Driving Dys Topia

I’m not a fan of doom and gloom. My daughter and I were having a conversation about song lyrics after seeing a pithy sign that reminded us of poetry, and that segued into stories. She informed me she likes melancholy ‘edgy’ music and reading. I said, as I parked and got out of the car, “I’ve lived on the edge. I much prefer happy-go-lucky.”

I really do. I’m not all glitter and giggles, but when I am reading, I don’t want to be repulsed by the level of pain, gore, and emo-angst-nihilism. I had a moment, the other day, reading Nevil Shute’s The Far Country (I couldn’t resist it after Dave Freer’s enthusiasm over it the other day here), where I was figuratively holding my hands over my face and peeking through my fingers at the story unraveling on my phone screen (where I read most, these days). Don’t do it, I was muttering, oh, please don’t do it!

There was a point in the story where it could easily have gone in a very dark direction. I could play the coming scene out in my head – and the only thing I knew about Shute was that he’d written On the Beach, an end of the world story where everyone dies. So I was wondering if this new-to-me author would play out the plot in the same way I knew he could and I was really hoping he wouldn’t. He didn’t. I won’t spoil the story, but I loved it, and came away at the end determined to read more of his… but not the story where everyone dies. I won’t do that to myself. It’s not that I can’t handle it, and I’m sure it’s beautifully and tragically written and all that. It’s that I don’t want to subject myself to it. I’ve lived on the edge of life. I don’t want to go back there in my entertainment, and there are beautifully written things that have hope in the kernel of their endings.

The trouble is, I look at my science journals and see that we could well be trembling on the brink of a dystopia. I’m too level-headed to think the kind of ‘topia’ in our future is a utopia. And I’m not too sure that dys is coming, either. More than likely, life will find a way. But clever people with agendas might just put some very nasty speed bumps on the road as we’re driving toward ‘topia.’ Like CRISPR and gene editing, and biochemistry gone wrong.

For the short version on the perils inherent in synthetic biology, check out this article in C&EN. They are discussing a recent report commissioned by the US government on chemical and biological warfare, and the role synthetic biology could play in it during upcoming conflicts. Humans are very, very creative in waging war. While in years past, the government was more inclined to scoff at the danger, this report changes all that, and it’s a wave of chilling knowledge. It’s also invaluable to a writer who wants to research and possibly employ some real, hard, science in their tale. You can find the whole report here, free of charge in PDF or HTML form.

Am I looking over my shoulder now? No. Nor am I planning on writing a dystopian post-apocalyptic tome. I like hope, and I live with hope. The thing that got my daughter and I started was on our conversation was a sign:


Before you


How edgy, she said. Reminds me of the Art of Dying, I responded.

So I’ll leave you with my favorites of their songs. Perhaps they’ll inspire you, the way they do me, to live even when it’s dark and dystopian outside.


  1. I taught in a public high school, now subbing 6-12 grades. The gloomy themes of material considered suitable for middle school is beyond imagining. I had a decent childhood – the biggest crises I had, before adult years, were caused by other kids.
    But, at times in my adult life, I’ve lived close to the edge. Don’t want to re-live it. Prefer some degree of optimism in my reading today.
    Perhaps one of the reasons for the ongoing popularity of mysteries in books and other media is the way that there is a satisfying resolution at the end: the evil are punished, the good are allowed to return to their regular lives, and heal together.

    1. I partially blame today’s gloomy reading/watching material for the high rates of suicide in young people, and also I think it takes a share of the blame (how much to be determined) in the mass shootings. GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. It’s not quite that straight-forward in humans, but it is still a factor.

    2. I read a slew of “nuclear war end of the world” stuff in the late 1980s that was YA, but it generally ended somewhat upbeat – people clawed through and made it, or at least had light peeping out through the clouds. When I came back almost ten years ago and started skimming what was on the English teachers’ shelves in YA fiction… Ugh. The government is evil, there is no hope, everyone has a terrible disease, no one can escape and the best to do is claw through and survive somehow… Blargh. Glad that stuff wasn’t around when I was in my dead-trees-and-depression phase.

