Category Archives: Nonfiction

Thoughts on Sketches by Boz

By Meredith Allard

Even the most die-hard Dickens fans are not so well-acquainted with his first published pieces, short works of fiction and rides of imaginary fancy alongside observations of 1830s London life. The individual sketches were compiled into the book Sketches by Boz, first in 1836 and then in subsequent editions. Literary critics have largely dismissed the sketches, and, as Dennis Walder states in his Introduction to Sketches by Boz for the Penguin Classics edition (1995), Dickens himself didn’t do much to improve public perception of those early works.

With the retrospect that comes with the passing of time (and greater literary successes), Dickens looked back on his early sketches with skeptical eyes. He said (at the ripe old age of thirty-eight) that the sketches were written when “I was a very young man, and sent into the world with all their imperfections (a good many) on their heads. They comprise my first attempts at authorship—with the exception of certain tragedies achieved at the mature age of eight or ten, and represented with great appplause to overflowing nurseries” (Preface to the first Cheap Edition, Sketches by Boz, 1850).

This is where I differ from the stodgy, humorless critics, and even from Boz himself, since I admit (without the slightest hint of sarcasm or embarrassment) that I love the sketches. I’m not saying they stand equal to Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities. I’m saying that for what they are, Dickens’ earliest published pieces, they’re gems—well-written, insightful, bursting with energy, and, most importantly, absolutely hilarious. I’ve always said I can forgive anyone anything if they can make me laugh. I will forgive Dickens whatever needs forgiving because no other writer makes me laugh out loud (I mean milk-spurting-through-the-nose laugh out loud) the way he can. Even in these earliest works his sarcastic observational humor is spot-on. The sketches are exactly what the young Dickens wrote them to be—individual pieces that were either short stories or come-as-you-are journalism. That’s all. If we take them at face value then we can appreciate the first glimmers of literary genius in a man who was so very young when he started.

His first sketch, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” appeared in December 1833 when Dickens was twenty-one years old. Dickens himself told the story of how he had surreptitiously dropped the manuscript off at the publisher, and how, when he found out the piece was going to be published, he was so overwhelmed with emotion he wasn’t fit to be seen in the street. Published the first time he submits his work? Well, he was Dickens. And even in that very first piece (later known as “Mr. Minns and His Cousin”) we can see the beginning of Dickens’ preoccupation with class relationships. The story is a comedy of manners as the Buddins family tries ever so hard to ingratiate themselves into the will of Mr. Minns, their wealthier cousin. Other, more journalistic-type sketches such as “London Recreations,” “Vauxhall Gardens by Day,” and “The Pawnbroker’s Shop” are notes on his thoughts as he rambles through London and notices everything everywhere around him. That was a talent Dickens displayed throughout his career–his ability to see what was right in front of him and reflect it back while everyone else simply scurried past in their rush from here to there and back again. For those of us reading the sketches in the twenty-first century, it’s a time traveling experience to see 19th century London, with its odd cast of characters, come to life before our eyes. I’m willing to bet that “Making a Night of It,” about young men out to have an alcohol-infused good time, is based on an actual experience of Dickens’. I don’t know that for a fact, but it’s a hunch. Or I might have read that somewhere. I can’t remember. And then, in “A Visit to Newgate,” he imagines what it might be like for a prisoner awaiting his execution with all the emotional intensity we’ve come to expect from the older, more seasoned Dickens.

Don’t pay any attention to Dickens’ own criticism against the sketches (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!) since most writers tend to look back on their earliest works as silly. In fact, Dickens did rearrange and revise the sketches for subsequent editions in later years, so he took more care with them than he wanted us to believe. Whatever criticisms about the sketches I’ve read (they’re too haphazard, there are no recurring themes, there’s no depth to the descriptions) may even be true, but to focus on the weaknesses is to miss the point of Sketches by Boz. Through the process of writing these pieces, Dickens was able to begin to lay a path through which he could nurture his genius.

Every Dickens fan should be required to read Sketches by Boz since 1. The pieces are a sneak peek into the workings of the mind of a young man on the road to literary greatness, and 2. They stand just fine on their own as short stories and journalistic impressions. And besides, they’re damn funny.


Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

Posted in A Dickens of a Year, Nonfiction | Tagged , | Comments Off on Thoughts on Sketches by Boz

Life Lessons of Grandpa Fannin

By Edgar Rider

I grew up in a nice house on a golf course and my grandfather was a well known local politician. I sort of understood his well known status but mainly only knew him as Grandpa Fannin. He repeatedly sat me down and gave me lectures. These were usually just basic life skills. I never paid much attention. I always thought, “Who do you think you are?” Of course years later I could kick myself for not paying attention. I was always coming up with ridiculous schemes like pretending to be a private detective putting an ad in the paper trying to solve cases at thirteen and acting as if I was going to run away to a place called Dead Man’s Trail and live off the land like Rambo. Grandpa would tell me scary stories about what would happen to me if I tried to go out in the world and make it on my own at thirteen. Grandpa Fannin had a way of scaring reality back into me.

One day we were shopping in a grocery store and Grandpa Fannin was squeezing melons and canalopes making sure they were just ripe. People walking by would say, “Hello Senator.” He would reply back with a polite “Hello.” Then he would turn around and continue the process. Not only did he check all the fruit but also the dates on the milk products. He was overly thorough at times. We walked outside and the bags containing the canalopes and melons broke. As the fruit ran down the hill Grandpa and I chased after it. Eventually he would stop and look back at me. “It’s all you,” he said.

After I picked up the melons, I smiled, trying to get his approval. He nodded. “Get back in the Cadillac.”

I used to ask him why he did all these things himself. “You have money why don’t you just get somebody else to do it?”

He would look back at me and shake his head. The he said, ” Some things you gotta do for yourself.”

He was the hardest working person I ever met. At eighty years old, he was out in the garden pulling up weeds. He put on his fish tackle hat which had no tackle on it. Over the intercom he would ask me to help him outside. I would run and hide in the bathroom. Over the intercom I could hear his voice grow louder. “Can you come out here and help me?” Every time he said that sentence it was followed by an awkward pause. After awhile there would be complete silence. I slowly crept out of the bathroom thinking I had gotten away with not working for that day. Suddenly, I turned around and my grandfather was standing there.

“That’s a fine thing you did right there. That’s a real fine thing. Thanks for helping.”

Grandpa Fannin had a funny way of being sarcastic. He sometimes would point his finger at me and say, “This one’s headed for trouble.”

Sometimes you might want to take a second look at your grandfather’s advice whether he is head of household or head of state or both.


In the late seventies and through the eighties, Edgar Rider grew up in the household of a well known Arizona Senator and Governor. Most of the stories he remembers are small stories about going to the grocery store and working in the backyard. Edgar Rider has been published in Avatar Review, Birmingham Art Journal, and Kerouac Dog Magazine.

Posted in Nonfiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Life Lessons of Grandpa Fannin

The Bucket Brigade

By Ty Russell

When I was three I fell in love. I’m a writer, so my retrospection is probably clouded with nostalgia, but I think that this is how it all, everything I am, began.

There was a woman walking down the streets of a quiet Florida town, a coffee-colored book bag with leather straps hanging loosely from her elbow, holding the hand of her curly-haired son. She walked silently and the little boy imitated her crisp steps and held his own empty bag under a tiny, milk-white arm. For each step she took, the little boy took three.

This would eventually become a familiar sight for the families in our neighborhood. But this was the first time. The first of many steps, the first in a series of events that would carve a man out of the lives of ten thousand others.

This was the day my mother first took me to the public library.

We walked through the front door and the librarian had a stuffed owl perched on the brim of her black felt hat. I hid behind my mother’s leg (I have since learned not to fear librarians, but rather marvel at them, for they are some of the most remarkable creatures in God’s creation, but for then, I was scared). She kindly directed us to the children’s section, and within 20 minutes, I had stuffed both our bags full of picture books on dinosaurs. I stood there open-mouthed like a baby bird, watching as the librarian, Miss Alexis, opened the front cover, slid in the date card, and gently shut it again, a process that, for some undiagnosed reason, still fascinates me.

We were back in three days.

In a month, I had the dinosaur section memorized, but I kept checking them out, reading them, rereading them, eight, nine, ten times. It was free, after all. I moved on to books on space, books on pirates. I grew. We moved. Changed libraries. I found new books on dinosaurs and memorized them, too. Soon I graduated to the upstairs where they kept the novels and the grown-up books. It was there that I would find the real treasures.

