheelchair).

‘And they’re heroes,’ said Mr Betteridge of the Guild of Historians.

‘And that means, exactly?’ said the Patrician, sighing.

‘They’re good at doing what they want to do.’

‘But they are also, as I understand it, very old men.’

‘Very old heroes,’ the historian corrected him. ‘That just means they’ve had a lot of experience in doing what they want to do.’

Lord Vetinari sighed again. He did not like to live in a world of heroes. You had civilisation, such as it was, and you had heroes.

The problem is, this spells disastrous consequences for the entire disc… The end of the world, in fact. Again. Unless someone stops him.

So who is really the last hero?

Enter Rincewind, once again swindled into certain danger and almost certain death.

Of all the Discworld books, the ones with Rincewind are by far my favourites. I think they are the funniest, because how can you compete with a cowardly wizard who can’t do magic, who has no interest in saving the world, or the danger that goes with it, and yet somehow always manages to find himself at the centre of these things – and pulls it off? And surely no one had disappointed Death as many times as Rincewind.

In fact, The Last Hero features nearly all my favourite characters – Death, the Librarian, Vetinari, Captain Carrot, and Leonard of Quirm, who all come together in a desperate mission to save the disc. Which is to say, of course, that Lord Vetinari decrees it shall be done and has Leonard design an insane plan. Carrot volunteers because he’s like that, and Rincewind volunteers out of a belief in sheer inevitability – he knows he’s going to wind up on this mission whether he likes it or not, because that’s what always happens to him, so why fight it?  Death, naturally, is quite invested in the outcome.

‘What is that on your badge, Captain Carrot?’

‘Mission motto, sir,’ said Carrot cheerfully. ‘Morituri Nolumnus Mori. Rincewind suggested it.’

‘I imagine he did,’ said Lord Vetinari, observing the wizard coldly. ‘And would you care to give us a colloquial translation, Mr Rincewind?’

‘Er…’ Rincewind hesitated, but there was really no escape. ‘Er… roughly speaking, it means, “We who are about to die don’t want to,” sir.’

Like all Discworld books, The Last Hero is a rollicking good laugh, combining some of the best elements of the Discworld series in one volume. It comes in an illustrated format, with some fantastic pictures. Highly recommended!

The Last Hero has a particular place in my heart because a line from the book served as the inspiration for my novella, Confronting the Demon. It was the writing prompt for my writer’s group one month several years ago. The story went through many iterations before it settled into the form in which it now exists, but throughout all its incarnations, the concept that originally sprang from the prompt remained true. It came from this paragraph:

‘That meal,’ said Cohen, ‘was heroic. No other word for it.’

‘That’s right, Mrs. McGarry,’ said Evil Harry. ‘Even rat doesn’t taste this much like chicken.’

‘Yes, the tentacles hardly spoiled it at all!’ said Caleb enthusiastically.

[Samantha’s note: Aha! Tentacles …]

So do yourself a favour, and go buy The Last Hero. Paperback, not ebook, because some of the best jokes are in the footnotes and you miss out on them in ebook. If you have the option, get the illustrated version. Love the artwork. It won’t fit nicely on your shelf, but it’s worth it.

Interested in more words by Ciara? Find her:

Or if you want to check out Confronting the Demon, you can find it here:

A big thank you to Ciara for her post today!