The appeal of dystopian fiction – words Cristina Archer
Utopia – is it a good place or perhaps a state of mind? Somewhere inside of all of us, do we strive to be better? Do we search for that physical place so beautiful to take our breath away?
Do we also seek a mental space where the things that made us afraid, sad or angry no longer exist? Is happiness a state of being, a pursuit, a choice or something that just happens? What is it to be a moral person in a good society?
I begin with these questions because I believe these are at the heart of why dystopian literature can be so appealing – to women, to young adults; in fact, to anyone fascinated by what makes individuals and the world around us tick. This is more so when we are watching some of our greatest fears playing out around us in real time. We search for meaning, for truth, for role models to emulate when we face hard choices in our own lives. Sometimes it is a conscious quest for escape, or for answers; sometimes not.
I don’t profess to be an expert on the reasons why dystopian fiction is growing in popularity, particularly among women and young adults. But I can share why I became an avid reader (and writer) of these types of stories in my teenage years into adulthood and that may offer some insights into the trend.
My genre of choice was dystopian science fiction – novels, short stories and films. What captured my imagination the most was the use and abuse of technology especially AI and cyberpunk, and life in controlled societies, especially those reacting to a new development or ‘game changer’. What makes us human and what takes that away.
Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man collection of short stories has given me life-long uneasiness over ‘smart’ houses. Ursula Le Guin, one of my favourite writers, and her story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas especially stood out as a philosophical masterpiece exploring what was wrong with a world where happiness depended on the suffering of others. And P.D. James’ The Children of Men is one of the most believable dystopian books ever written purely because it rings true about how governments and people could react the way the author describes. There are so many more.
What I read and wrote was shaped by what I saw around me. Reading books about nuclear weapons during the Cold War just before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, I am certain I might have been the only teenager designing fallout shelters in the early 1980s as a ‘choose your own topic’ school science project. That said, I was not alone in writing stories about worlds struggling in the aftermath of apocalyptic wars.
Context is everything for both readers and writers. I do not think this is a new phenomenon. Stories written in ancient Greek times, such as the play Antigone by Sophocles, were magnifying glass reflections scorching the earth – illuminating the fears of the people of the time, who were surrounded by near constant war and subjugation between nation states.
Dystopian fiction, for me, shed and amplified light on certain societal trends that, if they were to take a wrong turn might make what I read more than just fiction. Is it art imitating life or life imitating art? The trends that troubled me the most were focused on those failing to remember the past and being condemned to repeat it. It does not surprise me that Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale are being read and re-read by many now. History is strewn with examples of societies filled with oppression and the literature written at the time that helped to provide a yardstick of the truth. Timeless classics.
What might happen (now and) in the near future if power was concentrated in the hands of an elite few and those with that power took away our freedom? This is a key question I am exploring in my fifth novel, The Peithosian Gift.
The story was born out of a conversation I had with a close friend on an epic road trip. Wondering whether growth of consumerism could be or was being used as an opiate to control the masses, we talked about how persuasive advertising and propaganda could be and how some people seem to be more easily persuaded than others. In my usual tangent style, I speculated about a ‘what if?’ question around every living thing having a will that could ‘push’ ideas onto another living thing. From there, the seed grew into the idea of the push and pull of Nature, and a bunch of people who had a gift and, by the time we reached home, I had the shell of a story that turned into The Peithosian Gift.
The novel is the first in a planned speculative/fantasy series about two warring families who possess the power of mind control. It tackles a range of philosophical questions and moral dilemmas, including whether mass mind control is good or bad for society. I am writing the sequel currently and cranking up the volume on aspects of this theme. For example, I wonder whether a lack of choice can be genuinely accepted to be a form of happiness, whether seceding decisions (consciously or otherwise) to someone or something else can make us content because it is easier than having the free will to choose. Don’t even get me started on how algorithms could be used and abused in this context – that’s a commentary for another day.
Utopia — is it a place that cannot be?