David Kubicek

Fiction Writer, Journalist, Photographer

Archive for the category “dystopian fiction”

Ray Bradbury and I

 

Fahrenheit 451

A New Film Adaptation from HBO

As some of you may know, Ray Bradbury and I go back a long way. Starting when I was about 10 I had dabbled with writing what I call closet fiction because I wrote it and put it in the closet, but after reading The Martian Chronicles in high school, I decided to make writing my life’s work.

I consider Ray Bradbury to be my mentor. I never met the man, although we did exchange a few letters. After the Chronicles, I devoured every Bradbury book I could find, and I sought out information about his life. As an English major at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, I proposed writing an undergraduate thesis about the relationship of Bradbury’s early life to his writing. Professor Robert F. Bergstrom agreed to be my thesis advisor. I don’t think he’d ever read Bradbury, so while I was re-reading the stories, he read them for the first time.

It took two years to research and write Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. Interestingly enough, you can find the thesis listed on Amazon with the rest of my books but with the disclaimer: Out of Print–Limited Availability. I scratched my head over that one. The thesis had never been published, and only six copies existed–I had one, my parents had one, Dr. Bergstrom had one, Gary Carey (my editor at Cliffs Notes) had one, special collections at UNL’s Love Library had one, and Ray Bradbury had one. I think Amazon got wind of it when one of their web-crawling spiders scrabbled their way over Love Library’s special collections.

It had never occurred to me to send Bradbury a copy. But (at the risk of being condemned for shameless name-dropping) Stephen King–who was passing through Lincoln on one leg of his The Dead Zone book tour–suggested I send him one. So I did. And I heard back from Bradbury within a week. Not just a letter, but a thick manila envelope.

I was suspicious at first. I shook it. I sniffed it. I held it to my ear to see if it was ticking. Because I’d written an honest analysis of Bradbury’s work, I had said a few things that the author might have found, shall we say, less than flattering. So I was wary. But when I’d sent Bradbury my thesis, I’d mentioned in the cover letter the lack of books about him; I’d had to do most of my research by rummaging through often hard-to-find magazine articles. So when I finally got up the nerve to open the package, I discovered that it contained a set of book galleys for a soon-to-be published critical work on Bradbury.

Now that this somewhat self-indulgent memoir is finished, let’s get to the real reason for this post. Something cool is about to happen. Something seriously cool. This Saturday, May 19, HBO will premier its movie adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. Francois Truffaut did a very good adaptation 52 years ago, but that one was 52 years ago. It’s time for a newer version, an updated version. To put yourselves in the mood, check out the movie trailer and read director Ramin Bahrani’s New York Times article. And while you’re at it, re-read Bradbury’s novel (If you’re reading it for the first time, I envy you). It’s only 150 pages (50,000 words) long. You can knock it out in a few hours. Also, check out my review of Fahrenheit 451.

 

Ignore Lists: Write it Your Way

Everybody and his or her brother has a list of rules for aspiring writers. These lists are written by a variety of folks, including academics, readers, writers, and editors. They give you the steps you need to succeed in writing, and many of them hint–or even say it outright–that if you fail to follow these rules, you will fail as a writer.

I’m not referring to rules pertaining to the craft of writing, like rarely use anything but “said” with dialogue and don’t modify it with an adverb (“he admonished severely”), use adjectives and exclamation points sparingly, write primarily in active voice, and my favorite (from Elmore Leonard), which I try to follow religiously: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

I’m referring to lists of arbitrary rules which declare that if you follow them, your success is guaranteed. On arbitrary lists like these, an exception–or two or three–can be found to almost every rule.

For instance, I saw one list that swore that to be a best selling writer, you must write your story quickly, non-stop, and without going back to re-read and revise it until you’ve completed the first draft. There are as many ways to write as there are writers, and certainly, writing quickly works for some writers. In his book On Writing, Stephen King shares that he writes the first drafts of his novels, no matter how long, in three months. But one exception to this rule is Arthur Hailey, who wrote Airport and other best sellers of the sixties and seventies. Hailey worked from a 40-page, single-spaced scene plan and wrote an average of 400 words per day.

Also, consider the source. I saw another list–most likely created by a fan of the genre–about how to write a successful young adult dystopian novel. The list-maker drew comparisons between popular young adult dystopian novels and insisted that to be successful, the writer needed to adhere strictly to those rules. There was even a very specific rule about how to name your main character. The list-maker cited The Hunger Games and other popular novels of the genre as proof that that the list was true. Actually, The Hunger Games is popular because it’s a good story well told. If it had been a crappy story, told poorly, the heroine’s name–or any of the other rules on the list–would not have saved it.

