Can This Be Dystopia?
by Karen Heuler
Parades belong to dystopias.
Ha, you say. Prove it.
What is a parade but a display of solidarity with the norm, with the perceived perfection of society? We love to celebrate, of course, and we love crowd emotions, which provoke a sense of unity and—here, I’ll say it—superiority.
If you’re not part of the parade, you’re part of the problem.
Consider all the celebrations in “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. Omelas is a joyous place filled with celebrations. Everything is good there—arts, culture, basic living standards. It is beautiful and just and there is joy in the streets and in the hearts of the populace.
In a basement somewhere in Omelas, a child is suffering and indeed must suffer for Omelas to be joyous and free. That is just the way it is.
Because of that child, there will always be parades.
Is this utopia? Well, there is that suffering child. Then this must be dystopia—except just about everybody is happy. If you took away that suffering child, then happiness would be reduced to, maybe, the uneven distribution of happiness in our own cities.
Let’s take another look. In the movie Logan’s Run, a whole society is beautiful and healthy and glittery, and they get “renewed” at the age of 30 during a celebration called Carousel (it’s a sleep shop in the book, but the celebration in the movie makes more visual sense). It’s a lovely ritual and no one objects to it—basically, because they don’t know there is no renewal. The peace, beauty, pleasure and, dare I say it, sheer laziness of this population is obviously utopian. Everyone is smiling and laughing. And as long as you’re under 30, you’re guaranteed a good time. What is it? Utopia? Certainly. Let’s call it a time-stamped utopia. Great until you reach the expiration date. But who really suffers? You live in a party, you die in a party.
There are, of course, a lot of parties in the movie of The Hunger Games. Glitter! Irony! Sarcasm! All the hallmarks of having fun. And there’s even a great game to watch—though the children in it have to die, except for the winner. But these are the children of colonies that once tried to revolt, so they deserve what they get, don’t they? It’s amusing! Granted, the children would declare this a dystopia, but don’t some people actually deserve dystopia? In order to keep utopia running? Isn’t this just like that child in Omelas who keeps the world good?
I’ve never been able to figure out the breakdown in numbers to know when I’m seeing a dystopia vs utopia. Let’s be a little honest here and say there’s no chance we can all live in utopia—who will raise the food, prepare it, fix the plumbing, shoot the criminals? You see the problem.
But if you try to please the largest number of people for as long as you can—and as visibly and visually as possible because we like to see what we’re supposed to do—then you’re well on the way to convincing people they’ve earned utopia.
Take my novel, The Splendid City, for instance. It’s about a novice witch who makes a mistake and is exiled to Liberty with the man she has illegally turned into a cat. Liberty used to be Texas until it seceded. The self-proclaimed president lives in a palace surrounded by a moat and loves having parades every day and nougat showers and car giveaways that sometimes take away people but it’s probably to someplace good. Even the protests are actually parades, with paid protesters. No one is unhappy in this best of all popular worlds, despite the missing river and the drought and the way the animatronic presidential heads along the boulevard like to ask people if anyone is unhappy and what is their name?
Stan, the man-turned-cat, adores all this, because he can always find a way to profit from it, or at the very least, mock it. And if all that fails, he’ll just enjoy it. His companion, the witch in training, is a bit more observant, and tries to track down the missing river and a missing witch from a different coven.
They keep doing things, unaware that in a true utopia you don’t have to do anything at all.
Aha. They’re in a dystopia!
Remember Ray Bradbury’s story “The Third Expedition”? In it, members of the third expedition to Mars find a perfect Earth home town, exact in all its details, and they want to believe it’s their home town. Their beloved dead greet them, saying they were given a second chance to live, on a second Earth. A marvelous parade filled with dearly missed faces lures the remaining crew out of the rocket ship and into the town. There are cymbals clashing and music falling out of every familiar door. It’s the most wonderful thing!
But the parade is a dead giveaway. Martians wanted to get rid of the invaders, and Martians are telepathic. They know what our homes look like and will use it to their advantage.
And they understand a parade is just one step away from an army.
So, remember: beware of parades. You can never be completely sure who’s behind them. Or who it is we’re all marching for.
Karen Heuler’s stories have appeared in over 120 literary and speculative magazines and anthologies, from Asimov’s to Conjunctions to Fantasy & Science Fiction and an upcoming Tor.com. Her latest novel, The Splendid City, came out from Angry Robot Books last June and her newest story collection, A Slice of the Dark, was published last November by Fairwood Press. Her stories and books often feature women facing strange circumstances on this world and others.
Image source: Beth Macdonald/Unsplash