The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the story’s frightening relevance in Trump’s America has led to a resurgence of interest in the original book. I read it back in high school, but watching a couple episodes of the show rekindled my interest in reading it again. Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to listen to a copy of the audio book. Atwood’s magnificent prose delivers a chilling, timely tale of a world where women have lost all control over their own lives and bodies. Despite its 1985 publication date, the book engages with numerous issues that remain relevant today, especially in light of current events.
Warning for discussions of slavery and rape below. And, of course, spoilers through the very end of The Handmaid’s Tale novel.
A while back I told you all about a little strange dystopian novel called Love in the Time of Global Warming, by Francesca Lia Block. I felt it was a breath of fresh air in the dystopian YA world, with its magical realism, perfectly set eerie mood, and a main cast made up of queer characters. I was surprised to find out that there was a sequel, since it didn’t seem like the sort of book that would be part of a series, but I was nevertheless very excited when I finally got my hands on The Island of Excess Love. Unfortunately, my mood soon turned sour as it became apparent that even though the sequel recaptures the mood of the first book, the narrative sends some very troubling rape-apologist and transphobic messages.
Spoilers for both books, as well as discussion of sex, rape, and transphobic ideas, below.
I really like dystopian fiction. Whether old classics like Brave New World or more recent YA blockbusters like the Hunger Games trilogy, I think it tends to provide piercing commentary on modern-day issues, no matter how far in the future the story is set. Their power comes not so much from accurate predictions about how our future will be, as from the scary ways that we can see these dystopian scenarios already playing out in the current world around us. For instance, if you apply Hunger Games to today’s world, you’d see that we in the developed world are the Capitol, the developing countries and poorer parts of our own countries from which we extract cheap goods and resources are the Districts, child labor is the Hunger Games, and of course, media manipulation is ever-present, keeping us complacent (and this is just one interpretation).
The thing is, though, I don’t find the literal scenario of a power-hungry dictator forcing children to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of elites to be very likely to ever happen, at least not in the United States. And the more likely I find a dystopian story to be, the scarier and more poignant I find its message.
There is one dystopian YA novel that is becoming a more and more accurate prediction of our future every day. And that’s because the “bad guy” is not a reductio ad absurdum oppressive government regime, but something I find even scarier: corporate control.
Before checking out the rest of the post below, I beg you to go read M.T. Anderson’s Feed, not just because I’m going to spoil it, but because it should seriously be required reading for, well, everyone. Finished? Shaken? Good. Let’s go.
A lot of sci-fi and fantasy stories like to delve into alternate realities at some point—and why wouldn’t they? Alternate realities can be a lot of fun. They allow writers to discuss characters from multiple perspectives and explore “what if” scenarios, which can certainly be interesting. After all, a character in one dimension may have completely different motivations and personal history to their counterpart in another dimension.
I love alternate realities. I love seeing how the same character reacts to different situations and upbringing, and I love how seeing these differences presented in an alternate reality helps to inform that same character in the main reality. Thankfully for me, alternate reality storylines are everywhere, from Charmed, to Stargate SG-1, and now even in Shadowhunters. These storylines are interesting character studies and an effective way to teach both the characters and the audience the consequences of bad decisions. Because this is often the purpose they serve, alternate realities are almost always dystopias compared to the main reality. Very rarely are they used for the opposite purpose—to be utopias compared to a main dystopian world. So I found myself pleasantly surprised when Shadowhunters did just that in its latest episode.
A while back, Lady Geek Girl and I got to talking about how most worlds we read about in sci-fi and fantasy are dystopias. Other than maybe Narnia, I can’t think of a single fictional world that’s utopian. And even then, when Lucy first travels through the wardrobe, Narnia is blanketed in an eternal winter and ruled by a malicious ice queen. It doesn’t surprise me that fantasy worlds are often dystopias. After all, our characters need some powerful evil force to fight against, and many of the issues our heroes come across in dystopian worlds are things we can relate to—sickness, prejudice, racism, sexism, extreme poverty, so on and so forth. Yet, despite how horrible a fictional world may seem, we as consumers still use these worlds as a form of escapism.