It’s no secret that I’m a fan of dystopias. I grew up on bad 80’s post-apocalyptic movies all about how we’d destroy each other with nuclear war and/or run out of bullets and gas (surely, the WORST things we could POSSIBLY run out of). But when it came to books, I read a lot more of the older stuff – stuff like 1984, We, Brave New World, Anthem (the only Ayn Rand book I’ve ever read!), Farenheit 451, and other old-school stuff that served as the launching pad for later nuclear/fire holocaust books like A Canticle for Leibowitz, and the more recent City of Bones, and etc.
There is always some Big Bad Thing we’re freaking out about, generally because it’s easier to understand stuff like robots and bombs and governments that need overthrowing. If it’s not Big Brother/Government, or Bombs, then it’s Robots.
Now we’re less worried about bombs and more worried about our own uncontrollable genetic, organic, and atmospheric tampering. Dystopias are tending to lean more toward ecological and genetic trickery, like The Windup Girl and Year of the Flood. These books, I’d argue, are a little more complex, which is why, as yet, there are fewer of them. It’s a lot more fun to just say a bomb went off and everything went bang than it is to really explore the complex way that a bio-plague would totally screw the world.
But then, perhaps that’s what the zombie fixation is all about these days – a simple personification of our fears of collapse due to corporate/government greed and excess. It’s a nice, neat way to freak out about what your government and corporations are doing without explicitly saying you’re… well, without saying you hate freedom. You just hate zombies.
Totally different thing.
On a long enough timeline, every species dies out, either because they destroy themselves through overpopulation and diminished resources or because the climate or situations simply change too fast for them to adapt to the new rules. These days, we see a lot less of those fictions where we can escape our problems by simply jumping onto starships and perpetuating the same old crap in the stars (and if we do get up there, we tend to face the same old problems, instead of shiny Star Trek utopias). We like exploring those fears in fiction. Like any type of profound emotional experience, it can help to work through exactly what you’re feeling by simply facing it in a relatively safe and controlled environment. I can write about dead worlds all I want, but when I look up from the book, the grass is still growing… in my yard, anyway.
For how long it’s going to grow, I don’t know, but it makes me less scared of the actual future when I see one go so wrong as some of the ones I see in fiction. To some extent, this might not be a good thing. It’s like telling American women that sexism doesn’t exist because, hey, in Saudi Arabia women can’t even drive!
That is, there’s always some other future that could be “worse,” and it helps numb you to the everyday horrors of your own future…. And your own present.
One of the things that dystopias never do, though, is posit a way to fix all this shit. I mean, really? We destroyed the world, but can we go back? Is it all doom? How do we fix it? It’s like those stories than end when two people get married. Wooo, wedding! And then you’ve got all these couples who wake up the next day and go, “Oh crap, now what do we do for the next 50 years?”
Where are the stories that teach us how to be better? Why does Star Trek begin when we’ve already eliminated all the war and plague? Even the utopias ignore the long, slow ascent to… well, to something better.
Maybe we just can’t imagine it. Maybe it’s too hard. Maybe it smells too much like politics or dirty socialism. Maybe it sounds too much like we’d stop maintaining the status quo. Maybe imagining the worst simply garners a more profound emotional reaction than engineering a fix.