31 August 2013

How to Write Dystopian Fiction (Part 1): Sir Thomas More's Utopia

How to Write Dystopian Fiction is a ten-part series written by Silverthought Press editor Mark R. Brand during a two-month independent study with Miles Harvey, Assistant Professor of English, DePaul University. The series attempts to analyze what works in a variety of new and old speculative fiction texts with utopias and dystopias as central themes, and to offer advice to writers about how to use these narrative strategies most effectively. This is part one. 

The book:
           I was delighted to discover that this text, which in 2016 will celebrate its 500-year anniversary of publication, is more or less a template for all of the great social science fiction of the 20th century. More than that: it’s a pleasure to read. It’s neither stuffy nor limited by the unimaginative prose that I tend to associate with eras in history strongly controlled and influenced by the Church. The translation I read (Paul Turner, 1965) seems if anything to tone downthe colorful original Latin. I compared passages in Turner’s translation to their counterparts in Burnet’s translation available at Gutenberg.org and found this to be generally true. Burnet seemed willing to let the Latinate phrasings and vocabulary seep more fully into his English prose than Turner, who opted instead for a simpler, workhorse translation with ample notes and appendices, which I found helpful.
Likewise, knowing a bit about the reign of King Henry VIII and his immediate court (Thomas Cromwell and Hans Holbein came up in the notes, but not in the text) provided me with enough context that I could appreciate the secondary story in Utopia. This is where I think the book really shines, as does any good piece of science fiction.Utopia tells two stories: the overt and covert narrative.
Overtly, Utopia is about a world somewhat like our own with benchmarks of familiarity, that extends itself fantastically into the world of the plausible. There are sailors and ships and voyages to strange, exotic locales, all of which were very much a part of ordinary European life in 1516. The New World was a great unknown at the time, but its novelty was starting to give ground. Already explorers like Vespucci (mentioned by name in the story) had begun chronicling it and its strange inhabitants. Some early literature was circulating by then regarding the New World and various voyages to it, though I imagine the breadth of stories regarding it at the time were often wildly inaccurate or—at the very least—impossible to vet or confirm. In the overt narrative, More takes this partly-plausible story and winds it out in entertaining fashion, detailing a world that is recognizable but nevertheless substantially different than early 16th century England.
This alone might have made Utopia one of the notable books of its time, but More further complicates his construction of it with the covert narrative. It’s easy to see this as predictable from our 21st century-sensibility, informed as it is by London and Zamyatin and Huxley and Orwell and Atwood and dozens of other social science fiction writers, but More pulls off all sorts of interesting (and harrowing) moments of metanarrative here as well. He criticizes at length the nature of crime and punishment, the general lackey-ish nature of royal courts, several different social issues of the day such as land ownership and agriculture versus livestock cultivation, divorce (also relevant to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon) and the petty wars and uprisings in which England was involved and had fared badly (the Cornish massacre is mentioned, for example, as are the various needless feuds between Henry VIII and Charles of Castile).
Perhaps he assumed offhand that a fictional work would be dismissed as the navel-gazing of a philosopher/academic, but it dawned on me slowly as I read it that as the head of a fairly large household he was taking a terrible risk by writing this. He casually refers to the affairs of princes, in frequently critical ways, during thetumultuous reign of Henry VIII, in a book published under his own name, in which he himself is a character. Saint Thomas More; patron saint of, apparently, enormous balls.
It was refreshing to note a number of familiar narrative strategies in Utopia, despite its advanced age. More begins the novel (or novella, or quarto, or whatever other designations Utopia has carried through the centuries) with an epistolary introduction. Intriguingly, the letters that introduce the story are written (or at least we are led to believe they were written) by non-fictional people. This might be seen as gimmicky today, but I’d be fascinated to know whether the same was true in 1516. Nevertheless, it’s a very accessible entrĂ©e to the story, and it proceeds to a chapter that details a lengthy conversation between the narrator (More) and his friend Peter Gilles, who introduces a third man (echoes of the eternal “a stranger comes to town” trope), Raphael Nonsenso. Nonsenso is the conduit of information regarding the Utopia of the book’s title. Through this tripartite conversation, More manages toavoid coloring too closely within the lines of the structure of Plato’s Republic, a more stylistically high-handed classical presentation of an ideal society.
In other ways, More does owe much to Plato. He uses a dialectic discourse narrative structure to squeeze in various arguments for and against certain lines of logic. The discussion between Raphael, the lawyer, and the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the topic of widespread thievery is one example of this. Since More was himself a legal scholar (and he points this out even in the text of the story), it’s easy to imagine him carrying on all three parts of this conversation by himself, already knowing where he wants to go with it and patiently addressing the dissenting bits of logic one by one. I am only a dabbler in philosophy and my knowledge of the classics is incomplete, but this, to me, seems highly Socratic.
I was surprised overall at the extent to which More included himself in the story and kept the narrative very speakerly, intimate, and informal throughout. I suspect this is a combination of More’s classical influences and having written the original text in Latin, a language which I have studied and which lends itself particularly well to the first-person perspective. I think this closeness reaches out to the reader a bit more than a flatter, more matter-of-fact presentation would have, and it remains effective even 500years later. The overall tone of the book is quite playful and clever, despite, as I mentioned before, the underlying danger inherent in writing and publishing it where and when he did. 
As a long-time writer of futurist speculative fiction, I was amused to find that even 500 years ago, More struggled with some of the same issues every sci-fi and spec-fi writer does. There are half a dozen or more moments where More’s logic breaks down and his prose too quickly dismisses parts of Utopia that are thinly plotted. In one example, Nonsenso argues at length regarding the uses of precious metals and gems as chamberpots and children’s toys to remove their facile importance in a capitalist culture, but he conspicuously glosses over a harder-to-swallow explanation of how it is that the Utopians tolerate all wearing the exact same style of clothing. Likewise, More crafts a Utopia that is fastidiously—even laboriously—humanistic, and yet there are several minor transgressions which nevertheless merit the death penalty or a life of enslavement. Contradiction and continuity, it seems, are the sci-fi writer’s eternal bane.
But there are moments of brilliance, too. Such as this passage in Book Two:
The fact is, even the sternest ascetic tends to be slightly inconsistent in his condemnation of pleasure. He may sentence you to a life of hard labour, inadequate sleep, and general discomfort, but he’ll also tell you to do your best to ease the pains and privations of others. He’ll regard all such attempts to improve the human situation as laudable acts of humanity; for obviously nothing could be more humane, or natural, for a human being than to relieve other people’s sufferings, put an end to their miseries, and restore their jois de vivre, that is, their capacity for pleasure. So why shouldn’t it be equally natural to do the same thing for oneself?
In one paragraph, just four compact and coolly rational sentences, in the middle of a conversation about something else, More positively shreds the entire notion of asceticism, and makes it seem like something a thinking person could no more believe in than unicorns. This is one of the more impressive examples of his intellect, but Utopiais full of moments like this.

