Dystopia as an Inverted Hero’s Journey: Act III

Act II

Generally, in the traditional hero’s journey, The Ultimate Boon (or its equivalent), will be the climax of the story. What’s left is simply the denouement, and it will be covered very quickly if it is written out at all.

Note that this is not always the case. The nominal third act can become the actual third act of the story, but if it is, it’s parsed in a less obvious way. For example, the original Star Wars very deliberately followed the hero’s journey, but if you map it out, Luke blowing up the Death Star and winning is not The Ultimate Boon. Instead, you have to back up and see that the Meeting with the Goddess is rescuing Leia from the Death Star, and The Ultimate Boon is returning with the plans that tell how to destroy it (the Return from the Underworld, in other analyses). When Luke actually succeeds in destroying the Death Star, it’s what Campbell’s calls Master of Two Worlds.

Most of the time, though, the third act of the hero’s journey is short, though still important. Again, different analyses parse it in different ways, but the main parts seem to be The Road Back, The Return Threshold, and Master of Two Worlds.

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Dystopia as an Inverted Hero’s Journey: Act II

Not one of the books I’m analyzing, but still illustrates the Meeting with the Devil pretty well.

Act IAct III

The second act of the traditional hero’s journey is usually (though not always) the adventure proper, from the time the hero leaves the ordinary world to go on his quest, to his victory over the enemy or otherwise achieving his goal. In my analysis of dystopian literature, I’m analyzing the classic novels of the genre in the context of an inverted hero’s journey, where the hero starts as a successful person in his world, but rebels against the State and ultimately fails and falls. As in the traditional hero’s journey, most of the action occurs here, in Act II.

Again, I am using my own list of signposts for the hero’s journey, not necessarily the same as you might see elsewhere. This is fine because everyone analyzes it differently, although I am basing my sequence on two of the most detailed analyses, those of Campbell and Volger. Below are the stages of how I analyze Act II.

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Dystopia as an Inverted Hero’s Journey: Act I

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IntroductionAct II

This is the second post in my series analyzing dystopian literature as an inversion of the famous hero’s journey. If you want to know more about what I’m talking about, look at the previous post, but in short, I argue that where the traditional hero is an ordinary person who does extraordinary things to save or improve his world, the dystopian hero is the opposite: a successful person who rebels against the State, but eventually suffers a fall from his position and fails utterly.

In this post, I will lay out Act I of the “inverted hero’s journey” and how the four classic dystopian novels fit into it: We, Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451.

Most interpretations of the hero’s journey agree that it happens in three acts: the Departure, the “Initiation” (what you might call the adventure proper), and the Return. However, different authors analyze the hero’s journey in different ways, with more or fewer stages in the narrative, and with different labels. There’s no single way to analyze it, and none of the most common ones (or rather, the ones listed on Wikipedia) quite match up to how I think of it, so I’m using my own interpretation. The list I’m using combines elements of two of the most detailed versions: the original of Campbell, and that of Christopher Volger (2007).

In my analysis, the Act I comprises the following stages:

The Ordinary World

The Call to Adventure

Refusal of the Call

Meeting the Mentor

Crossing the Threshold

Again, note that none of the major sources parse it exactly this way. Campbell doesn’t include The Ordinary World and adds an extra stage called The Belly of the Whale, which I honestly have a hard time parsing as distinct from The Road of Trials. Phil Cousineau (1990) includes only The Call to Adventure in the first act. David Leeming (1981) goes in a completely different direction with a miraculous birth for the hero and preparation for his quest. However, the list I chose is the most intelligible and recognizable version to me and therefore probably is to many of my readers.

The Ordinary World.

In the dystopian world, of course, the world is far from ordinary to our eyes, but it is ordinary to the dystopian tragic hero. Since this is an inverted story, you might change the name and call it The Oppressive World, where the State controls all and brutally destroys anyone who speaks against it. However, there is another inversion hidden between the lines. The idea of the ordinary world implies that the hero is also ordinary in some way. Just as Luke Skywalker starts as a simple farmboy on the bottom rung of society, most heroes achieve greatness rather than being born to it.

As I mentioned in the previous post, this includes modern, Young Adult dystopias like The Hunger Games. Unsurprisingly, a Katniss Everdeen in a YA novel is someone like the reader: young, no one special, near the bottom rung of society, and a natural rebel, who then has a traditional hero’s journey to overcome the evil State.

