Dystopian author’s woes.


It’s getting hard to write dystopian fiction these days.

Reality is reaching the point where some novels that paint a dystopian future feel more like literary fiction than science fiction. As of late, it seems that the powers that be aren’t even trying to hide what they’re doing anymore… and the scariest part is people who notice or care appear to be the vocal minority.

In Heir Ascendant, which I wrote about a year ago, the primary antagonist helms a pharmaceutical company which has established itself as the power over a section of the eastern seaboard in the wake of WWIII. They are reviled for charging ridiculous sums for a drug that is the only known cure for a mysterious illness known as Fade. A drug that costs them about 47 cents a dose to make, but they charge $200 a dose.

I thought this was a pretty harsh dystopian idea… until that Shkreli guy came along and did this in the real world… with an even bigger markup that made the fictional dystopia feel tame by comparison.

We now live in a country where someone who has a low-end job that fails to provide health insurance is now obligated to pay a fine they cannot afford because they do not have health insurance they cannot afford. Insurance satirizes itself―name another “product” that people won’t sell to someone based purely on that the person needs it. Oh, you’re sick? Sorry, we won’t cover you. In the case of automobile insurance – it can sometimes cost as much as a car payment in and of itself, and if you ever—heaven forbid—use it, the cost increases.


A while back a story came out – Repo, the Genetic Opera, where the main character is a repo man who repossesses organs that people failed to make payments on. (Normally, I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but this soundtrack is catchy.) Such a gruesome practice doesn’t feel quite so far removed from the realm of possibility these days. We are on the verge of being able to grow organs for implantation, yet what will happen to people who can’t afford it? Will the medical ethicists allow them to die?

I co-wrote The Dysfunctional Conspiracy with Chris Veltmann in which there’s a situation with insurance that feels like it came out of a black comedy. On the surface, it looks like an insurance company man is best buds with a US attorney, and in order to avoid paying out on an insurance policy, they frame an innocent man for federal arson. When this kind of stuff happens in reality, it makes one wonder what exactly readers will accept in a fictional story before they think the author is pushing things too far.

In one of my sci-fi novels, a character buys a black market organ taken from a murder victim because they can’t afford “modern” medical care to have their own tissue regenerated. Another character is faced with death because their liver is failing, and their insurance denies the claim to pay for treatment citing heavy drinking as “self-inflicted injury,” which the policy makes exemption for.

Characters doing extreme things because they cannot afford medical bills is nothing new to fiction, but more and more it feels less like something that would occur in a runaway society controlled by corporate interests and exactly what’s happening in the real world.

Look at the water issue in Flint, toxic spills into rivers that barely make the news, environmental calamities like oil spills, deforestation, flooding caused by damming, and whatnot going on around the world. None of that takes hold in the media like who some celebrity decided to date this week or which one of society’s overly delicate sensibilities have been bopped on the nose.


The more you look at what takes prominence in the media, the more it already feels like the corporations already have created the dystopian worlds envisioned in stories like Fahrenheit 451, Blade Runner, Starship Troopers, and so on – we’re just missing the androids. (Though they appear to be coming along.)

Would you like to know more?

Numerous dystopian settings have people (or a single person) in who have obtained power in nefarious ways, either via assassination, bribes, information manipulation and or pulling strings from the shadows. Some fictional ‘villain leaders’ laugh at the populous under their thumbs as they take power with a ‘what are you gonna do about it?’ attitude. That sort of situation doesn’t feel so fictional anymore. Sounds a lot like what’s going on in real life.

There’s got to be something wrong going on when a writer can have an idle thought like: “Hmm. What if Trump is such an atrocious candidate for president because the shadowy organization that has decided Hillary will take office put him there on purpose to give the people an option so horrendous that she seems like a good idea by comparison? It’s like: “Do you want to die by being shot in the forehead, or we can feed you into a wood chipper toes first at one centimeter per minute.” Either way, we’re screwed… but one won’t hurt as much.


Never in our history have both candidates for president been so thoroughly disliked by so many people. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always heard people describe politicians as choosing the lesser of two evils—and this is about the truest that’s ever been.

One last note.

I know the entire internet is loaded with the Orlando tragedy now, so I’ll be brief. Once again, a horrible event has set the pro-gun and anti-gun people at each other’s throats. While they shout and scream at each other, the truth of what happened fades into the background and all we’re left with is some redneck in a flannel hat waving a rifle at someone in a chartreuse pantsuit waving pictures of children, both of them red in the face and shouting at the top of their lungs.