    3. I think gloomy is definitely a partial cause for the suicides and the spree killings. (Spree killers seem to have some defective thinking in common with the suicides.)

      I think the gloomy is one of the artifacts of something that also increases both rates in other ways.

      Gloomy serves the purpose of convincing one that there is no personal future outside of practicing the socialist religion. They persuade one that there is no happiness in this world unless one achieves an earthly salvation by accepting Karl Marx as one’s personal lord and savior.

      But everything inside the state, nothing outside the state simply cannot be perfectly satisfying to everyone. Everything inside the state, nothing outside the state, with the state being perpetually driven by whims of the moment, is going to leave a lot of people with nothing.

      There is a world beyond the barred windows of the public school.

      1. its just nihilism. they see that their road has a dead end so they want everyone to think that all roads have a dead end.

  2. Western Civilization has come close to TEOTWAWKI a few times. The 500s were lousy between climate shifts caused by a few volcanoes and plague that wiped out swaths of the population and contributed to environmental problems. Then you had the Little Ice Age and Black Death that knocked everything back again. If you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the 1600s seemed like the end of the world (some areas didn’t recover until after WWII, if then). But we got through it, somehow. We need more stories about that, so we have reminders that “That passed away, this also may.” (Deor’s Lament, http://www.thehypertexts.com/Deor's%20Lament%20Translation.htm )

  3. I was raised to expect the world to end any day. The Population Bomb, Silent Spring, Nuclear Winter, Disco, whatever, there was always some apocalypse right around the corner. And now, looking back at 1978 from 2018 I can see that the me I was then never planned for the future because he was constantly being told that there would be no future–no future one could plan for, anyway.

    So at 55 I find myself scrambling to try to come up with a retirement plan that does not involve a refrigerator carton under a viaduct and I’ll admit that I’m angry. Yes, I am willing to take responsibility for my own life choices, but I made those choices based on the information that I was given, and so much of it has turned out not only to be inaccurate, but known to be inaccurate at the time that it was published.

    I’ve been hearing the ecofascists crying wolf my whole life, and I’m sick of listening to it.

    1. “So at 55 I find myself scrambling to try to come up with a retirement plan that does not involve a refrigerator carton under a viaduct and I’ll admit that I’m angry.”

      I agree 100%. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I decided we were going to have a future, and I’d better get busy building toward it. The part that enrages me is that is was all a very deliberate -lie-. A propaganda campaign to prop up a political movement, the Socialists.

      I -still- keep a bug-out bag, a trailer, an antique car that will run after an EMP, all kinds of just-in-case that costs me money and causes me worry. Because I’ve been propagandized since I was born that Canada is going to be destroyed and we’re all going to die. Knowing that it is a lie doesn’t change the fundamental programing. Bad shit is coming, gotta be ready.

      Lately all the talk is civil war. The thing about that is ther way you get a civil war is by talking about it all the time. Picking sides, collecting outrages, that’s how its done.

      I’m wise to this crap. There is not going to be a civil war. I’m not re-planing my whole fricking life around the latest lie coming out of the lie factory. F- it, drive on.

  4. > Nevil Shute

    Try “Trustee from the Toolroom.” It’s not one of his better-known works, and perhaps not the best written – it’s in a fusty style that was probably antiquated when he wrote it – but it’s a rather unusual type of success story.

    The “model engineer” subculture Shute describes in the book was (and is) very much a thing, though far more British than American.

    I wrote a tiny review here: http://bbs.homeshopmachinist.net/archive/index.php/t-58304.html

    1. I will heartily second this – TftT is one of my favorites. Shute wrote a lot of good books, and very few of them are as depressing as “On The Beach”. I especially liked “In The Wet” and “Round the Bend”, in addition to Trustee. If any of you are fans of Richard Bach’s works, I suspect that “Round The Bend” contributed quite a bit to “Illusions”. I find the idea of a “mechanic Messiah” quite interesting…

  5. I don’t mind dystopias, but I have to be in the right mindset. Typically, when I read something dystopian is when I’m slightly depressed. Then I read to remind myself that I ain’t got it too bad. If I get really depressed (for me anyway) I read something lighthearted.

