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Text/Book: Five Potential Premises for Your Dystopian Novel
Free to a good doom

Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests. With apologies to China Mieville, but especially Emily.

Image: Antarah Crawley

Thoughtcrime Catalog

When an unknown malady decimates humanity — with the mysterious exception of twentysomething Columbia graduates — society begins to remake itself in the image of America’s most inexplicably popular website. A totalitarian solipsist regime gains power, punishing any defiant survivors with unedited open letters. The collected works of Jane Austen can only be found under Five Brooding Guys I Would Like to Sleep With, though one still sees Vladimir Nabokov’s The Thing About Hitting On 12-Year-Olds nestling unread in crooked arms. Earnest young men contemplate what it means to be white and upper-middle-class and have ideas about sex, in Brooklyn (now eerily depopulated). Remember to ask Gary Shteyngart about blurbing this one.


Role-Playing Video Game Circa 1998

What if the seemingly benign Future Church turned out to be a malevolent theocracy…and also an oligarchic megacorporation? Possible recurring tropes include dead parents, a vaguely defined planetary lifeforce, half-understood references to religious/philosophical esoterica and some guy with a robotic arm. Tip: mention extraneous valves whenever writing about architecture.


All Tomorrow’s Book Parties

Write a standardized “literary” novel — about families meaningfully disintegrating, semi-quasi-autobiographical meditations on being male and aging, someone tangentially affected by a distant war, whatever — in your most poignant, lyrical, affecting prose. During its final pages, reveal that the previous events were all a diverting sham, fictive memories neurologically implanted to quell the dissidents of a cruel, nameless dictatorship. Give an provocative interview in which you misuse the terms “Panopticon” and “formalism.”


Mutant Animals Run the World

Sure, there are those ape movies, and you could always plagiarize from Oryx and Crake if that didn’t require reading it first, but this concept remains almost unexplored beyond the pages of Kamandi: Last Boy on Earth. For thematic purposes, organize all the sentient talking creatures into clearly allegorical societies: communist gorillas, arcane horse sages, eight-foot-tall crustaceans facing a financial crisis in their class-stratified underwater kingdom. Take care to note how unnervingly beautiful the wild, post-apocalyptic Manhattan looks without all that working technology, its only government the Rat Queen’s chthonic monarchy. Consider describing your chosen aesthetic as “Dark Seuss.”


Steam Realism

Worried that everyone’s stopped caring about cogs (again)? Concerned that the anachronism nerds and goth kids have tired of performative formality and moved onto clockpunk, atompunk, decopunk or sinkpunk? (Sinkpunk: a subgenre combining advanced contraptions with the ration aesthetics of post-war Britain.) Don’t fret. You can wring a dystopian world out of steampunk simply by borrowing some verisimilitude from the original Victorian era. Just look at the available grist: dirigibles soaring above choked, desperate slums; difference engines processing the forced grain exports behind imperial famines; women with corsets and goggles lamenting their inability to vote. Nothing furnishes material for a depressing future quite like the past.


Chris Randle is the culture editor at Toronto Standard and author of at least three mandatory school essays about 1984 and/or Brave New World. Follow him on Twitter at @randlechris.

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