Sunday, September 30, 2012

dystopian plots

Dystopia is a gripping, palpable force at work in some literary works of the past century, and a few of the classics that might come to mind include: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley; Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; and perhaps The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood; Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut; The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins; and various short stories by F. Kafka, and T. C. Boyle.

The particular dystopian condition that is the framework of the story might be a societal collapse, and a subsequent rise to power of an elite formed to arrest the decline, but usually at the mind-numbing expense of a majority underclass.  In most of these stories the root cause of the societal collapse has been political, the culmination of brutal, catastrophic conflicts, but the collapse might also be driven by a collapse of an environment.

Powerful dystopian stories seem to be on the rise again.  Can they actually be telling us something?  Collins' Hunger Games is a good example of the political story.  The first volume of the Hunger trilogy has already been made into a rather good Hollywood movie.  Now, a new example of the environmental collapse story has been published as The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker.  

In this story, the earth's rotation has inexplicably slowed, and the days are becoming increasingly longer.  As days and nights lengthen, various cultivated foods can no longer be raised in the natural environment.  Society separates into two groups of people: the real timers--those who order their lives by the lengths of night and day (the diurnal cycle increases to 72 hours); and the clock timers--those who attempt to work and sleep by the clock, ignoring the presence of light or dark.  

Other phenomena accompanying the slowing rotation include the decay of the earth's magnetism.  This may be related to the mass beaching of whales on ocean shores, and flocks of birds dropping from the skies.  How strong the physical correlations might be sail past us, but they seem plausible, and the reader rushes on.  The story is narrated by a quiet, sensitive, twelve-yr. old girl, and all the tender, emotional details of a first romance, while she tries to navigate a troubled relationship between her parents, and all amidst this collapsing physical world, make for good, solid reading.

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