Over the past few years, dystopian fiction has increased in popularity to epic proportions. And this month we have a new book to add to the list — Ariel Djanikian's The Office of Mercy. Natasha, the book's young heroine, lives in an underground utopian settlement where everyone's basic needs are met. But when she ventures Outside, Natasha realizes that the world she has known is a lie. She has some big choices to make — ones that will change her life and possibly the lives of everyone she knows. Eager to hear more from this debut author, today RT reviewer Nori Morganstein asks Djanikian questions about what makes dystopian fiction so appealing and what are some of the author's favorites in the genre.
Why do you think dystopias are so hot right now?
Well I think dystopias have been popular for a while. I’m tempted to count the Book of Revelation as one of the first. But it’s true that the genre seems to have been in the spotlight a lot recently. It may be that early 90s books like The Giver primed a whole new generation of readers. Though rapid shifts in technology and cultural norms definitely influence how we read too. A missing feeling of permanence can cause our imaginations to go reeling into the future.
What do you think makes a good dystopia work?
Characters who make your blood rush, as if they were your own enemies or friends. Details that make you taste the food and smell the air. A story that twists your expectations into knots. And a world that makes you want to renounce your 21st century citizenship and take up residence inside the book — no matter how terrifying the place might be.
A lot of dystopias, including The Office of Mercy, seem to have themes that reflect current political and ethical dilemmas. How do you, as a writer, convey these themes without sounding too moralizing?
I once had a teacher who liked to say, “If I had wanted a message, I would have asked for a telegram.” It’s a good piece of advice. As much as I can, I try to let those themes seep into the story subconsciously; trying to solve moral dilemmas that I don’t have the answers to would be disingenuous. Having said that, I’m wary of fiction that gives up moral investigation altogether. Fiction has a great history of intervening in social conflicts, and ultimately, stories can help us remember how to treat one another.
And what are your top three favorite dystopias, and why?
Many of my favorites are widely read books (Brave New World, Oryx and Crake, 1984, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) so I’ll go with three well-known but less ubiquitous novels. The first is We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It’s a slim, terrifying book about a loveless future that will make you want to hide under the bed. Next is Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, which features brave, likable, Los Angeles girl-hero, Lauren Olamina. Finally, I loved Nicole Krauss’s lyrical first novel, Man Walks into a Room, which merges a bit of dystopian technology (memory transfer) with contemporary, domestic upheavals.