In literature as in reality, it is a subtle line that transforms an ideal society into a Dystopian nightmare. All it takes to sink into a despair of bread lines and Big Brother Watching You is a wrong turn down that road paved with good intentions. A child of the Cold War, I grew up listening to echoes of “Communism: a great idea, a terrible practice”, suspecting that things which seem too good to be true…are. Just ask George Orwell, a master of the Dystopian genre, who was adept at showing us the horror of an ideal pushed too far. Orwell’s satire on that very regime, Animal Farm, drove the point home for me with its ever devolving theme of, “All Animals are created equal…but some animals are more equal than others.”
A dark form of satire, this genre holds a fun-house mirror up to our society, reflecting our hopes, fears, aspirations and true natures. Exploring the fictional Dystopias of past eras is like cracking open a time capsule into the collective subconscious. Let’s go back in time, shall we, to 1791, when Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, with its ironic solution to over-population, found an ambivalent reaction. Many upper-crusters who were not in on the joke thought it was a brilliant idea to feed the poor to the rich: two birds, one stone. Centuries later, Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World amidst the xenophobic, pre-war energy of the 1930s. One of his protagonists became the poster child for “the Other”, and bore the brunt of the “perfect society’s” bigotry. Further down the line, and in response to the Red Menace of the 1950s, Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, a monumental novel which depicted a world where men and women were not allowed the creative incentive of a free market.
Western culture wears its neuroses on its sleeve. Our fears and obsessions show up all over our art and most recently have been beautifully, if darkly, rendered in an array novels. We see ourselves in the Rabelaisian, entertainment-gluttons of Suzanne Collins’ District 1 from The Hunger Games. We witness our precarious future fleshed out in P.D. James’ depiction of a dead-end world in The Children of Men; we reluctantly recognize our own barbarous nature in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road. This genre has the demanding, but nonetheless important, responsibility of showing us what could be…but isn’t yet.
If this posting seems just a mite grim, I encourage you to look on the bright side. Reading books set in a terrifying future where people’s very thoughts are monitored, rights stifled, voices muted…well, it makes a person feel almost giddy about the freedoms she has and extra determined to appreciate and keep them.
And now, in celebration of the Young Adult debut of Matched by Allyson Condi, let’s play a YA version of “Match that Dystopia”. See if you can place the theme to the story!
2. In this perfect society, one person is responsible for remembering all the terrible memories for everyone.
5. In this city, hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth, people are quickly running low on resources.
Answers: 1. E, 2. B, 3. D ,4. C, 5. A