But in the dystopia classic, even though to the protagonist, his world is the ordinary world, he is not an ordinary person. In every case I study here, the protagonist is fairly high up in the system—and close enough to see glimmers of the truth and question things when no one else would.

1984’s Winston Smith rewrites history for the Ministry of Truth, and we see that he is good at his job. Even though he’s not a member of the prestigious Inner Party, he’s also not a common Prole on the bottom rung. He also recognizes the importance of his work and takes pride in it, even though his work doesn’t officially exist.

Likewise, in Brave New World, Bernard Marx is an Alpha—the top rung of society. He works on sleep learning, which brainwashes people to behave how the State wants from childhood—undoubtedly one of the most important jobs in his world. Guy Montag of Fahrenheit 451 is a Fireman—a professional book-burner who is respected by society and has certain privileges above the average citizen. Finally, We will be less familiar to many of my readers, but in short, the protagonist, known only as D-503, is the chief engineer of the Integral, an interstellar spaceship that will carry the State’s “perfect society” to other planets. D-503 is probably the most prestigious of any of these four men in his own world.

In other words the protagonist would already be a hero of his world, if his world had heroes, and is in about as good a position he can hope to have in his upside-down society. And then, he suffers a fall from grace. He not only fails to change his world, which is a reversal of the hero’s journey in itself, but he loses his prestigious position and winds up disgraced, exiled, or dead.

The Call to Adventure

In classic hero’s journey fashion, from his relatively safe position within the system, the dystopian hero hears the Call to Adventure. Except, in a dystopia, there is no adventure to be had—only disobedience and danger. Thus, the Call to Adventure becomes a Call to Rebellion. This call can come either from without or within—either questioning the system in some way or meeting someone else who does. If it comes from without, this stage overlaps with Meeting the Dissident as is described below. This is fine because, again, the hero’s journey is not a hard and fast rule. However, I think it’s more interesting when the call come from within because it follows naturally from the protagonist’s place in a privileged position in his world.

Bernard Marx is the most straightforward of the four. Because he works on the “sleep learning” brainwashing program, he sees how fake the world around him really is and begins speaking out against it. (Interestingly, the State in Brave New World is more accommodating than most and will only exile him for it.) In Fahrenheit 451, while Guy Montag does not personally hear the call from within, we later learn that Firemen are expected to get curious at some point and read a book and are given some unofficial leeway with this.

However, the most famous Call to Rebellion is probably that of Winston Smith. Winston does not consciously hold any dissident views or opposition to the State, until he goes into a fugue state and scribbles “Down with Big Brother!” over and over again in his new diary without understanding why.

Refusal of the Call

Naturally, Winston is shocked by what he’s written—not because it’s very likely to get him killed. Keeping a secret diary at all was enough for that. But also because he doesn’t understand why he wrote it. He didn’t know that he hated Big Brother—certainly not like that. This is the Recoil from Rebellion. Winston resolves to continue his outwardly orthodox life—although he doesn’t get rid of the diary. D-503 literally runs from I-330 when she tries to involve him in illegal activity, and he finds real comfort in his mathematically perfect world—although he can’t bring himself to report her. Bernard doesn’t give up his beliefs, but he does begin scheming to get his boss removed to protect his own position.

When confronted with rebellion, most dystopian heroes do the sensible thing and run away, but even so, something about the idea intrigues them—just enough that they don’t remove themselves from the situation entirely. They keep watching, and they keep doing the most dangerous thing of all in a dystopia: thinking.

Meeting the Mentor

Most heroes have a mentor—someone older and more experienced who teaches him what he needs to know. (Campbell calls this “Supernatural Aid.”) The dystopian hero also has a mentor, but it’s a mentor of a very specific type: a fellow rebel—someone who has been questioning the State for a while and can see through the lies. In dystopian literature, this stage becomes Meeting the Dissident. (This is in contrast with modern YA stories where someone like Katniss Everdeen is both the hero and the dissident, while the mentor is someone older and jaded who has long since given up, like Haymitch Abernathy.)

Julia is the dissident for Winston, as she confesses her love for him and later teaches him to get away with various indiscretions. Clarisse tells Montag to read a book (and questions many other aspects of their society), becoming both the dissident and the issuer of the call to him. Likewise, I-330 issues the call to D-503 by inviting him for an unsanctioned conjugal visit. (In We, even sex is done by the numbers.)

