Reading an article on one of the several 'feeds' I follow for interesting news, ideas and so on, I came across one that certainly got me thinking. Entitled "What Teen Dystopian Novels Can Tell Us about the Future" it discusses how the genre projects a very bleak image of any future society. It hit a number of points I regularly consider, and reminded me that in my early 'teens and twenties I was also an avid reader of some of the authors and novels she mentions. The scary thing is that, like Orwell's famous "1984" they project futures which are all too plausible. Worse, the ideas within them have slowly entered our lives and our societies.
The first example, "The Hunger Games" projects a society in which the rich have everything and more, and the rest of the populace struggle merely to survive. Worse, are debased to the point they have to take part in degrading conflicts and 'games' with the illusion of escaping their lot. While this is the classic, one could name many more with similar themes and the examples she gives all contain elements we already see in our societies, but which weren't so apparent when the books were written. Looking at the popular movie genre of 'Disaster' as well, one finds quite a number of stories built around possible future events, some more plausible than others. But one thing that did leap out at me as I considered this, was that there is a sub-theme to many of them, and it is that which I want to explore.
The sub-theme is a simple one; the plucky, rugged individual(s) who stand alone, survive whatever natural or man-made event triggers the dystopia, and then, through sheer raw individualism and self-reliance, succeed in overthrowing the 'oppressive rulers' and saving society. It is an appealing one, but it is also a rather unrealistic dream. Self-reliance is a good thing, but the idea that any wider interests than those of the individuals are necessarily bad is a pernicious one. If one looks carefully at some of the best selling books and movies you quickly realise that it is a very widely used and spread idea. Consider Star Wars as an example. The Empire is portrayed very simplistically as "bad" and "evil", all it's leaders are corrupt and arrogant, all the organs of 'state' aimed only at suppressing the individual. Enter then the ignorant 'apprentice', the cowboy drug runner, the rebel Princess ... and the Empire is defeated.
Only one problem, the world and reality don't work that way. Reality is like a domino tumble. A very complex one in which key dominos can be made to fall in a different direction, changing the next series of tumblers. All too often, in my view, we, as authors, forget this, and in presenting the simplistic vision (Good always wins over Evil and One plucky individual always beats the all powerful bad guy) to young readers we may well be setting in train a future in which elements of The Divinity Bureau or Delirium become "acceptable" - because it's how the reader thinks the world is. Both the books I have mentioned here have their origins in real attitudes and 'treatments' applied in the 1900s and even into the 1950s - and which are still practiced in different forms today. Mythologies which appeal to popular emotions and movements have a way of being turned into realities, often with terrible consequences.
No way, you may cry, it's fiction. Nobody thinks fiction is reality! One would hope so, but then you have those who read the novel "The Da Vinci Code" who went to the church named and described in the book to dig up the floor and break open the altar candle stands looking for the "hidden secrets" the book is about. Nor is this the only book that has sparked similar actions. And that brings me back to the article I started out with. If you have not read any of these books, you may find it informative to do so.
So what is my point, you ask? It is a simple one. We, as authors, have stories we want to tell. Obviously we also want people to hear them, read them, perhaps see them. But I think we also have a duty to ensure we depict things - especially real events and historical ones - accurately and completely. Yes, we entertain, but we need to do it in a manner that does not foster untruths, or promote dystopia for anyone. The written word is a powerful tool, let us use it wisely and well.