Every writer will develop a method that works for her or him. Going back to the rule about writing the first draft quickly and not looking back until you’re finished–for me this is a disorganized method that may send me down the wrong path and cause me to waste lots of time fixing it in the second draft. In fact, if I go down the wrong rabbit hole early enough in the story, the novel may not be as effective as if I’d put more thought into it and gone back to “fix” things along the way; I would end up with a flawed novel and would have to rewrite the whole thing.

I grow my novels organically, feeling out my characters and my story. For me, that’s the most fun, figuring out who my characters are and discovering their story. I’m a hybrid of a “planner” and a “pantser”–I tend to see my story in chunks, and tend to plan only a few scenes ahead, if that many, and I have only a vague idea of what the scenes will be about before I start writing them. I frequently re-read, revise, and rewrite. Sometimes I cut scenes entirely. Usually, I have the ending in mind before I start writing, but sometimes the ending can change along the way–I had written nearly 25,000 words of my novel-in-progress, a young adult dystopian story (working title Empath), when I changed the planned ending to what I hope will be a better one and will provide a good transition into the second volume of the trilogy.

I have tried some methods on these lists, but I can’t think of one that I’ve been able to adapt successfully. I write the way I write because it works for me. So I’ve developed my own list for writers. It has only two rules:

  1. Ignore lists (except this one); write the way you write.

  2. If you have the urge to follow a list, re-read rule number one again.

 

The Age of Trump

It’s interesting, in the Age of Trump, that my article on writing dystopian fiction is one of the most-viewed articles on this site. My review of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is running a close second.

1984: Warning, Not an Instruction Manual

I’m re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. I read it for the first time years ago when, in this country, at least, it read like a science fiction story. Now it has a strange contemporary feel. Trump’s Ministry of Alternative Facts has not yet evolved to the point of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, but the Trump Administration is working on it. Although it has been said before, it needs to be emphasized repeatedly: 1984 was written as a warning, NOT an instruction manual.

The Circle: Destroying Privacy

                                                                              The Circle

The Circle is a most disturbing novel.

Actually, “frightening”might be a better word. Most classic dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Handmaid’s Tale describe future societies that don’t yet exist and may only exist in a more distant future “if this goes on.” But The Circle, written by Dave Eggers and published in 2013, depicts a world that is being built as you read these words. The infrastructure is in place, and the technology is almost there.

The Circle is a technology company, like Facebook on steroids. Its goal is to run all of the members’ social media through their Circle accounts–to connect everything and everyone, to store every bit of information known to humanity in The Cloud where it can be easily accessed by anyone at any time. Management’s end game is to require everyone to have a Circle account.

Mae Holland starts work at The Circle as a customer experience representative. At first she thinks of her work as just a job and doesn’t connect with the community as she is expected to. It takes some doing, but her supervisors convince her to be more “social.” It works all too well. Through a series of events which I won’t go into–read the book, and don’t forget to wear Depends–Mae agrees to become totally transparent, which means that everything she says and does will be recorded and can be viewed in real time by anyone with a Circle account–tomorrow’s reality TV, unedited and raw. She wears a bracelet that shows her the zings–Eggers’ version of tweets–so she will receive a constant flood of feedback about what she is doing and seeing. She is permitted to turn off the audio (but not the video, supplied by a tiny necklace camera) for three minutes while she’s in the bathroom, and she can shut down the whole system at night while she’s sleeping, but other than that, her life is open for all to see and hear. Her transparency turns her into a celebrity among the Circlers.

Soon Mae is driven by a strong need for approval, as represented by the number of smiley faces she gets on her bracelet (think “likes” on Facebook) and how low she can get her party score, which is determined by how many zings she sends out and how many groups she joins–basically, her level of involvement in the Circle community. She so craves approval that during a presentation of how quick and easy it is to get instantaneous survey results, the final question sent out to Circlers is: “Isn’t Mae Holland awesome?” Ninety-seven percent of the responders send smiley faces, but 3 percent send frowny faces. Rather than delight in having so many fans, Mae obsesses over the three percent who, in her mind, “want her dead.”

The most terrifying thing about this novel is that The Circle’s management wants to make transparency mandatory, and Mae is okay with that. In fact, there are some instances in which Mae decides to reveal secrets of her friends and family who want their lives to be off the grid–but Mae exposes them “for their own good” and because they’ll “thank her later.” The results of are tragic.

A movie based on The Circle was recently released. I saw the movie without knowing it had been based on a book, but when I learned that from the credits, I read the book. The movie does well enough at hitting major plot points, but it fails because it doesn’t capture the spirit of the book. The movie is actually a little warm and fuzzy compared to the book. In the movie, Mae (Emma Watson) is a sympathetic, though misguided, character who learns from her mistakes and tries to make things right in the end; in the book Mae comes off as naive and foolish, and she neither seeks nor achieves redemption. And–SPOILER ALERT–the movie does not have the same ending as the book.

Basically, the movie is a classic Hollywood tale with a flawed but sympathetic main character who reaches an epiphany, and everyone–well, almost everyone–lives happily ever after.

