Dystopia Now

As a kid, I never liked dystopic literature. I read “Brave New World” at a very early age, and immediately tried to forget it. Aldous “Pass the LSD” Huxley is a lot for a 13-15 year old to digest. In that same time period I also read 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, both of which were touted highly by friends. Suffice it to say, I did not share their exuberance.

Instead, I preferred reading about dragons, swords, and magic; fantastic things populating a fantasy world. To tell the truth, I still prefer fantasy as a genre, though since Harry Potter’s transcendence into mainstream culture, it’s been hard to sort out the wheat from the chaff. In fact, it was partially the boom in the fantasy market driven by the search for the “Next Harry Potter” that caused me to move into sci-fi to sate my reading habit. Yes, I have a hipster streak.

I started off with Neuromancer by William Gibson.

Though I can’t recall what lead me to it, I do remember thinking how cool the title was; I was anxious to pick it up. What I read shocked me. It was something so unlike what I was used to reading that I could barely put it down. Actually, if I remember correctly, I didn’t put it down, not until I had read it twice. Guns replaced swords (well, mostly) computer skills replaced magic, AI replaced dragons; but what I found to be the most jarring was that the real world, MY world, replaced Fincayra, Middle-Earth, and the Enchanted Forest.

It’s pretty easy to check out of a fantasy world that is nothing like your own. It’s seldom that you read an article on the internet and think to yourself “Man, that’s EXACTLY what happened in Prince Caspian!” But with sci-fi, the luxury of a clean break is far harder to come by.

I am in no way a Luddite; I love technology and I am highly anticipating a great many breakthroughs. That being said, it IS pretty disconcerting to wake up to the news that a robot that can run as fast as a cheetahhas been invented, thrusting you into a “Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong” burbclave, fleeing a security rat-thingas it hurtles towards you…

Okay, maybe it was just me that made that association, but there are many more examples. From drones to the NSA, the fictional future has crept into our reality, bringing visions of a dystopia to come.

And that’s a pretty good thing.

No, I’m not rooting for life to be extinguished by a deluge of nanobotic gray goo, just the opposite; by having the possibility of a nanobot-caused mass extinction on the table, it causes people to actively think about, and hopefully avoid, that scenario. Unlike the uber-powerful shades, dragons, and necromancers of fantasy’s antagonistic side, the stuff that makes you jump in sci-fi very often also serves to inoculate humanity from potentially awful futures.

That’s one of the many reasons I’m thrilled “The Hunger Games” has hit mainstream.

I won’t go into too much detail here (mostly because I have about 12 pages of notes and scribbles that I’m trying to turn into a stand-alone article on said series…) but “The Hunger Games” serves as an excellent dystopic cautionary tale for teens. Unlike “Brave New World”, “The Hunger Games” tempers the realistic elements of dystopian sci-fi with elements of fantasy.  On one hand, for example, it shows you the deathly-real choke-hold of a police state clamping down on the civil liberties of individuals, utilizing extreme surveillance to control the populace and prevent uprisings.  On the other hand, during the Games themselves, there’s a fantastical element in the form of the almost lycanthropic, genetically modified “muttations”, human-esque wolves that could leap high into the air, had dagger like claws, and were responsible for the mauling of at least one character.

Now, I know it might seem odd, maybe even counter-intuitive, that I feel that the inclusion of such terrifying creatures actually makes the Hunger Games less scary to teens, but if you think about it, it makes sense. Having an entirely-too-real tyrannical police state unleash a pack of clearly fake creatures gives teens the escape hatch they need to step away from the book and back into reality.

I mean, everyone knows that tyrannical dictators prefer to use starving dogs when they’re looking for mutilation-by-animal.