As a continuation of an earlier blog, I decided I would delve a little deeper into what makes dystopian fiction so popular, especially since I kept most of my notes from college on the subject.
Similar to paranormal romance in which the hero or heroine finds satisfaction or fulfillment in someone existing on the fringes of the character’s society and/or reality, dark fiction tantalizes readers with the thrilling question of their own survival. In a shadowy way, it is a perverse carnivalesque. Instead of asking if we can get away with breaking the rules, we’re trying to discover if we can get away with our lives. While the stakes are not as high for us as they are for the character, our vicarious experience as readers provides us with the breeding ground for a fantasy in our minds: how we imagine we would—really, how we would like to—react to oppressive government.
We seek a certain freedom in something scary, a freedom from the constraints society and the ever-present realization that we will one day die place on us. While we recognize the benefits of the security government offers, there is still a measure of restriction.
This is perhaps why people of even older ages can relate to young adult fiction, and particularly post-apocalyptic stories in which government rule—or, really, any kind of code—is thrown into upheaval. In everyday life, the restrictions we accept in return for “security” may make us feel, at a subconscious level, as if we are not fully independent adults. In reality, the laws which govern our society and effect the efficient orderliness of everyday life (traffic laws, contract laws, age limits, etc.) are of our own construction—they are not natural.
Relinquishing our freedom to break those laws is the price we pay to take advantage of the accompanying security, both from outside threats and from punishment for the transgression of those laws. Underlying all of this is a kind of restlessness in which an individual recognizes that the status quo is insufficient or defective. Sometimes our frustration with all that is wrong in the world translates, in our fantasies, to the demolition of the world system entirely. The possibility of working from the ground up on a clean slate can be more appealing than trying to remediate the world’s perceived injustices. Dark fiction gives us the ability to imagine bypassing social laws and testing ourselves against the greater laws of nature that accompanies the breaking of human rules.
There appears to be a societal preoccupation with individual control of one’s life circumstances. Realistically, there are far too many variables for such a thing to be possible, but that doesn’t deter us from fantasizing about it. As one of my English professors in college said, our society is one in which individual freedom is equated with individual agency. It is an agency, however, that is confined by our own abilities and responses. At some time or another in our lives, we like to envision ourselves the heroes, whether that daydream involves saving the world or returning a lost wallet. By taking it a step further and making our agency responsible for our survival, we have the ability to inspire a what-if whirlwind of adrenaline.
Any discussion of agency must include a mention of chance and how a character’s agency is affected by it, and to what extent. One must remember, however, that the events and the characters exist in a novel, planned by an author, who left nothing to chance in the lives of his characters by virtue of the fact that he controls them and that they are merely figments of his own imaginative agency.
TL;DR: Dystopian fiction is popular as a relatable psychological thrill ride for readers.
Can you tell I was an English major?
*Featured image courtesy of tigerlaohu on DeviantArt