As a young reader growing up in the 1980s, I came of age long before the availability of adolescent-appropriate dystopian literature. I spent my days and nights learning with Kristy and her fellow babysitters, hanging out Jessica and Elizabeth and all their beautiful California friends, solving mysteries with a new and hip Nancy Drew, and sobbing through the illnesses of every single Lurlene McDaniel protagonist. I avoided anything science fiction or fantasy, preferring realistic and historical fiction to worlds unknown and unexplored.
Then in my freshman year of high school, Ray Bradbury entered my life. I travelled back in time to the land of the dinosaurs and then learned about the dangers of censorship from Montag and Faber. Suddenly I was introduced to a world of what-ifs: What if I was no longer allowed to read? What if my world became inexplicably violent? What if the government became oppressive? What if everything that I held dear was suddenly ripped away from me, turning my world upside-down?
Since my first reading of Fahrenheit 451 (I had to reread it when I was a senior and I had transferred schools, and many times after that as I taught it to different groups of students) dystopias have become one of my favorite genres of literature. In each novel I’ve seen the timelessness of the issues that plague our human condition and the political commentary appropriate to a new generation. While I’ve consistently internalized the warning that each author seems to be intent on delivering, I’ve been able to maintain a detached interest in the “what-ifs.” After all, the authors were writing fiction intended to raise awareness and entertain. They weren’t trying to predict the future; they were trying to help their readers avoid their imagined future of a world disrupted.
But lately I’ve been feeling a little like the future imagined in some of my favorite dystopian stories are hitting a little too close to home. I try to convince myself that I’m being hyperbolic, that two plus two is still four, that books are still being read and are powerful, that we are still a free people allowed to make our own decisions and living in a country where outside dangers are statistically few and far between. I understand that we are all human and have to live with the decisions of others and that I can only do so much.
And then I turn on the news or scroll through Twitter and suddenly scenes play back in my head. When Beatty tells Montag that the goal is to “Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information,” I wonder what all of our Internet “knowledge” has really given us. When Winston says “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears,” I question every news conference that has been given over the last couple years. And when Faber says “I’m one of the innocents who could have spoken up and out when no one would listen to the ‘guilty,’ but I did not speak and thus became guilty myself,” I feel like I need to pull a Katniss and lead a revolution in the Capitol.
Because when you believe in sin and the fallibility of human nature, you can’t turn a blind eye to excuses and the harmful behavior of those in power. When you’ve spent most of your adult life studying history and seeing the parallels and the similar cause and effect of the years, you can’t help but see patterns re-emerging. When you’ve read all of the stories and watched all the movies, it is difficult to avoid cringing
- When you see your loved ones seduced by a faux morality,
- When you see the fears of the few used to take away the rights of those with historically less power,
- When you lose respect for public figures you have always admired because they are taking an undeniable and damaging hypocritical stance,
- When you admire people you’ve always eyed with skepticism because suddenly they are the only ones who appear to be interested in doing the right thing,
- When your God is being used to justify the mistreatment of others,
- When you’ve seen your religion hijacked by extremists who are driving away the faithful in droves,
- When the people you love keep the blinders on so that they do not see the destruction happening around them,
- When you can’t stop wondering how many of your neighbors own weapons and who might be willing to share them with you in case it becomes necessary,
- When the sight of certain bumper stickers and apparel that used to make you laugh and roll your eyes suddenly fill you with dread because you don’t know if that person can be trusted,
- And the list goes on.
I say none of this lightly. I love my country, but I see an ugliness brewing. I see a digging in because it is against our nature to admit when we’ve been wrong. As people we don’t want to believe that we’ve been duped into believing that two plus two is three or five. We want to believe that we are right and those in power will not lead us down a path of destruction.
But we don’t trust each other. There are those around us who do not trust the truth even though it is everywhere we look. There are some who are so afraid of being wrong that they are digging into their echo chambers and surrounding themselves with people who will tell them what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.
And that is how dystopias become reality.
I want to be hopeful. I believe that God is ultimately in control, but I also know that He is not going to rescue us from our own stupidity. We need to seek both the truth and voices of reason. The sky is not falling, but it doesn’t take a meteor to destroy a people. We need to both listen to each other and demand better of those who we have charged with deciding what is best for our country. But even more than that, we need to accept our own responsibility. We don’t need to wait for our government to change the situations around us. We can’t do everything, but we can still do something.
The problem with dystopias is that the people don’t realize that they have no power left before it is too late. It’s not too late for us.
We just have to start believing in doing better for not only ourselves and our families, but also our fellow citizens and our allies.
Because, to be perfectly frank, Oceania doesn’t sound like such a great place to live, just saying.