Author Meg Elison On Why We Need Dystopic Novels More Than Ever Before

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.

The only difference between the world we’re living in and the post-apocalyptic stories that fascinate us are our choices. Academics and pundits ponder out loud all the time: Why are teens and adults alike clamoring for books and movies where the world has been irreparably damaged? It isn’t some mystery of group psychology; we can all hear the whistle and rumble of that world coming at us like a freight train.

When movie-goers see Immortan Joe calling his harem of wives his property at the matinee and the POTUS calling his daughter a piece of ass on the evening news, it’s only natural that they will buy a copy of Fury Road. (At least in that film, the more qualified woman ends up running the place.)

When Paul Ryan tells us that healthcare is simply too expensive if we cover sick people or old people or pregnant people, of course we pull up Elysium on Netflix to follow a wretched class war for a miracle cure. It’s science fiction, sure. But at least in the movie there is the hope of a fight. Under this administration, most mornings just bring with them the barrage of bad news and the knowledge that more is on the horizon.

When executive orders pile in, day after day, attempting to give license to our long-lived xenophobia, Islamophobia, and suspicion against our neighbors, it feels like a great day to show your kids District 9 — even if it does give them nightmares. The story may help them see how our fear delivers us into inhumanity; how refugees in tent cities are made into villains, even as they starve in squalor. It's the very definition of a cautionary tale, and perhaps the more of these we consume, the more resilient we might becomes in circumventing similar scenarios.

Audiences are not idly entertained by apocalypses where women are chattel and queer folk are driven underground — metaphorically or literally. It is not a coincidence that copies of 1984 are flying off the shelf and The Handmaid’s Tale is back on the bestseller list.
Meg Elison

When the new regime threatens the Pell Grant, the school lunch program, the ADA, and the National Endowment for the arts: You can bet your ass teenage girls will line up to watch Katniss Everdeen give her own totalitarian masters the finger. She lives in an analogue of the poverty many of them recognize from their own opiate-ravaged former coal country. Like the Hunger Games heroine, they know their own chances of survival depend not on stardom and luck, but on revolution.

Audiences are not idly entertained by apocalypses where women are chattel and queer folk are driven underground — metaphorically or literally. It is not a coincidence that copies of 1984 are flying off the shelf and The Handmaid’s Tale is back on the bestseller list. Readers are taking notes on what happens if the oncoming freight train hits us. We want to pore over the prequels and find out what the whistle will sound like when it blows — how to feel the rails and count it down.

The truth is, it often feels as though are living in the prequel to these dystopian stories. We are waking up every day in the montage of jaw-dropping headlines. We are confronting fascism every time we get off a plane, every time we get asked to needlessly show our ID. We are assured "they" are only doing their jobs.

But the narratives that we read and write now — the histories we find relevant and the fantasies that give us hope — are the tools of resistance. Stories can help us figure out how to get wheelchairs off the tracks, how to pick the locks for people who are handcuffed to the rails, and maybe even how to talk to people who still believe that getting hit by this train will be good for them and everyone around them.

These stories aren’t just popular and entertaining; they’re vital. They’re not just of-the-moment; they’re momentous. If we are brave and lucky and willing to put what we have learned to work, we can make the hard choices that derail a chilling destiny. We keep coming back for more of these stories because somewhere in them are the instructions on how to wrest control and make this train something everybody can ride on. On the other side of the vast badlands of dystopia is something better, something that shares a border with a utopia, maybe. The reason I write dystopias is because I think — I believe — we can come through.

Meg Elison is the author of the Philip K. Dick Award–winning The Book of the Unnamed Midwife; it's sequel, and her most recent novel, The Book Of Etta, was released on February 21, 2017.