NYCC 2017: Sci-Fi Authors Explain Why We're Already Living in the Dystopian Sci-Fi Future
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The topic of discussion in New York Comic-Con's "The End of the World and Questionable Futures" panel was, naturally, the apocalypse and what comes after. Dystopian fiction, despite dipping a bit in popularity in the wake of The Hunger Games and Divergent, is still going strong, and the panel of authors included big names like Paolo Bacigalupi and Lauren Oliver. Here's the full list:
- Amy S. Foster, author of When Autumn Leaves, Rift Uprising
- Paolo Bacigalupi, author The Wind-Up Girl, Ship Breaker, and Tool of War
- Lauren Oliver, author of the Replica and Delirium series
- Scott Reintgen, author of Nyxia
- D. Nolan Clark, author of The Silence and Forbidden Suns
For Lauren Oliver, dystopia is used to "refract modern-day anxieties and see what the result might be"—a kind of speculative fiction for just how messed up the world can be. "All successful genre is about real life," she says. "It allows people to address issues that are too uncomfortable to address in real life." In her Replica series, she uses cloning to talk about inequality and explore the question of who is expendable in society.
Paolo Bacigalupi, however, takes a looser approach: "I will call my books anything that helps you pick it up," he says, though he concedes that dystopia is usually some kind of a broken or damaged version of the future. In his work, the dystopian future is often a broken or accidental one, with characters living in the "shards" of the old world.
On the other hand, Clark quotes William Gibson: "The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed." For Clark, the world is already living in a kind of utopia-dystopia, and he wonders what will happen once everyone has access to the kind of lifestyle the first world has. He also finds that when writing about dystopias in any form, the story inevitably incorporates dystopian elements of our own real-life society.
With that in mind, Bacigalupi points out that we may be already caught up to the "dystopian" futures that sci-fi was supposed to forecast. "There's a kind of obsolescence in writing dystopia," he says. Authors are "writing cliches and echoes of what's already happening."
Wrapped up in dystopian fiction is the struggle between good and evil. For Lauren Oliver, "evil demands order, it's consumptive, it demands attention." On the other hand, good "is chaotic, it's nonsensical," and it's "not defined by its own utility." According to Oliver, "The fact that it's futile defines what is good," and for her, the moments when humans do good to one another are the most important moments in literature.
According to the moderator, modern dystopias tend to be "fantasies of agency": the world is messed up, and they give the hero the ability to fight back and fix the world, change it, and create good. For Clark, dystopias often feature people who stand up and take action, effectively saying "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!", and that makes them a hero.
When asked about their intent behind writing dystopian fiction, each author had a different response. For Clark: "You want your reader to feel bound to you across space and time...[you're] not trying to teach them." He quotes Chaucer's poem Go, Little Book when speaking about the function of fiction, and how each story ends up finding its way to readers that the author never imagined and will never meet. For Bacigalupi, reading for joy, wonder, and escapism is still meaningful—he names Conan the Barbarian as one of his favorites.
For Oliver, reading is essential: "Hearts are mouths," she says, "and if we don't feed them, they'll scream."
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