If you can read this, you're not living in a dystopia!
You know how teenagers end up so negative, depressed, and pessimistic?
Maybe it's because we shove gloom and doom down their throats as part of their required reading. In the United States, George Orwell's mid-20th-century dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is heavily picked by teachers as required reading for students, and the blues don't end there.
Here is a list of required reading titles for American high schools, let's see how negative these works are…
- The Catcher in the Rye - Young boy rants about "phony" society, rages at the world.
- Lord of the Flies - Group of stranded boys descends into homicidal savagery.
- Animal Farm - Political revolution on a farm turns into dystopia for the animals.
- Fahrenheit 451 - Dystopian society burns books because they're for smart people.
- 1984 - World has taken over by totalitarian regime just for the evil LULZ.
- Brave New World - See the previous novel, filtered through Elon Musk.
That's not even from the top hundred books; these are all in the top sixteen! It's the case not just in America, but in the UK and throughout Western civilization.
The United States education system being the sorry train wreck it is, there is often the only opportunity for one novel to be given as assigned reading in the course of a student's public school education… and it's usually one of these. This leads to one of these defeatist, depressing titles becoming the only whole book some people ever read. The list is easily recognizable by the dystopian books' cultural saturation and the fact that most people on Facebook list one of the dystopian canon as their "favorite" book, despite never mentioning any other books ever.
The social peer-pressure to consume these morbid titles is so powerful, that in The Guardian's poll of UK citizens asking which book they only pretend to have read just to quit getting pestered about it, Nineteen Eighty-Four came out on top. Ponder that for a double-plus-ungood minute…
I'm sorry, if you haven't read The Book Everyone Must Read, you won't get that reference, that's for us cultural savvy cool kids only.
The Present Author will now demonstrate having read all six of these novels cover to cover and report why, while they're certainly all quality literature and worthy of note, they're over-rated to the point where I'm now convinced they're intellectual poison.
Common Themes In The Dystopian Canon
In the six books I've listed, a shockingly large number of common patterns emerge. For one thing, the same author, George Orwell, has two titles on the list (Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm), out of all the millions of authors to whom we could be devoting our classroom hours. In addition, they tend to share these traits:
- The government is the villain - Catcher is the only one not specifically targeting government, but it still pisses and moans about society at large anyway. Animal and Lord start out with a group that has new-found freedom only to become their own villains in attempting to govern themselves.
- No real explanation for how things got this way - Fahrenheit and Brave come the closest to justifying how society so radically changed from the present day since they were both by established scifi authors.
- No happy endings - Defeat, despair, destruction, and death all around. Catcher has the only whisper of a moderate ending, basically with the protagonist pulling out of his funk nosedive by accident because his kid sister wanted to ride the carousel. Lord ends with the kids getting rescued, but only so an adult can bawl them out about their wretchedness.
- Unrealistic depiction of society - People act freakishly un-human in dystopian fiction. 99% of them line up like obedient automatons to be bullied, while the protagonist is the lone sane person who questions society and then pays a heavy price for it. Brave comes the closest to depicting humans as actually having normal motives for going along with the oppressive society.
- They're sermons, not novels - They're basically religious tracts for the authors' moral message, painted on an anvil and delivered with the subtlety of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.
Catcher in the Rye stands out from the rest as not being considered dystopian, but I ask it be defined as such because the protagonist believes he lives in a dystopia. That book is what you sound like after reading the other five.
Just to zoom in on one example of how unrealistic dystopian fiction is: In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the government regulates speech and thought via ordaining a language called "Newspeak," which seeks to remove all possible words conveying resistance to the government or individual thought from the vocabulary.
But in reality this is not possible: People make up words all the time, especially as they're exposed to modern telecommunications media as the people of Orwell's novel are. It is ridiculous to believe that people would accept a dictionary from the government and only use state-sanctioned words, in the face of our real world today where we coin neologisms regularly. The fact that you know what "TL;DR," "bingeable," and "hangry" mean, despite never having read them in a dictionary yet (they're being added now), shows that no government could control language completely.
What is so terrible about dystopian fiction?
On the surface, nothing. It's the fanatical frenzy with which these works are pushed on the public intellect by the education system that causes warts to stick out. None of these novels were written with the intention that they'd be taught in classrooms.
So while there's nothing wrong with dystopian fiction by itself, there is something wrong with making it 100% of your literary diet. It teaches pessimism, negativity, defeatism, and most of all misanthropy. People say dystopian novels, are garbage, beyond all salvation. No solutions are presented, no alternative fates recalled. In the few cases where dystopian novels end with a band of resistance out to reform society, it's a ragtag flock of Mad Max refugees at best with bleak hope of accomplishing their goal.
Despair feeds despair, and so the generations of teens and young adults raised on hellish nightmare visions flock to more of the same. There's much more to dystopian fiction than just the books I'm listing here; these are just the main ones taught in classrooms.
