…a genre of fictional writing used to explore social and political structures in ‘a dark, nightmare world.’ The term dystopia is defined as a society characterized by poverty, squalor or oppression and the theme is most commonly used in science fiction and speculative fiction genres.
They’ve also turned me on to the ability of some writers to use a dystopian setting to identify and even celebrate the light, whether secular or spiritual, that animates human beings to shine against the darkness.
Two recommended books that I found profitable:
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel. In this one, an out of control super flu wipes out loads of people all over the world. The author makes the horror palpable not with the gross outs of the big screen, but with vivid everyday terrors – phone signals fading out, familiar places empty, an arrived airliner sitting inert at the end of a runway.
In the midst of it we meet an ersatz theater troupe wandering the upper Midwest. Through them we encounter not only the frights of a dystopian world but the dignity of humanity enduring and seeking expression.
WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL by David Williams. When a – A what? A manifestation of divine wrath? A solar flare? An all too human secret weapon unleashed? – wipes out most power equipment and electricity, dystopian chaos sets in for “The English,” that is, those who are not the Amish protagonists of this novel.
But the chaos spreads out from the frantic urban jungles, and the agrarian Amish are not immune.
This novel searches the struggle of people with profoundly gentle faith and values to exist in a world gone mad (and getting madder by the moment.)
Neither novel gives easy answers to the struggles of its characters. Fearful vulnerability and glimmering hope remain in contention at the end of both works.
But neither book is dreary on the one hand or happy-clappy on the other. Neither is preachy with assertions or answers, and both are full of surprises, both terrifying twists and soul stirring responses.
What made both most powerful to me was their plausibility. Much dystopian fiction verges into sci-fi, and so is frightening but much like a roller coaster ride. You know it’s been designed to scare you and you simply get off at the end. The Mad Max movies come to mind. Other works are ideological tracts verging into paranoia – despite its creative flourishes I’d have to lump The Handmaid’s Tale in that category.
But Station Eleven and When the English Fall are a cut above. They portray social destruction that could come to pass, at least here and there if not worldwide. They leave questions open for the reader to search, not assigning tendentious blame to this or that group for the world’s ills, while searching for the good in struggling humanity.
The “dys” is real, but it faces push back, however small and fragile that might seem.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4)
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)