Why write dystopian fiction? Why write about an imaginary culture were everything has gone wrong and all the good things have been taken away? Isn’t it very depressing? I get asked this a lot.
I have my reasons. I’ve loved dystopian fiction ever since I read George Orwell’s 1984 when I was thirteen, and didn’t fully understand what Winston and Julia were doing in that room for rent above Mr. Charrington’s curiosity shop. It’s taken me five decades to take the time to formulate the reasons.
First: I’m a member of an oppressed group myself. I’m a woman in a patriarchal society. I’m a transwoman and a Lesbian in a homophobic and transphobic society. Those things make it easy for me to sympathize with oppressed people, even though I recognize I’ve been lucky compared to some people with the same problem.
Second: As a student of history, I’m disturbed by some resemblances to a past era of history that came to a cataclysmic end. I’ll deal with the domestic aspect of it first, then the global aspect. My country, the United States of America, has been struggling with uneven success since 2008 to get out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. (When I say “uneven success” I mean that President Obama’s policies have scored some real gains in all the important economic stats, but the new jobs pay less than the old ones that were wiped out by the 2008 recession.) Bitter partisan rivalries have paralyzed Congress and the President, preventing even a budget from being approved in four years. Every few weeks a new massacre of innocent citizens takes place. Unwarranted government surveillance of persons not even suspected of a crime keeps getting worse and worse. Police officers kill unarmed private citizens (nearly always people of color) without even discipline, let alone prosecution for murder. Even though millions of Americans still suffer from patriarchy, class rule, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and religious bigotry, we are in danger of losing the rights we do have; most notably in the case of many states adopting various legal subterfuges to prevent people of color from voting. A dangerous demagogue named Donald Trump is now exploiting this volatile situation for his own ends. Because he has a net worth in the billions, he can finance his own campaign if he has to.
Third: The great recession of 2008 is global. Most of the industrialized world is handling it worse than we are. Witness the disastrous cutbacks Greece has been forced into by the IMF and German bankers. These cutbacks have made the recession worse, and even though the Greek people rejected the latest round of cutbacks in a referendum by an overwhelming majority, it didn’t matter. Bank profits come first, no matter how much suffering there is on the street. Religious fanatics have taken over a large part of oil-rich Iraq and Syrian. Calling themselves the Islamic State, they’ve made themselves notorious by their public beheadings and human rights violations. Now they have oil revenue which they’re selling abroad. They will be very difficult to stop without American ground troops, but as we saw from the 2003 Iraq war, American “boots on the ground” creates a fresh set of difficulties. The Islamic State is one of the consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Fourth: In a nutshell, climate change. The icecaps are receding at both poles, and the danger of the major coastal cities of the world going underwater in decades to come is real. If all the water in the icecaps melts, the states of Florida and Louisiana will disappear completely. We could build a wall around Manhatten, but who’s going to build a wall around Florida?
In short, it’s a very dangerous world we live in. I mentioned a past historical parallel. What I had in mind was the 1930s, which culminated in fascism, world war, and genocide. And they didn’t climate change back then to complicate matters further.
In a nutshell, we live in a pre-dystopian world. After a series of wars, economic catastrophes, and natural disasters, it’s easy to imagine some demagogue marching into your town and saying, “So here’s the deal. I’ll provide basic security and make sure everybody gets enough to eat, and in return, you people acknowledge I’m the boss here, and don’t cross me.” If, in a desperate situation like that, would I agree? I like to think I wouldn’t, but I’ve never been tested that way.
The usual explanation for the popularity of Dystopian entertainment among teenagers is that high school resembles a dictatorship, and works like The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, Shatter Me, Delirium, Unwind, The Selection, and so on are merely expansions of the high school experience to the whole society. I disagree with this, because it shows little respect for the young readers.
I think the teenage and twenty-something readers of Dystopias are smarter than that. They see all the disturbing trends I see. But I am 65 years old. Most of my life is behind me. The opposite is true for them. They’re justifiable anxious about the world they are poised to inherit.
They have told me so. Once I was talking with a college-age young lady about my novel Discarded Faces. “What,” she asked, “is the premise of it?”
“Some time in the future, a group of kids about your age get together and help to overthrow a dictatorship.”
With complete seriousness, she said, “That may be coming up in our future.”
The young fans of Dystopian novels and movies are not stupid. When they read the books and see the movies, they see possible futures.