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How Dystopian Novels Make Me Appreciate Our Present World

Published:
December 14, 2023
October 9, 2023
Learn how dystopian novels help us to appreciate our world and realize the choices we can make for a better future.|Find out how the slow living movement and prioritizing mental health could actually help us save the planet.

“Another dystopia?” my husband teased as I settled onto the couch one afternoon early in our marriage. 

“I know, I know,” I replied cracking the book open to the page where I had tucked a bookmark. “I just can’t put them down!” 

My husband’s playful question stuck with me throughout that afternoon and into the following days. In the months prior, I had been reading dystopias at a rapid pace. My obsession started with contemporary blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Divergent but quickly grew to include classics like Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale. “Why do these appeal to me so much?” I wondered as I went through my day. 

On the one hand, I found it entertaining and interesting to explore how various authors took elements of our world to the extreme. It was fascinating to think about how our contemporary desires for connection could lead to a dangerous and immersive virtual reality like the one in Ready Player One or how our hope for peace and harmony could lead to the life-threatening censorship found in Fahrenheit 451

Because a well-built world is essential to a successful dystopian tale, many people see dystopias as warning sirens about the future. “This could happen to us,” the authors seem to say as characters struggle with nearly impossible moral decisions in a society gone horribly wrong. 

But even more than the world-building, I enjoyed the sense of cathartic relief I felt when I reached the last page of a dystopia and looked up at my real life: I wasn’t living in a world ruled by a despot leader or populated primarily by humanoid robots. The gratitude I felt for the mundane tasks of my life, like commuting and cooking and cleaning, grew every time I finished another story. I realized that these books help me to see what I value and cherish in my present life rather than what worries me about the future. 

I experienced this in particular when I read 1984 for the first time. Many people know this novel as a cautionary tale against government surveillance. George Orwell wrote the book in 1949, yet the technology he imagines and describes is shockingly familiar today. For instance, in order to observe and control its citizens, The Party installs a “telescreen” in every home that watches or listens at all times and reports any rebellious activity to the Thought Police. 

Due to this constant surveillance, the citizens of Oceania can trust no one. They must keep their true thoughts and feelings hidden lest they unknowingly reveal themselves as dissidents to undercover government agents and find themselves in jail or worse. What’s more, The Party strictly controls the narrative about the ongoing war with its enemies. There is no way to know who is trustworthy and what is true, so many citizens live a life of mindless obedience simply in order to stay alive. 

Reading 1984 can be frightening. The telescreens are not too far away from the smart phones in our pockets and the smart speakers in our homes. News outlets are often under scrutiny for their apparent lack of integrity. Many people find it hard to connect on a deeper level with their peers, likely for a whole host of reasons.

And yet, when I finished 1984, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. While it’s tempting to question if a world like this could happen to us, the truth is that it hasn’t happened. While it feels harder and harder to disconnect from smart technology, we do have the freedom to turn off our phones and delete apps. Multiple sources of information are at our fingertips all the time, so we can crosscheck stories and listen to different points of view if we are so inclined. Even though it takes time, and being vulnerable with someone always feels risky, one of the best parts of being human is the ability to build meaningful relationships with those around us. 

Like looking at your reflection in a funhouse mirror, reading a dystopia can show you society but only in a distorted way. While it can feel unnerving at times, the fun of it is recognizing that it’s not a perfectly accurate representation of reality. Seeing your regular body after contorting and warping its image can inspire renewed appreciation for things you may have found undesirable before. Visiting a not-so-distant future world — and witnessing its often-ugly mess — makes us more aware of all that is good and true and beautiful here and now.

Creators:
Catherine Sullivan
Published:
December 14, 2023
October 9, 2023
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