Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dystopic Review - Imprint and The Holy Land

I picked up Imprint from the Interlibrary Loan System because within the library taxonomy it had been filed under “Dystopia”. It is not a dystopia. It has a few dystopic tendencies: a pervasive police force (with unknown directors), a disappearing populace, rampant drug use (joysticks – candles infused with drugs, in this case) and sexual liasons (both classifiable under opiates for the masses), a corporate overlord motif and a soylent green motif.

But none of these makes it a dystopia. They make it depressing. They make it not as good of a life as you might expect to lead given your current life. But they don't make it dystopic. You can escape the world of Imprint, or at least your status/position/unhappiness within the world of Imprint. You can earn credits and buy things you want. The more money you earn, and the potential to earn is open to most of the characters in the book, the better your access to the things you want and the people with whom you want to rub elbows. While memory seems to be shortened, in most respects it's a choice to not remember, not some sort of brain scrubbing imposed by the state. While there's a hint of forgetting because of industrial waste, the central point of the book isn't the forgetting, but that many individuals are overcoming the forgetting, and those that remember the best move up. The people who disappear, those that are forgotten, are for the most part not disappearing at all (despite the soylent gray), but leaving their old lives to pursue careers as musicians, archivists, freelance hit men, and opposition members. Everyone is making choices: choices about whether to keep a baby, whether to ally themselves with corporations, the poor, the rich, or their own interests, whether to give up an old life or boyfriend. Examples are everywhere in the book. Loss of memory isn't an issue of indoctrination, it's a matter of a resource-poor environment without much hope. But hope certainly isn't dead.

There is escape in Imprint, and that's just not the sign of a good dystopia. Some escape their old lives to pursue new jobs. Some escape their old relationships. Some escape their old economic bounds. And some harvest genetically mutated embryos to merge emerging traits and make themselves almost superhuman. The old system is failing, but there is obviously the promise of something better.

It could be argued that the characters exist in a dystopia that is now being rectified, much like Logan's Run: resources are running low; the environment outside the city and the playground of the rich is inhospitible; only the rich really have access to resources and they use them for personal pleasure, power plays, and financing super weapons, rather than improvements to the society. But based on those criteria, almost all of human history has been a dystopia which dilutes the term to meaning nothing at all.

I found The Holy Land, which doesn't purport to be a dystopia, more dystopic than Imprint, although it's obviously satire. Zubrin claims to have been inspired by War With the Newts, and the influence is clear, although Capek's Newts is incredibly dry in its humor, and Zubrin goes over the top in his farce (I preferred Newts, as Capek's style seems almost serious at times, which is more in line with my sense of humor). I posit it's more dystopic because the galactic culture involved is unavoidable. It's everywhere. And the results of its incompetence are mirrored everywhere. You get the feeling that there's no way to avoid it, no way to escape it. That's the nature of a dystopia.

But Zubrin's book isn't about unavoidable fates and the extension of societal tendencies to create inescapable environments. Rather, he's created a satire about the situation in the Middle East, transposing Minervans as Israelites, the U.S. as the Middle East (and a small group of U.S. citizens - people from bits of Kennewick, Washington - as Palestinians), and galactic culture as the U.S. and world culture. The result is very funny, and does exactly what a satire should, draws out the ridiculousness of the situation in any other context. The National Review reviewed Zubrin's book, and addressed it from the perspective that the Middle East was crazy (my words, not their words - a loose paraphrase). They're wrong about Zubrin's intent, or at least the totality of his intent. He's working on more levels than they're willing to cop, but perhaps they're wearing self-imposed blinders. The first level is the obvious one, that the situation in the Middle East is crazy, and reposited as it is in The Holy Land, it's obvious in any other context. On a second level, post 9/11, the U.S. looks just as crazy in some respects, and the repositioning of the context of the U.S. as the Middle East at large isn't so far fetched with the focus on over the top patriotism, corruption, and self-interest. There but for the grace of God, as the saying goes - ironic given the role of the U.S. in the book. Finally, the U.S. (the real one, not the literary one) can be positioned as the galactic union: bureaucractic, insular, obsessed with profit regardless of the consequences (even to themselves), unable to comprehend those who aren't on their level. Zubrin takes time to mock those involved in current affairs at every turn and at every level, allowing the reader to see the U.S. as them, the U.S. as it could be, and the U.S. as it is, all at the same time.

I recommend his book. Parts of it are extremely funny, and as a Romeo and Juliet story about the Middle East, Zubrin has put a lot of thought into what he's trying to say behind the farce of a galactic circus, shrinking Iowans and South Americans, corrupt U.S. officials, and terrorism on an intergalactic scale.

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