Brave New World is unusual in that Jonathan the Savage starts in a position where he might be the mentor of Bernard, but he later becomes the protagonist himself. You might alternately analyze the book that Jonathan is the protagonist, and Bernard is the mentor, even though we don’t meet Jonathan until halfway through the book, and Bernard isn’t capable of doing much more than introducing him to the modern world. But I’ll explore that more in the next post.

Crossing the Threshold

Crossing the Threshold is the point where the hero leaves his safe, ordinary world and embarks on his great adventure, committing himself to achieving his goal. And in dystopian literature, I think the label of Crossing the Threshold describes it well, too. You could change it to something else, like “Crossing the Rubicon” or even just “Breaking the Law,” but I think the threshold makes as much or more sense to the dystopian hero. The hero deliberately defies the State, crossing a line that will bring swift and brutal retribution from the government should it be found out. Winston meets Julia in the meadow. Montag reads a book. D-503 mostly acts by inaction—not reporting I-330, resisting reporting his dreams—but eventually crosses a literal threshold by following I-330 outside the Green Wall.

With the threshold crossed, the hero is committed to his adventure, but the dystopian hero is even more committed to his rebellion and cannot turn back. The narrative then moves into Act II, which I will discuss in the next post.

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Dystopia as an Inverted Hero’s Journey: Introduction

Act I

I’m starting a short series of posts where I analyze dystopian literature in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere else before. Dystopia is a catch-all category for fiction featuring tyrannical governments, post-apocalyptic worlds, or the general break-down of society, but here, I’m referring mostly to the most famous, “classic” dystopian novels that you probably read in high school: 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. In this series, I propose that most of the classic dystopian novels feature what I call an “Inverted Hero’s Journey,” where the protagonist rebels against his oppressive society and then suffers a fall from “grace.”

The Hero’s Journey is a widespread narrative structure often found in both mythology and literature, first popularized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell catalogued an elaborate plot structure for the hero’s journey, but he summarized it as follows:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

I’ve seen 1984 analyzed with the traditional hero’s journey, but I don’t think that’s quite right. The classic dystopian novels to me seem like the opposite of this. As I’ll explain in more detail in the next post, the protagonist actually starts off fairly high up in society. He rebels and sees the reality behind the State’s lies. (I’m using “State” for whatever name the dictatorship takes in each novel.) But the State has great powers arrayed against him, and the protagonist suffers a decisive loss and returns usually alive, but beaten back into line.

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When I started this blog, I never imagined I would be doing deep literary analysis here of the kind that makes most people cringe in English class, but when you read enough books and listen to enough book and movie review podcasts, a funny thing starts to happen: you start to notice these things on your own. This idea came to me when I was listening to the audiobook for another classic dystopian novel called We.

(As a general note, I will be using male pronouns in this series because that is how the Hero’s Journey is traditionally formulated, and because in all of the books I’m specifically analyzing, the protagonist is male, but you can certainly have a Heroine’s Journey too, inverted or otherwise.)

My idea was this: one of the stage’s of Campbell’s hero’s journey is called the “Meeting with the Goddess,” where, usually leading up to the climax of the story, the hero meets a women (or sometimes a man) who imparts wisdom and gifts to him. The hero’s journey is not a hard and fast rule, and many later interpretations don’t include this stage, but I saw a clear parallel with dystopian fiction: in each of 1984, Brave New World, and We, there is what I call a “Meeting with the Devil,” where the protagonist is confronted with one of the people who is running the dystopian world and learns just how hopeless his position is.


I’m going to use the rest of this series to lay out the stages of the inverted hero’s journey of these books, and if you haven’t read one or more of them, there will definitely be spoilers galore. However, right now, I want to start by explaining some of the history of the genre, to give you a clearer idea of where I’m coming from.

Most people have probably read or at least heard of the big three: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), 1984 by George Orwell (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953), but the roots of the genre go back further. While these three writers drew on each other for inspiration, they also drew on the earlier Russian novel, We, written by Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921. In We, people have numbers instead of names; all of society is built around mathematical principles, cut off from the outside world, and people are expected to be emotionless automatons running the “machine” of civilization. You can probably see the parallels already.

