Tag Archives: dystopian fiction

The Problem with The Walking Dead: A Case of Bad Storytelling

The Walking Dead TV show (henceforth to be referred to as TWD in this post for the sake of preserving valuable time and endangered cybertrees) has been going on for eight seasons now, with potentially many more seasons to follow in the years to come.  The original source material, The Walking Dead graphic novels, have also been in publication for close to fifteen years, so there’s little reason to think that the show’s writers will run out of material or story arcs anytime soon.  I’m aware that writing this criticism of the show will be seen as somewhat pointless by some readers as an ever greater portion of TWD’s fan base has steadily been voicing their displeasure with the direction, pacing, and overall content that the show has been putting out for the better part of (at least) the last four seasons or so.

Usual complaints range from too many boring filler episodes that are hardly necessary for the amount of time spent on them (i.e. we really don’t need to see flashbacks of secondary characters wandering through the woods before they met up with the main cast, especially if we already got the jest of it through previous dialogues exchanged between the characters; we have imaginations with which we can piece spoken/written narratives together, it’s one reason why books still exist, after all).  Contrived moral dilemmas that seem out of place in the reality of the world the characters inhabit (i.e. Morgan’s infuriatingly laughable pacifist stance when it comes to even killing literal undead monsters that feed on the flesh of the very people he considers his friends and loved ones; it is not a noble position to be respected, it is just stupid, even for a guy that went–still is[?]–crazy).  The introduction of characters that had no great impact in the overall plot despite heavy buildup (i.e. the Terminus crew of anally-retentive cannibals), or whose presence/nature defy belief (i.e. the Trash People of season seven, who in the mere 2-3 years since the zombie apocalypse have forgotten how to speak in complete sentences, despite being fully grown adults who presumably went through a school system and had some semblance of a regular life prior to the relatively recent fall of civilization).  And, of course, the fact that the show is hardly even about walkers/zombies anymore, who serve largely as a background piece to all the issues discussed above.

I see all these complaints, and largely agree with them.  Many more invested writers have done a great job giving full analyses on these issues (and many more), and I see no point in harping on them further than I already have.  What I want to discuss here is a criticism that I personally haven’t come across all that much, and that is that TWD suffers, and will continue to suffer, from a key flaw repeated in most bad storytelling: lack of optimistic direction for the characters/story itself.

The dystopian concept of a hopeless world isn’t new, and has been used for a longtime in fiction.  However, what separates a well-written dystopian story from a bad one is that even in a hopeless environment the reader/viewer is given some notion that the protagonists can have some kind of ultimate triumph over the hopelessness that plagues them.  That doesn’t mean that a happy ending has to be delivered at the story’s resolution (in many powerful cases, it’s not), but if there is no semblance of any kind of optimism that readers/viewers can get emotionally invested in during the progression of the plot, what exactly is the point to continue to care about where the character/story is heading?

Within the reality of TWD, everyone–and I do mean, every single person on the planet–is infected with the zombie virus that will be triggered once s/he dies, regardless of whether s/he came in contact with a zombie.  As of the moment of this writing, the plot has given no indication that there’s any chance of a cure to this ultimate fate for the characters (the first’s season hinted that there isn’t).  Nor is there any attempt by the characters to investigate the possibility of such a cure (notwithstanding Eugene’s scientist charade, which the main cast was never really dedicated in pursuing besides very briefly, and then mostly as a means of moving the plot setting out of Georgia).  So, the original dilemma of the show were the zombies, and since we do not, and seemingly cannot, resolve that dilemma, ever, the next dilemma for us (the viewers) to be invested in is the protagonists’ continued survival in this hopeless world.  The problem is that, if the dilemma is learning to survive in a world where “zombie-state” is the inevitable fate for everyone, we’ve already seen the fully extend of how the characters would cope with this reality, and one would argue repeatedly so in the course of the last seven seasons.  So what’s left to see?  What is the ultimate payoff that they deliver to the viewer from here?  Are they going to learn how to fortify themselves from the undead threat better than we have already seen them do in Alexandria?  Seems unlikely.

The repeated attempts to introduce new villainous characters to serve as antagonists to the main characters each and every season is also redundant in the grand scheme of things.  At the moment, the main villain is Negan.  I’m supposed to care if Negan’s group (the antagonists) defeats Rick’s group (the protagonists).  But let’s say the so-called unthinkable happens, and Negan does win the war against Rick’s group.  In the end, Negan is still human, and Negan will eventually die (even if just from old age), and then Negan will be just another mindless zombie in a world littered with equally mindless zombies.  Again I ask, what ultimately is the point?  What is the payoff for us to get emotionally invested in as viewers?  Because I really don’t see one.  Furthermore, I would argue the writers of the show (and, yes, I’d put the graphic novels in this same boat) have failed to give us much to really care about anymore at this point.

I know there are fan theories online about how maybe those born after the zombie outbreak (like Rick’s daughter Judith) might be immune to its effects, but short of the show/plot actually confirming this it remains mere fan speculation.  Maybe it will be the note that the show finally ends on to give us a bit of needed optimism for this world’s fate of humanity, but at this point, given how there has been no buildup to any such dramatic revelation, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a plot point was met with a resounding “meh” from the viewers that haven’t already moved on by then.

