Sci-Fi and Fantasy: what’s with our obsession with dystopias and apocalypses?

Is the explanation for the current deluge of dystopian and apocalyptic books as simple as Milliennial anxiety? Maybe. Maybe not….

Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World,” one of the most famous dystopian tales (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In one of my typical “here’s what I’m writing for S&R this time” email conversations with “Chief Scrogue-in-Charge of Herding the Cats Who are the Scrogue Team” Sam Smith a couple of days ago, I mentioned that since I’m only part of the way through my latest reading endeavor (I’m trying to get through one of the most recent darling texts of the “sci-fi/fantasy dystopia/apocalypse” craze, Hugh Howey’s plodding – for me, anyway – dystopian epic called, aptly enough, Wool – and if you’re too young and ill-read to get the metaphor reference, I’m too old and past being patient to explain it), so I told Sam that for S&R’s ArtSunday feature this week I’d write a piece on the current fascination of a large swath of the reading public for anything that represents – in either sci-fi or fantasy terms – a dystopian or apocalyptic view of our future on Planet Earth.

Sam’s reply, as usual was to the point:

I think that’s a dissertation. Have you noticed the explosion of sci-fi, fantasy, speculative, and supernatural in TV and film in the past few years? Something is going on and I haven’t gotten my head around it yet.

My response was my typical carefully considered and profoundly pondered – waggery:

 I agree wholeheartedly that a number of dissertations could be written on this as a cultural bellwether of some sort. I’m just going to yammer for several hundred words and throw out a few wildly unsupported speculations. This is the Internet, after all…

You have been warned.

If we consider the two most well known dystopian novels of the 20th century, Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we find a couple of clues that suggest the sort of social/cultural/political/economic conditions that inspire such works. (For the record, I am ignoring Orwell’s other classic dystopian tale, Animal Farm, because- because – because artistic license.) Huxley’s novel is a reaction against the “positivist” Utopian ideas widely promulgated before (and sometimes even after) World War I. Orwell’s novel is a reaction against the totalitarian nightmares of a society like Stalinist Russia.

Critics often point out that Huxley’s Brave New World is really a specific reaction against the Utopian writings of H.G. Wells and G.B. Shaw – works that argued that some combination of technology and mystical governance (in Wells’s case) or a political/educational system (in Shaw’s case) will somehow foster the emergence of a Utopian society. Huxley seeks to debunk these ideas and Brave New World attempts to show that the methods of technology based “efficiency” espoused by someone like Henry Ford as well as psychological manipulation based on conditioning and pharmaceuticals creates a society of distracted, uncritical sheep. He further notes that such a society, one where human life is managed and controlled, will be the death of any person capable of acting with free will.

Interestingly, Nineteen Eighty-Four offers much the same theme as Brave New World. Winston Smith, the novel’s main character, despite his doubts about the totalitarian state he lives in – and the misery it inflicts upon him and other citizens – eventually is so beaten down by the constant surveillance he lives under and the relentless bombardment of media messages he receives that he breaks and becomes one of the brainwashed millions.

As you’ve easily discerned by now, American society in particular has taken on many, if not most, of the characteristics – and behaviors – that Huxley and Orwell describe in their novels. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re well aware of the relentless surveillance that Americans now endure in the name of “freedom”; and, as we know, thanks to the goodness of Big Pharma, we’re certainly trying our best to be the most heavily medicated citizenry in the world. As a matter of fact, this has been explained pretty well in the following video:

So there’s that.

There’s also something else, of course. It’s called Millennialism, and it goes back a loooong way – well, right now, a little over a thousand years. There is something about the change from one millennium to another that seems to bring out the apocalyptic fear/desire/expectation in humans. In a millennial change everybody expects – a harmonic convergence or an asteroid strike or the professionalization of vampirism or a zombie apocalypse – something. Hell, I don’t know. I’m an academic, a scholar as well as an artist. But I make no claim to understanding the mass hysteria or psychosis that seizes humanity upon occasion.

These early years of the new millennium have brought us an economy that clearly, to even the most casual observer, is designed to make a small number of people richer and richer and the mass of people poorer and poorer. And that upward shift has been aided by a government that has reduced regulations on corporations and eviscerated workers’ job security. A government that, to protect its citizens from real or imagined threats, has engaged in wholesale spying on them. And all this is compounded by 24 hour news channels whose main interest seems to be to report that which will most frighten the populace even as it emphasizes divisiveness within that populace. These news reports are often punctuated with commercials for pharmaceuticals whose specific purpose is to treat the many illnesses, some real, some imagined, caused by the stress associated with these changes.

One can understand, given these stresses, how people might feel that “the end of the world as we know it” could be near at hand. And how they might become fascinated with apocalyptic and dystopian scenarios and narratives.

But somehow, I think, this fascination of the last decade-plus with the dystopian/apocalyptic says something – something deep and powerful – about our desire for an explanation to a complex, confusing, and frightening world. And let’s face it, the world – and this country – have become geometrically more complex, confusing, and frightening since 2000. And so writers, as artists should do, in the shamanistic role that artists often take on within human culture, have used their talents to offer audiences imagined explanations of how the apocalypse might occur or what the dystopia might look like. And so we’ve had books that revisit classic literature to add a zombie apocalypse as well as books that suggest that gods live among us and their struggles explain a lot of our uncertainty and anxiety.

What might be the most fascinating aspect of this is how much of this literature has been aimed at “young adults.” Though there’s clearly some disagreement about who actually reads this stuff – as well as if they should – clearly the success of apocalyptic/dystopian series – the Divergent books, the Hunger Games books – shows that both young readers and adults find these visions of horrific dystopia – what? Reassuring? Weirdly satisfying?

That’s the question I still struggle to answer. Perhaps this hunger (no pun intended) for the narratives that attempt to envision the aftermath of catastrophe is millenialism. Perhaps it’s a sense that the American dream is somehow becoming the American nightmare. These are reasonable possibilities.

Whatever the explanation is, as the book I mentioned in the opening, Wool, demonstrates, reader desire for visions of apocalypse and dystopia continues apace.

Categories: Arts/Literature, ArtSunday

5 replies »

  1. I’ll never get over how strange it is that much of the public sucks up dystopian fiction, TV, and movies when it’s unable to face real-life dystopic threats like global warming and nuclear weapons. Can’t quite figure out if it constitutes denial or a way of sidling up to frightening scenarios in hopes of one day acknowledging them.

    • My thinking ran along the same lines. This is a beautifully succinct summary of a major motivation, methinks. Thanks, Russ!

  2. Well, this negates my need to write 50 posts about how depressing and oppressing life has become for us non-zillionaires …

  3. Perhaps people get some kind of weird satisfaction from subconsciously knowing there’s plenty of complexity and confusion in life, but reading these they think, “that couldn’t really happen.” So no matter how stressful life is, it’s not as bad as all that.

    • I’ve considered that, Retrohound – maybe there’s a weird sort of catharsis that people are getting from this stuff. I do wish someone would start writing stuff about how we overcame our real threats (economic inequality, environmental destruction). THOSE, I’d read, of for nothing other than their hopefulness…