Do you remember your first dystopian novel? Was it 1984? Maybe Fahrenheit 451? Maybe even Atlas Shrugged. What in the world drew you to read a second dystopian? Seriously, can you picture the 14 year old telling his mother, “Hey, mom, I just love books about the end of civilization as we know it where we’re ruled by iron-fisted dictators!”
Surely mom would seek counseling for the boy and buy him the entire Hardy Boys series.
So why? Why are we drawn to these dark, often depressing of life in the future?
I think the answer comes in two parts. First, we want to read the future. And throughout history, few have thought that their futures would be better than their pasts. All of us long for the “good old days.” We look at the state of our government and society and see no bright outcome. After all, we have history to prove that most societies drift into a state of socialism and moral decay. Why should ours be any different. With that reasoning, it’s not hard to accept a society where children are selected to fight to the death while the entire nation watches it on live television.
Secondly, nothing exposes our humanity like absolute hopelessness. Even though On the Beach wasn’t technically a dystopian, here we had a small group of people who had no escape. All were going to die and even had a good idea when death would come. Did you notice the difference in how each reacted? The protagonist refused a love affair with a beautiful woman because he was still married in his mind, even though his wife was certainly dead. Another character raced his car into a fiery death. Others committed suicide. Our hero, though, stood strong, right up to the end. We knew he’d die, but his actions were still heroic.
Through a dystopian, where all is hopeless, we see the true nature of our characters. When death or a life of slavery is certain, people make choices that comfortable, free people would not. We see a glimmer of hope in small acts of kindness. Because in our dystopian societies, there are no small acts. They are all we have.
I lied. There’s a third reason to read dystopian: as a warning. Even though the stories may seem far-fetched, we glimpse a little of where we are heading. Few can argue that Ayn Rand showed a bit of prophetic vision. Same with Orwell and Bradbury. Read those old dystopians and you will see elements of their predictions in our society today. It’s a bit unnerving.
So what about you. Why do you read dystopians? And what is your favorite?