Making Dystopia Real

The Craft of Dystopia panel brought authors Sharon Ahern, Gail Z. Martin, and Ben Fisher to the Westin’s Chastain F-H on Saturday at 2:30PM. Moderator Nathan Hamilton started by asking the panelists to introduce themselves and explain how they use dystopian settings. Ahern said she and her husband, Jerry Ahern, wrote the Survivalist series. In the books, the world is 650 years post-catastrophe and has problems similar to the ones we faced in the 1980s.

Martin said she writes epic fantasy, urban fantasy, and steampunk, including the post-apocalyptic, medieval epic fantasy series, The Ascendant Kingdoms. Her steampunk series is set in an alternate-history Pittsburgh that is rebuilding after the devastation of an earthquake and a fire. Fisher is the creator of a comic book series, The Great Divide, about a world in which skin-to-skin contact is fatal.

The panel then discussed the reasons for the recent boom of dystopian stories in YA fiction. Martin suggested that dystopian themes resonate with the generation that grew up post 9/11 with the insecurity of Code Orange, have seen their parents laid off, and maybe have a load of student debt. All these experiences lead them to distrust the system. As a result, they may see dystopian settings not as an alternate dimension but as a more cynical look at the real world.

Ahern said she and her husband started writing in the post-Vietnam era, when people were used to mass destruction and daily casualty counts on the news. It seemed like everything was wrong with the world, so why wouldn’t people create their own worlds and make them perfect?

Martin observed that millennials don’t have the social capital that came from living in the same communities among the same people for years. Fisher added that young people who are in school and maybe aren’t as attractive or as popular or as cool as others may see post-apocalyptic settings as leveling the playing field.

Ahern noted that the popularity of prepperism and survivalism shows an interest in knowing how to survive alone and look after one’s family.

Martin added that the threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War also spurred forms of prepperism because the bomb could drop at any minute. She observed that things come back around.

Hamilton reminded everyone of the old “duck and cover under the desk” drills, and Martin quipped that those were just to give people something to do until they started glowing.

Hamilton asked the panelists to suggest ways to keep dystopia fresh and new. Ahern recommended finding a new way to approach the material. Martin said that concern was part of the appeal of a medieval setting for her. The Middle Ages were a violent period with a lot of unrest and violence, leading many people to feel that the world was coming to an end. Levelling the world forces the characters to deal with factions trying to gain power and reshape it. Similarly, in her Victorian steampunk series, burning the world to the ground leads to a power vacuum that only the strong survive. That determines who remakes the world.

Fisher said he focuses on the human aspect of lack of intimacy when people are unable to touch. How will people deal with knowing there may eventually be no one left? Is there any point to rebuilding anymore? Intimacy is the big loss.

Martin added that one consideration is how to make sure what ensues from the destruction isn’t worse than what came before. Ahern described destruction as a big part of her series’ world. In that world, there’s a cure for cancer, but now there are genetically engineered bugs.

Hamilton noted that dystopian stories are very dark and asked the panelists why they thought comedy was so rare in the subgenre. Martin suggested that people need distance to have the perspective to laugh. If the core audience is struggling with their own dystopia, such as heavy student debt and scarcity of jobs, they may be too much in the thick of things to laugh.

Fisher agreed, adding that the subject matter didn’t lend itself to comedy as readily as some others. He quoted Joss Whedon as saying, “Make it dark, make it gritty, but for God’s sake, tell a joke.” Ahern noted that some people can find humor anywhere, and Martin added that when the core worldview is that the world sucks and then you die, there isn’t as much room for humor as when the reader is exploring dystopia from a purely intellectual standpoint.

The audience Q&A began with a questioner who commented that while dystopia can be post-apocalyptic, it can also involve situations of civilization taking a wrong turn, as in 1984, Brave New World, and, to an extent, The Hunger Games. He then asked whether the authors saw possibilities in such stories.

Fisher felt that such setups offered more opportunity for comedy. Martin said she shies away from such themes because she grew up with parents who stockpiled supplies, had weapons hidden, and so on. Ahern cited the Mayan calendar and the Y2K concerns and said one could always expect the end of the world, but people who’re out of work or hit by catastrophe live in that world.

Another fan asked whether the authors limited their focus to the human condition or to structures of the world. Martin said people either band together or go lone wolf, and those ideas can be used in a variety of settings, that the human condition goes one of those two ways no matter how the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Fisher noted that in his world, banding together increases the chance of dying. Would people band together if that were more dangerous?

Ahern noted that when people band together, some want to help everyone, some want to benefit themselves, and some work against the group.

An audience member asked Martin how she comes up with new ways to use magic. She answered that the roots of the magic matter. When magic vanishes in The Ascendant Kingdoms, the characters learn that it is a wild force of nature that was artificially bonded to human control. When the control is gone, how do you get the magic back when you’re dealing with climate problems and monsters? On the other hand, when magic is an internal force, it may be spell-based. In her Chronicles of the Necromancer series, magic is also natural, but some are attuned to it and can bend it to their will.

Another questioner pointed out that the authors of books like Station Eleven bring in the arts as a value and asked the authors what values they used in their books or thought would be good to remind people about. Martin cited loyalty to family, including the family one creates as well as one’s blood kin. Ahern said family always comes first in the Survivalist series, which features one character on a quest to find the scattered members of his family. Fisher said intimacy was important but so was the idea of looking forward and not seeing only what’s in front of you.

The panel was asked how they avoid being preachy when dystopia is an example of how the world could be. Ahern asked, “What’s wrong with being preachy?” She added, “It’s your book.” Martin mentioned that show-not-tell was a technique for nudging the reader to consider the author’s point. Fisher added that personal opinion comes out some, no matter how you try to avoid it.

One person said he felt as though he knew what dystopia was but couldn’t define it. He asked the authors if they would do so. Martin said dystopia is the opposite of a perfect world. In a dystopian world, what can go wrong will go wrong, and it’s dark. Fisher agreed that something has gone wrong and said dystopia looks at how things unravel.

The panel also discussed how they became interested in writing dystopia. Fisher said he very much wanted to explore the topic of intimacy. Martin indicated that she’s fascinated by times when people expected the world to end. She noted that the Rust Belt is undergoing its own type of apocalypse, and she wondered what would happen if that occurred during the age of the Robber Barons. Ahern said her husband was involved with guns and knew preppers, and they started thinking about putting normal people in bad situations that snowballed.

The program concluded with a discussion of non-centralized power sources, such as generators and solar panels. Fisher noted that solar panels don’t store energy, that what they produce must be used promptly. With generators currently so expensive, few people have or want them. Fifteen years from now, however, that might be a different conversation.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.