I read more dystopian fiction than ever during the corona crisis. Here is why | Books
For the first time in my life, I live with reduced freedoms. Living in the midst of a pandemic has left me with an ominous sense of unreality, where everything that was once familiar and heartwarming – like going to a good restaurant or browsing a bookstore – has turned into a threat of potential death. I once found a respite at home, but being forced to stay indoors all day made it more and more a source of anxiety.
Perversely, I discovered that the best way to deal with this experience is to delve into dystopian fiction. My usual diet of light literature and escape has been replaced by books featuring a bleak future, where people are forced to grapple with devastating new realities brought on by climate change, biological warfare, pandemics, totalitarian governments. or technology – choose your own mishap. Other types of novels now seem out of place: why would I read the story of a bunch of friends who go on vacation together when no one knows when they will then be allowed to leave their homes, let alone the country? ?
I have always been fascinated by dystopian fiction and the way it seeks to examine the problems and inequalities of society through a (usually) catastrophic lens. In many cases, dystopian stories are caveats that force us to reexamine and reflect on our own actions and our place in the world. Now, however, I’m looking for them because I want to see how the characters behave when their freedoms are taken away from them. I want to know what choices they make when they lose their jobs, their livelihoods, their family and their friends. Dystopian fiction helps us think about what reality might be and shows us how people can cope with adversity.
People tend to split into two camps when it comes to reading novels these days: either they immerse themselves in joyful books and movies that reflect the life we once lived without thinking; or they devour apocalyptic and dystopian fictions, seeking solutions and meaning at a time when all that remains is to wait for all of this to pass and life to resume.
Like Katherine Schwetz of the University of Toronto writes: “The social upheaval caused by Covid-19 evokes many popular dystopian or post-apocalyptic books and films … and has sent many people rushing to fiction and films on contagious diseases. “
Last week I picked up The Book of the Nameless Midwife by Meg Elison, about a woman trying to survive in a world devastated by a sudden plague that kills most of humanity but leaves them behind. male survivors outnumber women by a ratio of 10 to one. Women left behind are forced to choose between going into hiding to avoid violent rape by the surviving men, or trying to negotiate with them. As far as dystopias go, this one is positively apocalyptic, but I can’t let go. The characters exist in an entirely lawless world, and it doesn’t seem like life has any meaning other than survival. Still, the protagonist’s common sense gives me hope: if she can survive the worst of all situations, surely we can too?
While I know that our current reality is not that dire (the coronavirus can reproduce quickly but it is not as deadly as this fictitious disease), reading about a pandemic dystopia allows me to explore the non-medical dimensions of fears associated with contagious disease.
I’m particularly drawn to dystopias featuring characters navigating a ruined world that still holds core patriarchal values. I also recently read Vox, where women are equipped with electronic counters that electrocute them if they say more than 100 words a day; Red Clocks, where abortion is illegal again, in vitro fertilization banned, and embryos are granted rights to life, liberty and property; and The Power, a novel that explores women’s rebellion after they have developed the ability to inflict pain or death on other people with their hands.
Dystopian fiction is both an escape from reality and a learning exercise: which society do we want out of it, and what individual and collective actions must be taken to achieve it?
These novels don’t despair me, although much of the genre’s current manifestation is, like Harvard history professor Jill Lepore points out, “A fiction of submission, the fiction of a wary, lonely and brooding 21st century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and despair”.
Despite accounts centered on catastrophic events, dystopian fiction does not offer readers a prophetic look into the future. It exists, let us remember, to show us a way out.