What have we learned:
Much of what I would steal from More for my own work are the same things I would steal from his literary successors: connect early with the audience, keep the point of view narrow, intimate, and empathetic, use the edges of real-world knowledge to extrapolate logically into the future, have fun wherever possible, take personal risks, and above all: say something important about what’s happening right now.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the post. With so much dystopian futures being the setting for ... almost everything vaguely related to sci-fi, iI think it's a great idea to start exploring the idea. I want to write about a Utopian future, but all my ideas tend toward it being corrupted, of course. I had one once, where there was no color, and the dictator, who was a wonderful person, found all the colors in the world locked in a special unit at his dead grandfather's home, and unleashed it. And the results were ... that I never finished it. ADHD kicking in, I'm going to go read your next post!

Unknown said...

I completely forgot to mention the whole reason I started commenting:

1) You addressed over and covert meaning in narrative. Have you ever read "The Riddley Walker" by Russel Hoban? My friend gave it to me when I was 15 and urged me to read it more than once, and the 2nd reading revealed the covert part, which was ... pretty astounding. It relies heavily on the language of the book, where almost every sentence has another meaning, it's almost two books in one. It also (LIGHT SPOILERS) never really says that it's a dystopian setting, though the reader can ascertain as much in the overt narrative as the story moves along.

2) Thanks for writing this series of blog entries. I look forward to reading all of them.

Unknown said...

Hello my friend!

The only place to start with a review of social science fiction. I probably didn't invent the term, but did promote it while working on my Satirica project.

I will follow this with great interest!

Dudgeon, aka Doctor X, http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMxpWvoiAFn6O8Ez23ZFKYw?feature=watch