Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Discussion About Dystopia

This book by Martin Cruz Smith is the latest in his Russian-themed novels. The plot is pretty simple. A girl on a train has her baby kidnapped and then finds her baby by the end of the book. I didn't read this book for the plot. I read it because I was so horrified by the new Russian reality that my "disgust" button became overpowered by my desire to stand as witness to all things horrible.

I admit it. I'm a voyeur. But I don't think I'm alone in this. Are you a voyeur to misery? Do you like it when characters suffer?

As for the book, it's a great, fast read. But I'm not going to give a book review as much as I'm going to talk about the setting in which the story takes place.

My attention as of late has turned to real-life dystopias since I see them cropping up all over the place in young-adult fiction. I started asking myself...why are so many writers making up dystopias when we really only have to look at North Korea, China, and Russia for real world examples? On the surface, the world of Russia is as dystopian as they least that's what I get from Martin Cruz Smith.

NPR had him as a guest when the book was released back in 2010. I remember being hypnotized by his interview because he spoke of Russia so "colorfully" (colorful in this situation is not a compliment).  He's what you would call a "hands on" writer since he goes there to pen his novels. The man observes everything. It begs the question much of what he relates to us is fiction? Probably some. But I bet it isn't too far from the truth. Much of it has to do with exploitation of kids and human trafficking. What does the nightly news have to say about human exploitation in Russia? Quite a lot actually.

For one, underaged Russian pornography has gotten a lot of news coverage because the West (read United States) is such a huge buyer of it. America certainly has its fair share of pedophiles. They hide in the ranks of Boy Scout leaders, FLDS prophets, priests, and assistant football coaches to legendary collegiate programs. But sooner or later, they get caught. And when it happens, people act sooo schocked. They say things like, "I had no idea he was raping all those girls/boys. He always played with them in the park. He goes to church, has a wife, and plants trees on arbor day!" Blah blah blah...this kind of argument will continue to play itself out until the end of time (hyperbole? maybe some).

But back to Russia. They're the ones with they dystopia, not us, right? So what are the three stations for which the book is named?

They are Leningrad Station, Kazansky Station, and Yaroslavl Station situated on Komsolmoskaya Square in Moscow, Russia. By day, they are a hubbub of activity. Picture all the stereotypes you have heard of Grand Central Station in New York City and you pretty much got the picture. But by night, it's a whole different story. If you get caught there the best that could happen is someone mugs you. The worst is that you'd end up shot, stabbed, or beaten to death. Usually what really happens lies somewhere in-between. Here's a rundown of stuff that I played witness to simply by turning pages:
Russian prison tattoos all have a meaning.
  1. Homeless kids are everywhere. They're skinny, good-looking, street-smart and opportunistic. Because they are good looking, many are prostitutes and whores. Pedophilia is normal. Men cruising in their fancy cars pick up kids to get some sex, to abuse, or to outright murder them.
  2. Girls end up raped or dead. The bodies are found but rarely does anyone own up to seeing anything. This isn't C.S.I. No one gets caught. It's just another dead body to deal with. When they have babies, the babies are kidnapped and sold to wealthy westerners who want to adopt. Why have a baby when you can buy one, right? It's against the law? Yeah sure...whatever.
  3. I discovered how to make prison ink. It's made from urine and soot mixed together and done with a hook. That's why all the tats look blue. Also the prison tats over in Russia all mean something (I don't know if the prison culture in America has the same thing). Example: a web on the shoulder means the person has some kind of monkey on their back...drugs, alcohol, something from which they have overcome or are trying to overcome. Imagine getting a tattoo from ink made from some guy's urine. Nice image, huh?
  4. Kids hustle at chess the same as people hustle at pool here in the states.
  5. Everyone drinks vodka. They have rehabilitation clinics with beds low to the floor where people can crash for a night. They're close to the floor so they don't hurt themselves when they fall off the bed. Unscrupulous men show up at these places and have sex with the people crashed out on the beds.
  6. There's basically two classes. The oligarchs and the proletariat. The oligarchs are filthy stinking rich and as corrupt as they come. Tangle with them and you end up getting your head wrapped in cellophane until you can't breath while tied naked to a chair.
  7. Old, fat men always pay for underaged sex. That's just the way it is. But the sex isn't descriptive because it's over in 30-seconds, erectile dysfunction not withstanding.
Here's a sentence that I think captures the full flavor of the novel just in case you had any doubt as to how well the writer is able to capture the setting:
"Victor Orlov stood in a shower stall, his head bowed and his eyes shut while an orderly clad in a surgical mask, goggles, rubber apron and rubber gauntlets poured disinfectant on Victor's head until it dripped from his nose and four-day stubble, ran down his sunken stomach and naked ass and pooled between his feet."
Kinda cool, huh? Makes you want to know more? All I can think of is that Victor must be miserable. So what's behind the boom in dystopian fiction for young readers? Maybe it's as simple as to admit that the gritty harsh worlds of dystopias are a place where no one really wants to live but to which everyone is a voyeur. Are you a voyeur? Are you drawn to the sickness of humanity for a good story?

