“There you go, more negative waves!”
– Oddball, Kelley’s Heroes
Anyone notice the glut of dystopian fiction these days?
“Now wait a minute there, tech-boy,” you say. “Haven’t you written a few dystopian novels yourself?”
Um…well…yes, I have. A total of four, actually. But even if I wasn’t writing them, I’d still have to notice the trend. As a Vine reviewer for Amazon, four out of the last five sci-fi books I’ve reviewed have been straight dystopia. Or, to quote the Webster’s definition, they were all novels that featured “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.”
Given all the dystopian novels out there, one might think that publishers were actively seeking such stories. Well, they are! In fact, according to an author friend even larger CBA publishers are looking for novels with a dystopian slant.
Part of that is doubtless do to the film and book juggernaut that is “The Hunger Games.” But even the worlds of our superheroes (Superman and Batman, for instance) have a markedly dystopian feel now. So why is that? Why, when by most secular measures—human longevity, general prosperity, amount of leisure time—this present world is most utopian of any generation, do we find ourselves, in literature, so invested in future shadows?
Let me offer three suggestions as to why…
Those of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies, were exposed to a wealth of dystopian novels and films. There’s the bubble cities of Logan’s Run where one’s life is literally “in the palm of their hands,” and the overpopulated world of Soylent Green. There’s the totalitarian government of Orwell’s classic 1984 and the overstimulated population of Huxley’s Brave New World.
And let’s not forget the firemen of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or the simian rule of The Planet of the Apes!
Such dystopian seeds can’t help but be expressed in the literary preferences of today. We grew up reading and watching it, and now not only are many of us still reading it, but some are writing it too. My novel Mask pays homage to some of those sci-fi classics.
Another reason I think dystopian novels have such a renewed interest is due to their literary usefulness. Dystopias are a great way to put ideas in a test kitchen. Just take a popular trend or fear, extrapolate it out to its extreme (and sometimes logical) conclusion, and you have a dystopia.
People censoring books today? Hmm…so what if all books were censored tomorrow? Wa-poof. Fahrenheit 451.
What if the earth became overpopulated? Solyent Green.
What if the earth became overpopulated, and there was a massive war? Logan’s Run.
What if today’s commercialism and selfishness one day dominates society? Brave New World.
And a couple personal favorites:
What if people could vote on anything or anyone? Mask.
See how easy that was? Ray Bradbury once said: “I write not to predict the future, but to prevent it.” For an author, dystopias are an excellent way to explore relevant issues while preserving a level of abstraction that makes the subject approachable to everyone. A way to raise a warning flag about a potential danger ahead without preaching. (Show of hands, how many people think freedom of speech and the press are safer for Bradbury’s having shown what life would be like if they were not?)
For the reader, dystopian novels provide a forum to examine worst case scenarios. A magnifying glass he can hold up to the real world to see if there is something there to be truly wary of. Will we ever see children fighting to the death in an arena, a la The Hunger Games? Probably not. But is the value of children and childhood being diminished before our eyes? Absolutely. Now, what can we do about it?
Our collective dread
The last reason I think dystopian novels are so popular is because, regardless of whether life today is better than it was centuries ago, we also sense—collectively—that a free society is a very fragile thing. History proves it. There were few steps between the federal republic of Weimar, and the totalitarian regime of Hitler. Only two isolated revolutions were enough to end the dynasty of the Czars and spur the beginning of the Soviet Union. Whatever freedoms we enjoy, whatever blessings, need to be diligently protected and preserved. Because is the totality of history, they are but a whisper.
In addition, I think we all sense that no matter how good things are here, they aren’t as good as they should be. This is a manifestation of the longing for Heaven that humans innately have. We seek comfort, we seek happiness. We find ourselves upset over the smallest detail — the simplest event that didn’t go our way.
Doesn’t that suggest that we’re all living in a dystopia now?
Well, in respects to Heaven, yes we are.
Now it’s your turn. Why do you think dystopias are so popular?