Episode 88: Dystopia IRL

On March 28, 2020, Kasie and Rex talked about the rise of dystopian literature and whether we can see more COVID-19 Pandemic-related stories. Here are the show notes:

Your Hosts

Kasie Whitener, author, After December

Rex Hurst, author, Across the Wounded Galaxy

Theme for the day

What can Dystopian literature do for you


  • Virtually everything
  • Dystopian literature
abandoned boy skate skater
Photo by Stefan Stefancik on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

We’re in a virtual world right now. Cities, states, shutting down telling people to stay inside. Last week we talked about the opportunities for stories that may be coming out of this experience we’re having. This week I’ve been conducting classes online and I’m interested in how the landscapes of things like education, healthcare, and even socialization have all changed.

Let’s start with accessibility. This is the conversation around education — can your students get online? How much do we assume the internet and access thereto is a given?

In literary circles they say a writer should avoid making specific references to technology as that tech will be outdated almost before the book can get published.

So what we’re living now — this internet/virtual world, is it the new “way things are” or are we still watching a tech trend?

Can you write a story where internet accessibility is a given? Where the access to internet or lack thereof is a source of drama? Think of airplanes not allowing cell phones (switch to airplane mode) and wifi being confined to internet cafes in the 90s, right?

Those internet / technology circumstances are obsolete. So how do you tell a story without them? How do you write around them?

I remember watching Die Hard 2 in the 90s and the payphone he uses saying “Pacific Bell” even though the film took place (supposedly) at Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. So are there those kinds of goofs? The small inconsistencies or failures that a writer can expect to make simply because we don’t know what tech will survive and what will become obsolete?

Books with tech that is destructive — social distancing, government manipulated, used for oppressive and evil purposes:

  • Ready Player One — what a great combination of the old tech and the future tech, right?
  • Brave New World — sopa for moods, tech is a kind of opiate for the masses – an intelligence-based social hierarchy
  • 1984 — government overreach, mass totalitarianism, the benefits of a technically advanced society contrast with the personal and political freedoms we’ve had to surrender to achieve it; Orwell’s vision is so scary, his name “Orwellian” becomes synonymous with a repressive central control mechanism (government)
  • Fahrenheit 451 — the destruction of literature, art, and self expression

Segment 2

One thing I have not considered is writing YA. I also haven’t considered writing a dystopian novel. So what drives people to write these kinds of stories?

Here’s the Literary Devices definition of dystopian fiction:

Dystopia is a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.

There’s an opportunity to examine the worst-case scenarios. So like we talked about last week, people turning on one another, a desperation for survival, apocalypse and what it reveals about the basic nature of human beings.

In some dystopian literature, we’re not seeing a technologically advanced vision, we’re seeing a regression, a terrifyingly simplistic survival-centric experience:

We’ve seen real events like the Holocaust during WWII and the 2004 Tsunami in Southeast Asia influence authors to ask questions in fiction that maybe we’re asking anyway and just need to be thought through.

I found a graphic novel about the tsunami — Rinse, Spin, Repeat

How much of this writing is catharsis? A way to metabolize what’s happened?

When last week we talked about the stories that could come out of this experience, we didn’t talk about why people would write those stories.

What needs to be said? What needs to be told? What needs to be investigated?

We have art to share the experience, we have it to tell our stories and metabolize our feelings. Are there paintings, sculptures, plays, and films waiting in the wings for the conditions caused by COVID-19?

airplane aeroplane wreck wreckage
Photo by Nur Andi Ravsanjani Gusma on Pexels.com

Segment 3

Also called “radical pessimism” this article in The New Yorker claims we are in a “golden age” for dystopian fiction. 

Liberal and conservative visions are competing for who can accuse the other of greater atrocities. Like our social media being filled with the political squabbling and finger-pointing, writers are anxious to explore what happens when a central government determines what’s best for its provinces (The Hunger Games) and when people become enslaved by machines weaponized by evil corporations (Underground Airlines) or lies are outlawed (Golden State) so that even our speech is governed by an unelected authority.

It’s a cycle, though, leaning in the opposite direction are those utopian novels that imagine a perfect, harmonious existence (Arcadia) and the opportunities and challenges therein.

What does the rise of dystopian fiction (circa 2017) tell us about the mood of the country?

Can we expect to see more dystopian stories now or will we cycle back toward utopian stories now?

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