But the novel tells a darker story. It is the tale of an average person who became ensnared in a cult that is controlled by a charismatic leader.  It  is well worth reading because it takes Big Brother to the ultimate level, and it’s not about some distant possible future–it is happening now.

A Dystopian Novel Reading List

In observance of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, which will be coming up soon, here are a few dystopian stories you might like to check out. A dystopia is a world where something, to use the technical term, has “gotten out of whack.” It is an unpleasant place, usually an extrapolation of what our future could look like if current trends continue. The disturbing thing about some of these stories is how many of these visions already have come true. For instance, in Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, Ray Bradbury predicts interactive television, although it is a klunky version of interactive television because he did not predict digital technology. In that same novel, Bradbury envisioned reality shows and that entertainment media would become a major focus of many people’s lives–he also predicted our fascination with large screens, except his screens weren’t 50, 60 or 70 inches–one of his screens made up the entire wall of a home, and families saved to up to turn all four of their parlor walls into TV screens.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it contains some of the most memorable dystopian visions created over the past century.

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924): This novel was completed in 1921, only three years after the Russian Revolution. In those early days, there was still a little freedom left in the Russian literary world, but the New Order was clamping down hard. We was not published in Russia (and as far as I know it has not been published there to this day), although it was published outside of the former Soviet Union, and Zamyatin (who asked to leave Russia and, surprisingly, Stalin let him in 1929) is better known in the West than in Russia. We depicts a totalitarian society where everyone has a number, not a name, and conformity is the norm.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932): This one is about a 26th Century society that worships technology and conformity. The main character is Bernard Marx, an Alpha who is different from others in his caste. When Bernard returns from vacation–to a  “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico–with a savage named John, he basks in his short-lived notoriety. But the meeting of the two worlds does not work out well for either of them.

1984, by George Orwell (1949): Shortly after Trump took office, this novel shot to number 1 on the Amazon best seller list, an extraordinary feat for a novel that was first published more than 60 years ago and had long been relegated to the list of books that are assigned in English classes but that few people seek out for pleasure reading, which is understandable–a lot of unpleasant things happen in this story. It is about a world where individualism is discouraged, citizens are under continuous surveillance, and the past is rewritten to support what the government wants people to believe. 1984 originated some phrases that have come into general use, such as “Big Brother,” “doublespeak,” and “thoughtcrime.”   It is understandable that the novel is suddenly hot again; the Trump Administration seems to be using it as an instruction manual–Alternative Facts, anyone?

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953): This story is set in a future where books are illegal and firemen are called to burn books in secret libraries of a few elusive radicals (librarians, college professors, and other book lovers). Guy Montag is a fireman who used to love his job, until he succumbs to his curiosity about what’s in books. After that, the sh-t hits the fan.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1986): This is a society in the near future, so near in fact that the narrator, Offred, remembers being taken from her husband and child and indoctrinated into her new life where her job will be as a Handmaid, whose main purpose is to bear a child for her “Commander.” Her name is Offred because her Commander’s name is Fred, and she is the handmaid Of Fred. Everyone in this new society has a specific function and must live by specific rules, even the Commanders. The Handmaid’s Tale is unusual for a dystopian novel because it has a happy, or relatively happy, ending.

The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins: This trilogy consists of The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010). Every year a boy and a girl from each of the 12 districts of Panem–which long ago was known as North America–is sent to a competition (think gladiators of ancient Rome) in which they are expected to fight to the death. The victor–in a society where it’s a struggle for most citizens in the Districts to put food on the table–is rewarded with a house and the promise of food for the rest of his or her life. The rules specify that there can be only one survivor, until Katniss and Peeta change the rules, which causes considerable embarrassment to the Establishment and drives the story for books two and three.

Honorable Mentions:

Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945): Orwell, which is the pen name for English writer Eric Arthur Blair, hated totalitarianism. He made this clear in no uncertain terms in his non-fiction as well as his two most famous novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, the latter of which tells the story of a group of barnyard animals that overthrow an autocrat (the farmer), and set up an animal democracy only to have it overthrown by another autocrat, a conniving pig (a real one, not metaphorically speaking) named Snowball.

A Friend of the Family, by David Kubicek (2012): Allow me a bit of shameless self-promotion. This is on the “Honorable Mentions” list because it is a novella, not a full-length novel, and it deals with characters acting within the confines of their dystopian world rather than trying to change their screwed up society or escape from it. It is about a future society that has outlawed the practice of medicine, replacing medical doctors with Healers who rely on magic to treat patients. But not everyone in the society puts their faith in the Healers, and for those people there is a loose underground network of doctors. Hank, a doctor estranged from the underground, finds himself blackmailed into trying to help a girl’s dying father and becomes enmeshed in a power struggle for control of the family, which could expose Hank and land him in prison.

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