No, this isn’t going to be about ancestry or anything like that, at least not in a literal, Biblical sense.
I read a book a while back (maybe a month, I read a lot of books, so sometimes it seems like longer), called The Country of Ice Cream Star, and while it was a very engrossing dystopian novel about a young woman–an extremely compelling young woman–named Ice Cream Star, I was most taken by the way in which the author, Sandra Newman, adds a mythology of the world ending and then what happened after. My intention was–still is–to write an essay on mythologized dystopias, but I had an idea today and thought I’d throw it out there.
Do you remember reading the first few books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (be honest, we all know everyone read The Wheel of Time, or at least knew someone who was reading The Wheel of Time in the late 90′s), and being intrigued by the feeling of loss Jordan slipped into the narrative every time something came up about the world before the Breaking? Sometimes I think the best reason for the Forsaken coming back–besides driving the world towards another inevitable Breaking–was so that we could get more of a feel for how amazing the world used to be, and how much the current tiny humans don’t know they’re missing out on, and then feel sad about it. It was this lack of mythology, an almost immediate pulling away from interrogating the history of the ridiculous and blood-soaked world of Westeros–and don’t forget the vast, unknowable, Orientalized lands of the Dothraki, et al–that really made me lose an interest in A Song of Ice and Fire, long before the rape and murder and rape and rape.
But I digress.
The point is, The Wheel of Time, epic fantasy explosion of words that it is, is also in its way an ancestor of the modern fantasy dystopia that we all know and love and make movies out of. The Wheel of Time gets lumped into big stories like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire a lot because of the pseudo-medieval world-building but really, Jordan wrote a woman-centric story that actually uses the bloodlines of people to trace the history of the world and teach people what they need to know to lead in this new, crappy world they’ve inherited. Now, critiques about the specific ways that Jordan wrote women aside, both The Lord of the Rings and Song of Ice and Fire were pretty patriarchal and while some commenters may have thought that Jordan’s characters tended to emote a lot rather than behaving like stoic, repressed adults, Jordan actually gave his characters time to think about how their shared past had led to the world as they knew it in the present, and what they wanted for the future (presumably less Breaking of the World). All of the main characters were getting themselves out there and living and feeling and doing, just like the generally more uninhibited ragamuffins and vagabonds we’re used to finding in our post-apocalyptic worlds.
So anyway, The Country of Ice Cream Star. Ice Cream is part of one of the many small-ish groups of people who now inhabit the north east of the United States–Massa Woods–who roam about looting suburban housing developments that have been abandoned after a medical/ecological catastrophe that only hinted at and never really been named within the novel. Though people generally learn how to read and learn an oral history of their groups, very little knowledge has survived which tells how they got there, or why people only live until about twenty years of age before dying from cancer-like symptoms (think: the half-lives in Mad Max: Fury Road). Every sign or billboard that Ice Cream encounters, every piece of equipment that no longer works, has a story that the inhabitants of her world have created, but it often bears little resemblance to the story a reader could construct–a reader of this modern era–from the same clues.
A lot of our ability as readers to really inhabit the modern dystopia or post-apocalyptic novel, I think, comes from early exposure to stories like The Wheel of Time, and the long string of long-winded storytelling it engendered. No one, I think, would be able to keep faith with either Rothfuss or Sanderson if they hadn’t first kept up with, and then survived Jordan’s death during, The Wheel of Time’s run. Sure, we have many dystopian novels which lay out the world’s past in grinding detail–The Hunger Games, the Divergent books–but those stories trace their lineage more to a Orwellian heritage than to Jordan or Brooks or any of the other 90s epic fantasy writers I’m sure my many, many readers will tell me about when they reblog this. After all, The Lord of the Rings found its standing in the late 90′s and on into today, where now a little bit of nostalgia will get you nine-plus hours of CGI orcs and rocks. All of our beloved comics are getting rebooted in films that trace character origin-stories and try to make us forget the days of Cartoon-Batman and the Riddler. We want to understand how it all could have come to be. I’d wager that we survived Oryx and Crake’s literary incursion into fantasy genre-space because enough readers had got used to the idea of a secret history related in disparate parts through various characters.
And so on.
I’d love to hear what other readers have to say about mythology in dystopia, and dystopia in fantasy. And of course I never mean to write exhaustively about anything because there’s a good deal I’ve read and forgotten, and even more I haven’t read.
Maybe someday I’ll get around to a more literary post about this topic.