by Joseph Brooker
On Friday 26th May, the Centre for Contemporary Literature hosted the symposium Dystopia Now. The event continued a significant element of the Centre’s activities in investigating the importance of science fiction and speculative fiction to contemporary culture; at the same time, it responded to a sense, pervasively expressed in recent months, of a dystopian dimension to our political present. The topical theme attracted keen interest, with two dozen speakers travelling from as far as Germany and Japan, as well as from across the UK, to outline different versions of dystopia in recent fiction and discuss their implications. Due to the popularity of the event, its papers ran in parallel sessions, so any impression of it can only respond to half of what took place. This report, accordingly, is only a partial account, which cannot do justice to every contributor; for a more complete picture it may be read in conjunction with other reports that are emerging, and with the live response to the conference on Twitter under the hashtag #dystopianow17.
Caroline Edwards, a key member of the Centre for Contemporary Literature team at Birkbeck, opened the conference with a synoptic reading of dystopian narratives in modern history (you can click here to listen to, or download, Caroline's keynote lecture). To understand dystopia now, she implied, we should reconsider dystopias past. Though Edwards’ lecture began with a vivid sketch of the dystopian aspects of the present – via images of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the renewed popularity of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) as adapted for the screen – she returned us to the history of the form, citing the term’s use by John Stuart Mill and offering an extensive discussion of the fantastic narratives of H.G. Wells. In a distinctive move, she also proposed that naturalist fictions assailing monopoly capitalism – like Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) – could be considered influences on dystopian fiction. In this way, Edwards both expanded the discussion out of science fiction and into mainstream or realist narrative, and proposed that capitalism, as well as totalitarianism, has been a source of dystopian dread.
In a panel on shifting forms of dystopia from Orwell to the present, Simon Willmetts rejected such Marxist critics of dystopia as Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson, and emphasized the value placed on individual agency by most dystopian narratives: a value that Willmetts found confirmed by Edward Snowden’s defence of privacy. Patricia McManus, like Willmetts, also addressed Dave Eggers’ Google-inspired vision The Circle (2013), but was more sceptical of the individualism supported by dystopian narratives, and argued that the positive force of crowds and collectives had been occluded. Laura De Simoni, in a study of Philip Ridley, reminded us of how dystopia can be represented on the stage as well as the page.
In a panel on gender and dystopia, Nick Hubble read the work of Naomi Alderman and Iain M. Banks, while Sean Donnelly considered the value of young women as potential role models in dystopian Young Adult fiction. The symposium also contained a panel dedicated to the work of MA students. I was only able to catch the third of three papers here, but this – Eden Davis’s reading of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge (2013) in light of the history of counterculture – was impressively erudite and delivered with panache. I heard good things, too, about the two MA speakers I had missed, Frank Jackman and Lawrence Jones.
The afternoon brought two papers discussing Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006): Alice Reeve-Tucker stressing its element of Christian redemption, Diletta De Cristofaro making a case about the treatment of time in this and other narratives. A question from the floor raised the issue of science fiction and literary fiction as different, though perhaps overlapping spheres. This was one of the issues that remained of interest to me: how far does dystopia belong to SF, and how far have such issues spread beyond particular genres into what is often called the literary mainstream? The same point might apply to the author Cory Doctorow, whose brand new novel Walkaway was discussed by Chris Pak. An impressive voice in recent science fiction studies, Pak gave the impression that his work was broadening its remit, though his use of the term ‘neoliberalism’ to designate the world system was queried in the wake of recent claims of the retreat of globalization.
Hollie Johnson introduced us to a vision of ecological dystopia in the age of climate change, which was echoed in Amy Butt’s discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel New York 2140, in which sea levels have risen around Manhattan. Butt’s paper was distinctive in reading dystopian fictions alongside architectural practice. I found it particularly interesting that she used illustrations of the new architecture posited by novels, including Robinson’s. Butt demonstrated how such visual imaginations of a high-rise world can be a bridge between dystopian fiction and actual city planning, though she also expressed caution about the distortions that illustrations can produce as representations of literary narratives.
Where Caroline Edwards’ opening keynote had grounded us in dystopia’s history, Mark Bould’s closing address was oriented to the present. Bould started from recent dismissals of dystopia as ‘monotonous’ and ‘politically wrong’ by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek respectively: while reluctant to agree with them, he expressed distrust of dystopia as an adequate form for our time. Despite Ray Bradbury’s suggestion that the point of dystopia was to prevent, not predict, the future, Bould declared that such fictions seemed to have done little to prevent the worst aspects of the contemporary world. Indeed Bould limned a damning picture of that world, arguing for the affinities of the contemporary West with fascism. Perhaps the trouble with dystopia, Bould proposed, is that it is no longer sufficiently different from our shared reality. Bould’s barnstorming address closed our day on dystopia by provocatively questioning the value of the genre. Still, the discussions throughout the day gave evidence of the critical reading and thinking that people are doing under this rubric. Notwithstanding the ominous global developments implicit throughout the day’s discussions, it was inspiring to see so many scholars come together, share their work and make connections.