Writing in the Ruins
Dystopias sell, and they’ve been on a long run. Certainly, when H.G. Wells wrote the The Time Machine he was dealing with dystopias, but one can go back further than that. Consider Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. Doesn’t the story of a boy forced into a workhouse and then escaping to the mean streets of London during an unending depression qualify as a dystopia?
As a child, I recall that many of my fantasies revolved around horrifying scenarios. What if the Russians took over? What if aliens attacked? Wells beat us all to it. What if there was a nuclear war? What if we run out of food and have to start eating each other? What if some weird religious cult took over and tried to force women back into slavery?
You get the idea. There are a lot of ways that the world can end, and all of the scenarios above have been turned into very popular movies and books. So what’s the attraction?
First, I think that we recognize that thinking about the “unthinkable” is a valuable activity. Simply by envisioning the consequences, say, a disaster, we can alter the course of history.
When I was a child, I recall having several school teachers who believed that a nuclear war between the US and Russia was inevitable. Certainly the rhetoric was all there, and Fidel Castro recounts how he begged the Soviet Union to let him launch missiles into the U.S. and start an all-out nuclear war. He says that he knew that Cuba would be wiped off the map in the resulting counter-attack, but he was willing to sacrifice his nation.
But that never gelled. Why?
Probably because a few world leaders understood the consequences all too well. They’d read books by geeky sci-fi writers like me, set a thousand years in the future, where radioactive clouds still swept across the face of a struggling earth, and generations of children, burned and scarred and cancerous, sought to eke out a miserable existence because of their ancestors’ mistakes.
So we dodged a bullet. In fact, we’ve dodged a lot of them. I recall once that a newspaper pointed out during the 1970s that the Russians had enough nerve gas to kill every living creature on the planet 10,000 times over. The next day, President Nixon announced that the U.S. had enough nerve gas to kill everything on the planet 60,000 times over. My, wasn’t that comforting.
It wasn’t long until both countries began destroying their chemical weapons arsenals. In fact, within the next few months, the U.S. will have burned up all of its old munitions—a process that has taken twenty years.
We’ve dodged bullets with industrial pollution, viral outbreaks, and economic ruin over and over again, and much of that success I’m sure comes as a result of the forewarnings by storytellers.
That said, think that readers have other reasons for devouring dystopic fiction. The truth is that when we’re reading fiction, we often enjoy thrusting ourselves into a world, into an imagined scenario, that would crush us in real life. Want to get captured as a child and sold into slavery? Want to die and find out what happens next? Want to see what happens when an asteroid the size of the moon strikes Chicago.
Catastrophes and dystopias make for good fiction in part because they’re not real. No matter how well I write a scene, how well you experience it in fiction, you know that the story isn’t real. (I did have a schizophrenic read one of my novels once, and months later he seemed to believe that he had actually been on another planet and lived through the adventures I had described. Don’t you do that!)
The truth is that all entertainment does roughly the same thing: it puts us in danger, yet keeps us safe. If you watch a football game, you feel a sense of emotional jeopardy as your team is pitted against another. If you jump out of an airplane, you’re putting yourself in physical danger as you wait to see if your parachute opens. Entertaining activities all put us in some sort of jeopardy.
Reading a story is much like any other form of entertainment. Part of our mind accepts the story as truth. Our heart might race when the hero is being chased by a monster. We might weep as the heroine finds her true love. When watching a movie, we scream when the killer leaps from the closet.
When we enjoy a story set in stark and horrifying dystopia, we’re performing an emotional exercise, one that helps us cope with our own real-world problems just a little better. So in a very real sense, reading a story is like going to the gym, where you practice powerful emotional exercises. The setting, the dystopia, is just a part of the exercise equipment.
In his latest novel, Nightingale, award-winning, New York Times Bestselling author David Farland imagines a dystopia unlike any that has ever been visited in fiction. Be among the first to discover this thrilling and powerful story. Go to www.nightingalenovel.com.