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Monday, February 10, 2014

So This Time I Try my Hand at "Dystopia"

I hated reading Orwell's "1984" in school.  Guess what year I got to read it?  That's right!  It was actually 1984!  Big deal.  I never liked books or movies about flawed, totalitarian futuristic societies.  That's essentially what I used to call them in my mind, because I don't remember hearing the term "dystopian" until much later.  I probably did hear it, but it didn't stick.  Well, imagine my embarrassment at a writing conference about five years ago when the term was being tossed around and I wasn't sure what everyone was talking about.  I especially felt silly when I realized that the word is the opposite of "utopia."  Seems simple enough to figure out, but I didn't.  I decided my little mental block was simply due to my dislike of the whole genre.  Then someone named Suzanne Collins wrote a book called "The Hunger Games."  Not long after that, someone named Allie Condy wrote "Matched."  I wasn't so turned off by dystopian literature after that.  :-)

All this aside, I decided to try my hand at it, based on a writing prompt a friend posted on her blog:

What I wrote has no title, so I call it:  "Chapter One of my Silly Attempt to Write a Dystopian Novel."  I used local settings, including the "City of Rocks" near Gooding, Idaho, and the School for the Deaf and Blind that's also in Gooding.  I've been to these places and like them, but I noticed that both have the potential to be super creepy.    In writing this, I also thought of how easy it would be to control how others act and even think if you could completely control what they were allowed to read or watch.  (This is definitely touched on in many dystopian works, including "Matched," where people aren't allowed to learn to write, and where all books are destroyed when found).  So, I created a world where everyone has a tablet.  Basically, what you read is downloaded for you.  No actual, physical books are allowed.  And, here we go.

(Next time:  Steam Punk!)
           They caught me red-handed.  Literally.  My can of spray paint exploded.  Don’t ask me why; maybe it was the insane heat of the place that did it.  Maybe it was God’s sense of humor.  Well, whatever it was that made that stupid spray can explode effectively marked me as the culprit.  I may as well have painted my full name on the rocks around me.  Grandma would have had one of her “hissy fits” if she’d known where I was going that day and what I was doing.  The stuff was dripping from my palms like drops of blood from the hands of a murderer when the officer stepped out from behind a neighboring rock, sweating and huffing in the July sun with a look of sheer delight on his face.

                “We got ‘im,” he said into his handset.  His ‘hick from Idaho’ accent was blatantly obvious.

                Her,” I corrected him, reaching up to knock my cap from my head, careful not to touch it with my crimson-tinted fingers.  My tangle of dirty blond hair cascaded down, partially hiding my face from view.  “You got her, loser.  What took you so long?”

                He didn’t like my attitude.  I didn’t like the plastic ties he used to cuff my wrists behind me.  He pulled them way too tight.  I forced myself not to wince and pretended it didn’t hurt.

                Our walk through the strange landscape of the place known as the City of Rocks was silent, except for the crunch of gravel underfoot, the hum of insects and the occasional rustle of some creature, lizard or maybe even snake, in the scrubby bushes that surrounded the path we headed down.  Well, add to that list the wheezing sounds the officer made as he ambled along behind me with his gun trained on my back.

My incriminating artwork was all around me, the red lines startlingly clear and bright against the dark rock formations that surrounded us like a group of giants.  Maybe they were Tolkien’s trolls caught by the sunrise.  I kind of half-smiled at that thought.  Mom loved that story, and she had always told it when she talked about this place.  Maybe that’s why I chose it.  I don’t know. 

Once Officer Wheezy put me into his vehicle, the unmarked jeep that had fooled me into thinking no cops were around, I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep.  Well, that was only after I wiped my paint-covered hands onto the upholstery.  I figured they’d take me to Twin Falls, where the “Juvenile Reeducation Center” is located, thought they don’t call it that.  They just call it “Canyon Ridge.”  I’d have some time to think of a good story.  And, to figure out how to get back to the City of Rocks and rescue my antique Vespa, the awesome little motorbike that Grandma kept for so long in her storage shed.

Drops of sweat trickled down my neck, making me itch, but I didn’t scratch.  I wasn’t about to let Officer Doofus know that I was uncomfortable.  So, what was my story going to be?  I sighed in frustration and shook my head against the dull ache that threatened to emerge.  I didn’t even understand my real story.  I mean,  I don’t know why I kept coming here to cover those gigantic lumps of lava with weird, red symbols, but one day, a couple of months ago, a sudden urge to get artistic hit me.  I think it was after that night when Grandma had told me a story, and then given me something. 

“My Grandma Evie, your great-great grandmother, well, she was a reader!”  Grandma had said, while picking bits of spinach out of her yellow teeth.  Apparently, Evie would go to one of those places called a library, where there were rooms and rooms full of tall shelves filled with nothing but books.  Thousands, or even tens of thousands of books.  And Evie would check out at least twenty of them, no lie.  She’d read them all in a couple of weeks, and then be back for more.

