This post may sound a little bleak, so apologies in advance. But I think a lot of people are feeling a little bleak right now. This is about reading and about books, but also about what happened yesterday, and what happened over the past few days, and beyond.
The world at the moment feels like quite a scary place to live in. War, terrorism, families fleeing their homes in desperation and the subsequent growing hostility towards them, young girls kidnapped or shot for wanting an education, people being killed indiscriminately simply for being who they are, politicians being attacked and murdered in the very town they were trying to make better… all under the shadow of a vote that could see Britain isolate itself from its neighbours even further and the prospect of a US President who would like to see a wall built on the border between his nation and others.
I read a lot, as you have probably gathered, and I have read a lot of books that are classed as Dystopian – stories which describe an alternate society typically including one or more of the following elements: mass poverty, public mistrust and suspicion, police state, or oppression of certain sections of society. Typically in Young Adult dystopia there is a hero or heroine, who often “wins” in the end – overcoming tyranny, though usually not without losses. Other examples don’t have such “happy” endings. Some of these novels describe the End Of The World As We Know It, and then what happens after. Others start from a point years or even centuries after whatever disaster caused the world to be in the stare it’s in, or are perhaps alternate versions of our own time, as opposed to being set in the future. A sample of dystopic novels I have read (though not always enjoyed) includes:
- The Hunger Games series
- A Clockwork Orange
- The Handmaids Tale
- The Divergent series
- The Maze Runner
- The Passage
- Cloud Atlas
- More Than This
- The Uninvited
This is all fiction of course. It makes good reading and even better movies. What they all have in common is that they are stories of a dystopian world which has come into being due to mankind’s greed, ignorance, intolerance, violence, or carelessness – sometimes a combination of all five, sometimes described, sometimes only implied. (I could extend this list even further if I added dystopic novels driven by natural disaster as opposed to the actions of people).
Why do we like these stories so much? Is it because they are usually told from the point of view of the oppressed, someone who we can root for, who stands up against tyranny? Is it because the people in these books have lives that are so much worse than ours? When I read The Handmaids Tale I spent almost the entire time feeling slightly sick, and often had tears in my eyes, especially when reading the scenes in which she described the family that had been stolen from her – I completely identified with Offred and wondered how I would possibly cope if I was thrust into such a situation practically overnight. (That sick feeling, by the way, is how I know it was masterfully written).
The scary thing about the world at the moment is that I can see too many parallels with these works of fiction. Perhaps people who don’t read as much as I do don’t have such fears (I can’t decide whether that is a good thing or a bad thing). There has been much discussion on how science fiction becomes science fact – many every day gadgets and technologies we use all the time were first dreamed up by sci fi writers, sometimes as far back as the 1800s. Check out this infographic for a detailed list of books that seemingly predicted the future. But what about dystopic fiction becoming fact? How farfetched is it to think that the events described in the novels listed above could actually happen?
Reading back over the first paragraph of this post, it could almost be the blurb on the back cover of the latest dystopic novel to hit the shelves. Personally, I prefer to read fictional stories about such events – I don’t want to actually be Offred or Katniss or Winston. On a positive note, however, I have also seen evidence of those heroes and heroines I mentioned earlier – people who are fighting back even when they feel at their most low, who won’t be oppressed, who stand up for what they believe in in the hope that they will be the ones to make a change.
Perhaps I’m thinking too much about this; perhaps the parallels with these books I’m seeing aren’t as pronounced as I think they are. But perhaps there could well be a warning hidden in these stories, and by reading them, we could learn a bit about how we want our world to be (or, more importantly, how we don’t want it to be).