Q: It’s 8:55pm…do I know where my children are?
A: Concretely, yes. Roman and I just returned from the city (he’s taking logic classes!) and he’s enjoying an evening of League of Legends with friends! Jordi, meanwhile, has finished researching his “amazing beavers!” report and is watching over his brother’s shoulder.
Q: What books are on my ping pong table?
A: Pandemonium hit my ping pong table around 4pm yesterday and bounced right back off again by 1am. As it sails home to the library shelves, I find myself sitting here…writing this post. Thank you Lauren Oliver, for the inspiration! And, I have to say…you are being absolutely, perfectly horrible to your protagonist, Lena…as every good author ought to be! Good luck figuring out the grand finale to your trilogy…poor Lena, Alex, and Julian!
Utopian, Dystopian…or Actopian?
What do I mean by this title? Well, frankly, I’m thinking we need a third category. This does not mean that I am criticizing…I am not! From the perspective of “Inspiring Social Change Through Fiction,” dystopian and utopian authors, and their insightful novels, play a vital role in society. Indeed, modern concepts and vocabulary have been enhanced by these vehicles of societal introspection, and we owe these great authors a very real debt. How?
Let’s take dystopian novels first…
Dystopian novels offer us a chance to consider just how bad it can get. And, when we look through history…the issues presented by dystopian authors have almost always happened at least once. Sometimes over and over again. No wonder so many authors are drawn to this particular form of “future-view.” For example…
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, takes known history – the outlawing and burning of books and the Nazi-style reporting of friends or spouses by friends or spouses (Witch Hunts come to mind, as well) – and blends them with mis-managed warfare and the never-ending desire of the downtrodden to escape their persecution.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, capitalizes upon the biblical stories of Jacob and Abraham, both of whom used slaves to produce children when their wives could not…and then combines it with the current, quiet epidemic of reduced fertility, the potential for this problem to escalate quickly, and again…totalitarian-style governance. Not to mention the human tendency for those in power to apply rules (such as sexual limits) to those under their control, while themselves engaging in the forbidden behavior in secret, “men’s club” style environments.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, does an excellent job of illustrating the use of the Roman Colosseum to instill fear in conquered peoples AND the fact that, in war, neither side is ever all that much better than the other.
1984, by George Orwell…well, if you haven’t read it yet…do so. His book defies description.
Now let’s look at utopian novels…
Utopian novels seek to remind us of our amazing potential for good, for patience, for love, and the opportunity to overcome our darker side. While generally seen as optimistic, there is the unfortunate potential for utopian novels to be disregarded as overly-simplistic or fanciful…especially when, to get to utopia, authors generally have to go pretty far out into left field. Thus, the valuable messages in utopian novels may miss their target entirely…or only reach a small segment of the population. Which is a sadness. For example…
The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk, is the first and only book I’ve read that actually lays out a plot line where peaceful people overcome the “emotions” of their stronger, more violent adversaries, and end up swaying them to their better way of life. This book has stuck with me; a constant, niggling reminder that maybe…just maybe…kindness can overcome hatred, trust can overcome fear, and loving sacrifice can pull people back from the dark side! And yet, the ideas of free love without jealousy and a resource war overcome with peaceful protest and open arms…are hard to swallow, given human history.
Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach, portrays the experience of a reporter who has been given permission to visit the “separatist” West Coast of America…where he observes the joys of everything from sustainable living to free sex. And yet, the idea that the rest of America would allow the valuable western states to secede from the union or that you can have free sex without problems (this book was written before the AIDS epidemic)…simple do not ring as plausible.
Infinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War, by Byron Reese
Even a non-fiction book like this one can strike potential readers as so-utopian as to be ridiculous. Now, I am waiting for this book to become available at my local library; with only one local bookstore that focuses on the “used book market,” I haven’t yet been able to read it. But, I’ve read the reviews. I am pleased to say that other readers with similarly cautious expectations were both surprised and inspired by the book! And yet, there is always the risk that such a bold statement about a seemingly unlikely outcome can turn readers off. Hopefully, in this case, his title will have the opposite effect!
So…now that we’ve reviewed these existing categories,
just what is an Actopian story?
My definition of an “actopian” story is this: Similar to utopian and dystopian works; actopian stories often exist in an imagined future, yet they can also we written for the current day. In actopian works, the author’s world is grounded much more closely in reality with a focus on actions that are concretely available to most or all readers. The goal is to illustrate, through the choices of the characters, the potential power of taking action in the real world…and the pitfalls of not doing so.
Three examples of what could fall into this category (existing and made up) are:
Susie’s Choices, by March Twisdale
A short story about how Susie, a young Mom, almost loses her infant son to Whooping Cough and her decision to take the unexpected information she learns to her community, both local and beyond.
Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick
Wow! Talk about an allegory for getting your sh*t together and turning your life around! As in…go take some ACTION, people! Thank you, Matthew!
Currently in Rewrite Form:
The Ghost Lords, by March Twisdale
A novel about a young woman who knows she wants to make a difference in the world…and discovers that it is virtually impossible to avoid doing so! Through conscious decisions, she remains engaged when she could have stepped back, she seeks information where it is not readily available, and she continues to believe in herself even as her plans disintegrate around her. Holding close to her values of the importance of family, friends, and our global community; Jordan discovers that all of us have a vital role to play in forming the world to come.
You want to change the world?
One reader at a time?
Then, write an actopian story!
Here’s my pitch:
We live in a world with billions of players…many of whom are sidelined. Why? Because they are locked in a prison on marijuana charges? Because they were born in the wrong country and discovered they were gay where being gay gets you killed quickly? Because they are poor, never made it through school, and think you need a degree to get anything done in this world? Because…because…because…they don’t believe they have the ability to act?!
Well, we need them, in this wild, worldwide game! So, go out there and write them some stories! Give them characters who lack, discover, and begin to use their new, inner faith! Show them the way, grab them by the metaphorical collar, shock them with some well-founded fear and outrage, excite them with the possibilities, and demand that they wake up and live! While they are still able to do so.
Actopian writing can bring people out of their places of inaction
and empower them to face the demons of this world…
within ourselves, our society, our culture…our species.
Actopian story-telling matters.
Don’t miss my previous authors! Archived here: www.voiceofvashon.org/prose-poetry-and-purpose