Why is dystopian fiction important? Or is it?
Earlier this week I spoke on why we are interested in dystopian fiction and why we like it so much, and the thing I kept coming back to was this: unlike utopian fiction, and historical fiction, and contemporary fiction, dystopian fiction is still possible. It will always come up in the cosmic tarot reading. Utopian fiction has its own problems of probability that dystopian fiction doesn’t, while historical fiction has already happened and contemporary fiction is currently happening. Everything that is taking place RIGHT THIS MINUTE can lead to the eventuality of the dystopian fiction. Follow any troubling thread and you will find a dystopia in one shape or another waiting at the other end.
Follow any of the headlines you discovered in the exercise from Monday and you will get conceivable, believable, possible futures that people are already fretting over with or without your fancy imagination. This isn’t a conspiracy theorists plot to instill panic: we’re facing economic and environmental disasters every day.
Dystopian Fiction Can Teach Us About Our Own Worst Selves
I believe, and please realize this is purely my own opinion, dystopian fiction serves a useful avenue to imagine and explore the darkest possibilities of our own future and the choices we may have to make one day. Granted, we’re probably not facing a zombie, robot, or vampire apocalypse anytime soon, but other possibilities? Sure.
Dystopian fiction serves as an early warning system.
It allows us to question the road we are already walking and not take for granted the possibilities that exist in front of us. By questioning and imagining and playing pretend between the comfortable, safe pages of a book, we can shape our attitudes and choices when/if the time ever comes.
If early Star Trek series can inspire technological design, function, and invention, than certainly dystopian fiction can inspire us to avoid the worst possible outcomes by changing our own attitudes and choices about the future.
A novel can teach us how to treat each other better in the event of a disaster or a serious change in society. If dystopias teach us anything, it’s that when push comes to shove, we as a species are pretty ready to shove each other off the side of a building before we share our last loaf of bread. A common theme in all dystopias is that during the worst possible days of our lives, human respect is the first thing we cut from the new bylaws of human experience.
Young Adults and the Dystopia Trend
If I’m right in saying that dystopian fiction can teach us about ourselves and about the dark roads of possibility ahead, than who better to speak these lessons to than young adults? They may not be in charge yet when society changes, but they are likely the ones who will have to lead afterward.
Maybe I’m reaching. Maybe dystopians can’t really teach us how to behave (or how not to behave) if and when society faces a terrible change. If that’s too lofty an idea, we can put that aside for a moment and look at another reason that is closer to our hearts as readers.
The surviving characters inspire us in ways that other characters from other genres are simply unable to do.
There is Something Inspiring about Survival
Millions of people all over the world have been holding their breaths in anxious anticipation of the final Hunger Games book by Suzanne Collins. At the time of this posting, Americans have had the book in their hot little hands for two days. Millions of Americans are going to have devoured the book before this post even hits the stands…and I’m one of them. Is the reason we want to know what happens in Mockingjay because we’re all shaking our Team Peeta! and Team Gale! signs and just want to see someone get kissed already?
The thing that has bred inside our hearts is not our insane desire to pick a kissing team. It’s because Katniss has become a girl we all want to be. In some way, we want to infect our hearts with her bravery, her courage, her loyalty, her insight, her creativity, her protectiveness, her ingenuity, her rebelliousness, and her inner fire.
When we see the world through Katniss’s eyes, we want to know that if anyone did to us what they did to her, we’d stand up for ourselves, our sisters, our family, our friends, and the one we love. We want to believe that these characteristics are not fictional. We want her to inspire us to greatness. We want to save the world.
(Ok yes, we also want our Team kiss to happen, but focus please!)
Lots of heroes and heroines from lots of genres inspire us, but few actually get to face the worst the world and triumph. Remember the definition of a dystopia? As Bad As it Can Be. Characterized by suffering, misery, overcrowding, famine…dystopia is the only place where things are required to be as bad as they can be and then we ask a character, boy or girl it doesn’t matter, to not just survive but to achieve self-actualization, human satisfaction, and maybe save the world if they’ve got time before the end of the book.
It sort of makes achieving self-actualization in our own lives a small task in comparison, right?