Tuesday 30 October 2012

Dystopian fiction, an Oracle for Modern Times.

The last year has been full of discussion on the internet about why dystopian fiction is so popular right now. Teri here at Demention in her blog post Dystopian Fiction at the Edinburgh Book Festival, recently gave a great overview of the main perspectives YA authors the likes of Scott Westerfeld, Patrick Ness, Moira Young and Maggie Stiefvater have shared in understanding this popularity – Escapism, the Dystopian parallel found in high school, fear of the future and a concern about the way the TV/ video game generations are becoming numb to violence. 

Dystopian by definition is all about a society that’s gone wrong. It naturally embodies some sort of rebellion against authority, which is obviously going to have big appeal to teenagers who are at an age where questioning the things one has been raised to believe or follow is a natural step into adulthood. Personally, I think this is one of the defining elements of dystopian’s popularity in the YA market right now, plus the fact that as it’s slipped into the YA genre, dystopian has undergone a transformation. YA dystopian usually ends with hope for the future. There is a positive outcome during the final power struggle and the individual (young hero or heroine) is shown as someone capable of bringing about change.

But I think there’s another element in the mix. Something that has become diluted in our modern culture but which still resonates in all of us. A profound desire to know what the future holds for us.

Throughout history, civilisations have been built and guided on prophecy, oracles and predictions, and mankind has consistently shown an innate thirst for knowledge of the unknown future.

One of our greatest ancient civilisations and what is considered the birthplace of western civilisation – Greece – orbited around the divinations and predictions of the Delphic Oracle. Situated in central Greece, the city of Delphi was considered the heart of the known world between roughly 800 BC and 400 AD. Essentially, The Delphi Oracle was the highest authority both civilly and religiously in ancient Greece. People travelled for weeks from all corners of the country and surrounding countries to consult the oracle. Her responses influenced Kings, philosophers and citizens alike, having an impact on politics, crime, war and law, and influencing some of the most significant conflicts of the period.

Allegedly, the Delphic Oracle proclaimed Socrates to be the wisest man in Greece, as a result of which, he dedicated his life to a search for knowledge that became one of the founding events of western philosophy.

In modern day society, prophets, seers, oracles, rune castors and shamans have lost much of their power. The popularity of religion in general has diminished and in terms of divinatory practices what we’re left with is a kind of watered-down, often rather superficial western version of psychics, tarot cards and daily horoscopes.

But the deep need to anticipate the future and to prepare for it, is of course part of being human. Whether through divine practices or through logic and reason, man casts out a net to try and trap the allusive unknown. Dystopian fiction is fulfilling a certain hole that has been left behind in modern society. Like the Oracle it predicts, warns and draws in so many readers because of the drive in each of us to know what the future holds. 

There are those who argue the dystopian setting comes secondary to the story, and it's the high stakes and exciting plot that are of primary interest to teenagers reading in the genre. But for me the setting in a dystopian is as entangled with the plot as the main characters. You don't have one without the other. Besides, this doesn't answer the question, why dystopia, why now? YA fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal and urban fantasy all provide life and death situations, and an exciting struggle against 'dark forces'. 

I think Dystopian fiction helps fill the need to anticipate where we’re heading, and to envisage the future we’re building for the generations to follow. A need that is as old as man.

What do you think? Is the recent trend of dystopian fiction basically just another form of escapism and entertainment, or is it connected to something more deeply rooted in the human psyche?

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