Cross-interview: Dystopias and Hope for the Future
Karina Sumner-Smith and Jason M. Hough
(I recently pulled fellow author Karina Sumner-Smith into a chat about dystopias, and whether or not we should be writing more hopeful futures. Transcript follows…- Jason)Jason Hough
: I guess we should begin at the beginning. How do you define a Dystopia? The dictionary says "the opposite of a Utopia" and I feel like that's a matter of perspective, from the characters POV’s. Karina Sumner-Smith
: Dystopias are, I think, very much about character perspective. A dystopia is an undesirable society or community, but “undesirable” means different things to different people – just as your vision of utopia could be very different from mine.
But given the popularity of dystopian YA fiction in recent years, I think that the word “dystopia” makes readers think of certain things. Totalitarian governments. Rebellion against the system. A rigid system that controls personal choice. I’d say these things are a reflection of our times – a sign of what our society thinks of as frightening. Probably, in no small part because those are things that we can see or imagine happening in our own lives. They’re the patterns of society taken to extremes.
: Maybe it's, at least in many cases, simply the antagonist's utopia. Or at least, on that trajectory.Karina Sumner-Smith
: That's a good point, the antagonist's utopia creating the main character's dystopia. Do you think that a dystopia needs to be paired with a utopian society to be successful? I note that we've both done something similar in our works.Jason Hough
: I'm not sure it needs to be, though it seems realistic that there's at least someone living the good life when everyone else is suffering. Otherwise it probably becomes a post-apocalyptic tale. You can see this with North Korea, where most everyone lives in terrible conditions, except those in power - they probably think it's a pretty good setup.
I've seen a lot of chatter lately that SF/F and YA are too focused on Dystopias, that it's depressing, that we have some kind of duty to write about happy futures. What's your reaction to that?Karina Sumner-Smith
: On a base level, I don't think writers have a duty to write about *anything*. There are no mandatory subjects! Of course, we are influenced by the dictates of the market – or, more importantly, what audiences are interested in reading.
But this idea that people are required to have happy stories to feel positive about the future is, frankly, frustrating. Not because I'm against positive or hopeful tales – anything but! – but because it implies something about the nature of story, and what those stories are supposed to do. Stories are to entertain. Stories need to connect with an audience, and to do that, we often reflect things that are concerning to us as authors and as citizens. Literature is a reflection of our times, focused through each author's unique lens.Jason Hough
: I agree. And I think if it's a trend recently it's for a complex set of reasons. Some highly successful books made it a market the publishers want to tap into, for starters. Real-world events, and not just Snowden's revelations about surveillance, pile in there, too. It makes sense to me that our fiction would reflect such things. The "hopeful" SF mostly came out of the space-race era, when everyone thought we'd be all over the solar system by now. Besides, these things are cyclical.Karina Sumner-Smith
: Personally, I find that darker stories create great opportunity for contrast. Characters finding hope and light in the most challenging situations is, for me, more rewarding.Jason Hough
: Yes, yes! That's very important. Drama is conflict, and a setting that starts out at rock bottom is definitely cued up for a lot of that.Karina Sumner-Smith
: Is that what drew you towards writing post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories, the potential for conflict?Jason Hough
: Exactly that. I had been thinking about a space elevator, and how, unlike launching rockets which can happen from just about anywhere, the elevator has a very specific geographic location. A spot that would be controlled, managed, and fought over. I loved the idea of having an apocalyptic event on the ground, leaving things wretched below and still very utopian up above, but everyone still reliant on one another. The funny thing is I never really saw it as dystopian until after it came out and people started saying it. My goal was to have characters act like complex human beings, instead of all banding together. Even in a desperate situation, there are still people who are power hungry, greedy, and petty.Karina Sumner-Smith
: I know that one of the things I love in such stories is seeing what's left behind – infrastructure, environment, and people. An apocalyptic or other drastic scenario is an interesting way to pry into both human nature and the workings of our society. Who are we when everything else has fallen into ruin?Jason Hough
: Yeah, it definitely strips us down to our core. I love apocalypse stories for that reason to. "All the power goes out" type settings are always fascinating, especially because they make us examine our own situation. As an aside, I think it’s funny that people do thought-experiments about how to deal with the apocalypse, but not a dystopia. I guess it's easier to wrap our minds around a single, horrible event rather than a slow crawl into some oppressive governance situation? Karina Sumner-Smith
: Easier, for sure. One is a sudden wrenching change from "normal", while the other lets normal life continue, with little incremental changes. Societal change towards a dystopia would, I think, be very much like the frog in boiling water.
