Friday, July 6, 2012

The Appeal of Dystopian Fiction: Why We Look Forward to the End of the World

With the rise in popularity of the Hunger Games trilogy, we also see a rise in the same sub-genre in which it exists: dystopian fiction. Remember 1984, that book you had to read in high school English? That's the prototypical example. Moira Young's Blood Red Road, Veronica Roth's Divergent, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine... I could go on. The examples are endless, and there are even sub-genres within in this sub-genre now, what with different books going into different explanations for why the world went to hell. 28 Days Later brought the Zombie Apocalypse into the forefront of pop culture, books like William Gibson's Neuromancer  and Johnny Mneumonic show us a world where technology has run amok, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and Cormack McCarthy's The Road explore what the world could be after the fall of the human race, and of course, numerous other sub-genres exploring just how badly we as a society have screwed ourselves over.

Dystopian fiction doesn't always go hand-in-hand with the apocalypse, but more often than not, you will find that the end of the world is the excuse used by the government who seized power. V for Vendetta's terrifying view of totalitarian England did this, Fahrenheit 451 did this, and there is a post-apocalyptic undercurrent running all throughout The Hunger Games. Dystopian, post-apocalyptic movies are a dime-a-dozen as well.

But why are these types of novels so popular? Are we really that obsessed with the end of our species, with our entire way of life? Join me as I explore five possible reasons why we love to watch humanity crumble before our eyes. Or just read the bolded sections and skip the rest. For good measure, and because it's the freshest dystopian novel in my mind, I'll be talking about The Hunger Games trilogy for each, so expect some spoilers.

  • Schadenfreude, or A Life in More Peril Than Mine

Schadenfreude is the act of taking pleasure in someone else's suffering (if you want more of an explanation, Avenue Q did a better job than I ever could, though be warned: it contains strong language). A good look at someone else's life can give us some perspective on our own. Take Katniss Everdeen for example: the fact that she hunts for her own food every day and still goes to bed hungry most nights, has to be the "man of the household" (so to speak), and essentially commits suicide for her sister (well, she had no way of knowing she'd win) make my student loan debt look smaller and my Ramen noodles taste better. 

We sympathize with these characters because of their exaggerated, but still realistic, plights, because they find themselves in situations we couldn't possibly face. We want to see them succeed because if Katniss can lead her family at age 11, win the Hunger Games, and bring down a corrupt government, then surely we can scrape together $200 to make our loan payments this month.

  • Escapism, or Man Would I Love to Hunt Zombies

Why is any fiction written? If you ask me, it's because the author desperately has something to say and needs a way to say it so that people will listen, but if you ask most people, it's to escape from their everyday lives. In some respects, dystopian novels are no different. In many ways, this is related to the first reason: we want to escape to a fantasy world with larger-than-life problems to make ours seem smaller by comparison. We love being able to get lost in the zombie-slaughtering glee of Dead Island or Zombieland.

Of course, this is not just limited to zombie fiction. The popular Hunger Games trilogy has spawned numerous play-by-post websites in which players assume the fictional roles of original characters who live in Panem and compete in the Hunger Games. Reading these stories, particularly when they're in first person, can allow us to put ourselves in the role of the hero. Suddenly, it's no longer Katniss who is rescuing Peeta from the mud, it's me. It's no longer Katniss who is defying President Snow on national television, it's me. It's no longer Katniss who is a symbol of hope in a crapsack world, it's me. Never underestimate the power of a good self-insert story.

  • Endurance, or How Far Can the Human Spirit Bend Before it Breaks

Who doesn't love a feel-good story about someone overcoming obstacles and realizing the power of the human race? Well, me, but that's for another blog post. Most people can get behind a story of good overcoming evil, and true love conquering, and all that jazz. It only stands to reason that this would be most important in post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. Winston Smith is the ideal protagonist for the world of 1984 because he cheerfully goes along with most of their practices for the beginning of the novel. We can see that he does this because he's witnessed the consequences of such actions, and has been broken already. Then he breaks again at the end, permanently, after realizing that he can indeed rebel. 

What is Katniss's breaking point? How far can she go before losing her mind? There are several points in The Hunger Games where she comes very close to breaking, but doesn't. Like Winston, Katniss has to be very, very careful with everything she does or says. One misstep will get her caught, killed, or worse, condemn her loved ones to those fates. Katniss has to triumph over these fears and obstacles in order to succeed. She has to be able to bend without breaking, because if she does, Gale and Prim and her mother and District 12 are all dead. Her story is inspiring because she does manage to bend without breaking (for the most part), and we can sympathize with her when she wants to quit, then admire her when she refuses to.

  • Naturism, or The Power of a Clean Slate

Remember that part in the Bible where God said "Man, I screwed up bad. Time to wipe out all civilization except for Noah and start all over again"? Well, this is a powerful idea in fiction. Battlestar Galactica (2004)'s finale emphasizes this as one of it's major themes, and it's where I took the subtitle for this section from: "Never underestimate the power of a clean slate". Dystopian fiction usually takes place in a world like that of The Road, where materialism is meaningless and stupid because everything you own, you carry, and must be essential to your survival. There are, of course, exceptions, but generally, you will find that your dystopian protagonists will deal with this sort of thing. The author can milk more drama that way. 

Katniss definitely has to deal with a clean slate. The Mockingjay pin isn't just a symbol of her early rebellious nature, it's also probably the only thing we see her take that isn't essential to her survival. It's a relic of the past, when people had money to afford luxuries like jewelry. Of course, some people still do, seeing as how it comes from one of Katniss's friends, but as we can clearly see in the series, Madge is the exception, not the rule. In our world, where we often find ourselves bogged down by material goods, the desire to "get back to nature" and escape the amenities of the modern world is a powerful one, and it's one of the fantasies dystopian and post-apocalyptic lit help us explore. 

  • Social Commentary, or Be Scared Because This is Happening Right Now

I first encountered 1984 in 10th grade English. I wasn't quite old or learned enough to understand what it was saying then, but in years since, I have reread the book and I understand it better now. I've lived enough to figure out what it's saying, and why. I'm sure, whoever is reading this, that you've already taken the same class, or at least heard of the book and know what it's trying to say, so I won't talk about it much. I'll just say that I'm glad The Hunger Games trilogy is planting these kinds of seeds in the minds of our teenagers at such an early age.

Whether it's the War on Terror, the media coverage of horrific events, the Bush administration, reality TV, feminism, tropes in fiction, or Twilight you think The Hunger Games is commenting on, the fact remains that it is certainly commenting on something. It has something meaningful to say, and it says it to an audience that really needs to hear it. Some of my fellow teachers are doing units on the Hunger Games. The middle school gym teacher did a more extensive archery unit than usual at the same time an English class was studying the book as a companion piece, so girls could see firsthand just how strong Katniss is. I see young girls trying more and more to emulate Katniss's good traits, to learn archery and how to identify plants, and I see fewer and fewer of them trying to emulate Bella Swan. Whatever you think Suzanne Collins is trying to say, it's getting through.

Well, that' it for my rambling. Is there anything I missed? Why do you think people are drawn to dystopian fiction? Why are we so drawn to the end of the world?


  1. Why didn't you direct us to this post this summer during IST612? Or did you? This was perfect for our Hunger Games Twitter Book Cub! Your "take" on why this type of literature captures our interest is both witty and eerily true, I think.

    1. Curiously, I did link it on our TBC. I'm not sure what happened. I'm not very good at Twitter, and it's possible that I just messed up the hashtags, but with the amount of my tweets that got eaten, I'll have to lean towards skepticism.