SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
We continue our ongoing new series of posts “SFF in Conversation” with a post from Tom Pollock, British author of the Skyscraper Throne series. Ana loved the first book – The City’s Son (The Kitschies Nominee for Golden Tentacle in 2012) and with the recent release of book 2 The Glass Republic, we wanted to invite Tom to talk about the ideas behind the Dystopian society in the new book.
Please give it up for Tom Pollock, everyone!
ON BEAUTY AND DYSTOPIA
“I should be more grateful for my natural beauty, it impacts the choices and friends we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness*.’”
- Dove ‘real beauty sketches’ advert
You might have seen this ad doing the rounds online a couple of months ago. A lot of people liked it. I didn’t, mostly because I think it was an elegant sugar pill designed to get you to swallow the quote above, which is a message that (a) I’m not convinced is true, and (b) even if it were true, just rolling over and ‘being grateful’ isn’t what I’d call an ideal response to society’s cataclysmic, remorseless over-prioritisation of looks.
Still, imagine that Dove’s literally right. Imagine your beauty was the most critical thing in the world. Imagine you lived in a city where looks were currency, where you had to scrimp and save to buy your features and where criminals would kill you to steal your face. A society of living reflections governed by a proud, and ruthless ruling class: the Mirrorstocracy.
Welcome to London-Under-Glass.
In a way, London-Under-Glass – the world of The Glass Republic – is a classic dystopia. There’s a society, and a commodity it values above all else. A small portion of its citizens have that commodity in great abundance, the majority have far less. Haves. Have-nots. Dystopia. Bob’s your uncle.
What makes London-Under-Glass a little different, however, is that the commodity in question is your face itself. A handful of freckles, an eye, a dimple, a fraction of a smile, can call be removed from you and traded. Wealth and status in this world depend on how on the intricacy and subtlety of the features you possess. The Mirrorstocracy are well provided for, they’re perfect copies of people in our world, and have the same complete faces we have. Most people on the other side of the mirror however, are born with only half a face. One side of their head – either the left or the right- has features on the front of it, the other half is as blank as unmarked paper and they have to wear a prosthetic to make it up.
The kicker though, isn’t the initial unequal distribution, rather it’s the way that society is structured around that inequality to magnify its impact.
A looking-glass lottery is held every year, the winner of which is put into a machine that turns them into a Mirrorstocrat. Everyone’s obsessed with it. It’s all anyone will talk about in the run up to the draw. A lottery winner is all many kids want to be when they grow up.
It’s illegal to hide your face, so everywhere you go, without respite, people judge you, weigh you, price you up (they’re not malicious, it’s just in the culture). Subconsciously, they compare you to the billboards and magazine covers showing the Mirrorstocracy with their perfect faces, and find you wanting. Worse still, Half-Faces cast no reflections. This is a society that says all your worth is how you’re seen, but you can’t see yourself. You have no say in your own value.
And then there’s the worst thing of all. The dark secret about living with half a face behind the mirror, the one that nobody talks about, but that keeps everyone in line.
If all fantasy worlds are in some way a mirror of the real world, then it’s probably obvious I’ve not had to distort the glass too far to make this one. It’s a commonplace truth that we live in a world where arbitrary standards of physical beauty are accorded far too much weight, whether or not Dove is right about exactly how much weight that is.
I’m certainly not the first writer to engage with this material in Speculative YA either, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld is probably the most famous example of a book that makes it front and centre. Even so, I think it bears further examination, partly because it’s a complex and fascinating area, and partly because I’m writing in a genre which has a tendency to put a lot of very similar looking young women on its book covers, Which is hard not to take as an endorsement of the idea that, in the eyes of the YA book industry at least, white, skinny and supine is all that constitutes beautiful.
And if that should prove to be the only kind of ‘beautiful’ that comes to ‘impact the choices and friends we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children’ (if and when we should choose to have them) then Heaven help us.
Thank you, Tom! Now we turn over to you: please feel free to engage with the ideas presented here!