I write dystopian fiction. In my fictional world, things are not pretty for the majority of my characters. There is darkness, oppression, poverty, sickness, and a ruthless group of people who run things. Of course, one person's dystopia is another person's utopia. My novels also have a flip side - places where one can find light, wealth and all its trappings amid grand and pristine settings. Dystopian literature, when broken down into its basic elements is truly a literary example of artistic Chiaroscuro.
Recently I learned that 60 Minutes would be doing a segment on the New York City Ballet. They said that ballet is growing less popular. After I watched it, I grew sad. Then I began pondering contrasts, and (you have to be a Lord of the Rings fan, bear with me,) the image of the Elves leaving Rivendell and Middle Earth stayed with me. Has truth and beauty deserted us? Have we deserted it?
When I was little and just starting to read, my parents bought me the complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I spent hours randomly reading those magnificent (for their time) books. I remember how I tried to teach myself French using the encyclopedia when I was about ten years old. Why? I thought the language sounded beautiful. I was enchanted by the soft pronunciations and lyrical rhythm of the words.
During my pre-teen years, my siblings took me to several Broadway shows. I loved taking the subway into Manhattan, loved to watch the skaters at Rockefeller Center, and was so swept up by Broadway and skating that I decided I wanted to be an actor or a skater depending on which day it was - though I never pursued either into adulthood.
Moving into my teen years, I took French in high school. The teacher took us on field trips to see French movies and eat in French restaurants in Manhattan. How I loved those field trips.
After my school years I had a job working for a bookstore and moved to Manhattan, just a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I quickly joined the museum and took several of their classes on art history. I roamed those endless halls and pondered the paintings of the great masters, the Medieval tapestries, and the elegant ancient artifacts and statues. My uncle turned me on to classical music and opera, even though back then I was into what is now called "classic rock." But somehow, the rock/folk music of the 70's and classical music didn't seem at odds. It was good music, mostly pleasing to the ear, even when it was played LOUD.
During my employment at the bookstore, I was allowed to borrow new books and return them in pristine condition. I read voraciously, many genres, lots of poetry. I loved art books, history books, novels etc.
In the crazy 80's I discovered ballet, and I kept a seat warm at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center watching many New York City Ballet performances.
In the 90's, I moved to Colorado. I only lived there for three short years, but my awe and admiration of Colorado's stunning landscapes never subsided. I've traveled all over the country, and I have never grown tired of the incredible vistas that the United States has to offer. Vistas that both inspire and soothe.
So what does all of this have to do with writing dystopian novels? What's the point of this post?
Disclaimer: I am not an old fogey or a Luddite who longs for the return of the "good old days," although I do try to live a simple life and not get distracted by "toys." I'm no Pollyanna. I'm cynical and skeptical, pessimistic and suspicious. I like strong coffee, film noir, and often dress in black.
Two things my artistic memories have in common: Truth and Beauty.
A romance language, spoken in its true form, sounding beautiful to my English-speaking ear. Broadway shows, where the actors had to display real talent - not a blue or green screen in sight, and auto-tune? Unheard of. Live music where most of the bands actually sounded like their albums - without fancy "fixes."
Incomparable art, painted by true masters dedicated to their craft, relentless in their pursuit of beauty. Dance - expressions of the human body, determined to make their movements beautiful and effortless - no special effects, just dancers on a stage conforming their bodies to intricate music.
Books that told a story, where perhaps the good guys didn't always win, but there were actual differences between the good guys and the bad guys.
I grew up with the desire to emulate people with true inner and outer beauty, a certain amount of grace and class, well-spoken, well-dressed, intelligent - able to converse in many subjects, well-traveled, critical thinkers. People who knew more than I did were admired, not ridiculed.
As always, I look inward to ensure that I am not becoming the thing I rant about. I write these posts to myself as well as others. If I offend - sorry, but I find ugliness and mendacity offensive.
Let's fast forward to today.
The media and politicians have taught the world to polarize and politicize every issue. To scream and personally attack those who disagree. To convince their viewers that their natural rights are created by the government, and that anyone who disagrees with them politically must be an idiot. To never question the official story, and demonize those who do.
People admire and emulate those whose only claim to fame is a porn video, or an auto-tuned "voice." They defend entertainers who ceaselessly outrage with their appearance and stage props - claiming those things are what makes them a "true artist."
The "art" of dance - which is so commonplace now that any "star" can learn it in a few weeks time.
Best-selling, "erotica" books (mommy porn) that are poorly written, barely erotic, and bore.
Films that are so banal, violent and childish that they insult the intelligence of a chimp. Poor acting is common. The good guys seem to be doing the same things as the bad guys yet they're still considered the good guys. But hey, check out that cool CG and FX!
Outer "beauty." - No, not true beauty - but sexual appearance, is worshipped. Plastic surgery is a natural occurrence done to conform to some ridiculous standard of beauty that can never be achieved - because "beautiful" has never meant "perfect sex object." Dressing like a slutty streetwalker is not beautiful, even if it attracts attention. Attention does not always mean admiration and love.
Inner beauty? Many haven't a clue what that means. We hear, "he/she is a nice person" - but what does that mean these days? That they are nice to you? What makes them nice? That they agree with everything you say, no matter how hateful your speech? That they never challenge you, encourage you to grow, and perhaps change for the better?
Rabid support for violence in videos and games - and in real life - where gangsters/gangs are admired. War is supported and encouraged. Killing and death are celebrated - as long as it isn't an American being murdered. If that happens, then we have to send in the counselors. Few people seem concerned with providing counselors for grieving Afghan mothers.
Eating fake food and Frankenfood, huge ingestions of sugar - and more sugar! is encouraged, and its addiction and harm to the body is laughed off.
Instead of traveling to and admiring the natural beauty of a mountain range or a pristine beach, many people opt for fantasy lands like Disney, etc. for their vacations. Their children have never seen a real mountain or historic monument or a real beach. Never gone for a hike in a forest or a National Park. Last year, I met a man in Glacier National Park who told me that mostly Europeans and Asians - not Americans, visit National Parks these days. So the only vacation landscape some American children today may see is Cinderella's Castle, or the ocean from the deck of a cruise ship. Does anyone else besides me find that sad?
Some may argue, - well that's your truth, your idea of beauty. The standards are different now, and they are subjective. I say - no, there is a general standard of truth and beauty - at least there used to be. Admit it, deep inside your heart you know it when you see it. We're not seeing much of it these days.
Have we moved so far into worshipping things created by man that we fail to recognize natural beauty and natural rights? Where will that lead us as individuals? As a nation?
The picture in my mind of the Elves leaving Middle Earth haunts - because as I sit here and type this post while listening to Bach, I grieve for those who no longer know, desire, or understand true truth and real beauty. Can we ever get it back? Will the world just grow uglier and uglier, where people will live in a totalitarian dystopia and not even realize it?
Will my novels resonate with future generations if they don't recognize that the dystopian worlds in my stories are ugly places of oppression, not everyday life?
Do I want the world to return to some archaic genteel period? Not really. But I would like to see more compassion, freedom, civility, class, truth, and beauty in the world without having to try so hard to find it. I'd like to see more people shed their denial and shun ugliness, violence, and sleaze in the arts instead of accepting it with resignation and apathy.
Perhaps that is why the cautionary tales of dystopian fiction appeal to me. It is much easier to notice a sliver of light when surrounded by darkness.