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Apocalyptic Imaginings

10 October 2017

This is not an article criticising the media young people choose to consume.

There are plenty of those out there. If you want to hear why the popularity of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction amongst teenagers and young adults is leading us towards a cultural disaster to rival anything seen in books, movies and television shows, just google it. If you want to follow this up with articles about why millennials are ruining diamonds, marmalade and porn, I promise those all exist too, and they’re all extremely entertaining.

Many of the biggest films and franchises of recent years, such as The Hunger Games, Divergent and Mad Max: Fury Road, have chosen dystopian futures as their subject. This is not evidence of a decline in the quality of Western media culture, but an inevitable symptom of living in a world which is politically and environmentally unstable, and only projected to become more so in the near future – as the people consuming this sort of media grow up.

The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian series based on the brilliant 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, was the most popular thing on SBS On Demand for weeks. The Hunger Games franchise grossed a total of $1.45 billion at the box office worldwide. Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article ‘A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,’ published in June of this year, detailed a spate of dystopian novels being released, particularly from the US, as many were seemingly in direct response to Trump’s election.

There are different theories as to why exactly these stories are particularly popular with young people. Some believe that it is simply because they tend to be exciting, gripping, and these are qualities that young people look for in their fiction. Others have suggested, far more plausibly in my opinion, that it is because teenagers see a metaphorical reflection of themselves and their world in dystopian fiction, particularly that which depicts authoritarian regimes and the chaos and violence which occurs under them.

Journalist Laura Miller posited The Hunger Games as a metaphor for high school, “Adults dump teenagers into the viper pit of high school … The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else … Everyone’s always watching you … but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.”

However, what is most likely, surely, is simply that young people are seeking out fiction that reflects the world they find themselves living in and, even more so, the one in which they expect to live in the future.

Author Paolo Bacigalupi, whose wonderful work is primarily concerned with climate change and its social ramifications, suggested that “young adults crave stories of broken futures because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart”. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “the truth of the world around us is changing, and so the literature is morphing to reflect it. Teens want to read something that isn’t a lie”. This makes sense when we reflect that so many elements of our current political system already seem as though they belong in a dystopian novel.

In the US, obviously, the election of Donald Trump was absurd and horrifying, the instalment of a wealthy reality TV star in the White House feeling like something from Black Mirror. Yet, here in Australia, we operate off-shore prison camps to torture vulnerable people forced to flee their own countries, a policy supported by both major parties, and accepted by most of the population. Our government plans to give $1 billion in public money to the Adani Group to mine the Galilee Basin in Queensland, an enormous coal deposit which would be Australia’s largest ever coal mine, doubling Australia’s carbon emissions just as we need to be cutting them severely. These cruel and absurd policies already feel dystopian – our refugee policies make the 2006 film Children of Men look extraordinarily familiar – and those relating to climate change promise a future which is even more so.

There are already a number of works that focus on the climate and planet changing, and the political and social impacts of this. Novels such as Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and The Water Knife, Saci Lloyd’s Carbon Diaries, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles all explore a changing or changed planet, and none of them imagine anything very good for the humans attempting to live on it. It seems likely that these sorts of works will only grow in popularity as we see more of the impacts of climate change, and look to fiction to help us make sense of where we are heading. And this is where I criticise dystopian fiction. Not because young people like it – again, a lot of people got there before me – but because it probably won’t help.

There is already something of a culture of hopelessness amongst young people. Dark and nihilistic humour is common in memes, which is definitely one of the silliest sentences I’ve ever written but it’s also true. A tweet by @larsjolsen on 19 July 2017 reads ‘well, I’m a millennial, so my retirement plan is basically the apocalypse’. It’s a common attitude, and one that is perhaps not as much a joke as we might say. In the short-term we are worried about employment, debt and the housing market, and looming over these concerns are the long-term ones – climate change, the global instability and mass migration which will result from it, the apparent rise of neo-fascism in response. The future looks to be a scary place. The impulse to seek out fiction that tells us the truth about this is an understandable one. The issue, though, is that dystopian and apocalyptic fiction cannot tell is the truth about specific events and scenarios, because they are fictional, and have not happened yet. They are not set in stone. And while these works may be describing what seems currently the most likely outcome of the situation in which we find ourselves, it doesn’t have to be the only one.

Fiction is how we make sense of the world, how we learn to understand the world around us. Consuming only media which depicts the future as a bleak and awful place gives the impression that this future is inevitable, and that fighting for a better one is a hopeless pursuit. Certainly, we see characters fight, but it is for their lives, or at best perhaps revolution in societies that have already fallen as low as they can. We rarely see them fight to stop the authoritarian regime being installed in the first place. And even more than this, we see almost nothing of what else the future could be – there is little tradition of utopian fiction, little effort to imagine what a world in which we fight and win could look like in the future.

Utopian fiction and imagining is a rarity now, but once upon a time it played an important role in inspiring political movements. Naomi Klein, in her recent book No Is Not Enough, described the popularity of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a utopian novel describing a socialist society in the year 2000, amongst striking workers in the US in the late nineteenth century, who “dreamed of a ‘cooperative commonwealth,’ a world where work was but one element of a well-balanced life”. The sense of cynicism and hopelessness which has infected much of young people’s political discourse cannot be blamed solely on the media we are consuming, but as Klein put it, “we have collectively imagined this extreme winners-and-losers ending for our species so many times that one of our most pressing tasks is learning to imagine other possible ends to the human story, ones in which we come together in crisis rather than split apart … The point of dystopian art is not to act as a temporal GPS, showing us where we are inevitably headed. The point is to warn us, to wake us – so that, seeing where this perilous road leads, we can decide to swerve”.

If we cannot imagine a better future, we have nothing to fight for. Utopias do not exist, and arguably cannot exist, as imperfect humans cannot create a perfect society. In fact, attempts to do so are often the catalyst in dystopian stories. But if I may end with yet another quote, from Eduardo Galeano, “she’s on the horizon … I go two steps, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking”.