I just have three words for you.  The Hunger Games.


  1. The Hunger Games is still sitting in my "To Read" list on my Kindle.

    Yeah it sucks how communism fell in Russia and yet things didn't get much better for a lot of people. Now instead of "the Party" running the show it's the Russian mob, so basically they exchanged one shitty government for another. I mean now that you've read this book go read "House of Meetings" by Martin Amis which takes place in Stalin-era Russia and you'll see it's still pretty much the same.

  2. Martin Cruz Smith is one of those blue collars of literature that earn a living out of exposing a fascinating reality better than anybody else. I'm glad to see you give him some love.

    But back to subject.

    I am a voyeur. I'd go as far as I have shaped a big part of who I am by watching others (read characters...mostly) suffer, in order to make sense of my own. I'd go as far as saying that literature that doesn't expose suffering sucks (at least to me)

  3. Don't like to think of myself as a voyeur, but you make an interesting point. Life outside the US of A is an eye opening experience, even in good - clean cultures. (Heck,I live in paradise,remember?)

    I admit I DID NOT like The Hunger Games, but became immersed in "Divergent', more 'my kind of town'.

  4. I'm a voyeur, but I don't think I'm drawn to the sickness so much as I like reading about very different places. And, of course, a lot of those things happen here in America too, so it doesn't have to be another country to make it different. Just a world different than my own.

    What makes dystopia interesting for me is seeing how a character deals with the dysfunction. How do they react? Do they fight back or get crushed under the wheel? And since rebellion and coming into one's own power is often a theme of YA it makes sense that this set up would work well to express that.

  5. If there's no tension there's no story. That book, well, the world, definitely intrigues me. But I think in the end we are all still looking for the light in the dark.

  6. Misery voyeur! ...But only in books.

    <3 Gina Blechman

  7. I like dystopian because I can see that sort of future happening if we aren't careful (which we're not right now) and I am a voyeur because how else could I write anything if I didn't study life? Who said only trouble is interesting?

  8. Isn't reading any kind of fiction or biographies a form of voyeurism? Really, you're getting an intimate look at someone's life (whether fiction of real life).

    Anyhoo - I guess I'm drawn to dystopia as I'm interested in what the author is saying about the real world. I'm interested in the message. I do love a good story, but dystopian fiction helps me see our current world in a new light.

  9. People like dystopias for the same reason they slow for a car crash, and because reading about it doesn't give them the same sense of guilt that reading about real life might.

    When you hear/read nonfiction, like that guy with the wrecked hands in the Apple story, you feel guilty about having an iPod. When you read about a girl having to fight for food or whatever the dumb setup for "The Hunger Games" is...

    ...I'm not at all interested in reading that book, in case you missed it...

    ...then you don't have to feel bad because it's all taking place in a book and it's not real.

    That, and, dystopias provide an easier setting for a novel, because there's all kinds of conflict and trouble and descriptive stuff. Both good and bad writers can get a lot out of dystopias. A GOOD writer could set a novel in a utopia and have it work.

    (I've done just that.)

    Nonetheless, the book sounds interesting -- just a little too grim for my tastes. I have to be careful what I read. The time I read nothing but Vonnegut for a summer I was all depressed, so I have to mix things up a bit.

  10. The sad truth is books like this get people thinking about the real world and what's in it. You don't have to look far to find most of these examples right here, in our own cities. I write about sex-trafficking in my YA WIP. Just yesterday I met a women, a foster parent, who reported sex-trafficking to the state. The parents of the children in her care (yeah, the same deadbeats who aren't caring for their kids) pinned it on her. She actually went to court and is now appealing. It's unbelievable what you can find in the world, and reading about it all stops to make you think.

  11. I guess I'm just not angry enough with this world to want to create a new one. This must mean I'm a shallow bastard. I certainly see the misery and frustration around me but I'm still not ready to bail out.

  12. Funny, I was thinking this same thing after finishing (yet another) made-up dystopian book. I did my law review article on child prostitution in s.e. asia and it seems to me we've already created a world with enough dystopian elements and horror that no one need to look farther than any of the countries you named. Maybe that's why people like the made-up dystopia. It's easier to read than the real stuff.

