Okay, totally unrelated to this article, but I can’t contain my excitement. My favorite album has just been rereleased!! Wildflowers was Tom Petty’s deeply personal tour de force, made during a very difficult time in his life. Yet, it was perhaps also his most productive and creative time, as a lot of his best songs just poured out of his heart, almost effortlessly — Like a stream of consciousness : minimally edited, hardly thought through. 25 songs were recorded, but due to some complications, not all them made it into the album.
Petty had intentions to rerelease the album in its entirety before he died, but he felt that it wasn’t right to simply put out those unreleased songs anytime — They were too good, and they were too dear to him. He wanted to do them justice in the best way possible, but he never found the right opportunity. But now they’re finally here, released by his daughter, in the most honorable way there is. On Spotify, you can find a deluxe version of the album, comprised of all 25 songs, home recordings, and even rare live performances. I sat listening, sobbing and smiling. I teared up listening to the voice I’ve been intimately familiar with since my childhood days, only to smile when he joked around in his live performances.
Wildflowers and All the Rest. Man, I love this album so much.
Alright, alright. Enough nerding out. I hope you enjoy this article too.
“If trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it.”
Why Read Dystopian Literature?
Stories of dystopia, chaos, and disorder have occupied a significant chamber in the heart of literature, and perhaps even more so as we progress as a modern society.
Because for one thing, dystopian literature can be immensely entertaining. In many ways, it appeals to our innate, clandestine curiosity about the alternate possibilities of this world. Part of us wonder about how life would be like in a world that has turned over, standing among a structureless society, or being placed at the thraldom of the extreme end of order.
But a larger reason why dystopian literature is widely read, or should be read, is because it does contain powerful messages for us to discern — Even if they might seem hyperbolic at times.
The truth is, our modern world is filled with fear. Look around you, and you’ll find a myriad of things vying for your attention. Your phone is plagued with notifications about the most trivial things, and even when it is silent, you still feel a phantom buzz in your pocket, itching on you to waste precious time on the endless scroll.
In political science, there is a term called the “CNN effect”, which expounds on the reality that we are surrounded by incessant, 24 hour media that makes it difficult for us to be nothing but anxiety-stricken and reactive.
Therefore, in this bazaar of fears, dystopian literature gives us ideas of what we should actually be concerned about. Most of these ideas are latent, because we don’t typically have the mental space to think about them, as our attention is instead given away to the smallest things. Yet, these issues continue to fester as we ignore them. And that’s precisely why we need the help of dystopian literature to wake us up from our slumber.
The hallmark of dystopian literature is that it stretches out these issues far into the future, and it depicts how life would look like if we continue to do nothing today, or put off our efforts for tomorrow. As Margaret Atwood said, “If you’re interested in writing speculative fiction, one way to generate a plot is to take an idea from current society and move it a little further down the road. Even if humans are short-term thinkers, fiction can anticipate and extrapolate into multiple versions of the future.”
In this article, we will discuss some common themes that can be found in dystopian literature. From that, we could be more aware and proactive about how these themes play out in our present world.
Technology as a Double-Edged Sword
In his essay Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other…For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts.”
As our society is equipped with more and more advanced technology, our daily affairs undoubtedly becomes easier. But with that comes the price of losing certain skills that we used to have in relation to those affairs. With information being just a Google search away, we’re becoming less skilled in critical thinking. With entertainment becoming so readily available, we’re losing the ability to tolerate boredom and process. With social media being so huge nowadays, we’re weakening our social skills and our abilities in fostering and managing meaningful relationships with other people.
In the 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury portrays a society in which digital technology is a very integrated part of their lives. They have horrible attention spans, and have trouble engaging in any deep thought. At any slight hint of boredom or hardship, they could plug into a device and forget the world. (That’s already where we are, aren’t we?)