To me, the process of intellectual growth is a lot like a bucket brigade. We learn from, are influenced by, or just flat-out steal from someone who came before us. We receive a bucket full of water. And it is our responsibility to pass it on, to be a teacher, to send it toward the fire. Books are the ultimate method of this. A man can write a book and print it himself, sell it himself and distribute it himself. A book is cheap and personal. A book can be easily concealed beneath a coat. A book is just a few sheets of paper stuck in between two thicker ones. Small and simple. And yet in a book, a man can pour out everything he’s ever loved, anything he’s ever feared, seen, smelled, or tasted. A book is an intimate conversation of knowledge, the easiest and most enjoyable way to learn.

Upstairs, I found a million buckets full of water.

Fifteen years later, I am still wading through the water, my own empty bucket in hand, searching, choosing, taking a few handfuls out of some buckets and picking up others to pour their contents into my own. I write because it’s freedom and because I have been molded from words. I am a conglomeration of all the people and ideas whose pages I have once turned or dog-eared. I am, as I once heard it called, a collection of various smokes.

As a writer, I want to pass on enough droplets to future generations so that one day a boy like me will have something fresh to put in his pail. I want to do my part to ensure that the ideas from which I have formed myself continue on for generations after I do. But no matter what comes from writing, I am just another step in the fire drill, one link in a far greater chain of changes. Everything I ever learn I will one day pass on like water in a bucket.


Ty Russell’s work has been published in Apiary MagazineThe Pennsylvania Gazette, Phantom KangarooPeregrineSilver, and is a nominee for the 2011 Rhysling Award. He lives in north central Pennsylvania with his wife and their children.

Posted in Nonfiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on The Bucket Brigade

An American Tragedy Revisited

By Fred Skolnik

During my high school years I systematically went through what had come to be called the Classic American Novel, from The Red Badge of Courage to Native Son. Before that, in junior high, I had read mostly the English classics, and afterwards I would discover European literature. However, it was these American novels that shaped my will to write. And of all these novels, a few made an indelible impression on me. One of them was An American Tragedy. I return to it now out of a certain curiosity, to see if it will move me in the same way after all these years.

The opening sentence of An American Tragedy is for me the most evocative in all of American literature: “Dusk – of a summer night.” Instantly, when I read these words, something that for me has always been at the heart of the American experience, and consequently of my own sensibility, comes to life. I have a sense, a memory even, of reading that sentence 50 years ago and pausing, and reflecting, and perhaps of laying the book aside. “Dusk – of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city …” Here for me was the romance of the American night, the winding down of balmy days, a certain stillness in the darkening air that brought a sense of perfect peace and longing too.

But An American Tragedy is not a romance. It tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, born into an impoverished family of missionaries whose straightlaced fundamentalism he rebels against when he begins to get a taste of what life can offer, first as a bellhop in a leading Kansas City hotel where he is dazzled by the wealthy clientele and afterwards in his infatuation with a “fast” girl, a certain Hortense, who plays him along. The first part of the novel ends with an outing in which a child is tragically run over by the car Clyde and his friends have borrowed.

This structure of four large blocks of material – family, work, romance, and a tragic denouement – is repeated in the second part of the novel, at a higher level and for higher stakes. The scene shifts to Lycurgus, New York, where the wealthy branch of the Griffiths family is now introduced. Clyde, on the run after the accident and working as a bellhop in a Chicago hotel under an assumed name, runs into his uncle there and is invited east to manage a department in his collar and shirt factory. There he falls in love with one of the girls working under him, the sweet Roberta Alden, contrasted with the vulgar Hortense in Kansas City, but then he becomes infatuated with one of the socialites in the moneyed crowd he has been permitted to join as a Griffiths relation and begins to entertain hopes of marrying her. Roberta becomes pregnant and now seems to stand in the way of his attaining all the great prizes that Lycurgus society has to offer. Clyde takes Roberta out on a lake planning to kill her and she drowns.

The first part of the novel also contains elements that foreshadow the events of the second part and serve to establish Clyde’s character. His unwillingness to help his pregnant and abandoned sister with the $50 with which he was going to help Hortense get her fur coat foreshadows his unwillingness to stand by Roberta after getting her pregnant. His flight after the child is run over foreshadows his flight from his own crime, and from responsibility in general, in the second part of the novel, and Roberta’s seemingly accidental death echoes the accidental death of the child. Even the frozen river that plays a part in the denouement of the first part can be seen as foreshadowing the lake where Roberta drowns. These parallels almost seem to suggest that Clyde is fated to act in a particular way, according to the dictates of his character, though Dreiser points to something deeper, a biological, or “chemic,” force. Biology sets the stage for the struggle for survival in which the strongest – or the most well born – must prevail. Biology makes Clyde physically resemble his wealthy cousin and biology – his low birth – keeps him in a lower social station.