As much as I hate admitting it given how much I enjoyed this show at one point, I have to be honest that The Walking Dead has given me no real reason to care about what happens from here on out, no reason to be emotionally invested in its continued plot development, and therefore no reason to continue to invest my time in it.

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George Orwell’s 1984 and Perfect Hoplessness

I believe that George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most important pieces of social commentary of the 20th Century.  Unlike other dystopian novels, 1984 is unique in its narrative of hopelessness and despair, by virtue of the author’s refusal to grant his protagonist a final means of escape.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is an earlier novel that follows a similar theme of the lone individual trying to hold on, both physically and mentally, against a totalitarian power that is seeking to subdue his will.  But, even though some might view the fate of Huxley’s protagonist John as tragic, in comparison to the fate of Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, Brave New World actually concludes on a moment of defiance by the individual against the oppressive system–a faint murmur of hope in human dignity is still salvaged.  Orwell’s 1984, leaves no room for such salvation.

To me, this message was not apparent the first time I read the book, not until I finished it all the way through.  Witnessing the glimmers of defiance Winston shows throughout his interrogation, convinced me that somehow, by some means, he would be able to combat against his oppressors and triumph over them in the end.  This feeling was intensified to its peak when Winston, feebly, abandoning all care for argument or rationale, lashes out at the source of his misery, “I don’t know–I don’t care.  Somehow you will fail.  Something will defeat you.  Life will defeat you” (p.269). The retort of a man that has been taken to breaking point, but is still trying to push forward for the sake of something–anything–better, than what is presently staring him in the face.  The novel implies that even Winston’s interrogator was fleetingly taken aback at the sudden burst of indignation, causing him to launch into an array of verbal battery battery against the defiant prisoner:

“Do you see any evidence that this is happening?  Or any reason why it should?”

“No.  I believe it.  I know that you will fail.  There is something in the universe–I don’t know, some spirit, some principle–that you will never overcome.”

“Do you believe in God, Winston?”

“No.”

“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”

“I don’t know.  The spirit of Man.”

“And do you consider yourself a man?”

“Yes.”

“If you are man, Winston, you are the last man.  Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors.  Do you understand that you are alone?  You are outside history, you are nonexistent / And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?”

“Yes, I consider myself superior” (p. 269-270)

What I love about this scene is the sheer insubordination show by the wholly helpless Winston.  The resolve to forgo all pretense of humility, and openly declare his superiority to the authority that is eager to rob him of his humanity.  Unfortunately, without wanting to give too much detail away, the enthusiasm raised in this dialogue disappears as quickly as it comes.  The world Orwell has created is perfectly hopeless, one in which the future can only be accurately described as, “a boot stamping on a human face–forever” (p. 267).  But none of this can truly sink in to the reader, even through all the torture and pain and anguish, not until the haunting final four words are read.

Bibliography

[All quotations used from the following citation]

Orwell, George.  1984.  “Part Three: III,” (Signet Classic: New York), 1949, 1977 reprint.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451& the People’s Tyranny

Like the dystopian novels that precede it (i.e. 1984Brave New World, etc.), Ray Bradbury’s 1953 Fahrenheit 451 is set in an ambiguously dated future, where human society has become subjugated by an undisclosed oppressive force.  The book depicts a future whose technological feats have advanced to a high enough pace that it allows the common citizenry to live in relative comfort and bliss–televisions are bigger and brighter, drugs and antidepressants are easily available to ease whatever malady a person may be feeling.  But, despite all of these luxuries, the outwardly happiness feels empty and artificial; something is missing from the humane experience.  Guy Montag is aware of this void in his life, but is initially unable to determine its source.  His occupation as a fireman provides the reader the vital insight necessary to explain the destitute state of the novel’s environment.  Because houses (and presumably other structures, too) are designed to be completely fireproof, the duty of the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 is strikingly different from what we normally expect it to be; namely, they start–as opposed to prevent–fires.  Moreover, firemen serve to specifically find and burn books (the forbidden contraband in the novel), due to the items having been banned in the distant past.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that the message the author is trying to convey is the importance of imagination and creativity (i.e. literature) in making mankind feel wholly human.  Thus, the book’s protagonist, Montag, represents the isolated figure in society, who is being deprived of something he requires to truly function and understand the world around him properly (in this case, that something is the rigor and critical thinking invoked by the at times inspiring, at times agonizing, words of literature).  Although this theme of being unable to live a fulfilling life absent of books and substantive prose is an interesting concept to explore, the part that really makes the novel stand out from others in its genre is the way the author chooses to detail the genesis of the decadent state his characters are living in.

Early on, the narrative vaguely implies that the source of the repression of books in Montag’s society is some sort of governmental power, as seen by the comment his superior, Captain Beatty, makes about the state of mind of any person that sees fit to challenge the ban in place, “Any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the government and us” (page 33).  The mention of the “government” seems to indicate that the oppressor is the standard Big Brother type, ruling decrees from above.  However, as the story progresses, the reader quickly finds out that this initial assumption, though reasonable, is completely false in light of the reality of things.