To name a few more, there's also The Hunger Games, The Handmaid's Tale, Ayn Rand's Anthem, and Battle Royale. Even Orwell had to say that his novels were mapped on well-trod ground, acknowledging Jack London's The Iron Heel and Yevgeny Zamyatin's We as influences.
What does all this pessimism teach?
Dystopian fiction teaches an outlook where the problem is somewhere else - each protagonist's worldview is "I'm OK, but the rest of you suck!" Nowhere do people deal with their own inner problems, or learn to adapt to change the system from within, or ponder how things got this way.
There is no personal responsibility, only a big shadowy conspiracy out there causing everyone's misery. Human society is always shown as a runaway train bound for disaster, and it's always somebody else's fault. Read enough dystopian fiction, and you will become a bitter, sad little person sobbing in your room by yourself.
The Symptoms Of Intellectual Poison
Do the above points of view sound familiar?
Remember them from the most recent Twitter tweet, Facebook meme, or Reddit rant?
Perhaps from your local teenager?
Most of us - Present Author included! - were weaned on pissed-off radical raves against the cyberpunk world we were building. A lucky few managed to outgrow that mindset and worry less about Big Brother and more about our own household.
The real Big Brother is the Internet, which will not suffer any mention that modern society is, in fact, NOT a dystopia at all. Orwellian references are plastered on every feed every day, and you don't dare scoff at them. The real dystopian oppression is against people just like me, who point out simple logical loopholes like:
- It is not possible for us all to be watched by telescreen. It doesn't matter how much data on you the government collects if it lacks the eyeballs to read that data. To watch all 7 billion humans 24/7 would require 21 billion humans working in 8-hour shifts - and who watches them?
- Dystopian societies require the majority of the population to obey every law. Do you obey every law? Do you always make a complete stop at every stop sign? Have you always said 'no' to drugs? Have you snitched on everybody you knew who committed the slightest infraction?
- Dystopian authors suck at plotting. Logically ask yourself, what does O'Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four get out of torturing Winston Smith? All that effort just to break him? Wouldn't it be easier to let Winston putter along in his low-level clerk job and then quietly snuff him in a dark alley when he got to be too much trouble to clean up after? What happens to a society that tries to crack down on every Winston Smith?
- No known authoritarian government depicted in dystopian literature has ever existed. Isolated countries have had it bad alright, no mistake, but dystopias by definition cover the entire world. How would the world unite so obediently under such an oppressive regime in the first place?
- None of the six books we deal with here as dystopian fiction taught in schools were written about 21st-century America. Orwell was writing about the Marxists in Russia - as a former supporter. Most of the dystopian canon authors are British, writing from a UK perspective while living in a society not remotely like their fictions.
- Blaming all your problems on the government removes the responsibility upon you for your own happiness. Just to throw it out there.
If you, dear reader, are set boiling with rage at the above thoughts, pause and consider just how brainwashed you, yourself, might be, almost as if by one of Big Brother's Two Minutes' Hate rallies.
If you're out to brand me a troll for daring to disrespect these hallowed works of literature (even though I clearly pointed out my respect for them anyway), reflect how you just might be a member of the cult of personality around these works. If you're actually going to accuse me of being a paid shill for (insert your favorite conspiracy theory here), just grasp how paranoid your world-view becomes when you feed your mind nothing but fear.
What Should We Teach Instead?
Hey, there are other books out there! I'm not even calling for a wholesale ban on dystopian literature. It has its place. Water has its place in your diet too, but try to live on exclusively water and you risk dying of hyponatremia before the starvation even sets in.
It would be wonderful if schools could just reach that extra mile and require reading twooooo whole books or even go crazy and require a whopping three. Is that a nice world? Can it be my turn to dream for a minute there?
All I ask is equal time, maybe even a nice story about happy people once. At the least, we could use balanced reporting. Maybe fiction itself gets too much emphasis in English class. There are good, important works out there going neglected because they're around the corner in the dusty non-fiction section.
I will lay down your New Year's resolution for all of you:
Quit insisting that every time any government does anything you don't like, that it's EXACTLY LIKE 1984 ZOMG!!!
It's not exactly like anything. We don't catch bodies in the rye, we don't worship pig-head gods, we aren't having one big global turn to barnyard Bolshevism, we aren't burning books in big piles, we aren't correcting basic math in the name of government-approved gaslighting, and we aren't hydroponic pod people raised in eugenic castes.
You're not living in a dystopia. I've checked.
The world has its problems, yes, and the answers aren't easy ones.
Dystopian fiction does have important things to teach us, true, but so do many other genres of fiction. Of course, we should always strive to take an active role in preventing our society from sliding into a chaotic mess - the opposite of dystopian fiction's "give up, it's hopeless" message, by the way.
One thing I can say for damned sure: Nobody has a right to claim they live in a dystopia if they're sitting there well-fed, clothed, warm, and with enough idle time and freedom to read any entertainment they please on a global information network for free.