The third part of the novel concerns the flight, apprehension, trial and execution of Clyde Griffiths.

All this is based on the case of Chester E. Gillette, who drowned a girl named Grace Brown in 1906 and was subsequently electrocuted, though Dreiser had similar cases in mind as well, a spate of cases that led him to believe that this was a motif unique to American society. An American Tragedy was published in 1925. Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s first novel, had been published in 1900, when he was 29, and between them came Jennie Gerhardt (1911), The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914) and The “Genius” (1915). He also published stories, sketches, essays, poems and autobiographical works, a substantial ouevre in fact. The Bulwark and The Stoic, weaker novels which he had struggled to complete for a great many years, appeared after his death, as did his voluminous correspondence and his diaries.

Dreiser has been much maligned for his style, which did not trouble me at all when I first read An American Tragedy, and does not trouble me now as I read it again. There are some clumsy sentences, to be sure, but not so clumsy really, and also some sentences that can only be called wonderful (“Physically, she was of a pale, emasculate and unimportant structure …”), but on the whole the style is serviceable, and occasionally it is nice:

Clyde, being not a little overawed by her [Hortense’s] spirit and mannerisms, was at a loss what else to say for the moment, but he need not have worried – her chief interest in life was herself

Her quick eyes clicked and she tossed her head defiantly.

Her [Roberta’s] pretty mouth, her lovely big eyes, her radiant and yet so often shy and evasive smile.

She [Sondra] saw that he was nervous and bashful and decidedly unresourceful in her presence and it pleased her to think that she could thus befuddle and embarrass him so much.

It is also less than just to represent Dreiser as a compiler of menus and street directories with a few newspaper clippings thrown in to spice things up, as Robert Benchley did in one of his parodies. Whenever there was condescension among critics toward an American novelist, one could generally find H.L. Mencken in the neighborhood too; but Mencken, his friend and early champion, it should be said, was not a very astute reader of novels and clearly did not recognize the greatness of An American Tragedy. Such condescension and misguided reading is evident in his Introduction to the World Publishing edition of 1948. Mencken liked Dreiser best as the “adept and persuasive reporter,” characterizing him as “the most matter-of-fact novelist ever known on earth,” but conceded that he was a “predominantly viscous” writer and would have had him rein the “viscosity” in. Dreiser was of course very far from being a reporter in his novels and actually showed very little interest in the kind of gratuitous or impressionistic detail that abounds in novelists of the era for whom fiction was an extension of journalism and who therefore felt it their duty to describe or characterize everything in sight. As the novel opens, Dreiser gives you very little that is specific in the immediate surroundings. His focus is almost entirely on “the little group” that “seemed unconscious of anything save a set purpose to make its way between the contending lines of traffic and pedestrians which flowed by them.”

This group is headed by the parents of Clyde Griffiths, dragging the children out to sing hymns in the street, and Dreiser positions himself inside it, but most often inside the mind of Clyde, whose thoughts and feelings he will relentlessly follow for the space of nearly 900 closely printed pages. “Sprawling” and “clumsy” are indeed two of the adjectives frequently misapplied to An American Tragedy. But An American Tragedy is in fact a novel of tremendous narrative force and a profound level of observation. Barely a sentence concerning Clyde is written without the specific aim of elucidating the impulses that will lead him to commit murder. For it is an enormous distance to travel for someone like Clyde Griffiths, who is neither of a violent nor criminal disposition, from loving a girl like Roberta Alden to murdering her because she stands in the way of his ambition. While such occurrences are commonplace in the popular novel, where writers treat extreme modes of behavior as a given in telling their stories, without feeling the need to explain too much – men kill because they are evil or weak or greedy or jealous – Dreiser feels obliged to elucidate the frame of mind that causes Clyde to act as he does – in the space of hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Dreiser is tireless. Not every writer would be willing or capable of devoting so much time and effort to setting the stage and establishing the plausibility of an act such as is committed by Clyde Griffiths. His diligence is commendable. There is nothing of sensationalism in his writing. He is the ultimate realist. He writes forcefully about strong sexual and romantic feeling. It is easy to write extravagantly about love, to the point that words become meaningless. This is not the case with Dreiser.

