The Problem With Dystopias

I don’t like dystopias, which I know is a cardinal sin for any Gen Z kid. As children we read The Hunger Games and Divergent, as teenagers we read 1984 and Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 and maybe, if we were lucky enough to have a super-cool English teacher, even The Handmaid’s Tale. Mix that reading list with the political climate and technological innovations that colored our childhoods, and it’s not surprising that kids of my generation feel a especial affinity for dystopias. I get it. I still push back against it.

My primary gripe with literary dystopias is that they are necessarily anti-change. They do not reflect how things are, but how things could be. For this reason dystopias are often hailed as necessary warnings about what our society might become. That’s an honorable cause. But what if that warning is wrong?

[Dystopias] are necessarily anti-change. They do not reflect how things are, but how things could be.

It’s all subjective, but an author who asks “what if in the future…?” can very easily fall into a slippery slope fallacy. Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World, asked “what if in the future women didn’t have babies and everybody just had sex for fun”, and based his dystopia on that frightening prospect. In 2020 this Brave New World seems like it would probably be a wonderful place to live in. It is Huxley and men like him—who despair progress, who fear the decline of the nuclear family, who despise the racy new media, who extol Christianity, who demonize pot while they’re on their second gin and tonic—it those men who have prevented the rest of us from embracing the change to a kinder, better world. 

A dystopia can distort. A wily author can imply that things that worry him personally are wrong generally, that a single abortion or atheist is the sign of large scale moral corruption and a world in disrepair. This pointed interest in the lives of others is visible in today’s politics.  It could be reasoned that the “they’re ruining marriage for the rest of us” argument is a product of Huxleyan thinking. 

There are dystopias, like The Handmaid’s Tale, that warn readers about a credible threat to their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. These books do not invent a threat where there is none. Instead, they expand upon legitimate and current concerns. There’s nothing innately wrong with these books, but it does seem strange that an author would create a new world that’s so obviously based on the current one. There is a degree of separation to these books that allows readers to entertain the idea that this dystopia is something removed from their own lives—something that could happen, but that hasn’t yet. Oppression becomes a fantasy in a dystopia. We think about what we would do, not what we can do now. 

Oppression becomes a fantasy in a dystopia.

Regardless of dystopia’s basis in reality, the genre has another problematic cliche. The singular protagonist seems to be a given in dystopian novels—the intrepid teenage white girl, the intellectual young white man, the bookish young white woman—you know the drill. They act alone. They are usually the only person to recognize the full injustice of the system. They know innately that the system is wrong, and whatever conditioning/torture/suffering that broke everyone else in the society and forced them to submit has never had any affect on our protagonist. They are too strong to ever be wrong, to ever be inadvertently complacent, and because we identify with the protagonist we begin to think that we too are the world’s last beacon of hope. Protagonists in dystopias never have to face their own guilt in upholding the system. They rarely have to come to terms with the part they played in allowing their society to devolve. So why should we?

There’s a certain conceit to a dystopian novel. The idea that a single person can topple a corrupt system by themselves stems from the egotism of writers and readers who have never lived under an oppressive regime. A real authoritarian is not taken down by a teenager with nothing but the force of will. The desire to be a hero, to say “Well, if it were me, I’d do something” is understandable, but it’s simplistic, and devalues the experiences of people living in real dictatorships who are simply trying to survive.

Think about it. What makes you think that you, in particular, would be the one to “do something” in a dystopia? What are you doing to fight injustice now? Because if you sit at home now, when there is only low-level risk, then what makes you think you’d stand up when your life was on the line? Or your spouse’s life? Or your child’s?

What makes you think that you, in particular, would be the one to “do something” in a dystopia?

For the most part, I dislike dystopian novels because they don’t feel real. People are always writing about how the end is nigh, but it hasn’t come yet. Maybe it’s optimistic to think that, maybe the end is just already here. Either way, Orwell starts to sound a little bit like street corner preacher.

There’s nothing wrong with reading dystopian novels, if you’re like… into torture porn and all that. It’s just good to be aware of the genre’s fallacies. There’s nothing in a book that doesn’t have ramifications in the real world—try going to a protest before you buy a 1984 tee shirt.