Hope in Dystopia

Glittering Lights of Earth As Seen From the Space Station, NASA, Jan 2, 2020

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Dystopia is all the rage these days, and at least some of it is environmental. The environmental disaster has been a recognized subset of dystopia since well before Charlton Heston discovered what the food substitute Soylent Green really was. Aldous Huxley trapped his characters in a sterile and morally empty urban landscape in Brave New World (1932); John Brunner’s characters inhabit a literally toxic future in The Sheep Look Up (1972); Deckard and Rachael escape to nature at the end of the original cut of Blade Runner; and the earth in N.K. Jemisin’s multiple-award winning Broken Earth series (which won the Hugo for best science fiction novel three years running) regularly destroys societies through geological upheavals. But today I would like to talk about a sub-set of this sub-set: the optimistic dystopia. What does it looks like when environmental disaster leads to societies that are, perhaps, more just and certainly more equal than what came before?

The main character of Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless ( John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books, 2017) is Enid, a young cop called to investigate a death in a small town. Enid is from Haven, the most important settlement in a loosely-linked scatter of settlements along the coast of a future California. Several generations back society collapsed under pressure from the coincidence of several disasters happening all at once; an ongoing threat of large storms suggests climate change was part of the mix. By Enid’s time the survivors have created a new society of relative plenty and peace whose central feature is its system of birth control. Vaughn has said that she believed that people trying to hang on in the face of collapse would choose to preserve some knowledge and technology and not others. Inhabitants of the Coast Road spend their days farming and fishing; at community celebrations the villagers gather outside to drink late into the night. But Enid and her partner research the town they need to travel to in an archive equipped with electricity, they travel there in a solar-powered car, and the Coast Road has a form of birth control, implanted into women at a young age, far in advance of anything we possess. People live in households, which seek to prove to the authorities that they have the resources to support a child. If they can, they might be granted a banner, displayed proudly in the household, which grants the right to a family.

Vaughn uses this setting to create mysteries that turn on people’s relationship to the banner system. These allow for some exploration of the justice of the Coast Road’s careful strategy of managing resources through the limitation of childbirth. Those most convinced by the justice of the Coast Road’s system are not the heroes of the story. Enid’s partner in the second novel, The Wild Dead ( John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books, 2018) is so rigid in his defence of societal norms as to be an ineffective investigator; in a short story in the same world, the leader of tribunal denies a rival a banner. In another short story that functions as a prequel to the novels, Vaughn looks at the origins of the birth control technology and shows it to have started, in part, as a way to allow women to control their own bodies amidst the chaos of societal collapse. The stories that Vaughn tells in her world, in other words, suggest that the Coast Road’s Malthusian ideals may owe less to a need to conserve resources than to an ongoing fear of recreating the conditions that collapsed the old world.

The Exodus fleet, of Becky Chambers’ Record of Spaceborn Few (Hodder, 20180 is less haunted by their past than troubled by their present. The fleet is a collection of survivors of an earth pushed past the point of environmental collapse, who took to the stars in spaceships designed to house whole societies. Sometime before the start of the novel, the fleet encountered a wealthy society, the Galactic Commons, that gave the fleet membership and a planetary surface they could use for their own. The tension in the novel comes from the fact that the Exodans (as the members of the fleet call themselves) must now choose: whether to leave their home behind or to remain on increasingly rickety artificial environments. The choice is a difficult one. Out of their circumstances the Exodans have created an attractive, supportive society, one guided by ritual, a commitment to equality, and a balancing between memory of the past and looking to the future. “If we have food,” goes the naming ritual done at the birth of, in this case, a boy, “he will eat. If we have air, he will breathe. If we have fuel, he will fly.” One character, Eyas, is a caretaker, which means she deals with the process by which dead human bodies are composted, and the resulting nutrients used to feed the next generation. In Exodan society caretakers are respected; they see what was once a grisly necessity as simply part of a lifelong commitment to contributing to the life of the fleet.

If the Coast Road is a utopia of relative plenty laced through with the fear of collapse, the people of the Exodan fleet, surrounded by wealthier societies, fashion hope out of the ritual memory of environmental destruction and the years of struggle and scarcity that followed. Should we look to disaster to come and wipe the slate clean? Surely not. We are part of our environments, and both us and the worlds we inhabit are part of our past. And what is important about both is what we choose to remember about them and the lessons we choose to let them teach us.

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Jamie Murton is a Professor in the Department of History at Nipissing University. His research focuses on the environmental history of food and agriculture, and particularly of subsistence production and its relationship to capitalist markets for food. Canadians and Their Natural Environment: A History is out now from Oxford University Press.

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