But it is not pure love that induces Clyde to pursue Roberta and break down her resistance: it is lust and vanity too – for he knows he will not marry her. Here Dreiser makes a leap of sorts, from describing a character buffeted by social forces and therefore worthy of our sympathy to describing one that now strikes us as somewhat callow. The tragedy for the moment becomes the tragedy of Roberta, who innocently trusts Clyde and acts against her better judgment, believing that he will be true to her, and so our sympathy momentarily shifts to her. But Dreiser does not sustain this mood, for it would undermine his story, which is the story of Clyde.

It is true that a writer like Georges Simenon might have told this story in 150-or-so uncrowded pages, and he would have achieved an effect, no doubt, and he would have gotten the point across – but it is doubtful if he would have done justice to its momentousness. Momentous stories require momentous edifices to bear them. An American Tragedy is momentous because it is nothing less than the story of America. In a society as vast and as complex as America, with so many conflicts and cross currents and social groups – young and old, black and white, east and west, north and south, town and country, conservative and liberal, religious and free-thinking – a novel that purports to tell the whole story can either dissipate itself in an extremely broad narrative or choose a single theme or conflict that contains the essence of the whole. Dreiser chose to tell the story of America by writing about the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots; and like no other theme, it suffices to reveal what America is, because the story of America is not only the story of what people achieve but also, and more so, of what people fail to achieve, for the great fortunes and the great names belong to the few, not the many. The American tragedy is the tragedy of wanting and failing to be rich and having everything that is perceived as part of being rich, for like a whore who has only her body to offer, America has only its wealth to give.

Very few American writers have had anything good to say about America. America is after all very hard on Americans. The central theme of nearly all American fiction that examines its social fabric has been its rottenness. This rottenness, paradoxically, resides in precisely what Americans view as the country’s chief virtue: its unlimited opportunity. For while Americans extol the fact that anyone can become rich, the rich are rarely viewed sympathetically, not in popular or serious literature and not in Hollywood films, which more than any medium reflects the underlying assumptions of American life. The underlying assumption of films that portray the rich is that they are heartless, dishonest, corrupt, dissolute, rapacious. The only conclusion that can be reached is that as a rule wealth is bad – and yet, as a desideratum, wealth is viewed in the American dream as good, adding still another twist to the schizophrenic psyche of the American people.

The theme of rich and poor, or labor vs. capital in its classic Marxian formulation and as it would appear in U.S.A., for example, could only serve this purpose of standing for the whole in a particular period of American history and literature, namely the period of the classic American novel, from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 1930s, and this explains why novels like An American Tragedy, U.S.A. and Studs Lonigan have been recognized as masterpieces. Before that time such novels could not yet be written because the novelistic temperament needed to write realistically had not yet been formed, and the process of industrialization that would produce such acute dissonances in American society was just beginning to take shape. After World War II such novels could no longer be written because American life was becoming so diffuse, so disconnected and directionless, that no single theme could capture its essence or driving force. America no longer had an essence in fact; it had an image, or many images, engineered by the makers of images. To be sure, poverty existed in abundance, but it could no longer be ranged against wealth as a defining theme of American life. If anything, poverty might be ranged against indifference; its drama was private, its victims were excised more and more from the American consciousness despite periodic expressions of regret, and in no way could the conflict be said to stand for American life as a whole, nor could any other traditional pair of conflicting social realities. No theme, no conflict, no cross section of American society could any longer tell the story of America.

For me, An American Tragedy, together with U.S.A. and Studs Lonigan, stands at the pinnacle of twentieth century American literature. Many of course choose The Great Gatsby, a novel very similar to the others in its own way, and certainly incomparably elegant, but I would not settle for it as definitive in getting at the essence of American life in the first decades of the twentieth century. It is perhaps Mozartian where one seeks the weight of Beethoven. Such weight is achieved by An American Tragedy. To the extent that books change lives, I can say that it changed mine, for it helped create in me the will to write. I confess, however, that when I read An American Tragedy today I find myself reading it cerebrally. Certainly I no longer find myself in it, nor are old dreams reawakened by it. I have moved on. Novels are for the young, when all is said and done. They alone live most fully in hope and respond most deeply to the tragic dimension of life. But such novels as An American Tragedy will not be written again in America. They belongs to a lost time. They close a chapter in America’s history.


Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963, working mostly as an editor and translator. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal and hailed as a landmark achievement by the Library Journal. Other award-winning projects with which he has been associated include The New Encyclopedia of Judaism (co-editor, 2002) and the 3-volume Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust (senior editor, 2001). Now writing full time, he has published dozens of stories in the past few years (in TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Polluto, etc.). His novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011), set in Israel in the 1980s, is an epic work depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history.

Posted in Nonfiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on An American Tragedy Revisited

Implausible Dystopias: Logic Problems in Contemporary Dystopian Fiction

By Abby Goldsmith

In the future, the rich will live in a state of drugged splendor, while the poor will be slaughtered in forced labor camps. Class disparity will be huge. Global warming and modern science will transform life on Earth into something alien and unrecognizable. No one will care about basic human rights, or U.S. Constitutional rights, particularly the right to free speech. Not only will history be forgotten; a pack of lies will replace it, and no one will remember the truth.

This vision of the future describes a wide swath of dystopian fiction. The first major wave came with the Golden Age of science fiction, including A Brave New World (1932), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 (1953), although one could argue that The Time Machine (1895) and a few others represent an earlier wave. Now we’re in the midst of a bigger wave, one that has picked up steam in the last few years. Uglies (2005), The Hunger Games (2008), Skinned (2008), Saturn’s Children (2008), The Maze Runner (2009) and The Windup Girl (2009) all received critical praise, awards, and bestseller status. The trend continues especially in the Young Adult category, with Super Sad True Love Story (2010), Wither (2011), Divergent (2011) and more.

If fiction reflects the views of the era in which it is written, this is a disturbing trend. It indicates that our society is pessimistic and paranoid about the future.

Yet many dystopias skip some logic in order to make their premises work. In The Running Man (1982), by Richard Bachman aka Stephen King, the future U.S. population ignores deadly air pollution and rampant poverty because they’re addicted to free reality TV shows, known as Free-Vee. This premise follows up Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which also depicts a future where TV is the opiate of the masses. The fear was that TV will replace people’s ability to think for themselves; it provides entertainment that no truth-speaker can match, so people will accept TV as the only trustworthy source of information and education.

With the advent of the internet, that fear seems outdated. People can freely choose where to obtain information and education, and which sources to believe. The latest incarnation of the reality TV dystopia, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, depicts the impoverished masses as fully aware of their helpless plight, despite the free reality show entertainment that their government forces them to swallow. They would rebel if they had weapons. Only the rich are duped, and that is only with the help of strict class segregation, brainwashing techniques, and military law enforcement that includes torture.

Why the change in treatment? Current audiences no longer find it logical that everyone would unquestioningly trust a single source of information. The premise of The Running Man only works if you accept that everyone in the U.S. would willingly give up their right to free speech, the first amendment of the Constitution, and trust a TV network to never lie. In that dystopian world, although the internet was never invented, there is ham radio, air traffic control radio, and other ways to spread information independent of the TV network. Given how many people in our world are eager to believe in conspiracy theories and other unpopular ideas, the same would be true in a dystopian future. Why wouldn’t someone spread rebellious ideas over a ham radio show? What would stop the impoverished masses from believing the worst of the rich upper class, and then rising up to overthrow the totalitarian government? The answer: They’d do it.

That’s because in real life, totalitarian regimes or dictatorships require a strong military to back them up. Spreading disinformation through mass entertainment is only half of the equation. The other half is an oppressive military. Adolf Hitler would have lost his grip on Germany without Nazis. Korea would be one nation again, if not for North Korea’s nuclear weapons and military force. Yet in scenarios such as The Running Man and Fahrenheit 451, the only law enforcement mentioned are ordinary police officers or firemen. Apparently TV is such a strong drug, and deviants are so rare, extraordinary law enforcement is unnecessary. This goes outside logic. A critical reader will understand where those fears came from, but can no longer accept the premise.

The new wave of dystopian novels mostly ignore the issue of free speech and the internet. They invariably depict a world where the right to free speech is inexplicably gone. The thing is, I can’t imagine the Western world giving up this right without a fight. I can’t buy such a dystopian society unless it is the legacy of some huge war. A few dystopian novels give a nod to this fact; The Hunger Games takes place in a future built after a nuclear war that destroyed North America, and the Uglies takes place in the aftermath of terrorism that destroyed worldwide governments and economies. However, many writers gloss over the history of their dystopia, depicting the future as an unbroken continuation of our current society. This presents a logic problem. Given the basic rights that we expect, would U.S. society really sit passive, without a fight, while the U.S. government took away free speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to a fair trial? I think not.