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Interestingly, even We wasn’t a wholly original idea. Zamyatin drew clear inspiration from H. G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes, first serialized in 1899. In Wells’s Rip Van Winkle-esque story, a man falls asleep for two hundred years and awakens to find the trustees of his estate have established an oppressive world government through the powers of investment and compound interest. As with science fiction in general, while there were threads of dystopianism in earlier works going back at least to Gulliver’s Travels, Wells was the one who got it started as a genre. However, we only see a little of what we now call dystopia in his work, so I will pass that one over.

These three books stood for a long time, with a few additions to the literary canon—A Clockwork Orange, Logan’s Run, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so on. Later, Lois Lowry’s The Giver introduced us to Young Adult dystopian fiction, which led to a wave of similar stories sweeping through in recent years—The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and more. I’ll be passing over those, too. All of these stories follow a more traditional hero’s journey with the protagonist being ultimately victorious, or at least their fate left ambiguous.

Instead, it is the early dystopias that leave us with this hopeless, inverted hero’s journey to underscore the cautionary tales they represent. Even here, I’ll note that Fahrenheit 451 is a little different from the others because Bradbury, at the end of the day, was an incorrigible optimist, but I still think it fits the inverted narrative better.

In the upcoming posts, I will explain my inverted hero’s journey model in more detail and how the dystopian narrative fits into it. Also look for the whole series on my essays page when it’s done.

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Movie Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home

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Well, just a few months after Avengers: Endgame, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is back for his European tour.

When Marvel’s schedule of movies was revealed, Spider-Man: Far From Home felt like kind of an afterthought to Avengers: Endgame (not to mention a spoiler that Peter Parker was alive). But I’m telling you now, having seen it, it is not. This movie is Marvel in top form. In fact, I believe this Spider-Man is the best first and second movie combination of any Marvel series by far. Yes, including Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

There is so much great to say about this movie that I hardly know where to start, but I think I can say a few non-spoilery things that stood out. Also, be sure to stay to the end of the credits. I think that may have been the most plot-relevant post-credits scene we’ve seen in years.

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New Year’s Resolutions, Part 2

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Previous Post in this series.

This year, I tried to be smarter about my New Year’s resolutions, after making just one resolution in 2018 and failing miserably. This year, I made five resolutions, but I tried to calibrate them to what I was pretty sure I could do and then carefully track how well I was doing with them. It turned out even that wasn’t quite right, though, because after actually trying it, I decided I needed to adjust my goals after only three months.

I described that process at the end of March. At the time, I was pleased to report that I was mostly increasing my goals. Unfortunately, things change. When my life got busier, my resolutions started to fall apart, so here is my second update and revision.

My current resolutions are:

  1. Exercise 30 minutes (at home) at least 3 days per week, except when I’m traveling. One of them must be Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Completion rate: 57%.
  2. Send 2 query letters for my novels to agents per month. Completion rate: 100.
  3. Read at least 3 chapters of different books per week, including one audiobook. Completion rate: 97%.
  4. Publish at least 1 blog post per week. Completion rate: 81%.
  5. A complicated set of weekly and monthly writing goals that I chose not to list in detail. Completion rate: 84%.

For that last one, my shortfall was not entirely a failure in writing. On one project, I was doing a lot of editing that didn’t add much to my word count, and on another, it needed extensive worldbuilding, on which I’ve made a lot of progress. On word count, however, I’ve struggled to keep up. Mind you, I’m still doing better than last year on many counts, but I still feel like I’m in a rut.

For exercise, well, that’s the most common New Year’s resolution and probably the most commonly failed. And I’m probably not alone in saying it’s not a matter of “But exercise is really hard.” It’s the time commitment that trips me up. Yes, I know I could make time, but it’s so hard to do that when I’m constantly behind on my writing goals and trying to find time to do those, too. And also, I’ve been traveling a lot, so it’s harder to keep up the habit. I’m still trying to get back on track there, though.

And through all this, I’ve increasingly wished I had a working daily writing ritual again. I said before that daily writing goals just don’t work for me anymore, but as I’ve struggled to keep up with my weekly and monthly goals, daily ones have started to look more attractive. As I’ve said before, I had about two years where I was really on a roll with writing every single day. Since then, I’ve struggled, but I think I might be finally getting back in gear now with some newly adjusted goals.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to make these kinds of goals because I don’t understand it myself. I’ll limp along for weeks and months, struggling to do things halfway and thinking, “I don’t know what else to do. I’m all out of ideas.” And then I’ll hear something that wasn’t even useful advice in itself, but makes me think about it again for five seconds from a new angle, and suddenly, I’ll have a new idea.