I have to laugh because the book beside me is a non-fiction title, THE DISASTER DIARIES: ONE MAN'S QUEST TO LEARN EVERYTHING NECESSARY TO SURVIVE THE APOCALYPSE.Jason Hough
: That sounds interesting. Useful for research! I keep the SAS SURVIVAL GUIDE on the shelf near my desk for the same reason.Karina Sumner-Smith
: What about other works in the genre? If you say "dystopian," people think of HUNGER GAMES or DIVERGENT, but post-apocalyptic and dystopian literature have been part of SFF for years. Do you have any favorites on your shelf?Jason Hough
: 1984 is the classic, to me. What are your favorites?Karina Sumner-Smith
: I have piles. I’ve definitely drawn inspiration from one of my favorite authors, Sean Stewart, in that. He has a few novels about what happens after a magical apocalypse, GALVESTON and THE NIGHT WATCH being my favorites. There's also some excellent short fiction – Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is a quintessential utopian/dystopian tale for me. For anthologies, Datlow/Windling’s AFTER and John Joseph Adams' WASTELANDS are two great ones that come to mind.
: Nice! In the apocalypse realm I'd have to go with Robert R. McCammon's SWAN SONG, and for post-apoc I really love Stephen King's DARK TOWER series.Karina Sumner-Smith
: Where do you think the dividing line is between those two sub-genres, dystopian and post-apocalyptic? Or is there one? Does any apocalypse story, with enough time/distance, necessarily become a dystopia?Jason Hough
: I'm not sure they're mutually exclusive. Post-apocalypse is about survival after an apocalyptic event. Dystopia, to me, really just describes a current state of living for the protagonist(s) as being a very undesirable situation – from the reader's perspective, not necessarily the character. The frog in boiling water analogy you mentioned is great, because in a post-apocalyptic story set well after whatever calamity brought us to that point, the people living in that time might not see it as necessarily terrible. It's what they're used to.Karina Sumner-Smith
: I think there's also something to be said about the scope of the story. One woman living out in the edge of nowhere, twenty years after the end of the world, would likely still have a post-apocalyptic style and tone, whereas a story about a community or attempts to rebuild 6 months after a disaster would likely trend towards dystopian.Jason Hough
: Definitely.Karina Sumner-Smith
: But lots of folks in a dystopian society also see their situation as normal. That sense of hopelessness or inevitability often weighs down many, whereas the main character might see things a little differently.Jason Hough
: What about hopeful SF? Any favorites? I'm kind of chuckling here because most of the ones I can think of are all about settling other worlds, which is sort of a cop-out in the hope department, really. Yeah, it's hopeful, but only because we left all of Earth's crap behind and are starting over!Karina Sumner-Smith
: I think that some of the most hopeful SF stories are, to me, not about the process of settling new worlds or making new discoveries, but those in which humanity is already spread across the stars and keeps expanding. I love a good space adventure, like Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels. I've also been eying James A. Corey's LEVIATHAN WAKES, which is sitting near the top of my to-read pile. I've heard great things ... though I can't say how hopeful it is.Jason Hough
: Ah, well Corey's is quite epic and has lots of different settings and situations. I'm on the second book of a planned nine, so I haven't reached the part yet where there's much hope.Karina Sumner-Smith
: I think that the challenge in writing really interesting hopeful fiction, is finding a conflict that feels true and real on a wide scale within that sort of society. Of course, SF doesn't always have to have such a huge scope – there are lots of smaller, interesting character stories that could be set against that background.Jason Hough
: Absolutely agree. Look at Andy Weir's THE MARTIAN. One guy on Mars, struggling to survive. It's both hopeful and intensely small in scope.Karina Sumner-Smith
: I want to read that one! So, Jason, what’s next for you? Are you staying in the realm of post-apocalyptic and dystopian SF?Jason Hough
: My next book has more of a Cold War vibe. So I suppose it's neither, but on the cusp of becoming one or both. How about you?
: After finishing the Towers Trilogy, I'm hoping to write a very different kind of fantasy disaster novel, something quieter and more personal (though, of course, I love big explosions). SFF is so broad, there are lots of ideas and stories I'd like to explore – but I think there's something compelling in dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction that will keep me coming back for more, even if it's just a short story or two.Jason Hough
: It is compelling. I'm not tired of it at all, despite the supposed saturation in the genre lately.Karina Sumner-Smith
: Like you said, everything is cyclical.Jason Hough
: Maybe the really scary future is when the Universe stops being so.