And of course, as we continue to conceive brilliant technological inventions, we need to confront the reality that these inventions could be used for evil or unintended ends. Kurt Vonnegut makes us realize in his novel Cat’s Cradle that science must not be amoral or pursued “purely for research” — Because inevitably, our inventions could be misused. He refers to the invention of the atomic bomb, that as we know, have taken hundreds of thousands of lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
He brings this point even further by telling a story of a substance called “ice nine” that could freeze anything. As the story goes, it was created just for scientific indulgence, but then falls into the wrong hands, and ends up spelling the end of humankind.
Meaninglessness in Modern Society
Among the chief duties of art is to arm ourselves against hopelessness and despair. It’s fair to say that convictions such as nihilism, or the belief that everything in life is meaningless and the rejection of moral or religious principles, is becoming more of a norm in our society as time goes on. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, “God is dead…And we have killed Him.”
It is the loss of spirituality and faith in meaning such as this that artists like T.S. Eliot have warned us about in their work.
In his poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot so hauntingly depicts the brokenness and despair of modern society. The “waste land” that Eliot refers to is not a place, but rather, the state of modern society itself, that is barren of spiritual or moral guidance. As he writes in the poem,
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.”
T.S. Eliot wrote the poem not long after World War I abated, yet his portrayals in The Waste Land still remain poignantly true today. Modern society is presented in the poem as being zombie-like, as they trudge numbly through their own businesses, and are emotionally alienated and unable to connect with one another. Modern life seems to be a living nightmare as they endure their days in disillusionment. And for that, it is fitting that the first section of the poem is titled The Burial of the Dead — Because it is as though they are no longer living.
We are becoming more of a society that lacks the cultural and spiritual abundance that our forefathers had. Echoing Albert Camus’s words in describing his birthplace Algiers, it is almost just as true of modern life that, “Between this sky and these faces turned towards it, nothing on which to hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic or a religion, but stones, flesh, stars and those truths the hand can touch.”
Loss of Independent Thought
John Steinbeck wrote in his novel East of Eden, “This I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”
As individuals, we must never underestimate our ability to think our own thoughts, and the great changes that it could bring for society. Because really, the course of history can be determined by everyday people, and not just by “The Man”. That’s the valuable possession that we have in us that people in power try to make us doubt or forget about.
When you read dystopian stories, it might seem to ridiculous to step back and picture our present society being ruled by a tyrannical leader like Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 who has total control over everything we’re thinking and doing — Or the government portrayed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which bans and burns books to assure that their people do not have the knowledge or mental capacity to stage uprisings.
But it’s not that crazy if you take a closer look at how things are today, even if they are happening in a relatively smaller scale. The school system, for instance, is designed to produce compliant people who can follow instructions by the letter (I graduated from one of the top elite boarding schools in Malaysia, so I can confirm that that’s not an exaggeration). History is taught differently in different countries in order to further their own respective idealogies, instead of embracing a wholesome perspective, especially of the common people who lived through those times. (Here, a line from 1984 rings achingly true — “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”)
Why is this so? Because independent thought is powerful. Because rational human beings aren’t as easy to manage as obedient sheep. Henceforth, just as Bob Marley reminds us in his Redemption Song, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but our self can free our minds.”
Carry the Fire
In his great novel The Road, Cormac McCarthy narrates the odyssey of a father and his son, as they struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Food has become increasingly dire, and many have reduced themselves to cannibalism. It is a time when everyone is scared of one another, and it’s every man for himself. But what’s terrifying is that McCarthy never reveals why the characters are living this way. For all we know, it could be due to a final major war, a pandemic, or any of the themes that we’ve discussed.
It could seem like there isn’t much we can do about these things going on in society. But being aware of them is already a positive sign that good change can happen. As long as we all do the best we can, one tiny step at a time. To quote Viktor Frankl, “The world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
Even as the world might take a bleaker turn, we must try our best, as the father in the novel tells his son, to “carry the fire” with us — To never stop believing in the good of man, to always have hope in spite of all hopelessness, to hold firmly to life’s beauty and goodness, to know that everything will be okay, even if things can seem far from it in the present moment.
Keep the fire burning within you. Always.
“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?”
“Yes. We are.”
“And nothing bad is going to happen to us.”
“That’s right. Because we’re carrying the fire.”
“Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.”