The days are getting shorter, the political sniping is at an all- time high (or is that low?) and won’t end for weeks (or is it perpetual?), up north they just had a serious flood and down south they are evacuating for a hurricane. It’s time to read some dystopian fiction to give you some perspective.
Wikipedia says, “A dystopia …is a community or society that is undesirable or frightening. It is translated as “not-good place”, an antonym of utopia, …Dystopian societies appear in many artistic works, particularly in stories set in the future. Some of the most famous examples are 1984 and Brave New World. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society..”
Not surprisingly, there is a lot of dystopian fiction written for young adults (think of the Hunger Games and Divergent series), but I’ve recently read several novels aimed at adults that fall into this genre. After hearing a radio interview with the author, I wanted to read Underground Airline by Ben H. Winters. All our copies were checked out so I had to put a hold on it, and in the meantime I read the author’s Last Policeman series. These are very engaging books. The last policeman is Detective Palace. He is trying to do the right thing as civil society disintegrates around him in the face of earth’s collision with a massive asteroid that will happen in 6 months. The scenario in Underground Airlines is worse somehow because the fault lies in humans, not some natural outside force. The story takes place in modern day United States, however, the Civil War never happened and there remain four southern slave states. The main character works for the federal government tracking down escaped slaves. Grim indeed.
Right now I am reading Station Eleven, one of this Fall’s B.Y.O. Book discussion titles. The story jumps back and forth between the past (when life was “normal”), and the future, 20 years after a virulent flu has wiped out most of the population. There are several overlapping story lines, some set in the past, some in present, but the one I am enjoying the most focuses on the travelling musicians and actors who make up a troupe that walks from small town to small town in the upper mid-west. One of the troupe’s members is Kirsten, an 8 year old child actor in King Lear when the book opens, now 28. “..some times when she looked at her collection of pictures she tried to imagine and place herself in that other, shadow life. You walk into a room and flip on a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage bags on a curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. When you’re in danger, you call for the police. Hot water pours from faucets….All of the information in the world is on the Internet…There is money, slips of paper that can be traded for anything: houses, boats, perfect teeth.”
David Astor writing for The Huffington Post speculates that, “We admire the best dystopian novels because they’re written well and depict people we can relate to. We’re fascinated by the terrible things these characters face, and by how some react bravely and some react cowardly or with resignation. We, as readers, rubberneck to see the misery; we can’t avert our eyes even as we’re enraged by what despots and other vicious officials are doing to citizens. And we’re compelled to turn the pages as we wonder if rebels and other members of the populace can somehow remake a wretched society into something more positive. We also wonder who will survive and who won’t…
Last but not least, we admire dystopian novels because, by giving us worst-case scenarios of the future, maybe our current society can be jolted enough to avoid those scenarios eventually happening in real life. Like some of the characters in dystopian novels, we might feel a little against-all-odds hope. Then again, maybe not…”
Me, I like a suspenseful story with characters I can related to and these books deliver.