How Dystopian Fiction Became A Coping Mechanism For An Entire Generation

Courtesy of BBC Sounds, illustrated by Charlie Green
From zombie apocalypse dramas to totalitarian regimes of the future, dystopian stories have long captivated readers with their ability to entertain and terrify in equal measure; to fantastically speculate and ominously warn – and in recent years their popularity has reached unprecedented levels, spanning books, films, TV series and podcasts. One of our latest obsessions in this realm is the new BBC Sounds podcast, Forest 404, part sci-fi thriller, part ecological drama, which imagines a world in which nature no longer exists. Futuristic? Of course. But also worryingly plausible as our planet plunges ever deeper into a global warming crisis.
The addictive 9-part series, written by Timothy X Atack, takes place in the 24th century in the wake of a data crash known as The Cataclysm, and centres on a 28-year-old sound archivist named Pan (voiced by Doctor Who’s Pearl Mackie). From her dark office block, situated four hundred levels below available sky, Pan listens to the terabytes upon terabytes of sound files recovered from before the crash – an era dubbed The Slow Times. "Data costs, that’s what our ancestors didn’t get," our heroine tells us, and so it’s up to her to sift through "the total pits of history" and patiently assess the value of these ancient noises in the modern age (The Fast Times).

...a spellbinding and eerie meditation on what the world would be like if all semblances of the natural environment were wiped out...

It’s a task at which she excels, tuning into everything from Obama’s speeches on global warming to Neil Armstrong’s moon landing and rendering most of them deletable in the blink of an eye. That is until she stumbles across a sound that pierces her very core. At first she thinks it’s a type of music but soon realises it’s something much more profound. It is, the listener is instantly aware, the hum of the rainforest, replete with the sounds of chirping birds, trickling water, the buzz of cicadas. But for Pan, who has never experienced nature in any form, it’s a strange reawakening to a past that feels somehow familiar, although she can’t begin to imagine why.
Soon we are following our determinedly curious heroine deep into the underworld, and down into the murky depths of what remains of the ancient past (our own present day), in search of answers. She, in turn, is being pursued by her interfering and conflicted boss Daria (Tanya Moodie) and the so-called Hands, sinister agents of the new world’s ruling powers who are determined to derail her quest to unearth the truth. The resulting story – told across three interweaving narratives and set to powerful theme music by Bonobo – is a spellbinding and eerie meditation on what the world would be like if all semblance of the natural environment were wiped out, and how our future might unravel if the artificial intelligence we create should achieve an autonomy of its own.
Illustrated by Charlie Green
Dystopian fiction emerged in the late 19th century as a reaction to early utopian novels and the visions they conjured of paradisal societies. In modern terms, according to writer Jill Lepore in her 2017 essay "A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction", the genre can be defined as something "apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic, or neither, but it has to be anti-utopian... a world in which people tried to build a republic of perfection only to find that they had created a republic of misery." So why has this gloomy genre tightened its grasp on modern audiences in recent years, with a wealth of new stories such as Forest 404 holding listeners in their grasp?
In large part it is a reflection of the politically and socially troubling times in which we now find ourselves. "Perhaps the only good thing about Trump is that he’s been fabulous for Orwell’s sales," Peter Stansky, a George Orwell biographer and professor emeritus of history at Stanford University says with a wry chuckle. "Orwell was writing in 1948, under the threat of the Soviet Union and long before the computer revolution, but he anticipated 'alternative facts' – the idea that newspapers could be rewritten, that facts could be changed – and also the extent to which our privacy could be invaded." But although society has supposedly evolved immeasurably since then, the issues Orwell confronted feel horribly current and largely unresolved. That, plus the host of new, escalating problems the modern world faces, is undoubtedly driving our search for answers through tales of bleak imagined futures, both old and new.
"I think our renewed interest in dystopian stories involves a combination of different fears and desires," expands Dr John Morillo, professor of English at NC State University. "Many people are afraid that major structures of the natural and social world that they have been able to assume and count on as reasonably stable – including the global climate, many animal populations, democratic politics, our ability to solve rather than create problems with technology, and the very definition of what it is to be human – are all under threat simultaneously. And they are all changing rapidly enough to generate fears."

The parts of dystopian fiction that haunt us the most are the ones that ... sound uncannily like the moment we are living in right now.

There’s no doubt that stories such as Forest 404 pack such a powerful punch because of how attuned they are to such fears: it’s much easier to immerse yourself in – and terrify yourself with – the tale of a future without nature, say, than one in which zombies roam the planet. "I think scientific findings around climate change specifically can make these stories even scarier," says Dr Rebekah Fitzsimmons, a researcher in Young Adult dystopian literature and American culture at Georgia Institute of Technology. "The idea that there might come a point at which the damage we have done to the Earth is irreversible; that catastrophic changes are coming to the world in our lifetime. The parts of dystopian fiction that haunt us the most are the ones that mirror headlines or point to an origin story that sounds uncannily like the moment we are living in right now."
But what are we looking for in these stories: a guide to survival? How fictional mistakes can help us solve more urgent, contemporary concerns? Or just a good story? "If we look to the historical precedent of dystopian fiction, I think the vast majority of writers who tackle dystopian worlds are trying to enact a critique strong enough to change the world. There is definitely a certain activism [involved]," muses Fitzsimmons. Morillo proffers that such stories remind us that things could always be worse. "I think we often use dystopian fictions to cope with our problems, rather than just wallow in misery," he says. "They can allay our fears by showing them in extreme, and then often reintroduce some kind of heroic narrative to console those anxieties rather than just magnifying them. Consolation often comes from individual heroic action, as if one good person’s acts will indeed save the world." There’s no doubt that while much of Forest 404’s appeal lies in its urgent interrogation of the damage we are inflicting on the natural world (expanded upon in a series of insightful accompanying talks on the issues each episode raises), there is undoubtedly a sense of hope and encouragement offered by the defiant, funny and self-sacrificing heroine at its heart.

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