The allure of the dystopia has been with us for some time, though one might argue it has intensified over the past 20 years (kicking off the century with an event like 9/11 could do that). Back in 2010, the New Yorker was puzzling out the wild popularity of series like The Hunger Games, identifying within them, surprisingly, strong currents of hope: “Yes, our errors and delusions may lead to catastrophe, but if—as usually happens in dystopian novels for children—a new, better way of life can be assembled from the ruins would the apocalypse really be such a bad thing?”
This seems to hold true for much of adult dystopian writing, as well. Even a grizzled old aficionado of depravity like Cormac McCarthy ends The Road on a note of grace and benevolence. Maybe end-of-the-world scenarios offer a perverse pleasure, a way to safely play out nightmares about our basest instincts and worst-case scenarios about events already underway, and then locate in the depths the possibility for some form of recovery.
This glimmer can be found in today’s story, by noted dystopian sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, a master at creating collapsed worlds and the rare resilient women within them. It’s also there in today’s poem, written by Anna Akhmatova after her world did effectively end in post-revolutionary Russia. NPR shares a story about the poet, who one day, while in line outside the Leningrad prison waiting to see her jailed son, was confronted by another woman:
"On this occasion, there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who of course had never in her life heard my name," Akhmatova recalled. "And then she asked me, 'Could one ever describe this? I answered her, 'I can.'"
from Twin Peaks: The Return
A Land Not Mine, Still
A land not mine, still
the waters of its ocean
chill and fresh.
Sand on the bottom whiter than chalk,
and the air drunk, like wine,
late sun lays bare
the rosy limbs of the pinetrees.
Sunset in the ethereal waves:
I cannot tell if the day
is ending, or the world, or if
the secret of secrets is inside me again.
—Anna Akhmatova (translated by Jane Kenyon)
Who is this person?
Anna Akhmatova—born Anna Andreevna Gorenko in 1889, in an Odessa suburb on the Black Sea—began writing poetry as a teenager. She married a fellow poet, Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev, in 1910; upon publication of her first volume of verse in 1912, she quickly gained renown, and more books followed. She became famous for her readings in cabarets around St. Petersburg, and in the years of the first World War, her work took on political dimensions. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Gumilev was killed and Akhmatova and her son were stigmatized as members of the intelligentsia. Nevertheless, she refused to emigrate, even throughout a 15-year period when all her books were suppressed. During Stalin’s reign, she wrote in secret, memorializing his victims in the long poem Requiem. In the years after World War II, Soviet officials relented on their censorship of her work; in 1965, the most complete collection of her poetry was published. A fuller, fascinating biography is well worth reading here.
Speech Sounds (Excerpt)
There was trouble aboard the Washington Boulevard bus. Rye had expected trouble sooner or later in her journey. She had put off going until loneliness and hopelessness drove her out. She believed she might have one group of relatives left alive—a brother and his two children twenty miles away in Pasadena. That was a day's journey one-way, if she were lucky. The unexpected arrival of the bus as she left her Virginia Road home had seemed to be a piece of luck—until the trouble began.
Two young men were involved in a disagreement of some kind, or, more likely, a misunderstanding. They stood in the aisle, grunting and gesturing at each other, each in his own uncertain T stance as the bus lurched over the potholes. The driver seemed to be putting some effort into keeping them off balance. Still, their gestures stopped just short of contact—mock punches, hand games of intimidation to replace lost curses.
People watched the pair, then looked at one another and made small anxious sounds. Two children whimpered.
Rye sat a few feet behind the disputants and across from the back door. She watched the two carefully, knowing the fight would begin when someone's nerve broke or someone's hand slipped or someone came to the end of his limited ability to communicate. These things could happen anytime.
One of them happened as the bus hit an especially large pothole and one man, tall, thin, and sneering, was thrown into his shorter opponent.
Instantly, the shorter man drove his left fist into the disintegrating sneer. He hammered his larger opponent as though he neither had nor needed any weapon other than his left fist. He hit quickly enough, hard enough to batter his opponent down before the taller man could regain his balance or hit back even once.
People screamed or squawked in fear. Those nearby scrambled to get out of the way. Three more young men roared in excitement and gestured wildly. Then, somehow, a second dispute broke out between two of these three—probably because one inadvertently touched or hit the other.
As the second fight scattered frightened passengers, a woman shook the driver's shoulder and grunted as she gestured toward the fighting.
The driver grunted back through bared teeth. Frightened, the woman drew away.
Rye, knowing the methods of bus drivers, braced herself and held on to the crossbar of the seat in front of her. When the driver hit the brakes, she was ready and the combatants were not. They fell over seats and onto screaming passengers, creating even more confusion. At least one more fight started. The instant the bus came to a full stop, Rye was on her feet, pushing the back door. At the second push, it opened and she jumped out, holding her pack in one arm. Several other passengers followed, but some stayed on the bus. Buses were so rare and irregular now, people rode when they could, no matter what. There might not be another bus today—or tomorrow. People started walking, and if they saw a bus they flagged it down. People making intercity trips like Rye's from Los Angeles to Pasadena made plans to camp out, or risked seeking shelter with locals who might rob or murder them.
The bus did not move, but Rye moved away from it. She intended to wait until the trouble was over and get on again, but if there was shooting, she wanted the protection of a tree. Thus, she was near the curb when a battered blue Ford on the other side of the street made a U-turn and pulled up in front of the bus. Cars were rare these days—as rare as a severe shortage of fuel and of relatively unimpaired mechanics could make them. Cars that still ran were as likely to be used as weapons as they were to serve as transportation. Thus, when the driver of the Ford beckoned to Rye, she moved away warily. The driver got out—a big man, young, neatly bearded with dark, thick hair. He wore a long overcoat and a look of wariness that matched Rye's. She stood several feet from him, waiting to see what he would do. He looked at the bus, now rocking with the combat inside, then at the small cluster of passengers who had gotten off. Finally he looked at Rye again.
—Octavia Butler (Read the rest here)
Who is this person?
Preeminent science fiction writer Octavia Butler was born in Pasadena in 1947, and as a child, spent many hours reading and writing in the public library. She won her first short story contest as a student at Pasadena City College, and after graduation, worked a series of temporary jobs while continuing to pursue writing, regularly waking up at two a.m. to hone her craft. Her first novel was published in 1976, but her breakthrough came with the story “Speech Sounds,” excerpted here, which won a Hugo Award in 1984. A prior novel, Kindred, about a Black woman who travels through time to meet her ancestors—a slaveowner and freewoman—became a bestseller, as did her Parable of the Sower, the first novel in a series, set in a dystopian California. Butler was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 1995, the first science-fiction writer to do so.
Write a poem or story about the end of the world (you might interpret this literally or otherwise.)
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to email@example.com