Repeated economic crises, climate change, terrorism, a technological development with sometimes unpredictable effects or the perpetual uncertainty in which younger generations live had already generated a taste for dystopianism that the pandemic has only accentuated. There are many examples of the fecundity with which dystopia and literature had been related up to now, but it does not stop surprising the confluence in bookstores of three novels assigned with greater or lesser intensity to this genre and in which language and children, they are two elements that each in their own way, play a primary role.
“I started to write Horde in January 2018, after the Catalan autumn that between September and December 2017 turned everything upside down. The great victim of that period were words, which were perverted to the point of being emptied of meaning. In my spirits, the battle for the story that was established during those months is one of the most painful defeats of the dignity of language understood as a communication and knowledge tool ”, says Ricardo Menéndez Salmón (Gijón, 50 years old) to explain the genesis of Horde (Seix Barral). His novel presents a short and forceful journey to a world tyrannized by children and in which any oral or written expression is persecuted and penalized with death.
Fear, that “dystopian trigger par excellence” as defined by Francisco Martorell Campos in Against dystopia (La Caja Books), has multiplied its presence in the 21st century as an instrument of power and, also, of entertainment. The sales success of 1984 after the arrival of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States or the conversion into a symbol of the feminist struggle of The Handmaid’s Tale (from Margaret Atwood’s novel published in 1985, but especially from the television series and the aesthetics it imposed) prove the versatility of dystopia to give the general public what it needs depending on the context. The recent reissue of part of the work of the great classic of the genre Octavia E. Butler in Captain Swing (including the prophetic The parable of the talents) or the new book by Robert Harris, The awakening of heresy, confirm this trend. In addition, the explosion of this same genre in the literature for adolescents for two decades offers clues as to where the readers of the future are going to go.
“Every dystopia, no matter how much it may be in the future, is always talking about what the human being is in the present. There is a lot of reflection on language, on lies, after all we are in the world of fake news, from networks where lies run five times faster than the truth. There is a distrust towards language at the same time as a recovery of the pleasure and flavor of words ”, explains Ricard Ruiz Garzón, writer, organizer of Festival 42 and anthologist in Tomorrow still. Twelve dystopias for the 21st century (Fantascy).
In this context, it is worth wondering about the novelties in this genre, understood in a broad sense. Emiliano Monge is situated, in a way, at the opposite extreme from Menéndez Salmón. His novel Weave the darkness (Random House Literature) is the story of a group of children who, before the end of the world, cling to language to build a new one, to avoid another disaster, to return to the origin. “History is tied to the search for a different language. At one point orphanage children realize that if they really want to do something different, they have to be different from within: they have to prohibit words in order to prohibit feelings. Because in the end, when we pronounce a word, we are determining a feeling. We are not only naming it, we are making sense of it ”, comments Monge (Mexico City, 42 years old).
Alone on earth
There is also a boy and an end of the world in Nebo’s Blue Book (Seix Barral, Periscopi in Catalan), by Manon Steffan Ros (Rhiwlas, 38 years old), a novel more post-apocalyptic than dystopian. The book tells a simple and moving account of the life of a Welsh mother and her son after a disaster that has left them alone on Earth. The protagonists have fears, —many and not so different from ours, nor from the author’s—, but they have a lifeline: the books in Welsh that the mother took from the library when she saw that disaster was coming. “Facing fears head-on always tempers them a bit, but I have to admit that my terror hasn’t diminished much. The interesting thing about this book in which Welsh plays such an important role is that it has given me hope and faith in the future of my mother tongue. It’s so easy to get caught up in the battle for your minority language that you can forget the sheer pleasure and privilege of speaking it, ”sums up Steffan Ros.
Speak, read and write; erase, mute and silence, or cancel. We travel through turbulent waters in which language is used and crushed every day. “Children are often the main victims of linguistic excesses. We deceive, manipulate, and restrain children with directed, inane, or self-serving language. There is something more than an exercise of poetic justice in which they are the ones who prohibit words in the novel. It is almost a reaction of group survival, of instinctive distrust towards a bastard use of language ”, warns Menéndez Salmón, who, more than any clear influence on a novel over which Bradbury’s shadow passes, admits that in Horde shake hands “a set of personal obsessions: childhood, language, evil, power, freedom.”
“The weakening of the utopian imagination explains the spread of the impotence of today’s society”, argues Martorell in the aforementioned essay. Against dystopia, a necessary book to give shape and context to this explosion of fiction clinging to dark futures and dire predictions. The dystopian, warns this doctor of philosophy, shares with the happiness industry –– another great prop of the 21st century, however paradoxical it may sound–– his distrust of the future. Also, apparently, with the bulk of society. At least, as happens to all the protagonists of these three dystopian novels, the books, the writing, the reading remain.
New genres for hope
“Dystopias have always appeared in times of crisis and fear. It always appears reinforced and with that feeling that we are facing the abyss and they are works that help us to think ‘if we are capable we will not end so badly’, they are warnings. But there are also a certain cathartic sensation, the idea that we are not so bad yet and that is fortunate, that second aspect is a little more dangerous “, warns the writer Ricard Ruiz Garzón. He points, however, to new genres that rely on hope without shunning criticism. “The most interesting and novel thing is that new proposals are emerging, the solar punk and the hope punk, which are two lines, along with post-humanism, that at least pose a little more constructive things. So we can write about more sustainable futures without that causing us to remove the conflict or the necessary denunciation from the novel. “