Friday, March 11, 2011

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dystopian Literature

I have a confession to make. I can be an extremely nervous and paranoid person. I’ve been a politically, socially, and globally aware person since I was a kid, a testament to the fact that my family instilled in me the importance of knowing what was going on around you as well as to the fact that I was a lonely and often bored adolescent. The downside to following current events is that you tend to see how much things seem to be going wrong. You start to worry about your freedoms, about whether or not the world is going to look the same tomorrow as it does today. I’m also freakishly terrified of nuclear war, thanks to my father’s insistence on watching The Day After with me in the room when I was a child. So how is it that I came to love dystopian and, even, post-apocalyptic literature?
I think it started with 9/11, ironically enough. Or, at least, with the Bush administration after 9/11. I was in ninth grade when Bush was elected president, just as liberal and slightly Marxist then as I am now. I witnessed the planes hitting the Twin Towers and I knew that war was just around the corner. At the time, of course, I was expecting mushroom clouds, air raid sirens, and a new-found ability to glow in the dark. I was also expecting a bid by the government to usurp people’s rights and to increase the power of the executive branch. One out of two isn’t bad, right? To make matters worse, Fahrenheit 451 was one of the assigned books for my Honors English class that year and it just gave me such an uneasy feeling. I liked it, but I also couldn’t help but feel that that was where we were all headed.
With the advent of the Patriot Act, I found myself worrying that the day would come when I would no longer have the right to speak out, when people would be beaten into submission, when all hope for a better future would be lost. Cheerful, huh? Around this time I started to read more fantasy and science fiction, burying myself into worlds that were better than I perceived my own to be. I avoided anything that even hinted that the end was nigh, choosing instead to stick my head in the proverbial sand and wait for the worst to be over. Then college came.
I got my Bachelor’s degree from a fairly liberal college. I found that the students there, unlike those in my small, rural hometown, actually cared about what was going on in the world and were willing to discuss it, to debate it. I found a faculty that was willing to talk about how we viewed the world. I even found one who was arrested for protesting the president! It was in this atmosphere that I rediscovered my grandmother’s copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I had borrowed it in the eighth grade because I wanted to look smarter than all the other kids and I read it with relish right up to the part with the political pamphlet that Winston and Julia read. I couldn’t understand half of it so I tossed it aside in frustration and hadn’t gone back to it. That year (I believe it was my sophomore year) I started reading it again. This time I flew through it, devouring it page by page, including the political pamphlet. I finished it on a sunny, warm spring day sitting on a park bench near the library on campus and even though the ending is depressing and hints at a worse tomorrow, I couldn’t help but feel wonderful–liberated, almost. It was like I had gone through some sort of crucible and had come out of it at the end completely unscathed.
After that I read Animal Farm, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Clockwork Orange, and several of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. I began to read dystopian fiction like it was candy. I couldn’t quite explain why I liked them so much, but I always felt better about things after I had finished one of these books. It was the same way with disaster films. If it had asteroids hitting earth or giant ice storms eating the east coast, I gobbled them up. I came to see that not only were these books and films a way to face my fears, they also gave me the opportunity to say “Hey, at least things aren’t that bad.”
Brave New World, however, changed all of that.
I didn’t read Huxley’s novel until last semester. I don’t really know why. It was always in the back of my mind, nagging me, telling me to read it. Yet, somehow I managed not to for years. When my friend John started to talk about it and I realized that I had nothing to contribute to the conversation, that’s when I decided it was high time to take it out of the library. It was an incredible experience. I don’t think a novel has made me that angry…ever. The book itself is wonderful. It’s well-written and has become one of my favorite books of all time. But I couldn’t help but look at the world around me as I was reading it and realize that, in many ways, Huxley’s world has become reality.
It wasn’t the book I was angry at; it was the world. How had we gotten to this point? Why had we allowed ourselves to become so enslaved to our own culture? I obviously don’t have the answers to these questions, although they continue to haunt me. But I did gain something from the experience: A Brave New World gave me yet another reason to love dystopian fiction: it reveals our darker natures, makes people think about who they are, who the people around them have become. It shines a light on the inequalities in society, the sheer madness of politics, religion, technology, etc.
I am, and will continue to be, an avid reader of dystopian novels. Whether the world improves or deteriorates even further, I will take solace in and comfort from these tomes. I will also use them as a lens through which to see the world. And that, in a nutshell, is why the first month of this blog is devoted to dystopia.

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