Dystopia? Why so popular?

Recently, I’ve wondered why dystopian stories are so popular. Unless you’re dealing in utopian topics, dystopian subjects are depressing, and downright apocalyptic. (Pun, absolutely intended)

It’s a society turned on its head by natural catastrophes, government oppression, social inequality and oftentimes the aftermath of man-made disasters, such as war, climate change, money, power, and greed… Fun!

Why do we read these stories? Isn’t it enough to listen to the six o’clock news? Why does impending doom thrill us?

I mean it’s one thing to appreciate the awesomeness of the Matrix, but if we really, and I mean really stopped to think about that possible future, shouldn’t we be recoiling with fear?

At the very least, shouldn’t we be regulating AI? (Note: As I write this essay, I know some software billionaire geniuses of Silicon Valley (which will remain nameless) are pushing for regulation, which adds credence to my reasoning. Shouldn’t these kinds of movies frightened us? Repel us into action? Nobody wants to end up a battery? Am I right?

You might say it’s science fiction, and my answer to that is “climate change, anyone?” Another example is the old Star Trek series? We might not have achieved light-speed, but we’ve surpassed many of those technologies. Some of you are reading this article on such a technology in your self-driving car. My point is, anything is possible, but somehow, humans can disconnect from the Dystopia and be entertained by it. Why?

Human’s Love Affair with Stories

As an author of dystopia and a psychology major, I strive to understand the human psyche, but first we must understand humanity’s love affair with stories.

We’ve all read why they’re so important to us. I’m sure dolphins have the same thing in clicks and whistles, but alas, I need to focus.

Since the dawn of humanity, we’ve united by communicating with each other and I’m talking even before we landed the gift of speech.

Sign language, grunts and hoots warning us of dangers might have been the first forms of communication, but don’t quote me on that, quote him. “Some researchers even propose that language began as sign language, then (gradually or suddenly) switched to the vocal modality, leaving modern gesture as a residue,” cited in Ray Jackendoff linguistic society.

According to Isaac Mizrah, “shared culture is rooted in a shared tradition of communicating. Storytelling is at the core of culture. It is how histories are passed down, how customs are shared and how traditions become endemic to a group.”

In short, we communicate to warn, explain, teach, empower, and connect. This is true for many current day dystopian novels, such as The Hunger Games, or Divergent speaking to the rebellious teenager fighting the big government, or mom and dad. 1984 is a critique on communism. Dune is an in-depth political debate on how resources and power shape people and countries… oops, I mean planets. Wink. Wink.

Stories, however, do more than inform us of who we are. Stories shape the world, and the world shapes our stories. The influence between Homer’s Iliad and Alexander the Great went both ways. “Having drawn inspiration from the epic tale, Alexander gave back to Homer by turning Greek into the common language of a large region,” writes Martin Puchner.

I could argue Star Trek did the same with technology. If that isn’t the ancestor to the modern cellphone, then I quit. Here, are a few other star Trek inventions. https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/10-star-trek-technologies.htm

Thus, storytelling is a symbiotic relationship that shapes us and we shape it. Here enters the singular most powerful question, WHAT IF?

Mary Shelley used the “what if to create Frankenstein’s Monster, and she questions the very nature of science? Professor Puchner claims that “it stands at the beginning of what would come to be known as science fiction, torn between the utopian promise of science and its destructive potential.”

The Matrix does the same thing by questioning our dependency on technology. Mad Max speaks to our most basic instinct to survive the apocalypse and how to keep our moral integrity, which we’ve seen during Covid is very difficult for some people. I’ve concluded that in the event of a major breakdown of society my entire family would perish, or at the very least go without toilet paper.

So why are dystopian stories so popular?

Why do their glum themes beckon us?

My personal feeling is that our need for order and control compel us to pull these serious topics apart. It offers a window into future possibilities, future outcomes, and although many of these novels and films don’t offer solutions, many offer hope.
  • Modern society doesn’t return because Mad Max restores earth, but he manages to help people in need and he thrives within that chaos.
  • Neo doesn’t eradicate the machines in the Matrix, but he finds a way to live among them.
  • Winston Smith in 1984 doesn’t change Big Brother, in fact we’re not clear on what really happens to him. My theory is that he’s assimilated, damn those Borg, but the novel offers us a clear picture of totalitarian government, and that democracy isn’t a luxury. It’s a handbook telling you to go vote.

Dystopian stories allow us mere mortals to dive into the chaotic unknown for a few hours, and during that time our brains receive clear warnings, clear signals on what we should or shouldn’t do in those types of situation while being entertained. It gives us the freedom to explore dangerous subjects and hopefully find solutions to our survival.

It is those same systems ingrained in our DNA that invented the Boogie man to keep children in check, but also push us to explore Mars, and discover America.

It is the author’s responsibility to explore the unknown, but it is up to humanity to find its solutions.

Psst: Please note that after a lifetime of compiling correctly formatted bibliographies for numerous essay papers in my life, I choose, here and now, not to do that because it’s long, tedious, and boring. I will however post the links. 😉

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