  13. Doesn't the urine and soot tat get infected? I can't get this look of disgust off my face.

  14. True, there are a lot of terrible places and terrible people, more than enough sad stories. We almost moved to North Africa for a year (for my husband's work)- I suspect I would have seen things there I could not imagine.

  15. Just reading your post and some comments made my stomach hurt and my heart drop. No, I cannot read about people's misery. I could when I was young, but not any more. To read about what these evil people do other human beings horrifies and disgusts me. My husband and I do try, by donations, to help people who suffer from the sex trade etc. I guess that is the best we can do.

  16. I think we're heading fast toward dystopia in America. I lived in Russia during the crazy 90's, and my in-laws are still struggling to live there. That's partly why I'm writing my own near-future dystopian sci-fi set in Moscow.

    I like reading dystopian and cataclysmic stories partly because I want to see everyone get what's coming to them. People keep voting for the worst politicians, like Bush, so they deserve what they get.

  17. I just got Hunger Games as a gift. Read the first page. I was a little surprised that it started off with her waking up, but the relationship with the cat drew me in. Thanks, cat.

    Incredible what terrible things are really happening. And have always happened. Makes you wonder where humanity is headed.

  18. Your description of Three Stations as a fast paced read makes me want to see what it's all about. Have to confess, though dystopian fiction is all the rage, I haven't succumbed yet.

  19. Not much of a dystopia reader (although I've watched dystopian movies) probably for the reason that there is so much crap really happening in the world.
    I remember seeing a series of videos from two reporters who were allowed into North Korea for a couple days. It was about as weird and dystopian as you can get.

  20. That prison ink thing will be burned into my brain forever.

  21. I learnt some new things here - didn't know how prison ink was made... wouldn't want that used on me though. I love dystopia, but it is like surviving a train wreck and then living in the train - it's the curiosity that makes us want to know what life would be like in such a world.

  22. Another thought-provoking post, Michael - I'm going to look this book up, if only to look behind the curtain at this Arkady Renko character....

  23. I've been to Russia twice, once before the iron curtain came down. It's a pretty rough place. Way back when my dad worked for the CIA, he had to travel there. He has some pretty brutal stories to tell.

    None of what you said is news to me. It's a gruesome world we live in in many ways. Maybe that's why I'm not drawn to stories of misery and strife and I don't love dystopian generally. I've already seen enough to know how it ends.

    I loved MCS's Rose, btw.

  24. I think the surge in dystopian "literature" is tied to the downturn in the American economy. People don't see a future, right now, at least not a good one, so they write about how bad things are going to be. It's like in the 80s when we expected everything to end in nuclear devestation, so everyone was doing post-apocalypses.

    I'm not into dystopians. At all.

    I do think we should start looking more closely at areas of the world that need help. The problem there is that we are at the mercy of the local governments (who are usually at least part of the problem) that don't want us involved.

  25. I think all of us have a bit of the voyeur in us. And if we can't read it, we write it. However, I haven't read the Hunger Games, though my children have. I might in the future though.

  26. Im writing a novel about the seedy underworld that exists right under out noses, I don't typically read Dystopian; but having said that - Hunger Games is on my list of "to read". Perhaps this series will spark a love of this genre? I'll keep ya posted! ;)

  27. This is so DARK. I'm going to have nightmares tonight.

  28. All you have to do is look at images of Chernobyl to know that dystopia exists today, but that's most Americans for you; ignore the rest of the world.

  29. Well, that's a bit of a downer. The world is full of awful people doing awful things. I dont like to think about it very much.

  30. i read... and write... so i'm the worst kind of everything out there :(

  31. Wow, this hits close to home considering the nature of my own book, who the bad guys are (sex-traffickers in the Russian mafiya.) Scary stuff.

  32. Tell me a country is in trouble and I'll be sympathetic, but I won't really be able to relate. Tell me about one person, and what they're going through and I'll feel for them. Maybe this is why I read fiction more than non-fiction these days.

  33. Am I drawn to the sickness of humanity for a good story? No. If the story is "sick" in any way, I can't stomach it.

    I used to think I should read all these dystopian stories. I thought I needed to be aware of what was going on. I thought I should feel the pain.

    I've come to realize that I feel way too deeply most of the time, and I don't need to take in anyone else's misery. Perhaps that makes me a lightweight. Perhaps that means that I'll never achieve commercial success. So be it. Reading or seeing misery makes me physically ill, and it's not worth it.

  34. Dystopian fiction nowadays is actually a glamorized place where a handful of social issues are highlighted, but also mitigated because there's something 'cool' going on. Like wearing flame dresses or taking people down with bows and arrows. It's not any more distressing to read than other types of fiction. And I say this as someone whose current WIP could be construed as dystopian.

    Now, your real-life dystopian examples on the other hand...I found that hard to read...