Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Director's Commentary on "Randomized Dystopia"
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2015 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
Now that I'm not all arrrrgh I just want to launch this thing I'll talk a little more about why I made Randomized Dystopia: to help us think about how dystopian fiction (and real repression) works, and to remind everybody of rights that don't get enough airtime, like variety in breakfast -- wait, no, I mean:
Freedom of association
In January, I read Courtney Milan's Trade Me, in which protagonist Tina Chen mentions how hard it is for many Americans to wrap their heads around the oppression of Falun Gong practitioners. A stripped-down excerpt, from page 9 of my edition:
I hate trying to explain Falun Gong to Westerners. Sometimes, I wish my parents had been caught up in something comprehensible, like tax reform or Tiananmen Square....
No, it's not a freedom of speech issue. No, it's not a religion, not like you understand it. It's never going to make sense to you ... It's like free exercise of ... exercise...
Milan goes into more detail on this point in an interview about Trade Me. Again, a snipped-up excerpt:
...the communist regime is very, very jealous of concentrations of power in anyone but the Communist Party. And so near the end of the '90s, there were probably millions of people who were practicing Falun Gong, and they would get together in the park and they would practice and, you know, all of this stuff, and they, the Communist Party started getting a little worried about it, because they didn’t like the idea that there were these people.... he had followers, and they don't like, they didn't like the idea of somebody having followers, so they banned the practice. And to their amazement, people protested it, and they didn't know the protest was coming. So, like, 10,000 people showed up to protest in Beijing, and they were like, the fuck did these people come from?
And that, it scared the shit out of them, basically. You know, like, all these people care, and this is just sort of like what happened with, like, almost no organizing over a weekend? This is scary. So they cracked down on it, and they cracked down on it really, really hard.
One way to understand the Falun Gong crackdown is as a denial of freedom of association (articulated as "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, to oversimplify). A totalitarian state only allows relationships that the state can surveil or break. We need not only privacy in the metadata of our group membership, but respect for our underlying freedom of association, the freedom to belong to a despised group.
But when I hear people talking about rights, including when we explore dystopias where someone's denying us those rights, I don't usually hear us explicitly mention freedom of association. We talk often about privacy, freedom of speech, reproductive and sexual freedom, fair and free elections, and judicial due process.
And so I'd also like to raise awareness (especially in the US) of more comprehensive lists of rights. In "Randomized Dystopia" I draw from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Convention on the Rights of the Child, and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Too often in the US I hear people talk as though the first ten amendments to the US Constitution comprise all the rights we ought to honor, and humanity has done some more thinking on those topics in the intervening centuries.
How dystopias work
And then, in mid-March, I was talking with Sabrina Banes about current dystopian fiction, especially novels in English for the Young Adult market. She sketched out their basic themes and trajectory (and Sabrina I'd love for you to write more about your thoughts on what aspects cluster around Evil Villain Governments versus around Plucky Young Protagonists). And I realized how essential it is, as a plot mechanic, that cookie-cutter YA dystopias deny freedom of association.
Chapter 1. My parents, friends, and government tell me I can't ever go talk to Those People Over There. They're bad and wrong and subject to arbitrary arrest or execution. But sometimes I don't particularly want to be a WheelCog. But what else is there?
Chapter 5. So I talked to Those People Over There and hoo boy, I was spectacularly underinformed about the nature of my world, political system, and socially constructed values! [If freedom of association is limited, the author can more plausibly dribble out exposition to the reader -- it's easier to play keep-away with the MacGuffin -- and it gets easier for authorities to enforce limits on speech.]
Chapter 10. Oh wow, I am one of Those People Over There. In fact maybe quite a lot of us don't fit as WheelCogs, down underneath! [If you hang out with someone, it's a lot harder to treat them as a category, an object. And once you can talk freely with an ostracized group, you might see how you are like them; your perception of your own identity might change. I believe the standard YA dystopia character development arc depends on struggles around freedom of association.]
Chapter 12. However this is causing certain problems with, well, every other part of my life. Time to overthrow things!
What other rights have interesting properties as plot mechanics within dystopian fiction? I hope writers find "Randomized Dystopia" interesting as a writing prompt, and I'd be interested to hear others' thoughts on the interaction of rights and dystopian narrative.
See the README in the code repository (go ahead and reuse the code and the idea -- the code is GPL). If you've never written a web application before, this kind of toy -- massage some text into structured-data form and use
random.sample to display a few selections to the reader -- is a fun starter project.
[Edited February 2016 to remove defunct link to Taco Bell ad and add Slate link that works.]