    I too grew up being told the world was going to end any day now. We all figured Minot would be one of the first places struck in a nuclear exchange with the AFB just north of town (the last remaining dual nuclear base in the US), and all the missile silos scattered around the countryside. I remember being at the lake as a little kid and thinking about what Carter had just told us, we’re running out of oil. That was depressing to me, because I really enjoyed getting an hour out of town and playing at the lake, driving the boat, etc. And then there was how we were all gonna starve because of drought, or acid rain, over population, the coming ice age, etc. Thankfully all the scare mongers were wrong.

    Mostly, I just want to be entertained.

    1. Dystopia itself can work really well.
      The contrast makes heroism in such settings really compelling.
      Which in turn allows you to shrink the scope. Rather than the main character saving the world, he saves an innocent character doomed by circumstance (and possibly himself in the process). Which also makes the motivations, exertions, and setbacks easier for the reader to accept, embrace, and emotionally invest in.

      The problem is that dystopias are often used by absolute wankers to advocate for nihilism. Which is really self-defeating, when you think about it. A story with the theme of “nothing matters” will demonstrate the point more than prove it.

  6. By all means skip “On the Beach.” The good news is, it’s not like anything else Shute ever wrote, and he was not generally given to doom and gloom stories. Second the recommendation for “Trustee from the Toolroom.” Other favorites of mine are “Ruined City,” “No Highway,” “Round the Bend,” and “A Town Like Alice.”

    1. Oops – I see that the American title for “Ruined City,” is “Kindling.”

  7. Cedar, tell your daughter to check out Palaye Royale, LP is The Boom Boom Room.

    A Young Relative makes me take them to ALL the gigs they do around Toronto, and having been dragged to half a dozen concerts and made to sit in the back with the fricking Old People, and doing VIP as Young Relative’s body guard/chaperone/Hell’s Wrath On A Leash, I must say they kick ass. Their fans are really nice too, that doesn’t hurt. And no mosh pit. ~:D

    1. Ok, so Soldier of the Royale Council plug aside, does anyone else miss stuff like the Polesotechnic League? Man, I could go for some of that right now.

      If I never see another Hopeless Dystopia Where Everybody Dies!!11! it’ll be too soon.

      These books and stories have consequences too. I remember my old man read Nevil Shute’s “On The Beach” when I was a little kid, in the early 1960s. It messed him up, to put it mildly.

      Imagine reading that while Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and French IndoChina are boiling up. I don’t think he was ever really right again. If you asked him “when did you read On The Beach” he could probably tell you which month of the year.

      That’s not a good thing, in my estimation. Particularly when shit-head authors try to do it to their audience on purpose, for Social Justice. “You deserve to be miserable, evile straight white cismale reader! Have a nice steaming cup of fuck you!” Yeah, no.

      These days I check the blurb, and if it has “crisis!” or “dystopian vision” or “post apocalyptic,” any of the standard industry buzzwords, I put it back on the shelf. Barf.

      1. Gotta disagree with you on two points Phantom.

        When you are young, and trying to figure out how you navigate the bureaucracies so you can make a living and be a Real Functioning Adult ™, Isekai LitRPG can look pretty good. Kill monsters, they drop loot, and you don’t have to worry about resumes, getting hired, or health and safety compliance. I’m pretty sure part of the appeal is the impact of our modern centralized bureaucratic states.

        I think your model of the hysteria in TradPub is wrong. I think a better model might be Confederate revanchism after the ACW.

        1. I’m always willing to consider new explanations for TradPub crazyness. ~:D

      2. I scared off a beta-reader by casually referring to a project as “post-apocalyptic”. Which, technically, it was. WAY post-. Centuries post- and they don’t remember it happening, it was just how to explain the world I wanted to set up.

        I love post-apocalyptic stuff where the thrust is “how we survived and what we built”. Nihilistic works, I will take a hard pass on.

