A Dystopia That Wasn’t

“Can you write about the future these days without it being apocalyptic?” Jason Heller wondered after reading Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road. Of course, you can, and people do, but in a very particular intersection of “literary fiction” and “science fiction,” the books that have gotten the most attention are dystopian. It isn’t that surprising, when we think about it: dystopian futures are defined by adversity, adversity creates challenge, and challenge generates drama. Where’s the dramatic tension in a world where everything’s worked out fine and we’ve all gotten everything we want, right? (At least, that’s how the easy logic works.)

Byrne sets her novel in a late 21st century that’s far from comfortable but, apart from an implied sea level rising due to global warming, isn’t all that much more dystopian than the world of 2014. The balance of political and cultural power may have shifted (“Africa is the new India, after India became the new America”), but the violent factionalism of Byrne’s world is indistinguishable from our own. The true crises in the novel are interior, emotional. When we first meet Meena, one of the novel’s two central characters, she’s fleeing from her apartment in Kerala and, believing that a terrorist organization is hunting her down, tries to kill herself by jumping in front of an oncoming train. After she’s rescued, she decides to head to Mumbai and, from there, makes plans to cross the Arabian Sea on foot to her Ethiopian homeland. That’s not as impossible as it sounds, because there’s a long string of hydrogen superconductors stretched out across the water, collecting energy; that said, it’s illegal and highly dangerous, and the journey will exacerbate Meena’s already unbalanced emotional state.

The novel’s other narrative thread focuses on Mariama, an escaped slave who meets some friendly caravan drivers and joins them on a trek across Africa, approaching Ethiopia from the opposite direction as Meena. Looking back at this journey from the perspective of her childhood, Mariama’s perspective is limited, and her experiences traumatize her in ways that she can recognize but not necessarily articulate clearly, even to herself. From the very beginning, Byrne hints that there’s a connection between her story and Meena’s, and you’ll likely be able to figure out just how the two arcs will intersect some time before both women’s lives spiral towards their unsettling climaxes.

Climaxes which, to circle back to my initial point, ultimately don’t rely upon the novel’s “dystopian” features for their narrative momentum. The setting is less important here than the emotional dynamics, and those dynamics could just as easily play out in contemporary settings. In that sense, then, The Girl in the Road is not a post-apocalyptic novel at all, but a contemporary drama with just enough futuristic flourishes that it can straddle the line between mainstream fiction and science fiction.

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10 September 2014 | read this |

Dystopia & Scale: Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water

Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water is set in a far future that, after centuries of global warming, feels almost pre-modern in many respects. In the Scandinavian village where 17-year-old Noria Kaitio lives, drinking water is rationed out in waterskins, but people still have personal electronic devices they can use to read and to communicate with each other. Adding to the time-out-of-time feel of the novel is Noria’s status as the daughter of the local tea master; as his only child, she’s been learning the rituals of the tea ceremony, even though it’s far from traditional for women to take on the position. The ceremonies are like an anchor to the past, something we can grab on to as recognizable (even if only in principle) in a strange new world. (Although the novel doesn’t explain how the Japanese tea ceremony came to be handed down through generations of a Finnish family, Itäranta did think this through, and has discussed it in interviews.)

As Noria’s father prepares her to inherit his role as tea master, he reveals the existence of a natural spring, hidden in the caves near their home. This water source needs to be kept secret from the New Qianese army that has conquered the Scandinavian Union, but that’s not the only emotional burden that it places on Noria. Itäranta pays just as much attention to her young protagonist’s more intimate crises, dovetailing them into the political dilemma in a way that fans of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale can well appreciate.

One thing that I’m learning to appreciate as I read around what we might call “dystopia” is that, although it’s set in worlds that have undergone big (literally cataclysmic) changes, the most successful stories work on a much smaller scale. Yes, the backstory of the disasters that shaped Noria’s world, or the world of Edan Lepucki’s California, is intriguing enough that we expect some details. Too much information, though, and a story risks veering into disaster porn, the bookish equivalent of special-effects explosions covering up a weak narrative.

That’s not the case here. Itäranta zooms in tightly on Noria and her immediate environment: her family, her family’s legacy, her best friend, her village. Beyond that, we know just enough to set the scene at first, then a little bit more to make the external threats to Noria credible. There is a mystery about the past that Noria uncovers, and you read because you want to learn what that’s about, but you read primarily because you want to see how Noria copes with the responsibilities that are thrust upon her.

20 August 2014 | read this |

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