Dystopia in demand

If the future is so bleak, why do we just want more?

Nuclear Bomb Test, Nevada, June 18 1957

Oh, the terrible things that could happen! Viruses sneaked out of the lab and released at Thanksgiving Day parades, uranium enriched for nukes dropped by malevolent neo-theocrats, genes mutating, computers taking over, asteroids colliding with populated, hapless planets.

And it’s not just the fact of a terrible thing happening, but its devastating aftermath. Society ruined — in a cataclysmic apocalypse, or slowly by a thousand cuts, and those still standing left to fade or rebuild or merely survive.

All of which is to say, entertainment!

With the Tuesday, Oct. 22, release of “Allegiant,” the third book in Veronica Roth’s hugely popular young adult “Divergent” series, and the Nov. 22 theatrical release of “Catching Fire,” second in Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy, it’s time to say: These stories are kind of a bummer. But then, that’s the point of a dystopia, isn’t it?

Tracing the meaning of the word to its ancient Greek roots, a dystopia is a “bad place” and it’s a familiar trope in the arts. Whether it’s Hieronymus Bosch painting nightmarescapes of very, very bad places or George Orwell envisioning rat facials, dystopia is a familiar theme in films, books, fine art and even (especially?) video games, and people clamor for more.

Whither the appeal of dystopias, of bad places and the people left to live in them?

“I think it’s because fiction can be kind of an escape,” said Corinna Manion, young adult librarian at Mesa County Public Libraries. “All fiction is escape in a lot of ways. For teens, (dystopian fiction) shows that even though life is really scary, it can be worse. They’re coming of age in a world that can feel really scary, a lot of realities they’re facing can be overwhelming, and seeing teens navigate dystopian worlds can be comforting for them see how that happens.”

Though dystopian themes have long been popular across the arts, it’s the theme’s popularity in young adult fiction that has drawn the most focus in recent years. For example, the first two books in Roth’s “Divergent” series, “Divergent” and “Insurgent,” have sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and “Divergent” is being made into a film set to come out next March. And all this for a series about a ruined Chicago of the future in which Lake Michigan has dried up and society is divided into five rigid, ultimately malevolent factions.

“(Dystopia) is not a new genre,” Manion said. “You can look to ‘1984’ or Mary Shelley, but it’s new that it’s so overwhelmingly popular.”

Which seems surprising, on the surface, because dystopias are, by their nature, bleak. Anyone who read George Orwell’s “1984” in high school can attest to several days of twitchy suspicion, of furtive glances over the shoulder and deepest paranoia about that which controls people in society. The same could be said for “Brave New World” and “Fahrenheit 451.”

Paonia author Paolo Bacigalupi, a National Book Award finalist for his young adult novel “Shipbreaker” (a dystopian novel about a post-oil America), speculated in the Dec. 17, 2012, New York Times that dystopias are a popular theme in the arts, especially for teenagers and young adults, because they reflect what can seem to be an inevitable future.

“Whether we’re looking at the loss of biodiversity, or the depletion of cheap and easily accessible energy, or the hazards of global warming, our children will inherit a world significantly depleted and damaged in comparison to the one our parents handed down to us. And they know it,” Bacigalupi wrote. “Unfortunately, the truth of the world around us is changing, and so the literature is morphing to reflect it. Teens want to read something that isn’t a lie; we adults wish we could put our heads under the blankets and hide from the scary story we’re writing for our kids.”

Perhaps that’s why dystopia targeted toward adults — whether it’s the virus-devastated world of George Stewart’s “Earth Abides” or the worldwide infertility of “Children of Men” — doesn’t often have a happy ending. Because life often doesn’t.

In an essay for “Utopian Images and Narratives in Advertising: Dreams for Sale,” Margaret Salyer wrote, “The accepted wisdom is that this type of dark message is meant to highlight the fears and anxieties of the culture that gave rise to it. The typical gloomy foretelling of doom, decay, and deterioration with images of chaos, brutality, and alienation functions as a portent of future outcomes if society pursues the path it is on. But the meaning can be missed as the titillation of the images stimulates distraction from this fundamental meaning. And certainly the stimulation may be more the purpose of the communication than the message of warning.”

Which is to say, the theme may be one of societal doom and destruction, but it’s still pretty entertaining to watch Brad Pitt battle zombies in “World War Z” or Arnold Schwarzenegger kick butt in “The Running Man.”

At least in young adult dystopias, there’s often romance and adventure and an ultimate sense of hope, or at least possibility. They can be a parallel world to the horrors of high school, say, or the facelessness of technology, and they can show kids coming out on top.

“Here’s my theory,” wrote young adult author Maggie Stiefvater in the New York Times. “Our world is getting increasingly complex. Teenagers face a huge number of choices and an almost paralyzing array of expert opinions on what constitutes right and wrong. In a culture defined by shades of gray, I think the absolute black and white choices in dark young adult novels are incredibly satisfying for readers.

“Teenagers want to be able to fight for what’s right — but finding out what’s right is now 90 percent of the battle. If only the evil in the world was named Voldemort, we could get down to the business of slaying it. And with the dystopian novels, we know just what we’re fighting for.”

And if nothing else, dystopias in entertainment can make people glad for what life is by highlighting what it isn’t. Sure, the U.S. government is dysfunctional, but at least it doesn’t control national fertility. Sure, the environment seems doomed, but at least the Yellowstone super-volcano hasn’t exploded.

If nothing else, dystopian art says, it could always be worse.


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