When I first had the idea for Down With Oceania, I was interested in telling a story about what happens after the dystopia is over. 1984, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange: all these stories are prisons from which their is no escape. They are all stories that, in relation to human politics, strike me as to epic and also too grim.
There’s a larger historical context here. The classic dystopias are of the Cold War era. These stories are responding to the terror of the Second War, the Holocaust, the gulag, nuclear weapons and the like. They are also literary responses to the failed optimism of the age of reason, where the optimism of human freedom and cooperation found in utopian writing gets replaced by the limits of humankind confronted with the cold limits of human rationality, what Max Weber will call “the iron cage of rationality.”
The post-Cold War world seems less to me like an iron cage than a slow grind. The promise of vanquishing the worst totalitarian states has not created a world where everything is lollipops and rainbows. I had the thought that the everyman (or everywoman) who stars in the classic dystopia needs to be dropped not in a prison, but in the confusing free for all of life once all the metaphorical inmates have escaped.
To my slight surprise, classic dystopia has not died with its times, but has gotten a revival as a vehicle for teenage political thrillers. Dystopias have gone from books that were considered warnings about the future to a form of pure escapism. The escape is into a world where power is easier to understand because it’s concentrated in fewer hands.
The Hunger Games and the Divergent Series both do this well, but the world’s are left intentionally flat because they are intended to be a stark background the characters are reflected off of. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, and Collins and Roth execute what they do really well for what they are trying to accomplish. My point is it shows us what’s become of dystopia as a storytelling form. When it was new, flatter characters struggled in this alien dystopian world to become realized (and usually failed). Now the dystopian world is the predictable thing in the story. They no longer represent the disappointment of our dreams, most of the audience who reads them were born after the Berlin Wall came down. Now they represent a desire that we wish, on some level, our struggles for what’s right could be as straightforward as they are for Katniss Everdeen.
As for me, I wanted to throw my characters into the proverbial breach. Imagine a world where there was dystopia, it flourished then floundered, and then life goes on and it’s not the worldwide eternal Ewok party people thought it would be.
What does someone want for themselves in such a world? How do they build a good life for themselves? How do they do right by others when there are so many forces in a freer world that are now free to be the source of problems just as easily as the solution to them? When can we do nothing about injustice and when must we be accountable when we don’t think we know the rules anymore and maybe we never really did? Hopefully, some or all of those questions sound close to personal struggles you carry with you trying to be a responsible person in the real world today.
My New Oceania is a fictional exaggeration of these worries so that the projection of those real struggles can be scaled to interesting storytelling. The name is part homage to George Orwell, but it also harkens back to Harrington’s political treatise (as Orwell’s Oceania does too) The Commonwealth of Oceania. Harrington’s book is about the relationship of the state as an institution in flux that has to give stability to the actions of a people whose history, culture, economic and military facts, and even population are literally constantly in flux.
New Oceania name checks both books because as a post-dystopia, it is meant as a new take on a genre where Orwell meant so much to so many readers. But New Oceania is also an unhinged version of the flux Harrington describes. Harrington believes that the role of statecraft is to manage the flux (he is of a tradition that dates back at least to Machiavelli who think this.) In a world of free enterprise, globalism, NGOs, massive media outlets, etc., it’s not clear who gets to steer the ship of state.
Down With Oceania makes a fictional answer to the problem. Two reasons for this. First, I’m not in for proselytizing. Second, it’s the anxiety of our times I’m interested in dramatizing, and the art of the story is engineered entirely in creating the audiences own engagement with that anxiety in their own way. Call me an optimist, but I believe escape from the iron cage is possible.
I don’t know how to do it, I’m just illustrating the hope. You need to draw your own escape plan.
Until next time.