When it comes to fiction, and the kinds of stories that people gravitate towards en masse, I don’t think there’s any genre more universally compelling than the dystopia. Whether it tells the story of a complete catastrophe leading to the end of humanity at the hands of monsters, or merely twists contemporary fears to create a speculative representation of a hyperbolic vision of those fears… There’s something about a well written dystopian novel that just gets people.
These are amongst the most popular and most iconic stories out there. Their plotlines and worldbuilding remembered and referenced by people from any demographic. Their language and prose sticking in the public lexicon more frequently than any other type of story.
And what makes them so powerful? So compelling? So believable?
Fundamentally, people are scared, upset, frustrated or just disillusioned with at least one aspect of the society they live in. Even reading the same book can lead to vastly different outlooks with dystopian fiction because the overarching truth of the story is that there is something wrong with society today – and that’s something everyone agrees on, even though the specifics can vary wildly.
But at the same time, people have hope. They have ambition. They have passion. They believe and actively fight for change no matter how bleak and distressing the state of the world might get.
And those two contradicting yet interlocking truths are at the heart of why dystopian fiction is so beloved and so meticulously studied by so many readers.
Of course, some dystopias are more renowned and more famous than others. And no, that’s not a reference!
‘1984’ is easily the defining dystopian novel of the 20th Century. No other novel is as highly referred to as that one, no other speaks to the fears of the time as adequately as that one, and no other was as prophetic as to the worries of this century as that one was. Orwell predicted internet era phobias in an era before the internet came into existence, and he did it while tackling the fears he had about his own times and own society. That’s quite a feat.
But what novel will be remembered from this century, the same way that we remember ‘1984’ today?
It’s a tough question – or, at least, it would have been a few years ago.
But now, I have read Agustina Bazterrica’s masterful dystopian horror novel ‘Tender is the Flesh,’ and I have no qualms with calling it the defining dystopian novel of our times. I fully anticipate that people will be talking about this book in the next century the way we have discussed Orwell’s classic in this century.
Admittedly, this did surprise me somewhat. I expected ‘Tender is the Flesh’ to be a compelling, yet relatively one dimensional allegory for the meat industry, and the horrors that can be found within it. That’s a given, and I can guarantee you will find this allegory within the book’s short page count. But what I found on top of that was a layered and incredibly deep deconstruction of contemporary societal issues that does not shy away from the more shocking and extreme elements of the horror genre.
This book speaks to a whole host of the fears and concerns we have today, and will almost certainly have to contend with in the future.
The meat industry? Sure – there are plenty of areas within perceptions of and treatment of the animal kingdom that the book explores. The way cattle and other animals seen as nothing but sources of produce are maltreated by profit-seeking business owners. The industry’s relation to the climate crisis, or attitudes to animal life generally. And fears of extinction, and animal abuse, and how all this affects humans by extension.
But the author goes one step further than merely depicting these horrors exactly as they appear today. She asks a simple question – what happens when the animals are all gone?
Well, animals are not the only forms of life that get treated like garbage, and with rising concerns of overpopulation, and the exponentially growing divide between wealth and poverty, and the unceasing avarice and malice of those with that wealth, and the power it brings… There is a simple solution.
Let’s replace all the animals reared for meat consumption with a new class of humans bred for the same purpose. Their conditions are dreadful, their treatment horrific, and no one really gives a damn. That’s effective, no doubt, but how about adding even more layers, like the disturbing parallels to be found within the ways corporations treat their employees. For whom the exact same descriptors can apply, both within this fictional society, and our own contemporary society. And since the book takes place largely within our POV character’s job at the meat factory, both of these allegorical horrors can be explored in multifaceted ways at the same time – which the author does masterfully.
This leads to further discussions too – attitudes towards trauma and mental health within the workplace. The lack of treatment or even support on offer because the bottom line, profit and efficiency, matter more than health and wellbeing to those in charge, and as a result, the employees and colleagues are given no real choice but to forsake their peers as well, if they want to keep hold of their jobs.
All of this remains within the factory, the slaughterhouse, our main character works within. We don’t need to leave this setting to explore the effects of greed and contempt on both the human workforce, and their human product. Of course, the book does venture into other settings as well, where much of the same conversations can take place, with a greater level of depth and versatility, as a result of being such widespread issues.
Ultimately it comes down to one thing – compassion, empathy, understanding… and the fact that all of these are dead. At least, that’s the pervading idea within the society contained in ‘Tender is the Flesh.’
Because at the end of the day, the horrific treatment of human beings, whether it’s the “actual people” working for the biggest industry within this dystopia, or “the heads” who don’t even get to be treated as actual people to begin with, all comes down to the same base issue.
It’s dark, and distressing stuff to read – but it’s powerful, and effective at delivering its message, and a very compelling piece of persuasive writing on top of all that.
