On my short list of authors that I must read, if for no other reason than it is writing at its finest, is Barbara Kingsolver. Her novels are the kind that has me set the book down on occasion to catch my breath and sigh. Her newest offering, Flight Behavior, surprised me with a subtle apocalyptic theme, based on a potential calamity from environmental change. A twofer, my favorite author and my favorite genre.
In a recent book review of Flight Behavior, by Kevin Nance of the Tribune Newspapers, he has mostly praise for the book, but had some interesting observations about dystopian genres.
“The impending apocalypse is an almost comfortable cliché of sci-fi and fantasy fiction. The possibility of a dire future for the planet is so routinely entertained — and usually averted, through sometimes not — that it’s almost ho-hum. The unthinkable has been endlessly thought and re-thought, albeit in generally farfetched contexts, to a point at which we can barely bestir ourselves to care.”
Mr. Nance continues in his favorable review by giving Kingsolver high marks for not being … cliché. I sort of feel today’s overabundance of zombie and vampire themes have become cliché, but dystopia? Please.
Story subjects are prone to a degree of surplus broadcast. It’s entertainment. If market strategy holds sway, providers of said entertainment are supposed to offer, in great quantity, whatever happens to blow our whistle at the time. Some story lines just never seem to end. People still love cop and crime tales, which herald back to the days of seedy pulp novels and still going strong. Chuckle all you want at romance stories, the need for hairless chests and busting bodices is one of the hottest genres in the market. Horror and Paranormal? Authors like Stephen King like to “scare the sxxx out of people”, and we can’t enough of it.
So what makes the possibility of an altered existence, either drawn out or in the blink of an eye, any different from other stories? We humans have obsessed about “what’s going to happen to us” since man became bipedal. In an article published a few years ago by a Harvard sociologist, he theorized the major difference between humans and animals was man’s ability to wonder (and fret) about the future. Until recent times, our obsession mostly translated with spiritual and fatalistic conviction. Introduction of science to common folks, added some new ways for altering our way of life that isn’t inflicted by a higher power. Devastation of nuclear war, degradation from environmental excess, meteor collision, super-virus, solar flare, cataclysmic release of volcanic calderas, rise of despotic super tyrants, and the ever-popular alien invasion … to name a few. One of my favorites is the routinely scheduled earth shift that drags us back to the ice ages. So many choices.
Farfetched? I will concede the alien theory is a bit out there. Tyrannical despots or the result of our unchecked excess does not seem so farfetched to me. I’d like to think that we’ll do the right thing by avoiding a human cause, but that monstrous caldera bubbling beneath Yellowstone, is enough to give me pause.
Cliché? While we ponder the possibility of a radically changed world, an unlimited supply of story material with heroes, villains, and redemption (or not), will keep us up at night for years to come, and never get boring.