If the attacker had used a bomb instead of a firearm, would people be addressing the issues of bigotry against gay people instead? Would they possibly gasp talk about where this hatred comes from, the belief systems that allow people to rationalize how everyone who doesn’t espouse the same religi-rhetoric is less than human and not deserving of all that “peace, love, and forgiveness” that they claim to believe in but only show to a narrow group of people with the same opinions as them? Gun violence is an issue, yes, but both sides of that argument are springboarding off yet another senseless tragedy to flog their agendas and ignoring or minimizing what caused it to begin with.

The existence of guns did not make the attacker kill. (Sure, they made it a lot easier for him to do so) – but it’s not like the attacker woke up one day, saw a gun and thought ,“Hmm. A rifle. I think I’ll go shoot up a bunch of random people because it’s fun to shoot.” No, this person had a specific target, a specific agenda, and a specific message he wanted to send. The underlying problem is bigotry and hate, and the mechanisms that foment and encourage people to think of other human beings as deserving of death because they don’t follow the tenets of someone else’s belief system.


Anyway… I don’t know where we are going to wind up after this election, but the way it’s looking, we’re either heading for Equilibrium (Hillary) or Idiocracy [best case] / Mad Max [worst case] (Trump). No matter which way the election turns out, it looks like novelists are going to need to reach into the ridiculous to make a fictional future society seem more dystopian than the real world.

A Dangerous Trend


What the hell is going on?

At what point did the concept of being ‘offended’ lay claim to the same weight as actual harm? One of the aspects of free speech is that every now and then (okay, perhaps a lot) people are going to say things that other people disagree with. That sort of thing happens in a free society. Whether it is a dystopian governmental regime or an off-the-rails political correctness machine pulling the strings, when people’s opinions are steered not by truth but by fear of how others will react, we’re on a slippery slope.

Where does it end? If I let a four-letter word slip, and someone with “religious objections” to that sort of language tells me it’s offensive, can I then tell them that I find their attempt to force me to adhere to their belief system by altering my language offensive? Of course, that would probably ‘offend’ them too. I’d like to think adults are capable of handling differing opinions.

Let me be clear about one thing: I am not advocating hate speech. Directed, hateful comments about an individual or a group intended only to harm are not something that an enlightened society should tolerate.

What I’m worried about is the damaging effect such a mindset has on the arts: movies, television, and writing. Take for example the recent decision by TV Land to pull Dukes of Hazzard due to the Confederate flag in reaction to the recent controversy surrounding it. Perhaps I’m thinking in too-simple terms here, but I see a distinct difference between flying that flag in the real world over a government building, and a fictional character painting it on the roof of a fictional car in a fictional setting.


No one can argue that Dukes of Hazzard was advocating an agenda beyond showing a pair of backwoods idiots going on ridiculous forays against equally idiotic (and corrupt) local lawmen. Because the characters chose that symbol for their car doesn’t mean the show’s producers, writers, or sponsors believe in whatever ideology a person associates with that flag. The characters do. Or, maybe they don’t, maybe (to paraphrase Jules from Pulp Fiction) they just thought it was some cool shit to paint on their car. In the time period of the story, that symbolism was common in the area where the story takes place. It’s true to the period and the setting.

By the same logic TV Land has pulled Dukes of Hazzard, should we expect that every World War II movie with a depiction of a nazi flag will be banned because it could offend people? Should every movie, TV show, or book that depicts some historical evil such as slavery, war, serial killers, Japanese internment, or anything that anyone anywhere might possibly be offended by be pulled? That would make for some seriously bland airwaves. If something ‘offends’ you, the freedom our country provides gives you the best option: don’t pay for/watch/read it.

The removal of Dukes of Hazzard sets a dangerous precedent. Attempting to sanitize everything to please everyone is a fool’s errand. First, a silly show about silly people doing silly things, but what comes next? Are authors and screenwriters soon to be forbidden from portraying characters that have “offensive” traits? What of more serious stories than Dukes? Should someone call for a ban on movies like Schindler’s List because it portrays nazis? The characters in that movie believe a lot more in the offensive flag than Bo and Luke believe in the Confederate Flag. I hope this is a case of runaway trend-chasing and not a herald of a new age of censorship.

Art is a reflection of the society in which it is created. Are we, as a people, so afraid of looking in the mirror we need to cover it with a curtain? We cannot selectively omit events and symbols from our group consciousness. Censorship, be it by a rapid upwelling of forced indignation or by the government serves only to harm us all. People need to deal with the reality that not everyone in the world shares their opinions. As a society, we need thicker skin. We need to stop reacting to “Oh, I’m offended” as if someone just threw a baby in a pool without floats, because we will never be able to please everyone.


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana