Monday, December 7, 2020

Rethinking Dystopia in the Age of Conspiracy Theories

A post by Mary Fan

Hey everyone! Mary here, and I've been rethinking dystopia lately. This was triggered by, of all things, a TikTok that made the rounds on Twitter that I wish I could unsee... More on that later...

Dystopia has been around for decades, but in the YA world it really saw a boom around the early 2010s, thanks to the popularity of The Hunger Games. For a few wild years, dystopia was so trendy among YA readers - tweens, teens, and adult alike - that it felt like every popular book in the YA category was about (almost always white, usually female) teen freedom fighters in speculative, vaguely sci-fi worlds.

And then, almost as quickly as it arrived, it fizzled out. The market became oversaturated, and any manuscript so much as suggesting a dystopian flavor was considered treated like poison by traditional publishing. Only recently have a few dystopian titles popped up again, though they're usually packaged as just "sci-fi" or "fantasy."

In the world of adult spec fic, the stream was a lot steadier. Using all-powerful, controlling, ultimately pretty evil governments or corporations or other large institutions as a villain has always been pretty popular.

I get the appeal. After all, I've written plenty of it. I can't speak for the rest of the world, but at least when it comes to American audiences, we've always had a rebellious streak. It's baked into the founding myth of our country - the scrappy revolutionaries taking on the mighty British and winning freedom and independence. We love our underdogs, and a lot of our most popular sci-fi/fantasy franchises reflect this - Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings.  

A lot of that is because we like to think of ourselves as the underdogs. I mean, whose life isn't tough? No matter who or where you are, always some kind of uphill battle to fight. And no matter your privilege, there's always someone who has it easier than you, some obstacle standing in your way. 

Which brings me back to dystopia. It's a genre like any other. Sometimes, it can serve as insightful social commentary. Other times, it's just an excuse to follow a scrappy underdog on a hero's journey against an all-powerful enemy. All in good fun, right?

Well, lately I've been thinking it's not so cute anymore. Not necessarily because of the stories themselves, but rather what the preference for them reflects.

The TikTok I can't unsee featured what could have been a dystopian heroine. I won't link to it because I don't want to feed it any more views. In it, a young, attractive, blond woman acts out a skit in which she first plays someone who accepts a COVID-19 vaccine because she doesn't want to die, only to be implanted with a chip when she receives the injection. The second scene has her playing a woman who refuses, and a faceless voice tells her she will die if she refuses. She then cries prettily as she says she knows, imitating a gazillion movie and TV characters who've made noble sacrifices. Cut to her (in terribly done effects make up) all bloody as, it's implied, she's abused and killed for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine. Final shot has her playing an angel in heaven because apparently her refusal to take the vaccine (and receive a chip) has made her a martyr.

W.T.F. I was so confused.

Except... it all felt familiar.

I've literally read a book in which an evil government wants to implant all its citizens with chips, and when a small population refuses, they create a plague and then put chips in the vaccines (I won't name the book because this would spoil it for anyone who might stumble upon it).

The original premise of my own YA dystopia, Starswept, was that an evil corporation created a fake alien disease to keep a population of teenagers under its control. I changed the premise at the advice of an editor - now said evil corporation uses impossibly high student loans to keep these kids in indentured servitude (heh) - and damn, am I glad I did. The third and final book came out this year, and if I'd kept my original premise, it would have been about the teens exposing a fake plague and freeing the population from government lies... aaaaawkwaaaaard...

In fact, given the direction that series could have gone, I could very well have written a scene similar to that atrocious TikTok. Super aaaaawkwaaaard...

The aforementioned "chip" book came out around 2012. I wrote the original, fake-plague version of Starswept in 2013. Back then, the idea of a plague or pandemic felt as far-fetched as an alien invasion. An exciting, escapist way to raise the stakes. Now... 

We don't often think about the subconscious politics of sci-fi/fantasy. But the fact is politics are buried in every story, whether intentionally or not. In a lot of ways, The Hunger Games can be read as a right-wing conspiracy theorist's ultimate fantasy. You have your evil government run by urban elitists - many queer-coded - oppressing your honest, rural, blue-collar white folks (there are a few Black characters too, but the main character and her closest allies are white). People of color barely exist, and when they do, nobody sees race. The evil, urban-based government will do anything to control the honest, rural folks, who must take up arms to fight back. Urban elites with fancy technology, bad. Rural, blue-collar folks who are physically tough, good. Sound familiar?

As far as I'm aware, that's not the message Suzanne Collins meant to send with The Hunger Games, which was supposed to be more about the impact of war on children. But it's a message baked into the story nonetheless.

Just as there are messages, often subconscious and unintentional, baked into every story. Because all stories are written by people, and people inevitably have beliefs. Sometimes, we don't think too hard about them. Sometimes, we're just playing on tropes and assumptions that have been around forever... after all, The Lord of the Rings also features evil, industrialist, technology-wielding elites versus rural, scrappy, blue-collar types.

For this reason, all fiction is political - indeed, all writing is political. Everything we think of as "neutral" or "the default" was the result of political actions. And as for those who say they "keep politics out of it", well, what they mean is that they keep politics they disagree with or that make them uncomfortable.

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