Goddamn! The things one has to do just to get an argument these days!

This is a response to my friend’s response to my previous post about Feng Shui’s 2056 dystopia. In essence, Paul objects to everything I say on principle, which makes it easy to argue with him. I just need to disagree with every sentence line by line. I’m cross-posting as well as commenting on his blog, because arguing is fun and dystopias are fun. All indents are Paul’s arguments, everything else is my response. I’ve indented for clarity, and so I can italicise lots of wanky references to George Orwell. Fuck, it makes me feel like a Decent. Quick! Invade Sri Lanka!

I’m going to take what the book says at face value

…. why would anyone do that? Kind of kills my review right there doesn’t it? so we’ll just pass right by that…

the central argument Stuart is advancing is that dystopian (and utopian) settings give us an insight into the writer’s politics

and yes, criticism of those settings also gives an insight into the reviewer. This is not a shock. But if anyone wants to read 1984, Brave New World, The Dispossessed and any of those weird anarchist tracts from the 19th century as anything but transparent screeds, they’re really pushing it[1]. In fact, we know they’re pushing it because everyone who ever wrote a utopia or a dystopia has identified their political reasons for so doing, and then gone on to write about it (or, in Orwell’s case, gone to war for it). That should count as a bit of a hint.

I assume that all factions in the game are meant to have some attractive angle to view them from

This has got to be arguing for the sake of it, right? We are talking about role-playing here, a sordid little corner of the world whose central  focus for the last 30 years has been developing worlds where the bad guys are so relentlessly and completely evil that you are morally justified in exterminating their entire race. The only games which don’t do that have tended to be based on morally grey novels. There is no sense in taking “the benefit of the doubt” as your point of departure for rpg criticism because chances are that the kung fu game you are playing – you know, the one where you are self-consciously playing a good superhero in battle with the supervillains – isn’t planning on showing any uncertainty about the moral fibre of its participants.

In short, there is no reason to assume that 2056 under the Architects is anything but the Mordor of our world. They stole my god (and my virginity, to boot![2]) so they could destroy the world. They’re made of poison, folks. Also, they’re called “the Architects of the Flesh”. I recommend taking this as a hint that you don’t want them shagging your sister.

Given this, I think it’s reasonable to assume that this world is designed and presented as a dystopia.

But everyone gets enough food. This is morally ambiguous because the setting also has hunger wiped out from the world, at the cost of food that makes McDonalds look tasty. Because of this, the food is a subverted utopian element, not a dystopian one.

Despite living in one, I’m no expert on dystopias, but I don’t think they are intended to be the same as “untopias” (or whatever). I think they are meant to represent a world corrupted by good intentions, which is why no-one in 1984 goes without food, and everyone in Soylent Green is happy. So a world you look at and don’t like, full of subverted utopian elements, is a dystopia. (This is why a lot of people refer to The Dispossessed as an anarchist dystopia).

The reason I saw in it [here Paul refers to the wierd 40x wage differential] was to contrast the gleaming ideals of the future (reasonable wage restraint) with the actual implementation (all the good stuff is still owned by elites). Again a utopian element is presented and then subverted.

I’m thinking of coming back to this on my blog, because it occurs to me now that if a bunch of hard-core (hah!) social democrats living in 1996 wanted to imagine a dystopia caused by social democracy gone wrong they could well have written this Feng Shui world. Alternatively, they could have waited until 1997, voted for Tony Blair, and sat back to enjoy the ride…

This assumes that a dystopia must be written as if everything is bad.

I think more one assumes that a dystopia is written as if everything is failed. The central tenet of good dystopian writing is that the human traits of the characters give hope for the future (which should be crushed, obviously) despite the huge power advantages of the world they are in. Hence Vincent finds true love (briefly), Shevek and Takver struggle to reclaim the revolution, etc. Part of the beauty of The Dispossessed, and the reason it is a genuinely “morally grey” dystopia (if it is a dystopia at all) is that Shevek and Takver do offer hope to reclaim the revolution at the end, in a triumph of human will (and love!) over systemic oppression. So adding a few elements of playability doesn’t render something dystopian[3]. Having a social system based on good intentions gone horribly wrong does, however.

By default it would [here Paul means it would be reasonable to assume that a dystopia represents a writer’s views, except that…] any reasonable amount of work will allow an author to drown their bias in the appropriate biases for other political views – unless you want to argue that a social democrat is totally incapable of writing 1984?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that a Social Democrat did write 1984. We’re talking here  about a man who cashed in his commie mates to MI5 (with quite nasty comments about their intellect too) yet wrote a very nasty book about pre-war Imperialism (Burmese Days, where the protagonist passes the moral event horizon at the end of the book by literally kicking the dog), as well as a viciously bitter attack on communism (Homage to Catalonia) whose final chapter is a clear intimation of 1984’s genesis. He is a hero of the so-called Decent Left. I don’t think we need to assume he was anything else, even if he briefly flirted with anarchism in the 30s[5].

The scenarios you call dystopian contain a summary of your political views.
Certainly. If I say something is dystopic and you disagree, we might as well be arguing about politics. But there are some clear signals of dystopian writing, tropes if you will, and “grey food”, “no cars” and an all-powerful time-travelling government who want to control your thoughts are usually a big giveaway. Also, yes, when I claim London looks like a dystopia, I am making a claim which reflects my politics. I am, in effect, writing a text (shudder) and by inferring my politics/morality from that text you are engaging in literary criticism (though I don’t think either of us are being post-modern here except in the cliched sense).

Regarding London, we can safely assume that the govt doesn’t intend to create a dystopia. It’s their failed “good intentions” which make it so. My labelling it so enables you to (rightly) infer things about me politically – that I dislike high rents, police violence and cctv would be a good guess, because that’s what people generally criticise about this government. Alternatively you could infer I spend a lot of money at cheap brothels.

But if you did either you would be critiquing the text and before you know it, you’ll be having post-modern gay abortions, and snorting cocaine from baby’s bottoms. Also, you would be conceding my argument – unless you want to argue that FS 2056 has any good points strong enough to redeem it from the claim it is dystopic?

PS I really really ought to look up the definition of dystopia. But I don’t think that’s going to get us anywhere, is it?

fn 1: I have an excellent one about pirates, btw.

fn 2:  Not that it was doing me any good at the time

fn 3: consider The Culture, who you can’t help but sympathise with, and who are clearly a good place to live, but who also seem somehow fundamentally rotten[4]. And the process of viewing them as rotten – inevitable for most readers – is, I think, intended to cause one to question one’s own assumptions about how the world could be. This makes the Culture a morally ambiguous dystopia in a really subtle way. I think Iain Banks has written about this aspect of the dystopia himself.

fn 4: Interestingly, Iain Banks is a strong opponent of the Iraq war, even though The Culture are the apotheosis of Decent Liberalism.

fn 5: which at the time didn’t count for much anyway. Social Democratic unions were pro-anarchist until the Central Committee called them off (a central criticism of the Stalinists in homage to catalonia), and if that’s not enough proof: my Grandfather fought for the POUM, but voted Thatcher 40 years later.