Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dystopia, Toynbee, Foma

I took a break from writing my novel this evening and watched Children of Men with Clive Owen. I knew only a little about it going in, and won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen it, but there was some stuff I kept thinking about that I can discuss without the need to type "spoiler alert" in big red letters at the top of the post.

The film is set in the near future, and the premise is that humans across the globe have discovered that they can no longer have babies. The last one born was nearly 20 years before the events of the film take place.

This is not an entirely new premise. There may not be any entirely new premises left. Very early into the film, however, I started asking questions of myself and the storytellers for which there were no satisfactory answers.

Because without new premises, what remains of the craft of storytelling is where you take your characters, what has happened to them and the world on the basis of the premise and what your ultimate statement will be. There is still an awful lot of ground to cover in these explorations.

It seems so easy for us to envision our futures as taking place within one ruined husk of society or another. We cannot have children. We cannot dwell on the surface of the planet. We cannot survive for one reason or another. From there the storyteller allows us to believe that the logical response of mankind is chaos and brutality. Whether this is actually our nature or not is not really the point of this post.

Within these dystopian futures there seem to be only two possible outcomes: through the struggles of our main characters, they (or society) find redemption and signal a new dawning of hope; or in spite of the actions of the characters, the world goes on down the path the setup has shown us, and hope is extinguished. It is the former we are most likely to encounter.

Why is it that we are so willing to believe simultaneously in some inevitable savagery of our own kind, and in the same breath must be reassured of our nobility. Does this make us optimists or pessimists? Why do our storytellers gaze into the future and come back with tales of how society has fallen apart in one way or another? Are they attempting to warn us, or are they merely reflecting what they see around them, what they see inside themselves?

I think of a Ray Bradbury story I read in high school, about a man who built a time machine. "The Toynbee Convector" is the name of the story. The man came back from 100 years in the future to report about the wonderful utopia he had discovered. He told people the nature of the utopia, and how we had achieved such grace. He showed them pictures of rebuilt cities and clean water and harmony, and the world "ran to meet and make that future." As the tale unfolds, Bradbury reveals that the time traveller never went anywhere at all, but merely looked around at his society and saw despair and ennui everywhere and decided that humanity could do better. He concocted all sorts of beautiful lies to tell his contemporaries, to spur them into making something better.

Bradbury's point seems to be that lying to ourselves is largely what life is. And that while we are lying, we might as well weave something of beauty. I think he means all of us, but certainly he must mean at least those of us who choose to tell one another stories.

Kurt Vonnegut made a name for the beautiful, harmless lies we tell each other to make one another feel better. He called them foma. I do not understand why this is not in common parlance.

Vonnegut ended up writing about a lot of the same stuff over and over again. Within his tales of despair in his post-Breakfast of Champions work was always a message that we were all going to be okay once we learned how to form communities again. He kept telling us about these things over and over again because we would not hear him. In his stories, even when the Earth was doomed, we were still all going to be okay. We would help one another through.

Storytellers will tell their stories. They can only tell the stories they have inside them. Those are the rules. From time to time, though, it might be beneficial to ask ourselves why we are telling the story we have chosen. What it is we want to say when the tale is boiled out and only our message remains?

I am certainly not advocating an endless parade of happy endings and sunshine and singing. Anyone who knows me would never accuse me of making that point, and I understand that conflict is essential to storytelling. I am rarely accused of being an optimist. I am more often accused of being the opposite, but deep inside I think of a phrase used to describe Mr. Vonnegut: "a bitter-coated sugar pill." This is a label I could wear with pride.

None of the stories I am currently writing have what would be considered a "happy ending." But I hope that there is something about redemption nestled in there somewhere. I hope that they will reflect some of the things that I believe when they are placed into the hands of a reader. I also hope to provide them with entertainment.


Caroline said...

Wise words. I have been struggling with the fact that ISoA doesn't have a happy ending (in the traditinal sense), but your idea of redemption is perfect. You've got me thinking.
I have Children of Men to watch, but can't motivate myself to watch it. Perhaps I will.

Anonymous said...

I think that inside each of us there is the critic and reformer. Briefly, we don't like there to be what we don't like and we wish to replace it with what we like. Writers, more than other folk, have the ability the articulate this reforming desire.

"Good news is no news" and there is no mileage for the writer in affirming that all's right with this, the best of all possible worlds. Disaster sells.


Reading the Signs said...