“My mother loved to tell me about that,” Grandma had murmured, her slanted eyes getting that misty look they always got when she went back in time.  “She told me how Evie would laugh at the librarians who told her she wouldn’t have time to read so many books.  She’d look right in their faces and say:  ‘You don’t know me very well, do you?’” 

Then, Grandma’s eyes had spilled over.  “I wish I could remember Grandma Evie.  She died when I was so little.   But I remember my mother, and how she would read to me.  Every day she read wonderful stories, from real books made of paper, with colorful pictures.  That was before they took all the books away, you know,” Grandma had whispered, leaning closer to me.  Then, she’d sat back and held her hands to her heart.  “One I always loved was about a little girl who ate so many pink cupcakes she turned herself pink.  If I could have one book from my childhood, only one to keep, that would be it.”

Then Grandma had excused herself and gone to her room.  I’d cleared the dishes away and done my homework on my Tablet.  Most of it was the boring stuff.  History, geography.  Another essay, titled:  “How My Choices Led Me Here.”  Meaning: “Why I was punished by being sent away from home and forced to attend a ‘reeducation’ school, where my every move is watched.”   I’ve done at least ten of these essays in the last six months.   Apparently they’re not satisfied with my answers, yet.

And then, Grandma had returned.  “They didn’t get them all,” she’d whispered, putting something into my hands.  I was so startled I dropped it.  My heart had thumped in my chest as I’d stared down at the tattered rectangle in my lap. 

It was a book! 

I held my breath when I picked it up.  There in my hands was an actual book made from paper; made from trees!  It felt so strange to my fingers.  It had pages, unevenly cut rectangles of pressed paper with tiny words typed on both sides.  The paper was so old and worn it had a soft, satiny feel.  I lifted the book to my nose.  It smelled of dust, and yet the scent was slightly sweet, like vanilla.  I breathed in, deep. 

I’d never, ever seen one of these before.

Everything we read is provided for us on our Tablets.  They download what they want us to learn.  When we’re done, content is erased and replaced for us. Long ago, when Grandma was little, they came and took away all the actual ‘made from trees’ books.  If you happen to find one, which is rare, you’re supposed to turn it in.  If you don’t, and someone sees you with one, they’re supposed to report you. 

“Don’t let anyone know,” Grandma had whispered.  “This is a treasure.  I want you to have it.”

The jeep bumped on the uneven dirt road, and I snapped out of my reverie.  After all the big talk about paving Every Road in America, they seem to have forgotten about certain parts of Idaho.  Figures.

Back to my story.  What was I going to tell the cops?  I didn’t even know what the symbols I painted meant.  That probably meant no one else did, either. 

There!  I sat up taller and opened my eyes.  We were almost in Gooding, the tiny town where I always stopped to buy trail mix and bottled water before I headed out to the City of Rocks to paint.  Now I knew what I’d say. 

“They’re works of art, officer,” I’d say.  They only teach art to those who show “competency” for it, and I missed the cut-off.  By one percentile point.  It was perfect!  I was nothing more than a frustrated artist who needed to express her talent. 

I was so pleased with my sudden inspiration that I smiled widely, before remembering to go back into full scowl mode for the ugly cop’s benefit.  To be honest, I kind of thought that my made-up story was partly true.  Going to the City of Rocks to paint those symbols, the ones I’d found in the tattered notebook way back in Grandma’s closet, was my way of crying out when I had no voice.

Anyway, what were they going to do to me?  Relocate me?  Already did that, didn’t they?

The jeep slowed for the first and only traffic light in the tiny town of Gooding, and then the cop hit the left-turn signal and we swerved around the corner. 

“Aren’t we going back to Twin?” I asked him, silently cursing myself for dropping the second part of the town’s name in the casual way that the locals do.  Thanks to Grandma, I was starting to sound like them! 

“Nope,” the cop responded with a sneer.  “You’re going to The School.”

                At his words, a finger of ice trailed a path down my spine.  I'd never heard much about that place, but what I did hear was bad.  Real bad. 

                “But,” I spluttered, “what about a hearing?  Aren’t you supposed to put me in Juvie first, and then take me to see a judge?”

                The cop chuckled to himself as we pulled into the parking lot.  As usual, no one seemed to be about, but in the scattering of once-white buildings that surrounded us, I saw faces pressed against the spotted windows.

                Turning around to smirk at me, the cop whispered:  “You already had a hearing, girlie.  They read me your file.  You had your chance and you blew it.  No more hearings.  I’m your judge and jury.  Get out.”

                He didn’t even take the plastic cuffs from my wrists.  He just drove off. 

                And I turned to face my new home, feeling my heart pound so hard it hurt.  For the first time that day, I was afraid.


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