Many dystopian novels deal with the concept of de-humanizing a subset of people–such as androids, cyborgs, or robots–so that they lose their basic human rights. In The Windup Girl, androids are legally property and can therefore be abused or killed by their owners. In Skinned, cyborg versions of dead people are feared and hated as poor copies of the people they used to be.

The logic problem is that these future societies completely disregard the advantages that an android has over a biological human. In The Windup Girl, the android can move super-fast and learn languages faster than any human. Why would everyone agree to treat her like garbage? She would be a great asset to any corporation, government, community, or family. I can’t believe that every single person in that world would disregard her superhuman skills. Even Nazis (the obvious comparison) tried to use skilled workers rather than throw them in with unskilled workers. The hate/fear reaction might be normal for some people, but wonder and ambition would be just as likely. Likewise, in Skinned, I had trouble understanding why cyborgs, or ‘skinners,’ were persecuted. Logically speaking, why would anyone in a position of power de-humanize people who survived death by going through a high tech medical process? Most people would embrace a way to avoid death and aging, even if it meant adjusting to a new mechanical body. Eternal youth is one of the great human dreams. Sure, there might be a vocal minority against it, but I can’t believe they would ever become a majority.

One more implausibility that jumps into many dystopias is rampant, socially-endorsed drug use. In Pretties and Specials, the government drugs and lobotomizes people in order to keep them docilely happy. In novels like Skinned, The Giver, The Running Man, and A Brave New World, everyone gets stoned and that’s just the way it is. I can’t believe any human society would agree to this without a fight. People are always questioning and challenging authority. Sometimes it’s cool to be straight edge or subversive. That’s human nature. In Pretties, it’s clear that two surgeons feel guilty for helping to lobotomize every teenager in society . . . but to me, two seems like an implausibly small number. I don’t believe that hundreds of surgeons would happily go along with the rules while only two protest.

Some dystopian settings are just whimsical backdrops, but many tie into current events in an effort to convey a dire warning. Predictions certainly have precedents in fiction. Modern objects such as satellites, escalators, submarines, and data tablets have all appeared in science fiction before the first prototype was built in reality. Cautionary tales serve a valuable place in fiction. However, a good cautionary tale ought to take reality factors into account. I disagree with the vein of pessimism running through contemporary science fiction. The world economy is in a slump, but that doesn’t mean the end of all life as we know it.

When reading these cautionary tales, it’s important to keep a long-view perspective. Your peers might like to party, but that doesn’t mean everyone would enjoy being stoned twenty-four hours a day. You might feel like an island of smartness in a sea of idiocy, but that doesn’t mean surgeons would agree to lobotomize everyone for a paycheck. You probably know some racist assholes, but that doesn’t mean everyone in society would agree to de-humanize a targeted group and throw them in gas chambers; not unless we gain some new laws enforced by Nazis. You might be concerned about the effects of global warming, but that doesn’t mean every nation will passively sit and get stoned while vegetation dies and their own populations starve to death. It doesn’t mean that we’re all going to need gas masks. It doesn’t mean that bioengineered mammoths will replace petroleum as our best source of energy. You might be concerned that religious extremists or ideological lobbyists will destroy the free world, but as long as we uphold the U.S. Constitution and have the military strength to defend our laws, no one can remove our basic human rights. You might worry that corrupt politicians will stealthily vote away our liberties while everyone around you zones out on TV and YouTube, but as long as we have the internet and the freedom to say whatever we want and reach an audience, that can’t happen.

It’s not that bad. Really.

In contrast, take a look at places like North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, or Taliban-ruled areas, where these dystopian settings are a hard, cold reality. There are places in the world where Big Brother really is watching, and where the poor live and die in abysmal slums. Dystopias don’t happen to an armed, informed populace. A dangerously corrupt government can only take root where common people already lack legal rights, or the ability to enforce their legal rights. Here in the free world, we have free speech, the power to gain an audience, and the right to bear arms. I wish more contemporary fiction writers would keep that mind.


Abby Goldsmith is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, with sales to Escape Pod, Fantasy Magazine, and The Internet Review of Science Fiction. She creates video game art by day and writes novels by night. Visit Abby online.

Posted in Nonfiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Implausible Dystopias: Logic Problems in Contemporary Dystopian Fiction