Every day another apocalyptic scenario! And I’m not talking about the news—I’m talking about our collective desire to imagine the end of the world as we know it—in fiction. Sometimes I wonder how the steady trickle of dystopian novels (short stories, movies, etc.) became a flood and then a tsunami of disasters.
I grew up with dystopian classics—‘Brave New World’ by Aldus Huxley, ‘1984’ by George Orwell, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury, ‘The Time Machine’ by H.G. Wells… By the time I read ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ by Walter M. Miller Jr. and ‘The Children of Men’ by P.D. James, I started to think of dystopias as a favorite science fiction sub-genre.
Once the ‘Hunger Games’ series by Suzanna Collins took over the media universe, the only dystopian threat to that particular scary fight for fictional survival were the hoards of zombies tromping and gobbling their way through the turf of Jane Austen, Abraham Lincoln, cable television and suburbia.
What is it about dystopia that is so appealing?
I have to wonder if it’s because real life is so tenuous. There are wars all over the world, mysterious deadly diseases popping up out of nowhere, the rise of a new far right, religious intolerance, the climate crisis, and lots of other changes that scare the shit out of all or some of us.
Even the changes that many of us embrace (the movement toward equality of opportunity, gender equity, the ubiquity of technology, etc.) feel like the slippery slope toward dystopia to other people. Recent laws restricting transgender individuals from using the bathroom associated with their identified gender instead of the one on their birth certificate, is a good example of a hot button issue that divides people along clear lines. What seems like a sensible protection for the rights of a minority to some—looks like the path to a new dystopia for others.
Maybe we like stories about zombies devouring a suburban landscape, diseases that decimate civilizations, and a man falling in love with his search engine, because no matter how scary fiction is, it’s a walk in the park next to real life?