  8. If you don’t know much history, present trends always can show TEOTWAWKI. If you don’t know we were going to freeze to death in the 70s, climate change sounds scary. (Actually, a cooling Earth WOULD be bad.) It’s been pointed out that we’re due for a global pandemic of a relatively fast-acting lethal disease.
    As for other reasons for dystopia “fun”. From the negative, “reality chic”. The character overcomes an obstacle and becomes more mature? “Well, what about the kids that die?” The child MUST die, because it happens in real life, but make sure the disease was acquired by a PC-police acceptable way.
    For the positive, “agency”. As someone observed, most of the kids reading aren’t going to have the problems they read in the books. At least not at the same level. For some kids, perhaps many, near total societal collapse would be the only chance to experience the duties, rights and privileges teenagers have had through most of human existence. Don’t know if my comments are accurate, but they’re my best guesses as to why we have so much dystopian future stories.

    1. Don’t think so. Its a fashion statement, nothing more. Gloom is in, because Trump. Gloom and Blackness Studiez was in before, because Obama was here to save them all but it wasn’t working.

      (Incidentally for all the bottom-dwelling, slime-consuming trolls, “Blackness Studiez” is a shot at fake-faced, fork-tongued Ivory Tower liberals, most of whom are white. It has nothing to do with actual humans who are actually black, they have enough to worry about, just like the rest of us. Feel free to take my comment out of context as evidence that MGC is RAAAAACIST, maybe even make a whole post up about it, but know that we will all point and laugh at you.)

      As it happens, the people who run Big Publishing -are- looking at the end of the world as they know it. Their entire industry is coming apart right in front of their eyes. Could make you gloomy.

      I also think the New York Liberal set got a really ugly shock on September 11th 2001, and eighteen years later they still haven’t processed it. All this Trump Derangement Syndrome crap we keep seeing all throughout the media is them frantically clutching their existential denial of events they personally lived through.

      Plus a lot of the top executives are flat-out sociopathic perverts and it stains everything they do. See #metoo for prurient details on the NYC publishing hierarchy.

      Here endeth the rant.

      1. I don’t think Trump Derangement Syndrome quite explains the distopian love. Much of it, including pretty much the entire Hunger Games phenomena, dates back to the Obama administration. There’s something more going on there.

        (As an interesting side note, the same people who fantasized about Bush/Trump being assassinated also fantasized about an Obama assassination. The tone was different (tragic fall of the great leader rather than evil dictator getting what he deserved), but the basic fantasy was the same. Does make you think some of these people have some rather twisted ideas in their psyches.)

        1. We know there are a lot of womanizers in the upper tier of Big Pub managers and fancy Left leaning magazines because they keep getting #metoo-ed. They never fight it, they always grovel. Gamergate, same thing.

          That evidence plus taking what they actually -say- seriously, leads me to the conclusion that they’re bent as hell, and running a clubhouse for perverts.

          Or, as has often been observed, scum rises to the top.

          In Canada of course it’s both better hidden and MUCH worse. Here, a book will never make back its production costs, so Canadian publishers are propped up by government. It was realized in the 1960s that our market was far too small for any author to make a living. Enter the Canada Council for the Arts. Authors get GRANTS to write books. You can’t get any agent to even look at your work unless you already have a grant in hand.

          Well, who gets a grant? People with buzz. Who makes the buzz? Academics at prestigious schools. If you’re a favorite of Professor Bob at Bigschool, he will put in a good word for you. So that puts a bunch of old men in a position of power over a new crop of cute young women every year. (and young men, 2018 you know) Perfect setup for some guy with a kink in him. Perfect ladder for young sociopaths to climb.

          When you know that, the state of modern Canadian literature makes perfect sense.