I’ll preface this by saying that a daily or even just a regular writing ritual probably won’t work forever because circumstances change. Writing a little bit first thing in the morning worked for a while when I was still taking classes and didn’t need that much of an early start. Writing last thing before I go to bed worked for a while when I had a reliable sleep schedule and didn’t have to force myself to stay awake to finish it. My sleep schedule started to break down, and I wrote complete gibberish a few times and had to give it up. Writing while on the bus to work sort of worked for a while, but it was really awkward, and I decided I was more comfortable listening to audiobooks on my commute instead. (Just as well because for my next job, there’s not convenient public transit.) Writing immediately after work never really worked in the first place because I couldn’t do it every day, and I guess I didn’t have the right attitude for it.

But my new idea is that every day isn’t going to work, but I could scale it back in a specific way. My schedule isn’t reliable enough to write every day, but I can do it like my exercise goal and only require it when something else isn’t getting in the way. (It also helps that I’m counting my blog posts toward my total word count–for now–where I didn’t before.)

I’ve tested this idea over the past three weeks, and it seems to be working so far, so I’m adding it as a sixth New Year’s resolution. (In the middle of the year, I know, but it’s really only four resolutions either way; it’s just that my writing goals are really complicated.) And here it is:

  1. Write at least 250 words immediately after dinner on days when I don’t have something else going on.

I’m hoping this will get me writing more consistently again, even if it’s not every day. So far, it looks promising, although making progress on any specific projects remains to be seen.

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Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

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Stephen Baxter is one of my favorite sci-fi authors. I’ve reviewed several of his books before, but one that I haven’t is The Time Ships, which was a sequel to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine authorized by the Wells estate for the 100th anniversary of its publication in 1895.

I mention this because The Time Ships is one of my all-time favorite books and because Baxter recently wrote a sequel to another classic novel. Two years ago, the Wells estate authorized him to write a sequel to The War of the Worlds for that novel’s 120th anniversary. That sequel is The Massacre of Mankind, and while it’s not as good as The Time Ships, it was still a fun read and a very insightful and well-thought-out follow-up to Wells’s classic.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

Despite its grandiose title, Wells’s original The War of the Worlds concerned a very small Martian invasion—just ten ships land in Surrey, England, and a few dozen Martian “fighting machines” come out. They still do enormous damage because they carry deadly disintegrating “Heat-Rays” and are seemingly impervious to Earth weapons, but it’s a very local affair before they’re wiped out by Earth bacteria.

In The Massacre of Mankind, the Martians step up their game, first ten times and then a hundred times the scale of their 1907 invasion of Surrey. In 1920 and 1922, they send a powerful invasion force to take over Earth (and Venus). The humans have gained some technology from their first invasion, but the Martians are still at a great advantage. All the military might of Earth can only match a fraction of the Martians’ strength. It seems that mankind’s only hope is Walter Jenkins, the mentally traumatized narrator of The War of the Worlds, and his sister-in-law, Julie Elphinstone, whom he sends on a secret mission behind enemy lines to try to communicate with the Martians.

One thing that always impresses me about Stephen Baxter is how meticulously he plans and researches his novels. The Massacre of Mankind feels a lot like a sequel H. G. Wells would have written. It’s not exact. Baxter eases off Wells’s heavy-handed social commentary and even slips in a few digs at Wells himself. He also mixes early twentieth century science and modern science together. Venus and Jupiter are depicted as habitable at the same time that the Martians are using the far more modern concept of kinetic orbital strikes (which have the force of an atomic bomb) to destroy their military opposition. Yet for all this, other elements like the improbably large earthworks built around the Cordon are clearly taken from Wells’s work.

It might be more accurate to say The Massacre of Mankind is a sequel Wells could have written had he been so inclined. It really does feel like an early twentieth century novel for the most part. Either way, it’s a fascinating story, and it extends the world created by the original work masterfully.

And now I’m wondering if Mr. Baxter has any ideas about a sequel to The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau.

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