I think it's true we can only write the stories that are in us to write. And I think it's important to allow the story to surprise us as we write. Some people write in order to set down something that has already been decided, so in a sense would have been better done as an essay. I suppose we pick up on that when we call something formulaic. The story is often wiser than we are and unfolds in unexpected ways. I am a bit of the point, sorry. I did like Children of Men, but more for the incidentals than the big story.

Hope you collected the spoon.

Meloney Lemon said...

There's that crusty old quote from TS Eliot - the original Grumpy old man. About mankind not being able to bear too much reality.

Chris said...

I haven't seen the movie as it was one of those where Hollywood insisted on giving every plot twist and turn away in the theatre trailer. So why would I pay 6 pounds when I can just wait for it to come out on DVD?

However, having said that I did recognise the story as being done before. There is a book by Canadian Author Margaret Atwood called The Handmaid's Tale that has similar themes but this was written in 1984. It's a good read, I highly recommend it.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I haven't seen the film yet, but I want to.

While I was reading your post, I was tying to think about whether I'd ever written one story with a happy ending or any form of redemption. Not one. And I have written thousands of pages of short stories.

My people generally just succumb physically or emotionally to what is happening around them. I have to say that even edgy stories leave a bad taste in me when they end happily; I guess my nihilistic little mind just doesn't operate along the guidelines of tidy endings equating to anything that I can personally relate to--which makes me wonder if people are going to have trouble relating to my writing.

Excellent blog. Thank you for stopping by mine to say hello.


The Moon Topples said...

Caroline: I'm starting to think (having had a little more time to do so) that this post was mostly about asking myself some of these questions. These are probably the sorts of things that people who have studied their craft have already dealt with, but I'm still a newbie, and working these sorts of things out here on my blog seems like a decent way to go.

SilverTiger: Disaster sells. Yes, I can see this, and even support the idea. I just need to figure out whether that's what I am selling.

RTS: I don't think you went off point, and I am one of those writers who is delighted when my stories surprise me. It's pretty clear to me, rereading the post, that Children of Men could have been nearly any movie and still inspired this post. This was just a place my brain needed to go. And thanks muchly for the spoon. I shall treasure it. I fear I shall get more use from it than you can from the virtual cigarette I sent you.

Meloney: I think mankind cannot bear too much fiction, either. Suppose there's some sort of balance in there.

Chris: Blame Hollywood if you must, but this is an English film, and I think your spoilers were obtained from them. I think I may have read the book you mention. I shall browse my library to see if I still have a copy.

Minty: Your people? Not sure who you mean. I suppose where ending are concerned, I find exclusively happy endings and exclusively unhappy endings much the same: they must be earned. If they are, then I can be contented with either. If not, well...

And as I said in the post, I don't advocate happy endings as a rule. I'm not condemning anybody for writing bleak things. A lot of us feel bleak, and that's what will come out when we write. There are no shortage of people who can identify with this.

Anonymous said...

My people = my characters (sorry).

Liz Dwyer said...

Oh how I identify with your thinking out loud about this. I wondered in my last writing class if it was even possible to sell a book (romance and chick-lit aside) that had a happy ending. I know you have to write what comes out and the things I write about are not, overall, happy things. And, having just watched "The Departed" win for best movie at the Oscars, I am wondering this even more. Sure "The Departed" was a good movie but there was nothing redeeming about it, nothing uplifting, and I spent much of it cringing. Redemption is probably the key and I think readers (all of us) are looking for redemption in their lives and are going to want to read stories where the characters answer the question, how do we redeem ourselves once we've been to hell?

Caroline said...

I do the same - I work things out by posting on my blog. It's all about voicing ideas, if you keep them inside your head it'll get too crowded in there.

The Moon Topples said...

Minty: Ahhh. Now I get it. Apologies if I was obtuse.

Liz: I guess I should also be glad I'm not writing a screenplay, huh? I don't write about happy things either, but I hope I don't write them without a sense of possibility. My NaNo piece, for instance, is about a guy struggling to change his life. At the end, things are marginally better for the effort, maybe, but largely he is the same as when he started. Maybe a little bit wiser, but he has not made the changes he set out to achieve. So is that a happy ending because he is wiser? Or is it bleak because he has failed? Is there redemption and purpose to be found in the journey itself, regardless of the eventual outcome?

Caroline: Yeah. I'm starting to think this whole blog thing is a good idea. It's nice to have a place where I can air my half-baked ideas regardless of whether or not I reach a conclusion on the matter.

Plus it's been very interesting to get other people's thoughts on these things.