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No future? Why dystopias matter

Some people might say that politics contains enough fantasy without further confusing the situation by combining the study of politics with that of fiction. Yet, more than ever fiction can shape how we see the world, which is why at Nottingham we refer to a lot of imaginary sources in our teaching and research, some of the most important of which are dystopias.

Dystopias are fictional depictions of how the world could go badly wrong. They begin from a critical perspective on the present and identify key themes, trends or issues, which they exaggerate and stretch to extremes. These themes are therefore extrapolated from the present and placed into an imaginary future, or alternative present. Dystopias, then, interrogate the present and offer warnings and sometimes prophecies about the future.

Dystopias matter because they make us think. They raise political issues in a popular format and sometimes – as in the case of George Orwell’s 1984 – they can have a major influence on how we think about real politics. They tell us what’s wrong with the now and they imagine how things could (easily) become much worse. They raise questions about human nature and the nature of change. They, finally, take men (and women) as we are and the future as it might be, if we don’t act now to prevent it.

As part of my research I have spent a lot of time reading twenty-first century climate change catastrophe literature. As you might expect, this was a pretty grim experience.

My reading included the recent spate of post-apocalyptic ‘teen fiction’ (such as Patrick Cave’s Sharp North and Blown Away, Leslie Howarth’s Ultraviolet, Marcus Sedgwick’s Floodland, Julie Bertgana’s Exodus and Zenith). These books imagine, from the perspective of young people, a future in which massive climate change has occurred. They are the stories of future generations who experience the consequences of our actions today and commonly depict hierarchical and exploitative future societies characterized by mass selfishness, egoism, greed and consumerism. Such novels depict worlds without the ‘essentials’ of modern societies (communication networks, electricity, oil, banks, currency, ‘politics’, nations and states). The worlds they imagine are very insecure, frightening and dangerous. And, importantly, they look back at our time as an age of mass civic irresponsibility and a collective stupidity which renders ‘the people’ blind to the consequences of their actions. They are, in other words, modern-day morality tales. Despite the bleakness however these dystopias often contain glimmers of hope, often stemming from the actions of a lone (sometimes heroic) figure, who is a saviour or catalyst, a trigger for change.

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this reading. I’m too old to appreciate teen fiction and the cumulative affect of reading back-to-back stories about catastrophe was not uplifting. I also have reservations about the message imparted by these stories. On the one hand, they tell us that individuals matter and that each person’s actions can make a difference. That could be an enabling and empowering message. On the other hand, they depict a ‘politics of saviours’, in which we just have to sit and wait for the Chosen One, (a gifted child perhaps and/or an inspirational leader). This is not, I suggest, politically useful. But they do perform a didactic function and they might raise the consciousness of their young readers. This is, I believe, good and if every person’s actions make a difference, then a generation of young readers with a fear of climate change could perhaps make a difference. But they can’t do it alone and they are not the people who hold the reins of political or economic power.

Even though these particular dystopias do not, (I think), contain all the answers, they do raise some important problems. They suggest that there is something very wrong with civic culture and contemporary politics while analysing the politics of climate change through accessible and popular genres that raise political questions about its causes and possible consequences. They suggest that climate change is everyone’s responsibility – and that we can do something about it.

Whatever their weaknesses these novels suggest to readers that it is their responsibility to act. At a time when apathy and cynicism define popular reactions to politics  – and when young people are seen as politically inert – this surely cannot be a bad thing?

Lucy Sargisson was a plenary speaker at the 2011 ‘No Future’ Conference.

Published inArt, Fiction & Politics

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