Writers: Create A Truer Dystopia With Neurotic Cannibals

5 04 2017

The times being what they are, a lot more dystopias have been popping up in media. Lately, I’ve noticed these new dysfunctional societies have these things in common:

  1. Centralized planning, both economic and political
  2. Industrial efficiency valued more than privacy
  3. Poverty
  4. No distractions like sports, art, holidays, contests.
  5. Discrete cannibalism

Maybe it’s just me just cherry-picking, but it’s what I’m noticing. Here’s an example from Pseudopod: “Meat” by Sandra M. Odell.

That this is a short story makes no difference in world building. A word here, a phrase there, adds to the fleshing out (sorry) of the environment and adding to the reader’s ability to relate without detracting from the plot.

For me, a pared-down dystopia is unbelievable.

Consider the archetype for the dystopic story, the novel “1984”. Grungy, war-weary, and soul sucking. Yet it had the very basics of distraction. There was music. There were museums and newpapers. There were viewscreens. All of it was government approved, sure, but it took the proles minds away from their drudgery, and made them more efficient for the long haul.

There were pubs and perhaps illicit drugs. There was a lottery with announced winners (invented prizes for invented winners, but still, a distraction). There was chocolate, weak and smoky in flavor, which makes me assume there were spices, so maybe a culinary culture for homemakers.

Why do I find these distractions important? Without these distractions, the citizens would very quickly go insane.

Now, insanity is a further opportunity for worldbuilding. Cultures have their own, distinct neurosis in response the culture’s environment and social pressures. These neurosis are called “culture-bound syndromes”. We know about amok , a murderous rage found in Indonesia (and source of the term “to run amok”). What of  taijin kyofusho in Japan, which makes a citizen so afraid of making social blunders that he refuses to leave his home? A disorder among the Inuit called piblokto is thought to be caused by both isolation and Vitamin A deficiency. Last, we have the origin of hysteria in Western Europe, first defined as a woman’s disorder which caused emotional excess leading to rebelliousness.

A dystopia would have any one of these, plus oppressive treatments for their removal.

Note in “Meat” that there are “crazy heads” who are condemned to “Processing” and that the protagonist herself has a rather nifty psychosis developing for solid social reasons. Well done there.

I know you’re asking “what about the cannibalism”?

I’m wondering if a reader could still relate to an industrial dystopia where cannibalism is considered a duty. In “Logan’s Run”, killing people off at the age of 30 was sanctified by a supernatural “renewal” ritual. There are primitive societies where eating enemies or the brains of deceased relatives was encouraged, the latter creating a culture bound syndrome (subject of the X-Files episode “Kuru”).  What would it take for your closest city to dig in?

Did “Soylent Green” have side-effects?

What dystopia strikes you as believable? How messed up is it?


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4 responses

5 04 2017
MishaBurnett

Okay…

What if cannibalism was not State imposed, but a reaction against central planning? Suppose we have something more like Brave New World than Nineteen Eight-Four, where there are distractions aplenty and no one is hungry or overworked or in danger.

Suppose a citizen’s life is planned out in advance, job assigned, level of education assigned, spouse chosen from a very small pool of acceptable options, you work where the State tells you to work, live where the State tells you to live, and have virtually no significant choices to make from State nursery to State death hospice.

Entertainment is provided in the form of suitably uplifting dramas about the virtues of obedience and hard work, music is cheerful and bland, novels are just text versions of the video dramas, sports are carefully controlled to prevent any risk of serious injury and to make sure that no one ever stands out too much above the team.

And let us say that there is an underground movement that rebels against this bland utopia by creating an outlawed game with real risk–a competition in which the loser is killed and eaten by the winners. Suppose that the State, despite its best efforts, cannot stop it because it goes too high–there are members of the Central Planning committee who are either members or see it as a way of culling possible revolutionaries from the populace.

So the State covers up the mysterious disappearances, inventing a myth that the missing people are criminals who fled (but are expected to be arrested momentarily).

5 04 2017
timwburke

With enough protection from on high, sure.
I could see this as a pattern of extreme behavior in the counter-culture. A sort of Decadence times ten. Esoteric forms of suicide for private audience. Dropping out of surveilled society and living in squalor.
Those participating would wear daring tokens of affiliation. Have their own slang. Be stricken by a specialized disease. Be used by the BNW as an example of “what this leads to”.
Such cannibalism might have its own degrees of outre. Would a willing “victim” have more prestige than consuming a Committee member’s baby?

5 04 2017
MishaBurnett

Yeah. Delany played with that theme a bit in “Triton”. And in Sterling’s “Schizmatrix” there were genetically enhanced people who used dice for dominance games because they knew that they were all equal in their abilities.

The more I think about this, the more I like it. One could have some really creepy characters who were driven by a need to feel alive by creating an artificial risk, and then have to keep ramping up the consequences to keep the rush going.

Add in a normal, well-adjusted investigator who discovers evidence of bizarre, senseless crimes that his superiors seem to want swept under the rug. Kind of a “Demolition Man”/”Equilibrium” vibe.

6 04 2017
timwburke

That’s pretty, dude!

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