    2. The issue of character agency is always a headache in children’s and YA fiction, because you’ve got to simultaneously have the protagonist solve their problem by their own efforts and keep it plausible for a character who is a minor to be doing the necessary things to accomplish the first. In children’s fiction you can keep the problems and the stakes small enough that children plausibly can and should solve them on their own, without the intervention of Adult Authority. A mislaid belonging, a problem with a classmate, etc. But as we move into YA territory, we have protagonists who are in that liminal zone where they’re dealing with larger, more adult problems and stakes, but are still legally minors — so you have to explain why Adult Authority is not stepping in and dealing with the problem.

      Some YA stories end up verging on Idiot Plot because they only work because all the adults in the characters’ lives are functionally incompetent, leaving the teen protagonists effectively on their own. The Harry Potter series has been dinged a lot for this, but I’ve seen that criticism leveled against a number of other YA books.

      So you need something that would plausibly take Adult Authority out of the loop so the kids have to rely upon themselves — and some form of disaster or other social breakdown is an obvious way to do it. It can be as simple as going wilderness camping with a teen organization, only to have the adult leader incapacitated by accident or illness and the protagonist has to step into the leadership gap and get everybody safely back to civilization. Or it could be a larger and more complex disaster that knocks out a whole city or region. But it avoids the Idiot Plot element of working only because all the nominal adults are acting like idiots instead of, ya’know, adults.

      So from that perspective, a lot of dystopian fiction is just “disaster that takes adult authority out of the loop” dialed up to 11. Society loses significant technology, so teens and even pre-teens are taking more adult-like roles, even when nominally still minors, which means much more latitude for solving their own problems without the verboten Appeal to Adult Authority. Except even when the protagonists do end up solving the problem, the world is often so unrelentingly ugly and grim that it can induce a miasma of despair in a young reader, rather than a hopeful “we will rebuild” belief that disaster is a speedbump, not a wall.

      That’s my big issue with Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker. Yes, the protagonist does come out on top at the end, and it really does look like he won’t be just told, “thanks for rescuing the princess, now don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” but will actually have a place in her organization and opportunities for advancement. But the world is just so ugly, so much “a boot stamping on a human face, forever” — except the boot isn’t Orwell’s overwhelming security state, but all the petty little bullies and tyrants who enjoy grinding people’s faces in the dirt and making them actively participate in that grinding — that I had to wash my brain out with more hopeful stories afterward.

      1. I suspect that’s why I ended up structuring _Shikari_ the way I did, with a Big Problem that adults had to take on, and the Minor But Critical Problems for the kid and teen characters to sort out. The younger characters have to take responsibility for what they can handle, and help the adults, but also had to be wise enough to realize that there are times to get a grown-up. Or Uncle Ebenezer, who will probably never grow up. *sigh* His wife is such a saint…

  9. Definitely keep reading Shute. A Town Like Alice is awesome. Trustee from the Toolroom, Far Country, Round the Bend, Chequer Board, Marazan… all with a more positive sense of life. I own On the Beach, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it yet. I’m pretty sure I don’t need that kind of vibe floating around in my head.

    I prefer dystopians with a positive sense of life, even if I have to wait until the end to get it. If I get to the end thinking there’ll be a happy ending (or at least a happy for now ending) and there isn’t, it really ticks me off.

    1. Take the advice of so many here, and don’t read that book. Throw it away. Or give it to someone you don’t like.

      A lot of people bought into the End of the World Is Nigh in the 1950s, and if Shute didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, you can’t prove it by that book. Everyone and his ghostwriter was writing message fiction about how bad things were going to be, just you wait.

      There are a few books I wish I hadn’t read. That is one of them. *Now*, that I’m a sarcastic old bastard who’d fisk the thing, sure, if I could manage to grind my way through the downbeat angst without bouncing it off the wall… But when it was on the school assigned reading list in junior high… it made a tough time tougher than it had to be.

  10. Maybe I’m a hopeless Pollyanna, but I tend to believe that we’re heading for a Eutopia–not a perfect place, but a good one. There are serious problems, but overall things are getting a lot better. Life’s better for a beggar in modern day than for a rich man even 100 years ago. There will be bumps in the road, some of them pretty severe, but overall I think my great-grandchildren will live in a better world than I do.

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