Modern Dystopian Fiction in the Post- 9/11 Landscape
As a fiction writer, you often don’t have to look very far to find inspiration for a storyline. I saw the news headlines over the past decade as road signs for a modern dystopian thriller. I believe that from fact comes great fiction. In the wake of 9/11 the headlines included tales of secret prisons, extraordinary rendition, torture, military tribunals, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, suspending habeas corpus, ignoring the Geneva Convention and so many other misdeeds befitting an Orwellian novel.
I wondered how we would react to a catastrophic event greater than a terrorist bombing or a broken levy. In my new novel Against Nature, I created a global pandemic; a disease without a cure and superimposed some of our post-9/11 reactions onto this new crisis. Just to spice things up a bit I made the disease causing organism an extraterrestrial dust mite introduced to earth in the wound of an astronaut. I also added in the recent rise of Social Darwinists on the political scene and what came out the other end was a frightening and all too plausible dystopia in the spirit of Orwell, Huxley, Crichton, and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.
I think if you want to write in the dystopian genre you have to have a keen sense of the current landscape. You have to look critically at your own society and then reflect on it. I wrote a dystopia about a global pandemic. At the heart of such a story line must be the vaccination plan. In the recent Hollywood film Contagion, the vaccine for a mutated strain of avian flu is doled out by lottery and all the citizens wait in line in an orderly fashion. I guess it feels good to feel good, but is that realistic? What would pandemic America really look like?
Based on our experience of the recent past, I wondered how we would dole out an experimental vaccine for a fatal and highly contagious disease that was spreading unabated across the globe. Would we distribute it in an egalitarian way? While writing Against Nature I pondered such questions and decided to look at our national economic model of wealth distribution as a framework. Considering we live in a society where four hundred Americans control half the wealth of the entire nation and one-percent of Americans control ninety-five percent of the national wealth, I wondered if those four-hundred would wait in line with the masses. Would the Wall Street banker get the vaccine before the day laborer or the venture capitalist before an inner-city pre-school teacher? It made me think of the Titanic. If a global pandemic was like a sinking ship, who would end up in a lifeboat and who would perish in the icy waters?
As a fiction writer you have to ask those types of questions and view the world through different lenses. To write a compelling dystopia you have to be more than just a good storyteller; you also have to be a social critic. You have to look at your own society from “outside the fishbowl” and be willing to move away from your own comfort zone. If not, you run the risk of writing a predictable Hollywood-style story that’s been done and redone.
I didn’t want my readers to flip through three hundred pages and find a predictable good versus evil tale where good triumphs or some version of the tired old rags to riches story. My goal was to write a complicated tale that wasn’t black and white. In Against Nature, I wanted the reader to see the reflection of our own complex society in the pages of the fantasy society. Life is many shades of grey and I tried to write a novel that reflected the complicated nature of human behavior. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether I succeeded or not.
John Nelson is a retired Air Force Master Sergeant and former Special Forces Medic—Air Commando. He now lives a quieter life as a healthcare executive. His novel Against Nature is available as an eBook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple iBooks and from the publisher Wild Child Publishing. Visit his blog for reviews of Against Nature.