Dystopias Rock

What I love in a dystopia is that the folks in charge usually think they’re doing things for the right reasons. They want everyone to be equal (“Harrison Bergeron”) or faithful to their religion (The Crucible) or fully united and like-minded all the time (Anthem). An obvious exception is 1984, of course, where the leaders use war as an excuse to crush and brainwash the middle class. The Hunger Games falls somewhere in between, offering a twisted form of child abuse as entertainment. The problem is, once everyone accepts the rules of the dystopia, well-intentioned or not, those people are essentially dead. They’re stagnant in a vacuum of free will where they can no longer choose or change.

It is here that the pending road-kill watcher in me takes over, the part that wants to see how and if an individual can awaken to the dystopia and struggle to resist it. I like to see a fight against all odds. I’m rooting for the hero to escape somehow to somewhere else, preferably some innocent garden where he or she can start all over.

I did not deliberately set out to write a dystopian novel when I started Birthmarked. Rather, I was imagining how a future society would adapt to climate change, and I thought of how strong the survivors would have to be, how resourceful. Since I’m an optimistic person who believes human nature is inherently good, I thought the forward-looking rulers of my Enclave society would invent a good system.

It became a complex, morally twisted mess of compromises.

When I described the basic set-up of my novel to my friend Jim Shepard, he replied, “A futuristic dystopia: well, I suppose that’ll just be called realism in a few years.”

I sure hope he’s wrong. But he reminded me of another reason why I’m fascinated by dystopias. The best dystopias expose what’s already real, whether that’s witch-hunts or a proliferation of security cameras. The ones I like most give us hope that regular people can find a way to survive a dystopian society we’re already living in. Maybe even make changes.

My problem is that I personally, on a daily basis, vacillate between caring intensely about injustice and human suffering (Bangladesh flooding, The Rubber Room, orphans in Haiti) and recognizing that in time the entire human race will vanish into the universe, leaving nothing more than a cone-shaped umbra behind. The latter fact frees me from thinking I matter, or that any of us do, but the former makes me burn.

It can be hard to find meaning, let alone take action, when I’m caught between these two extremes. To combat potential dystopias, I tend to grasp onto the experiences that bring truth and vividness in the moment, as when I recently stood with my family in the warm, sandy shallows of the Caribbean, gazing up into a pure night sky for shooting stars.  I seek out inspiration from people like Gabriel Bol Deng, the Lost Boy who is bringing clean water and a school to Ariang, South Sudan. I screw my mind into twists trying to write the last two scenes of my latest dystopia, and then I remember what my daughter made me promise: whatever I do in my stories, I can’t kill off the babies.


Caragh O’Brien’s futuristic, dystopian story, Birthmarked, is due out from Roaring Brook Press in April, 2010. It is her first young adult novel.

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