Dystopian Present

“Why?” my sister asked, standing in one of the surviving brick-and-mortar bookstores, waiting for her tweens to pick out something to read. “Why is the YA section all dystopian science fiction?” She was more annoyed than curious, concerned that her children were being limited to a narrow vision of alternative worlds. But it got me thinking…

Her theory was that this is a trend based on simple market-driven economics: the success of The Hunger Games spawning imitators. My theory goes beyond the cash to the human desires that wrest it from our hands. We (not just the kids; we’re all reading this) are drawn to the stories that help to explain our lives. Previous generations were drawn to Westerns or kitchen sink dramas. A few years ago, we were still believing that, in a magical battle between good and evil, good would ultimately win (thought to ponder: if Harry Potter had not been introduced until 2007, would he have made the same emotional connections with his public as he did by debuting ten years earlier?).

I’m wondering if dystopian futures are compelling to us today because we’re living in a dystopian present. For over 200 years, the American Dream relied on a sense of limitless possibility. But right now, nothing seems possible. Our politics are broken. Most of us live from paycheck to paycheck. The social contract has more riders than a rush-hour subway. And nothing is punished as consistently as good behavior.

Is it surprising that we’re drawn to big stories with protagonists who are imprisoned by what seem to be unshakable contraints? Look at a tiny slice of dystopias on offer: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Justin Cronin’s Passsage and Hugh Howey’s Wool (the success of which makes me, dare I say it? at least 50 shades happier than other self-publishing phenoms). These are epic tales of societies born of disaster, societies which have since outgrown and perverted their initial purpose. What was refuge has become cage. Their protagonists are people of large spirit who can no longer bear such empty survival and are prepared to risk death for an hour of life.

No happy endings in these fictional worlds. Sacrifices are great. Walls come down, only to be replaced by new walls. The best we can hope for our heros is that they experience a moment of joy or love along the way, and end with the peace of having at least tried. Is that the new American Dream?

About Lori Berhon

Lori Berhon is a New-York based novelist and playwright. Her work is distinguished for its intelligence and for the vivid humanity of even her most impossible characters. She is actually taller, slimmer and far more elegant than she appears to be.
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