I keep hearing that consumers want “lighter fare” and escapism in their media. The world is a mess, people say, so people crave stories that take them to a happier place.
And yet, dystopian and dark fantasy continue to do really well, and many of the top television shows, movies, and books right now take place in worlds that are even worse off than ours. Game of Thrones, Handmaid’s Tale, even the new Star Trek, a franchise that created one of the most utopian visions of the future, (*spoiler alert!*) just veered into an alternate universe where everything has gone full dystopian. So, what’s the deal?
I’ve thought about this a lot, because most of what I write has at least a hint of this societal darkness. And I know, I know, dystopian is dead in YA literature, but I’m not talking kids in combat, or teens being sorted into warring groups. I mean that my favorite stories all seem to tackle some element of “what if things weren’t so great, in X way, and a person had to make the hard choice to challenge the status quo.”
But why? Why do I keep coming back to SciFi and Fantasy that are dark? Why can’t I write a happy SciFi in a perfect future?
Well, for one thing, I find it somewhat liberating to immerse myself in an imaginary world where the worst has already happened. I don’t know about you, but for me, 2017 was 365 days of dread. Of being constantly on edge and worried about the future. And you know what? Sometimes I want a story where the big bad has already happened, and people are still living their lives, however imperfect. Where the asteroid already hit, or the pandemic already swept the globe, or the war came and went. It’s freeing to be in an imaginary world where the “oh no” is over, and the world is on its way back. Kind of like how my kids are euphoric after getting a shot at the doctor. It hurt, they hate it, but it’s OVER!
And, aside from the fact that perfect worlds don’t make for very exciting plot, I think it’s also because these stories helps me see a way forward.
In NO MAN’S LAND, Aurelia is raised to believe that one group of people (men) are inherently flawed and responsible for most of the world’s problems. When she meets one of “those people” for the first time, she has to examine what she’s been taught. And her opinions shift, not because he’s perfect or because people “like him” haven’t done awful things, but because she makes a connection with another person. And when you care about someone, you stop seeing them as a representative of a group and learn to see them as an individual. Friendship, love, compassion. This is how we develop empathy and tolerance and respect for others, no matter how different they seem at first. And that’s powerful.
In my new WIP (working title= PARCHED) unevenly distributed access to water has dramatically shaped a planet. The rich live apart from the rest of society, hoarding resources, leaving those with less power to suffer in the desert climate. It takes place on another planet, not Earth, and wealth disparity is based on water, not money, but it’s not hard to see where my inspiration came from. In it, my main character develops the power to control water, but not to create it, and she’ll have to choose what to do with this gift.
I find solace in reading and writing stories where the problems are even larger and feel more insurmountable than in our current society. It reminds me that people do, and have, and will, get through incredible challenges. That a few determined people can change the world for the better. It inspires me and it’s a gentle nudge to myself- after all, I don’t have to vanquish murderous enemies or develop magical powers to make a difference. I can….call my senator, march, protest, or simply have a difficult conversation. Not nearly as exciting, or satisfying in the short term, but just as important in a way.
And we all need reminders that no matter how bad things get, we all have a choice. We can give in to bitterness and pessimism or we can use our anger to fuel us, to fight harder for the world we want. So I’ll continue reading and writing stories about fighting uphill battles against those using their power to punch down instead of lift up, and I’ll never stop cheering for stories about people determined to make the world a better place.
I’ll keep believing that things can get better, and will get better, as long as we, the main characters, are willing to fight for it.