Every morning you wake up in a concrete dorm room with no windows. It’s dark, but as soon as your alarm sounds the fluorescent lights flicker on. You receive your orders on a print-out. The daily tasks are about the same: a well-balanced breakfast, several hours of classes, a healthy mid-day meal, training, etc. You go through the motions, but there’s always something nagging at you: there has to be something more.
Our love for dystopian fiction has been around for a long time. Think of George Orwell’s 1984 (which was published in 1949). Or, if we want to look back further, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. What I’d like to know is this: if novels are an escape, why are we seeking out stories about rigid societies with unhappy citizens?
What defines dystopian?
Be it a fight to the death (a la Hunger Games) or a man that takes in everyone’s emotions so they feel nothing (The Giver), this genre has many facets. So let’s look to folks much smarter than me: Justin Scholes and Jon Ostenson in the DLA Journal. Their list was bigger, but I’ve picked out some of the following from their list of common elements of dystopian literature.
- Pressure to conform
- Measures to cover up flaws and lies within society
- Attempts to erase or revise society’s history
- Limited or complete lack of individual freedom
- Division of people into privileged and unprivileged groups
- Little hope for change
- Human lives that are rote, meaningless, or inhuman
- Economic manipulation
- Flawed, misunderstood, or abused advances (science, technology)
Sound familiar? There’s thousands of these on the market, particularly in the YA category. Why does this desolate look at a depressing potential reality resonate with us so much? I have a few theories.
We’re semi-attracted to the idea of a rigid society.
Here’s a controversial one to start off with. In this self-starter, entrepreneurial age, we’re vaguely attracted to the idea of living within rigid restrictions (if only through the duration of a novel). Let’s start with some statistics:
- The National Institute of Mental Health says that 18.1% of adults experience some kind of anxiety disorder.
- Entrepreneurism is at a high. “60 percent of millennials consider themselves an entrepreneur” (Huffington Post “The Power of Millennial Entrepreneurship”)
The gist of the above article is that when the economy crashed in ‘08, it shattered the whole “stability” dream. So we were all punted off into a world that seemed more safe to create our own jobs instead of trying to climb the so-called corporate ladder. Make sense?
I’ll be the first person to tell you that working for yourself is probably the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. You’re entirely responsible for paying off loans (thanks, Mount Saint Mary’s), keeping your lights on, etc.
Inc. published an article called “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship”, where many very successful business owners talked about their struggles with anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. So there’s tons of people trying to build their own businesses without a roadmap that are filled with anxiety.
And even if you aren’t going down that path, the economy doesn’t seem particularly stable. You could lose your job tomorrow due to a major fuckup (on your end or a poor decision the CEO made). There’s no guarantees.
So, admit it, why wouldn’t the thought of a highly-regulated living situation (even if it sucked) be a little bit of a “step out of our vaguely uncomfortable situation” moment? Even if you really love your job (self-created or otherwise), wouldn’t it be nice to temporarily pretend that you had no options?
No one’s better than anyone else. There’s no outliers looking down at us from their multi-million dollar pedestal making us wonder if we’d ever reach that success level?
In theory, no options = no stress, maybe?
Maybe that’s just me. So let’s look at another perspective. The opposite: we’re fighting for our individuality and it’s motivating to see someone in an escalated situation doing something similar.
We want to fight our own society’s restrictions.
The main character of any dystopian novel is the one that questions the rules, fights the system, and (usually) gets out having made their lives better. For sake of argument, let’s liken our society’s expectations to our hypothetical dystopian society.
There’s a million ads on TV about what to wear or what cheap Rimmel lashes will make up feel like Cara Delevingne (the spy version, obviously). Instagram’s shown us what teas will make our bellies flatter. We’re bombarded by versions of who we should be. Self improvement books are a $100 billion-dollar industry.
And judge it however you’d like, but the focus of our society has shifted in recent years. We’re all looking inward. Previously the focus was “how can we help our community prosper?”
This article from NY Magazine put it well: there’s always been hints of self-help, ranging from bootstrap entrepreneurism to “hippie” spiritualism, embedded into our country’s roots. Because, hey, the USA was built by folks who wanted to make something for themselves. But it’s been overshadowed by an “American stew of shame and pride and citizenship that kept these impulses walled off, sublimating private anxiety to the demands of an optimistic meritocracy.” So basically we refused to talk about how we weren’t okay because it would look bad or make our lives more difficult.
So obviously something changed. There’s even been a push for acceptance of mental health problems. Hell, being gay was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until freakin’ 1974. Now look how far we’ve advanced.
We’re literally doing this “fighting society’s restrictions” thing now. (Maybe we’ve always done it, social media’s just made it easier to broadcast it). We’re fighting the stigmas of our society. We’re embracing our individuality. Some of us are skipping the traditional 9-5.
And even if we are embracing the “corporate career tract”, we’re now doing it on our own terms. When I was growing up, my dad made some offhand comment about how good it looked for me to stay in the same job for a while. There’s literally an Inc. article called “Older Workers More Loyal to Employers”.
And now? Forbes says that “ninety-one percent of Millennials (born between 1977-1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years”.
So taboo self-help has become more commonplace, we’re not following the “this is how we do things” book (anyone get this A-List reference? Anyone?), we’re pushing against the traditional career track. College doesn’t even seem like a necessity anyone (read: this piece on The Skinny Confidential).
Not resonating with you? Let’s take it a step further:
Is it because we’re getting a “worst case” depiction of where our government and lifestyles are going?
Our future looks bleak.
This point isn’t even in light of the recent elections. But there’s articles aplenty with a nod to our new “Leader of the Free World”:
- “11 Dystopian Novels To Prepare You For Donald Trump’s Presidency” on Bust.
- “Donald Trump’s Dystopias” on The Atlantic
- “10 Ways Post-Election America is a Dystopian YA Novel” on BookRiot
And, furthermore, Octavia Butler’s 1998 second installment in her dystopian series focused on an extremist autocrat who wanted to “make America great again”.
I’m not even endorsing these articles. They’re just out there. That’s what people are thinking.
How about you? Why do you think dystopian fiction has been popularized? Is all of the above BS, find some truth in it, or maybe you have your own theories? Let me know in the comments!