The Appeal of Dystopians (and Why I Can’t Read Them Anymore)

I don’t know about the rest of you, but ever since the Muggle Malfoy got elected, I have lost all desire to read dystopian novels. Now, to be fair, my disenchantment with the genre started before his racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic orangeness managed to get most of the country to openly agree that those beliefs were acceptable. But as soon as I woke up to the news that he’d managed to ride the wave of hatred to become the next president of this country? I was done. But, also, I started thinking.

Why are we fascinated with dystopians works, particularly young adults? What is it about that particular set-up that thrills us?

(Note: The opinions contained in this piece are exactly that – opinions.)

no more dystopians

Us Versus Them?

Most young adult dystopians are missing something. Something that the majority of readers of this site could probably count themselves in.  A middle class. One of the predominant themes of dystopian novels is ‘us versus them’. There’s the lower class / oppressed and the higher class / masters.  What is fascinating about this?  Is it a reflection of how we see things now? The 1% and the 99%? The Hunger Games pits various districts against each other to compete for the scraps from the Capitol.  Red Queen  makes it clear that if you don’t have silver blood, and the powers associated with it, then you aren’t quite … human. (Gee, a difference in something like color. Can’t imagine when we’ve dealt with that in our recent past.)

Do recent generations have it so easy that they look for an outlet for rebellion? Is the love of chaos and conflict something embedded in the young adult psyche? Or is it an urge to see people their age prove that they matter. That they can make a difference? Frequently older adults are in the positions of power, and it’s up to the plucky young hero/heroine to toss the system on its ear.

Is it the need to see a hero/heroine rise? Though plenty of famous people are role models (and most shouldn’t be!) for our generations, there are few people that we can say qualify as well-known heroes. The one person that comes immediately to mind is Malala Yousafzai.  While Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and a few others are well-known for their charitable acts, they are first and foremost associated with whatever it was that made them rich to begin with. Does being a philanthropist make you a hero? What is the definition of a hero?

In my mind, someone who risks their life to protect, educate, or fight for a group’s rights is a hero. They aren’t throwing money at a cause. They’re throwing themselves at it. Malala Yousafzai put her life on the line for education and women’s rights – and she very nearly did die for it. But how much attention do they get?  In a time where we have the unparalleled ability to communicate, why do people talk more about people who are more well-known for their rear assets than for their intelligence and any other qualities that actually matter?

How do you create a no middle-class scenario? By raising taxes on the middle class until they can no longer buy and do the things necessary to keep themselves in that bracket.

How else do you make things into an “us-versus-them” situation? By perpetuating the belief that LGBTQ, African Americans, Hispanics, and people with disabilities are the ‘other’. That they are one side of the line, and white supremacists, with sticks so far up their butts it’s amazing they aren’t spitting splinters, are on the other. 


A Life Without Advanced Technology or Modern Medicine?

I know this seems a bit strange, but when you think about it, how many young adult dystopians have you read where advanced technology is present in everyday life? Technology is a known. A comfort. It is, especially in recent years, an extension of us. It helps us out. We have access to more knowledge with the touch of a few buttons than we ever have had. We can do everything from check the weather to figure out how to change the oil on our car.

Most young adult dystopian novels have a lack of technology present in them, or most of the population doesn’t have casual access to it. For example,  The Hunger Games does have technology in it, but it is not something the lower classes/poorer districts have access to. When it is talked about, it’s the ruling class and game masters using it to exercise control or to broadcast something.  Is this because recent generations have grown up so accustomed to technology that the fascination lies in how humans survive without it? Or is it not fascination so much as it is terror? I can see where it would be. Or maybe it’s simply that it’s something that even relatively poor people take for granted, and to have it become a ‘privilege’ again is unthinkable.

Personally, imagining a world where I can’t google answers to things like “How to cook —“ is scary. I would feel positively adrift without the internet. And GPS? I couldn’t find my way out of a mowed field with a large sign reading “EXIT HERE!! EXIT HERE!!” at one end. Being forced back to a time where it was trial and error to figure things out sounds horrifying.

What about modern medicine? Imagine being taken back to a time where we couldn’t vaccinate our children against things like the measles. Where you couldn’t just go to the doctor and get a prescription for antibiotics that you could get filled in 20 minutes when you have a minor infection. And with my daughter’s illness, the idea of not having access to even basic things like her nebulizer is enough to nearly send me into a panic attack.

Of these two, the lack of access to medical care because of no medical insurance (especially for people with pre-existing conditions) is the one that truly makes me shudder. And that, right now, is a possibility.

Because Dystopians are Scary?

I think, honestly, that the lure of dystopians is that they do something much like horror novels do. They give us a chance to be scared, but of something that could happen. Something more tangible than ghosts, ghouls, demons, and psycho murderers. It could happen, but it’s been (at least until recently) something that was a possibility and not a probability. A lot of readers are turned off by what they associate horror with. Horror, to many, is blood and guts and gore and all things horrible. But many still want a thrill. They want to be safely scared, so they turn to scenarios that are a bit less intense and less immediately personally dangerous. 