Montag’s anxiety about his life and work eventually causes him to start to explore the written words in the books he has up to that point ignited for a living.  It is suggested that Captain Beatty is fully aware of Montag’s illegal activities, leading to a revealing exchange between the two, which sets the tone for the narrative from there on out, and sets Fahrenheit 451 apart from its dystopian precursors.

The exchange begins with Beatty openly telling Montag about the origins of the nationwide ban on books:

“Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.  The world was roomy.  But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths.  Double, triple, quadruple population.  Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm / Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion.  Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera.  Books cut shorter.  Condensations.  Digests.  Tabloids.  Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending” (page 54).

What Beatty is essentially describing is the advent of the modern life.  As technology has become faster, and our dependency on technology has forced us to adapt our pace right along with it (i.e. our attention spans have decreased significantly).  Readers in the 21st Century will have no problem understanding this, as we trace the impact technological feats like the internet have had on the way we communicate, retain, and process information.  [What makes the parallel even more interesting is the fact that Bradbury wrote his book in 1953, with little knowledge of just how much more tech-dependent we were to become in the subsequent decades.]  Beatty goes on to explain how this change in technology influenced the way society prioritized itself:

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophy, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored.  Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.  Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?” (page 56).

The focus on simply learning the menial tasks one needs to get by in a job takes away the individual’s burden to challenge, or even contemplate, her/his surroundings with any real depth; one does what one knows, because no one is taught to do anything more.  Of course, this routine also leaves people with a certain amount of leisure time, which must be filled with enough distractions, lest someone gets tempted to analyze the surrounding world too seriously.  And this is where luxuries come into play–to keep people content, happy, and too comfortable to start upsetting the balancing for everybody else:

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.  Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all?  People want to be happy, isn’t that right?  Haven’t you heard it all your life?  I want to be happy, people say.  Well, aren’t they?  Don’t we keep moving them moving, don’t we give them fun?  That’s all we live for, isn’t it?  For pleasure, for titillation?  And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these” (page 59).

The source of the censorship in Montag’s world is not some ominous government figure or organization, it is the people themselves who urged for the ban.  As information became readily available to a growing population, the opportunity for offense increased, and the prevalence of offensiveness leads to a decrease in happiness (which can have detrimental affects on the governing order).  Books are a cesspool of offensiveness.  While the right book–with the right message–can inspire a person to great things, no book’s primary goal is to keep peace amongst differing ideas.  Books challenge the person, ridicule his beliefs and convictions, and in turn make him less peaceful.  Or as Beatty puts it, “The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!  All the minor minor minorities with their navel to be kept clean” (page 57).  In a pluralistic society, the desire not to offend is very prominent.  But in a free marketplace of ideas the act is practically unavoidable (that which is inspirational and uplifting for one, is insulting to another).

The simple truth is that some ideas are better than others; and some positions are less viably defensible.  However, the means by which we determine which is which, is to debate and challenge one another in the public place of ideas.  But to challenge is to confront, to confront is to antagonize, and it takes little effort for antagonizing to lead to warring.  To fully remove the agitation ideas cause, it is best to remove the incentive for them altogether–make each man “the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are mo mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against” (page 58).  Yet, even characters like Beatty understand that the artistic spirit of the human mind is naturally drawn to formulating ideas (even if it is often just a recycling of other people’s ideas), thus he explains the prominence of feeding mundane trivia facts to the populace (that offer no opportunity for controversy or critical thought):

“Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘fact’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.  Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving” (page 61).

[I feel the need to add as a side note that, while I can appreciate Bradbury’s appeal for the need books provide in creating minds that can evaluate the world critically, it should also be mentioned that simply reading works of literature, and than regurgitating trivial quotes back to others as your own is not the standard of a critical thinker; more than read, one must learn to dissect and scrutinize the words of books.]

The reason why I consider Fahrenheity 451 as separate from books like Orwell’s 1984, is the fact that it challenges the popular notion that oppression always stems from the ruling class’s thirst for power.  The will of the people can be equally tyrannical, and when convinced enough of its own sanctity, it won’t hesitate to impose its will on those who dare deviate from the established program.  The common man is not necessarily the noble spirit of humanity, but the oppressor looking to subjugate others for the sake of keeping himself content:

“It didn’t come from the Government down.  There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!  Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.  Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time” (page 58).

Once public opinion submits to its desire to be censored and guarded and watched over, it doesn’t take much for opportunistic would-be rulers to step in and erode away at the individual’s liberties to consolidate their own power.  But one should not forget who sanctions their authority to begin with, and laid the foundation for the systematic coercion that follows.  In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury makes it clear who he considers “the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority.  Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority” (page 108).  The question that remains now is, how readily can oppression be recognized (let alone combated) if it is being sustained from the bottom-up?

Bibliography

Bradbury, Ray.  Fahrenheit 451.  Ballantine Books:  New York, 1953 (1996 reprint).