Police violence, civil unrest, riots, fires, looting, destruction, a “no-go zone” in a major American city, and media suppression, all set against the backdrop of a global pandemic and economic upheaval. It’s our current reality, although it sounds an awful lot like the setting of the next dystopian bestseller/blockbuster.
The dystopia genre has been around for centuries, but the case can be made that dystopian stories are currently experiencing something of a golden age. I’m inclined to believe it, given the smashing success of franchises like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games, that terms like “Orwellian” and “Big Brother” are now common parlance, and that declarations that real-life situations indicate “the simulation is glitching.”
But why—even before COVID-19, when life for the everyday person had been empirically better than ever—would a genre that is, by its very definition, pessimistic and dark be so popular?
To answer that, we first have to understand why fiction itself is important.
By definition, fiction isn’t real. Fiction is just, well, lies we tell each other. Many people assume the function of fiction is entertainment, telling each other stories to pass the time, whether that’s through books, movies, TV shows, or ghost stories around a campfire. And yes, fiction can be very entertaining. But it isn’t the fiction aspect that entertains us. It’s the story the fiction is telling.
The value of storytelling is in its power to explain things. The value of storytelling is in its ability to convey lessons in an emotionally impactful way. And in fiction, it’s in using falsehoods to convey truth.
Look at stories that are clearly not factual, like fairy tales. Obviously, “Little Red Riding Hood” never actually happened. Wolves certainly cannot talk, much less do credible impressions of kindly grandmothers. But the fundamental truth of “Little Red Riding Hood”—the lesson it teaches us—is that danger lurks in the woods, that not everyone means you well, so be careful. An important lesson for children in the ancient world.
All genres have their own special niche in the world of storytelling. Dystopian fiction falls under the much broader heading of “speculative fiction.” Speculative fiction, which also includes fantasy, science fiction, and others, isn’t bound by the limits of reality and often includes blatantly unrealistic aspects. Pride and Prejudice is literary fiction. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is speculative fiction.
While it’s not for everyone, fans of speculative fiction enjoy its wide-ranging possibilities, even when they cross over into the realm of absurdity (Gulliver’s Travels, anyone?). And nestled there in the cosmos of speculative fiction, we find the dystopian fiction section.
Dystopian fiction, in all of its forms, shows a world in decline or collapse. Regardless of the root cause, the common person is laboring under some form of oppressive control, the most common culprits being government, technology, and social conditioning.
In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith struggles against a pervasive surveillance state that is constantly at war with other states and attempts to control people’s thoughts through controlling language. Neighbor tattles on neighbor. People engage in regularly scheduled, ritualized vitriolic statements. Members of society are disappeared when they step out of line. And Big Brother is always watching.
In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, what was the United States is now Gilead, a theocratic and extremely patriarchal state where women are banned from reading, owning property, or holding any positions of power. The wealthy and politically connected men may have wives (one of the few allowable roles for women). These men also enjoy the services of Handmaids, women set aside because they are the few remaining who can still get pregnant.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner is set in a world after an environmental collapse, with people just struggling to survive. Red Rising by Pierce Brown shows us a color-coded caste-based society on Mars. The Giver by Lois Lowery displays a literal color-blind society embodied by conformity and assigned life roles and partners.
Brave New World. The Time Machine. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? These are all notable examples of dystopian fiction, and they are all quite different from each other. What makes them resonate with others, what makes them true, isn’t that these fictional situations are likely to happen or at all desirable. It’s that they are, however unlikely, still possible. At least, in part.
Dystopian fiction teaches us to be wary. Even when things are going well, when life is easy, we must always be wary. Disaster can strike without much—or any—warning. An environmental collapse, a world war, a robotic uprising.
A global pandemic.
And when that disaster strikes—or just sits looming on the horizon—there will be those who will seek to take advantage. As Bran Stark, the character from Game of Thrones, stated, “Chaos is a ladder.” Where there is fear, disarray, and people searching for answers, opportunity exists for those with more ambition than scruples.
Probably, a person looking to take advantage of bad situations isn’t going to lead to the end of the world as we know it. But while the odds might be low, they’re still not zero. If we have already considered the potentially disastrous effects of decisions made to “mitigate” a crisis in a safe and socially acceptable intellectual space, it not only becomes much easier to mentally come to grips with the original crisis, but also to identify and counter the potential problems in the actions proposed to stop it.
In modern psychology, this considering and visualizing worst-case scenarios is called “negative visualization” or “defensive pessimism,” though such practices can trace their roots back thousands of years to the philosophy of stoicism. It can help alleviate anxiety, overcome internal obstacles, and put real life in perspective. In a way, experiencing a dystopian story is a kind of defensive pessimism.
In stories, it’s easy—or, at least, less difficult—to pick out the villains from the heroes. In real life, people do not wake up in the morning and decide to be evil. In real life, villains generally begin with good intentions.
But that is exactly why dystopian fiction and its defensive pessimism is so important (and why it has such broad appeal). Like “Little Red Riding Hood,” it warns us of the dangers lurking in the metaphorical woods we’re trying to navigate. It teaches us to be on our guard, to be skeptical, and, should the need arise, to be steadfast and bold in the face of those who would lead us toward real disaster.