Better Natures vs. Worst Instincts

Clouds, storm

photo: Alias 0591, creative commons license

Were you, like me, puzzled by the preponderance of dystopian fiction in the young adult category a few years ago? I don’t know whether it started with the post-apocalyptic The Hunger Games trilogy or merely came to a head then, but it seemed adolescents couldn’t escape these bleak takes on their future world. Might they even give up on it?

Disasters, manmade or otherwise seem ever-more likely—an earthquake near the Pacific Coast,  coastal flooding up the Atlantic seaboard, asteroids hurtling toward Earth, Kim Jong-Un, the Rise of the Ultra-Nationalists. So many ways for our world to be royally screwed. In fiction at least, the frequent aftermath of calamity is a society that is, well, dystopian.

Recent analyses suggest that in the current world political climate, the political cataclysms that breed dystopias have put the genre on the rise again. Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have increased 9500 percent since the inauguration of president Trump—and at least for a time, it topped the Amazon bestseller list.

Cory Doctorow in the April Wired argues that disasters don’t inevitably end in dystopias. “The difference between utopia and dystopia isn’t how well everything runs,” he says. “It’s about what happens when everything fails.” He suggests that here, in the nonfiction, disaster-prone post-election real world, “we’re about to find out which one we live in.” Do we respond by helping each other, or do we see survival as a zero-sum game, in which one person’s gain is another’s loss? He reminds us that, on many of the Titanic’s lifeboats, at least half the seats were empty, as people already saved did too little to help their drowning fellow passengers struggle aboard.

A dystopia can be created when we’re persuaded that our neighbors are our enemies, not our mutual saviors and responsibilities.

The belief that when the lights go out, your neighbors will come over with a shotgun—rather than the contents of their freezer so you can have a barbecue before it all spoils—isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s a weaponized narrative. (Emphasis in the original)

Unfortunately, there’s all too much of that kind of thinking in today’s political narrative. Doctorow has thought extensively about what makes a better versus a worse future. In his new novel Walkaway (published today, affiliate link below), the questions he tackles underscore the importance of the narratives we tell ourselves. Do they lead us to work toward utopias or succumb to our worst instincts?

For Further Consideration

  • Many classic novels have described dystopias, as cautionary tales and authors’ predicates to a sentence that starts “If this keeps up . . . .” Here are 10.
  • A “spectacular” television version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale begins April 26 on Hulu.

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