As I think about the Ancient in sci-fi and fantasy, I’m trying to expand what I mean by that word. At this point I think in these terms:
- Primal vestiges
- Body and the connections to it
- Mystical, communal connections
- Storytelling as a linking, ancient art
And so on. One thought that I’ve been toying with for a while is the idea of the feral, the fell, the urge to demonic powers. I want to think that everyone of us has experienced one of these moments – the time when you throw your body around with reckless abandon, in the mosh pit, on the ball field, while climbing or diving into a huge wave or getting into a fight. Professional soldiers, I’m guessing, have to consciously tap these moments down, mostly in order to preserve the calm that will help them survive modern warfare, but these instincts have been with us a long time, if instincts they truly are.
I think of demonic not in a supernatural sense but more as an invocation of powers that seem superhuman to those of not possessed of beserker mode. The demonic in humans can be frightening, and in some ways science (and probably more accurately technology) are designed to remove us from those moments, but my guess is that this tool is so hard-wired in our physical toolkits (fight or flight seems so quaint – it’s more like run like hell out of panic or take on another persona and attack) that, well, good luck.
I recently finished two YA Dystopian novels, and both were frightening in their own ways. I’m curious what sorts of cultural work dystopias are doing – I’d love to think that it’s positive, but that would require letting down my guard and being a bit vulnerable. In other words, no.
The first is Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky. In it, the Heartland is a resource center for the Empyreans, who, as the title sez, live in the sky in floating 1920s-style dirigibles (actually we don’t know that, but I sort of hope it’s true). The ag companies have messed with corn so much that it’s pretty much all that grows, having been genetically modified with all kinds of unholy substances. But grow it does, and the Heartlanders are essentially surfs who harvest the corn and live on the leavings of the Empyreans.
- Adults are not all hopeless, as the main character’s father is actually growing underground vegetables and finding out the use for those who have the blight and have become part plant
- This is the first volume in a trilogy, and Wendig does not even pretend to wrap up the story of this first novel
- The violence doesn’t seem all that oppressive in this version, much as I struggled with the supposed oppressiveness in The Hunger Games
The second was more interesting in some ways, as M.T. Anderson’s Feed is everything Idiocracy should be if Mike Judge didn’t seem to actually not like humans, at least after Hank Hill.
In this novel our main character struggles with his feelings for Violet, a girl raised outside the feed. She sort of dies (too late for a spoiler alert, sorry), but the genius in the novel lies in Anderson’s voicing it in his narrator’s head, and in his narrator’s language, with only occasional side forays (courtesy of the feed, although they still feel a little bit deus ex machine) into telling us what’s actually going on. Since this is a YA novel, he occasionally slips into heavy-handed narrative gestures (Violet tells us that as Americans we’re doubly responsible for the destruction of the planet that we are anesthetizing ourselves to), but this novel kept me reading and feeling slightly queasy, as any good dystopia should.
- Some of this made me laugh out loud: “Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battle of the Civl War George Washington fought in and shit” (39)
- Other parts made me want to cry – Violet is sort of sucked into the feed because she wants to be normal, which she can’t otherwise be because her parents were freaks who only succumbed to the feed because they had to get jobs
- This had far more of a Brave New World feel to it than Under the Empyrean Sky or even The Hunger Games. However, I don’t think that Anderson hates humans like Huxley seems to; he gets why we are constantly under sedation, because our lifestyle is so destructive that we can’t face what we’ve done. One view of the steak farm and you’ll get it.
One aspect of YA lit that I haven’t wrestled with much is the overwhelming presence of corrupt and incompetent adults in YA fiction. This trope first came to my attention while reading the An Unfortunate Series of Events with my daughter, as adult after adult was simply either horribly selfish and interested in exploiting the children for gain or blindingly stupid and incompetent. I enjoyed that series, as did the young ‘un, but I kept feeling this vague sense of unease at just how evil or moronic the adults who were in the Baudelaires kids’ lives were.
The Baudelaire children manage to keep ahead of the insanity, but barely, using talents and skills that they constantly have to refine (and discover). After the death of their parents (which we discover was plotted to seem an accident by the horrible adults) the children are given a caretaker who is an idiot (Mr. Poe), and they are essentially hunted by their wicked uncle Olaf.
My initial response – and it may be more correct than I want to believe – is that with increased buying power literate young adults are simply buying books that match their own desires, i.e., depicting an adult world full of cretins and bastards. That characterization simply seems too easy to me, and I wonder if the anxieties being expressed aren’t a bit more subculture-specific – the adult world that teens are about to enter looks venal at worst and mind-numbing at best, with the concomitant fear that this is what readers will become if they lose their imaginative abilities. I suppose I could also read this as a set of economic fears, since so often in these series the characters seem to have financial stability within their grasp if not for the idiocy of the adults who supposedly care most about them (of the survivors).
As I further investigate, a quick list to explore:
- The Weasleys in the Harry Potter world
- Mother and Haymitch in The Hunger Games
- Twilight and the Mortal Instruments series as anomalies
The fact that the only competent adults are usually dead parents also weighs in this discussion…
…a recurring image in my dreams is one of seeking, often a specific person whom I know is lost.
Listening to the radio coming to work this morning, I resisted sports talk and the I’m sure to be far too gloating coverage of the Browns (twelfth man my ass), I listened to music instead, and “Gimme Shelter” came on.
I always try to resist the subtle charms of that song (the subtlety of the instrumentation, not the lyrics), because it seems to be Bloated Rock Star 101 – oh please give me shelter, because the millions of dollars I have made from you couldn’t possibly do that for me already. The problem (and it’s not really a problem) is that Richards’s guitar is impossible to ignore. It’s so ridiculously understated, seeming in that best Keith Richards way to be tossed off (not like that!) haphazardly, with nary a plan in sight.
Maybe it is. Maybe Richards is so messed up on drugs when he did the recording that my ode to the magic I want to believe he created is as bad (Fanboi Wannabe 101?) as is his own pathology. Still, when I hear that guitar, I get an image in my head of walking down the steps of a seemingly endless garage straight from a 1950s sitcom-turned-horror-show. I hear water lapping at the bottom, and I emerge impossibly into a damp blueness – in this world there are no colors except for shades of muted blue – and I step into a boat that as I walk past grows out of the mist into a decrepit oil tanker.
I walk along the ship, and it continues to move, but soundlessly. On my right is a series of apartment-like structures that sit between the riverbank and a vaguely-defined land mass behind (the walls of the gorge?). As the ship reaches the ocean, I suddenly find myself on a high suspension bridge, very American, looking at tidal flats and crisp blue skies and wisps of clouds scudding along on the horizon, presaging beautiful weather ahead. Or a storm.
Richards’s guitar led me there. Again. And that landscape is one that in my dreams seems to be a place where I lose people, often those quite close to me.
I wonder what life was like before we had soundtracks of the mind…