It was an electric teaching day for me. My English II kids are reading Animal Farm, and while admittedly it’s not as good of an example as 1984, today we talked about utopias, dystopias, and whether or not too much dystopia in speculative fiction is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
See, these kids have been reared on a steady diet of Hunger Games, Divergent, The Walking Dead, The 5th Wave, etc. etc. etc. Kids these days! Well, to be fair, my generation had Terminator and read Orwell and Bradbury in school. But the dystopia phenomenon has glutted the media to the point where literary agents are specifically saying “NOT INTERESTED in dystopian YA.”
Let’s face it: dystopia is a nice warm Petri dish for breeding drama. It’s compelling to watch characters struggle through a ruined world trying to bring light and hope to a desolate society, to break free and let the sun shine again. Also, a student had a great point during our discussion where she described a feeling of schadenfreude indulging in dystopian spec fic — watching the characters struggle through such a harsh or totalitarian environment makes one feel better about one’s own world, no matter how flawed.
But a question I’ve been ruminating on, and that I posed to my class today is “Is there some kind of consequences for a society glutting themselves on dystopian spec fic, drowning in stories of a dark future?” A student commented, “Well, my coach says that if you think you won’t do well in a game, then you won’t do well, but if you believe you’ll do a good job, you will.” So, is dystopian spec fic a self-fulfilling prophecy?
So many things — vital inventions and ideas — were born of science and speculative fiction. Without War of the Worlds there would be no lasers, and hell, Star Trek had tablets. We’re creating the most human like robots possible which just begs for Blade Runner to become real. Without Jurassic Park would scientists have gotten the idea to clone a wooly mammoth?
So if we seek to become our speculative fiction, to in some ways model our world after it, what happens when all we consume is dystopian? You can definitely argue that books like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 serve as cautionary tales. Certainly Animal Farm with allegories traditionally serving a corrective purpose. But what about Hunger Games that revels in the fucked-up-edness of the future and glorifies the heroes that bring back the light?
I would argue that we need more Star Trek futures, more hopeful spec fic. I’m not saying that all futures need to be plastic and pretty. I want spec fic that’s realistic but not so entirely and unendingly dreary. That’s why I’m so excited to be part of an upcoming science fiction anthology called Humans Wanted where humans are for once not portrayed as the negative destroyers of the world and ruiners of the universe.
I think YA writers owe it to our young people to present a future that isn’t completely bad. There’s still plenty of ways to create conflict and drama in a future that has some good points instead of being nothing but a totalitarian brainwashing wasteland. We become what we see. Art imitates life imitates art, and I don’t want my kid growing up in Panem!