I think, for Americans, it has now shifted from a possibility into something close, if not exactly, a probability. I don’t think I understood, until recently, exactly how scary it must be to live in countries where people who are at least as indecent as The Biggest Bully is. And I know, compared to that thing, the other people are far, far worse. People like Omar al-Bashir, for example.

I think that some of us have moved beyond the point where we can consider the dystopian setting to be something to be ‘safely scared’ by.  At least that’s the case for me personally. When the president-elect and his chosen companion are people that espouse basically everything that decent people (in my opinion) turn their nose up at, I can’t say ‘everything is going to be okay’.  I’m scared, and I’m angry, and I’m disappointed. So very disappointed. America, how could you? You don’t get to use the excuse that you voted for this special little snowflake just for his plans for the economy or whatnot. You didn’t elect 1/8th of this poor example of humanity. No one gets to pick and choose parts of someone. You elected all of him. As a people, America said “Hey, being a butthole is A-Ok!”


Could It Become a Reality?

I don’t think that El Hombre Naranja is going to bring about the apocalypse. But could he bring America to its knees? Yes, that tw*twaffle has that power. He has that power because of white (primarily lower and middle class) Americans who are so blindly ignorant and/or prejudiced that they don’t have any common sense gave him that power! He can put us in a dystopian state, if the people who know better, who recognize a repulsive, festering pustule on the armpit of humanity when they see one, sit back for the next four years with their thumbs up their butts.

If we want to avoid living in our own version of dystopia, each one of us needs to stand with those he opposes over the next four years. We need to be willing to fight to keep our brothers and sisters safe. We can’t give into the complacency that comes with being outside of the minorities that he has targeted. None of us can watch his repugnant rhetoric be spewed about like contagious verbal vomit.

This man is not just an abscess on the rear-end of common decency, he’s a cancer in its bowels. We can’t just sit back and reassure ourselves things are going to be okay. We need to seek treatment immediately – to be the treatment. Because cancer gets worse, and spreads. It doesn’t magically go away, and it can’t just be cured by one action. So, yeah, if we want to avoid a dystopian, we can’t let this tide of hatred and prejudice go unchecked. And I’m not saying we must go to war or be big heroes either. We just must be public examples of what it means to be a good person. Loudly being a person who says “Racism is not okay. Xenophobia is not okay. Grabbing women by the bits is not okay.” Is one of the best things we can do, both individually and collectively.

Dystopians might be fun to read about, but who wants to live in one? Who wants the development of their nation to be set back decades (if not centuries)? So, yeah, I’ve lost my stomach for dystopians. Maybe in 4 years or so I’ll get my urge to read them back again.

What about you?

Why do you like dystopians?

Are you tired of the market or can’t wait to read even more?

If you live in America, has this recent election season turned you off reading dystopians?

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9 Responses to The Appeal of Dystopians (and Why I Can’t Read Them Anymore)

  1. I have never been a real fan of them, they always sound so good and then I try it and I don’t like it and I am like why do you try it you know your not going to like it, but I try it again. I think I have only liked a small handful but never actually finished a trilogy I just usually read the first one and then it fades from view.

  2. Brian says:

    I love them. I haven’t been reading them as much because I have a hard time finding one that really grabs me like some of the classics (and new classics).

    After reading what you’ve written — I can imagine that they won’t have the same effect because we will be living in a world that most of these stories spawn from.

    Easily my favorite part of dystopian fiction is the reality of them. I love when an author can take a “what if” scenario and write a book or books on the outcome. Usually they relate to things that are going on when the book was written, but if it’s written well enough, it can be as accurate and terrifying years later.

    “What if society has cameras everywhere and can see everything you’re doing” — aka 1984.

    “What if books are burned because they contain too much knowledge and we want to keep people dumber” — Fahrenheit 451.

    “What if we are divided into sections dependent on what we do” — Hunger Games.

    That’s easily why I love dystopian’s. I don’t think that I will ever stop reading them, but finding one that REALLY catches my attention is hard to do.

  3. Debbie says:

    Great post and much to think about. I suppose dystopian fiction did it’s job of presenting a range of ‘what if’ scenarios. But who’d have guessed this one. Not me.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. There are many things to speak to in this piece, but I will limit myself to mentioning a new dystopia that is fresh so far. I am a good portion through Neal Shusterman’s Scythe. In this future world, technology has reached its pinnacle, there is no human-run government, medicine has conquered illness, injury, and death, and colonizing Mars and the moon have failed so there is a guild of sorts that is responsible for controlling the population by “gleaning” people. I found it interesting that it mentions that even though people could be completely equal class-wise, it was decided that people would be too bored so even thought every person has enough to live comfortably, there are still ways for some to have more than others.

    Not trying to convince you to read a dystopia, just pointing out that this one is different/refreshing in ways you mentioned.

  5. Donna says:

    Now I’m happy I stayed late with your questions 😀 Love of all your points. I guess now we don’t need dystopians as we’re about to live our own apocalypse served by fat Malfoy!

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