Friday, September 05, 2014

Do Dystopias Ever Motivate Anyone to Change the World?

When I was starting out as a writer as a student and concentrating on comics I had a mental crisis that I wasn't going to make enough of a difference to the world just by writing comics. 

But then I had a dream (while camping in the Bois de Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris) which was very explicit. It said that if one person has their life changed as a result of something I write, then it would have been worthwhile.

Fine. So, eventually, I ended up working for Marvel comics, etc.

Then I started writing YA dystopias.

And I thought that by writing dystopias I was getting people to question the way the world was going and perhaps work for a better world. After all that's how it worked in my case. (I have parallel careers as an environmentalist and a writer.)

Then dystopias became two-a-penny.

And it turns out I was wrong. Firstly there's this article which has just appeared in the Guardian Online, which appears to suggest that modern dystopic YA novel such as the Hunger Games do nothing of the sort. This, despite the obvious satirical intention was partly a critique of mass entertainment.

I don't particularly agree with this critique, which also says that this book and Divergent are right wing attacks on more egalitarian types of government. I think it's more than a little paranoid. I think it's more likely that readers only end up being sucked into the consumer market, instead of questioning it.

But here's something even more damning to the notion that by getting kids to read dystopic fiction we're helping to create a better world.

My friend George Marshall was researching his new book Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change and, because he is a comics fan, despite the fact that his book is about psychology, managed to wangle it that his research included going to the biggest comics convention on the East Coast, ComicCon. Well, of course.

In between looking for great graphic novels, he asked fans of dystopias what they thought the future will be like. He said: "My reasoning is this: These people are young, smart, and curious about technology and future worlds. They must have some good ideas."

But no. Marshall writes:
Brian Ferrara is selling nine-hundred-dollar replica weapons from science fiction video games. “I’m not a doomsday prophecy kind of guy, but I am a realist,” he says. So, being realistic, he doesn’t see a bright future, but he is very vague about the details. Maybe, he speculates, we will be immobilized, strapped to a chair with a feeding tube.  
One couple are more politically alert, having spent time with the Occupy movement. They anticipate some kind of corporate dystopia, But, they say, there are other issues too. Overbreeding. The constant battle over fertility rights. “Yes,” says the woman, warming to the theme. “Politicians! Get out of my uterus! Leave my lady parts alone!” In her onepiece latex Catwoman outfit, she looks reasonably safe for the moment. 
And climate change? In over twenty interviews, not one person mentions climate change until I prompt them to do so. Then they have lots of views. No one doubts that it is happening or is going to be a disaster. “It will escalate into catastrophe.” “If we can’t cope with that, we’ll all die like the dinosaurs.” But asked to identify when these impacts might hit, they reckon it’s still a long way off. “Maybe my great-grandchildren will have to deal with it,” Catwoman says.
It doesn't really prompt them to do anything about it. Except buy more comics.

So, I conclude, dystopias have become just another commodity, dealing out escapism. Which is a bit depressing, given that my next novel, Stormteller, out next month, is a dystopia/fantasy about climate change.

Do you think your writing can change anything?

1 comment:

Leif Fossheim said...

Writing to influence doesn't have to appeal to the masses. That's what mass media, such as Fox News, Angry Birds, and Justin Bieber do. Pop culture aims to be easy, not to encourage questioning one's surroundings. Instead, the author only needs to influence those few with the drive and intention to start a movement. Early adopters pick up and carry it. Then it begins to drive up that bell curve until a full-blown revolution occurs. And, yes, it could all be because one author influenced one person. Chaos mathematics and all that. Authors help us see in multiple dimensions. You and your prosean siblings and ancestors, are essential for change. Someone is listening.