Dystopian fiction and radical politics
Friday, December 23, 2016
Before The Giver, before The Hunger Games, before Divergent, there was Logan's Run.
Most people remember Logan's Run from the extremely silly 1976 movie adaptation, in which Michael York played the titular Logan, a "Sandman" who hunts "runners" in a dystopian future society. The premise of the movie is that everyone gets to live until they're 30 in a hedonistic paradise, and when they turn 30, they are sent for "renewal," meaning euthanasia. Those who don't want to be "renewed," run, which Logan himself decides to do in the course of the story.
This scenario was presented as a solution to overpopulation, a popular dystopian theme in the 1970s, most memorably addressed in Soylent Green, which will no doubt be the subject of a future post on this site. But Logan's Run is more memorable for its role in pioneering the genre it arguably spawned, young adult dystopia.
The relationship is clearer in the 1969 book version of the story, which differs substantially from its better known cinematic counterpart. The terminal age is 21 in the book, more squarely framing the story and the dystopian society around children and teenagers.
In the sense that its protagonists are all young adults, or younger, the book is a predecessor to the current wave of YA dystopian novels burning up the best-seller lists. It is not necessarily a book for young adults, however, given that it deals with sexuality among minors in a way that is uncomfortable at best and would probably create a challenge in getting the book accepted by a major publisher today. (tl;dr version, it turns out if you kill off all the adults, very young people get very busy.)
While I am not going to get into a deep analysis of this topic here and now, it is worth comparing the politics of Logan to The Hunger Games -- namely the former has some, while the latter largely does not. The Hunger Games is smarter and more sophisticated than Logan's Run, but it is very much a blank slate as far as a political message.
The Hunger Games never explains exactly what happened to the previous society, our society. A cataclysm is described in very general terms, and sketchy information about the origins of the Games themselves is provided. But the philosophy of the Capitol is not explored in detail, except for its authoritarian nature. There is a strong implication throughout the series that the 12 districts are segregated along racial lines, but this topic is never explored, and it does not feature as a grievance for the rebellion.
Suzanne Collins has stated that The Hunger Game is intended to convey an anti-war message, and this is somewhat visible by the end of the third book, but much less so in the early going. The cruelty of the Capitol is abundantly clear, as is the social stratification of the nation it oversees, but the particulars do not send an especially clear message.
To a greater or lesser extent, this problem plagues many other contemporary YA dystopias as well. Here, it's worth considering the impact of Logan's Run, the movie, versus Logan's Run, the book.
The book is a classical dystopian novel, meaning it's very political. Although the book and the movie are both silly and campy, the book gingerly steps into some analysis of the social dimensions of a society predicated solely on youth. It also explores "the Little War," the crisis that led to the emergence of this dystopian society. While the answers provided are not entirely satisfactory or convincing, they are answers. While its politics are simplistic, they are coherent. Overpopulation plus youth bulge equals purge of the old.
Most of this nuance is lost in the movie, which does not provide a backstory in any robust way and instead presages modern young adult dystopia by casting conflict as the young fighting back against the system. What the movie misses is that the system was created by the young, for the young, in revolt against the admittedly terrible adult society described in the book's backstory.
Logan's Run, the book, is a critique of the youth culture and sense of youthful entitlement that produce the dystopian regime in the first place. The progenitor young adult dystopian novel is about the extremism of youth, rather than the power of the young to save us all.
A postscript: Logan's Run spawned a number of sequels, which are on my reading list, but not near the top. But eventually, I will have some more to say on this universe.
THE TURNER LEGACY
The Turner Diaries, the infamous racist dystopian novel by neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce, has inspired more than 200 murders since its publication in 1978, including the single deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing.
The book is arguably the most important single work of white nationalist propaganda in the English language, but it is not a singular artifact. The Turner Diaries is part of a genre of racist dystopian propaganda dating back to the U.S. Civil War. A new paper from J.M. Berger documents the books that directly and indirectly inspired Turner and examine the extensive violence that the novel has inspired.
RECENT J.M. BERGER VIDEO
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ABOUTJ.M. Berger is an author, consultant and analyst studying extremism. He is an associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism -- The Hague and a fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism. For more about Berger, click here.
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"At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times
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