The day is coming when we will no longer understand dystopian fiction or parody. This is bad news for those of us who love movies like Shrek and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In the not too distant future, people will stop reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; they just won’t get why Winston puts up such a fight. I know you are excited to one day share Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games with your children or grandchildren, but when that day comes, they will neither understand nor enjoy it. I regret that the writing is on the wall. Time is running out for these two wonderful genres.
Dystopian fiction presents a hideous future. What makes the future so terrible? Well that’s the interesting thing about dystopian fiction. It’s something different every time.
Dystopian stories, as ugly as they are, are actually positive. They show us a possible future if our culture or society continue down the same path we are on. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale shows us what might happen if we continue to think of human beings, particularly women, in terms of roles rather than as individuals. Veronica Roth’s Divergent offers us a world in which society makes all decisions for you–so it is a warning against the group-think.
This genre has expIoded since the middle of the last century with A Brave New World (1932), Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) getting things rolling. In recent years, dystopian narratives have become the staple of Young Adult Fiction.
Alas, a time is coming when we simply won’t understand these stories. When this happens, we will stop reading the old ones, and cease to create new ones. And this will not be because we will have arrived at some form of Utopia. It’s because we won’t accept the central tenet of all dystopian narratives.
The inherent value of a human being.
Fundamental to Western civilization is the value of human life. This goes back to the Judeo-Christian foundations of our culture. The creator God made all that is and he called it all Good. Then he created human beings. The first chapter of the first book tells the story.
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
God created human beings and then he put them into a position above all the things he made. This is important. In essence, humanity as a whole assumes the position previously limited to the Babylonian Priest-King. All of humanity–male and female–are given the role of King over all creation. Along with this position goes all the responsibility that goes along with Biblical kingship, from our royal position, creation is supposed to flourish under our rule. And no other created thing is to be placed in a position higher than a human being. This is idolatry.
The one thing that all dystopian narratives have in common, and from which they derive their energy, is that they are all about idolatry–placing some good thing in a position higher than humanity.
In 1984 it is power; in Brave New World it’s pleasure; in Logan’s Run it is youth; in The Hunger Games it is peace.
What happens when we no longer accept as self-evident the value of a human being over every other created thing?
This is what is happening in our culture.
The attack on “human exceptionalism” comes from several different quarters. Including those who seek to elevate animals to the same level as human beings. Part of the impulse for doing so is understandable. The modern world tends to commodify everything including animals, and as a species, we have been very busy altering environments necessary for animals to flourish to make them more profitable. The solution, however, it to not to elevate animals to the level of humanity (which is in essence to degrade humanity to the level of animal), but to take our God given position as the Crown of Creation. To be a king means to oversee the ordering and flourishing of one’s domain. This is our task.
When human beings are no longer thought of as valuable–the genre that is built on the principle of human value will cease to be relevant.
My hope is that the understanding of human value is so profound in us that, rather than going along with anti-human exceptionalism, someone will write a dystopian novel about the hideous future that may be a result of this turn.
A parody is an imitation of a type of literature, film, music or art, in which certain characteristics are exaggerated to create a humorous effect.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is a parody of of the chivalric romances popular in his day.
Shaun of the Dead is a humorous imitation of Dawn of the Dead.
The first line of Pride and Prejudice is
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The first line of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.
Parody relies on the uniqueness the various styles or genres–a Shakespearean drama is a different sort of thing than a Rom-Com, and both of these are very different from an American Western or a German Fairy Tale or a Greek epic. All of these styles are quite unmistakable; once you are familiar with one, you are not likely to confuse it with something else.
So what happens to parody when the boundaries between different categories cease to exist?
Parody is impossible when pastiche appears. Pastiche is imitation too. But unlike parody, pastiche it has no ulterior motive. Parody often has a whiff of satire about it–some impulse to expose a bit of foolishness. At the very least parody hopes to offer some pleasure when some higher things is brought down to earth though comic means.
Pastiche is parody that has lost its sense of humor. Pastiche is imitation without the meaning. It’s just the mask.
According to social theorist Fredrik Jameson, one of the most significant features of cultural postmodernism is pastiche. The whole idea of a literary style is rooted in something approaching an absolute–a universal idea by which we can determine in which category a literary work fits. Postmodernism does not cotton to these universals. So a movie set in the medieval era can have the audience of a jousting tournament singing Queen’s “We will Rock You” (Knights Tale 2001). And speaking of Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody is pastiche in that it imitates various styles including cappella, ballad, opera and rock and roll.
Without universal categories that differentiate various literary or artistic styles, we lose the ability to imitate a style for humorous effect–we lose parody.
Dystopian fiction and Parody are still around, but I don’t know for how long, so enjoy them while you can.