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Dystopic stories – why are we obsessed?

And let’s face it, we are obsessed.

Our media are laden with the dystopic. Some of our most popular stories are based on horrific cultures, deadly plagues, and environmental degradation. They start off as novels or series of novels and get turned into TV and movies. We lap it up, but why? 

For those of us who engage with speculative fiction and satire, the answer has always been: “To envision the way that things could go wrong, and so, avoid it.” 

But I’m not so sure about that answer anymore. From George Orwell’s 1984 we learned about the dangers of persistent surveillance, the loss of privacy, memory, and individuality. Yet we seem to be rushing headlong into a world where we risk the same thing. Sure, it’s not in the same way – our smartphones aren’t controlled by Big Brother. Yet. But we’ve still given up our privacy and the need to engage the function of our memories. What I used to remember, I now let my phone do. I let it know where I am, what I’m doing, all for the convenience of a map that I used to carry in my head. And sure, they fulfill these individual needs, but do they help us develop as individuals? 

Other cliché answers

Many feel that dystopias are especially popular amongst teens – and I’d agree – because teenagers can relate strongly to the idea of being part of a world they don’t control. They don’t get to make the rules, which feel arbitrary and unfair. Reading stories in which the protagonists become the heroes in these worlds gives them some agency and relief from this feeling. 

But aren’t we all the same? Isn’t our current circumstance a bit too close to a dystopia? We’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic, runaway climate change – yeah, that’s still happening – and a degradation of our democracy that feels like a tilt towards authoritarianism. So, why the hell did I enjoy re-watching the original Planet of the Apes so much the other night?

Aristotle had a word for it: catharsis

Hell, it’s an old idea, but I think there’s something to it. It’s the same reason we enjoy tragedy and horror. There is something purifying about experiencing the pity and fear you feel during a story filled with tragedy, horror and spectacle. That is – essentially – what dystopic fiction is all about. 

[Spoiler ahead!] At the end of Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston’s character sees the ruin of the Statue of Liberty and he realizes (finally!) he’s on Earth. He falls to his knees, starts beating the sand impotently, and shouting: “You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

And I’m, like: “Yeah, man.”

I feel pity for the character, fear for the reality it represents (there are still enough nukes to destroy our civilization) and a bit of release from both when it’s all over. 

Are we spending too much of our energy on dystopias?

This is an argument I’ve been seeing from science fiction authors such as David Brin. He says that more of us should be writing stories which have a positive future, and especially, stories in which people don’t act like idiots. I can’t really disagree with a lot of Brin’s arguments, which you’ll find here

But I do think there is a place for dystopias, because it makes us feel better about things as they are: “Australia may be on fire, and the icecaps are melting, but at least there aren’t zombies.” 

Yet. 

My own dystopias

There’s at least two dystopias in my stories, and one that is what I’d describe as “anti-utopian”. Check out one in all the usual places online!

Books of Mark A. Rayner

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