But the author is intelligent. She is aware of the greater scope of societal issues that all interconnect, putting as much depth into this dystopia as she possibly can. So she knows that this dystopia does not start and end with meat, no matter what species gets thrown under the bus for its creation.
And with this realisation, the pool of potential horrors within our society that she can discuss in her dystopian novel grows ever deeper.
Because the big question behind the change this book posits to the reader come with other questions that the reader maybe does, maybe doesn’t realise are pertinent at all. Some of the people who can’t get behind the premise of the book have one more question – how could something this extreme possibly come to happen?
And it’s simple, really. Which is even more horrifying, now I come to think of it.
The distressing reality this book depicts came about because of global perception, which follows not from the necessity of meat consumption, but from something that was already lurking behind the scenes. Our perceptions are being influenced and manipulated all the time. Through language, and social interactions, and the systems in place in our societies – class, labour, media, authority.
Of course, much of this is forced on people by the authority figures behind this new normal, pushing the idea that some people are worth less than other people, which they were doing long before “the transition” to eating “special meat” as they are known within this dystopia.
These euphemisms speak to a broader concern though. The rest of society is not entirely without fault, not entirely automated under the control of the topmost authorities. This has become the new normal within society, because it became the new normal within public perception. And every single piece of this society is another tool to ensure this new normal continues.
Because one tragedy, one horrific atrocity never happens in isolation. And so the author opens her dystopia up to further discussions that seem totally divorced from the central themes at first glance, yet fit perfectly when we are forced to really think about the horrors of our day to day lives, and how such things can both begin, and persist. Such as racism and misogyny, the dehumanisation of people that those in power have just decided are worth less than others, gender prejudices both in and out of work and attitudes towards childcare – or attitudes towards children themselves, or even the attitudes of those children, and the way they behave as a result of the new normal they grew up in.
The novel is shocking, and horrifying, in many, many different ways – but it’s the kind of horrific content that makes the horror genre so compelling, by engaging in a speculative way with the kinds of fears we really have to deal with. This is the kind of explicit, dark, morbid graphic content the dystopian genre can benefit from, and yet I’ve never really seen from dystopian novels in the past.
By fully embracing the horror at the heart of dystopian fiction, and becoming an explicit hybrid between those two genres, ‘Tender is the Flesh’ becomes something much more harrowing, much more disturbing, and much better equipped to explore its dark, terrifying themes than the non-horror dystopias that came before it.
Because the nature of a dystopian novel is that it takes an area of our current society that is bad – then blows it up to undeniable proportions using the benefits of speculative fiction, forcing us readers to engage with the issue at hand. Because none of the tragedies and horrors to be found within this book are entirely fictional. They are all very real, in one form or another, in our current lives. And just as this book, and this author, predicts… if left unconfronted, things will only get worse from here.
See, the book gets more and more disturbing with each chapter, starting out (relatively) mild, and showing you darker, and more horrifying images and ideas with each chapter. As if the starting of a new chapter is the reader saying, “Okay, I’m with you. Let’s ramp it up to the next level.” And the author delivers constantly. I was never prepared for the horror to be found on the next page, and it got me right in the heart every damn time.
We’re only twenty two years into this century and it’s already been inundated with dystopian fiction. So why is ‘Tender is the Flesh’ the 21st Century’s defining dystopian novel? There are three major factors that make it so easy for me to make this claim:
With an unparalleled level of depth for the genre, the author explores contemporary fears to deliver on the vital elements of dystopian fiction.
The book has been fused with the horror genre to craft a much more shocking, disturbing, and effective dystopia than we have ever seen from this genre in the past.
It progressively ramps up the horror and distress to be found in this fictional world on a chapter by chapter basis, as if presenting just how much, and how quickly, this dystopia can and will get worse if it isn't confronted, leaving it much more prophetic.
The character in this book never uses his own name. It’s third person but only so the character can divorce himself from the horrors of his work life and his personal life. Because even those directly involved with the atrocity at the heart of this dystopia are not free from the dehumanising harm it causes.
Maybe there’s something inherently wrong with humanity, with our perspective on ourselves, with the stone in our hearts. Or maybe ‘Tender is the Flesh’ is only the bad ending, the worst possible outcome for us, and by putting it on paper, the author has saved us from it. Such is the power of the dystopian novel.
As for why the book seems so believable for so many people, I think it’s a simple case of the relationship between literal narrative and thematic narrative. In this book, people are used as meat in a literal sense. But they’re viewed as meat in a figurative sense in our current society. That, to me, is why this dystopia rings so true for so many.
And that, paired with its incredible depth, is why this book will be remembered for as long, and as prominently, as ‘1984’ has been so far. I’m as sure of that as I am that ‘Tender is the Flesh’ is a must read.