The Problem with Fictional Dystopias

I read Animal Farm just barely, the first time I’ve ever read it. (Somehow I missed it when I was going through high school, though I know that’s when many people first encounter it.) It’s a very good book, and it makes some excellent observations on how politics often works out. It also presents a very bleak view of the whole process.

(I just realized I assumed everyone is familiar with Animal Farm, but that’s likely not the case. For those of you who aren’t, it’s another book by George Orwell (of 1984 fame), about a farm where the animals revolt against humans and end up running the farm on their own. They come up with their own system of government and set out to make a utopia for all animals. Things don’t really go according to plan . . . )

I’ve taken some time to read or re-read a number of dystopian novels over the past while. Animal Farm. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1984. And a ton of dystopias in YA, such as Hunger Games. It’s been scary how prescient so many of these books have been. Written well before the events of the present day, they’ve still managed to guess a lot of the techniques and arguments that would be made by people in an effort to essentially create these sorts of dystopian states. Some of that is undoubtedly because there’s a long history of people trying to grab more power for themselves, and those approaches don’t really tend to change that much over time.

Which made me wonder why more people don’t see it for what they are. 1984 stands out in particular for today’s troubles. It seems like such a clear takedown of Trump and what he’s tried to do. Why can’t other people see that?

As I’ve thought about it, I think the trouble stems from the fact that it’s much simpler to see good and bad when you’re looking at it through a story. The pigs in Animal Farm are clearly bad. So are the deluded people in District 1. You’re presented with an obvious problem, and you have a protagonist who’s working against that problem.

In the real world, you don’t get those clear delineations. I know plenty of people who really disliked Obama, for example, and saw many things to object to. So when people are reading a book, they tend to naturally associate with the main character. It becomes very difficult to recognize the traits of the villain in yourself. My friend Dan Wells observed that America is essentially District 1, for example, and I think he was really onto something there. So you’ve got a case where a bunch of District 1 citizens are reading about the evils of District 1, unable to recognize the fact that they themselves are District 1.

This is in no way a Republican or Democrat problem. I think this is a general tendency of people, to think the best of themselves and be much more ready to see the worst in other people. I’m sure I do it, and I’m sure the Biden administration will fall victim to it, though I’d like to think they won’t quite revel in it to the extent that the Trump administration has . . .

What can we do about it? I’d say the biggest thing we can do is to regularly check ourselves. Think about what we’re doing and why, and ask ourselves how we’re doing on a broad scale. Regular, honest self-reflection is something that would help many, many people improve, and if you improve as a people, you improve as a country.

The easiest way to know that you’re not being honest enough with yourself is when you think you’re 100% right. When you see the other side as totally villainous, and your side as completely virtuous. I think it would be fascinating to write a book from the point of view of a District 1 person. Someone who’s totally drank the kool-aid and is convinced they’re right. Of course, I’m not sure how readable and interesting that book would be. Imagine Harry Potter from Umbridge’s point of view. I tend to think they’d view it as a tragedy, or be very frustrated that the villain ends up winning.

Perhaps a more interesting approach would be a book that alternates between viewpoint characters, with a District 1 person contrasted with a District 12 person. The easy way out would be to have the District 1 person realize at the end of the book that they were wrong and District 12 was right. The more accurate, true to life approach would be to have both of them realize they were right and wrong.

(I might have to think about that idea some more. It really appeals to me . . .)

Anyway. Just some dystopian related thoughts I’m having as we’re all living through the current dystopia of our lives. Happy Wednesday, everybody!


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