Saturday, 11 March 2017

Dystopian fiction revisited

About a year ago,  I published a chapter in a book examining dystopian fiction.  The book was edited by Louisa Mackay Demerjian and called The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future .  

Discussions of dystopian fiction seemed timely then, touching as they did on some difficult but compelling contemporary questions.  Little did I realise at the time how much more urgent these investigations into the nature and function of dystopia would be a year on.  Since the publication of the book, things have changed in the world, to such an extent that the most problematic and painful issues treated in dystopian works seemed fast on the way to becoming daily reality now.  First and foremost, through Trump and Brexit.

The description of The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future on the publisher's page commented on the intensity of interest in, and current popularity of, dystopian fiction.  It stated two central questions that lay behind our various investigations in the book of dystopian writing:

 "Dystopia, as a genre, reflects our greatest fears of what the future might bring, based on analysis of the present. This book connects traditional dystopian works with their contexts and compares these with contemporary versions. It centers around two main questions: Why is dystopia so popular now? And, why is dystopia so popular with young adult audiences?

Reflecting current academic and popular interests, several chapters in The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future explored aspects of dystopian works by Margaret Atwood and The Hunger Games. Having researched Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale for my PhD (which I was awarded in 1995 by University of Warwick), I have long been an admirer of Atwood's experimentation with the dystopian genre.  Her contributions to the dystopian genre since then have been equally compelling, with her Maddaddam trilogy.

Indeed, in a recent New York Times article, on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump, Margaret Atwood discusses writing her novel and the reflections that went into that process.  She recounts how, "Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. “It can’t happen here” could not be depended on: Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances."

For The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future, however, my chapter didn't examine work by Atwood.  Instead, I wanted to take the opportunity to explore the work by Kirsty Murray, an author whose fascinating work has preoccupied me for years now since I first discovered it when looking for children's literature material on the Irish Famine and the 'forgotten orphans' - child migrants sent to Australia.  You can read more about child migrants here.  This new endeavour felt really important to me, as little critical material existed on this text by Murray, and I felt it richly deserved to be examined in detail and linked to the wider developments within this specific literary genre.  

This chapter gave me a chance to draw further critical and student attention to the YA dystopian novel Vulture's Gate written by the prolific Australian author Kirsty Murray.  You can read more about her work on her author website .   As a postcolonial critic, I was also curious to see the ways in which a postcolonial literary context would shape and change dystopian fiction.

My chapter, "Last Girl Alive": Kirsty Murray's Dystopian YA Novel Vulture's Gate, examined the ways in which this novel explored a possible future created through environmental destruction, centring around gender and the erasure of girls and women. This compelling subject was enhanced by Murray's detailed portrayal of the Australian landscape, establishing a sense of the cultural context and specificity of her dystopian vision in the novel.  My chapter furthermore investigated the representation of gender in the novel, a topic often at the heart of dystopian social conflict, but enhanced in Vulture's Gate by Murray's sensitive portrayals and ability to create complex and compelling literary characters who get under your skin, and whose voices and lives you can't forget.

Since the publication of The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future, much has happened in the world politically which has made readers, myself included, question whether dystopian fiction really is a "fantasy" genre - given the often uncanny, frequently disturbing or downright frightening, parallels we can observe between the fictional material and our contemporary world.  The recent election of the American President and the vote for Brexit in the UK have only furthered the sense of unreality and foreboding.

According to recent press reports, these recent political developments have led to an increased interest in dystopian novels such as George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale I hope that readers keen on reading dystopian fiction will also explore works outside the established "canon", in order to gain a deeper understanding of dystopian work, and the links between our present and future which they explore.    

Fear of the future and what it might bring is a part of daily life now which dystopian fiction magnifies and distorts in its confrontation with the limitations of language and literary form in conveying those fears.  But, importantly, as in the case of Kirsty Murray's novel Vulture's Gate, dystopian fiction can also help to engender a sense of hope, an aspect also commented on by Atwood in her article - an uplifting open ending - a dimension which seems more compelling than ever.