Monday, August 1, 2011

Why We Love Dystopia

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is." - Yogi Berra

The dystopian/negative-utopian novel has seen a lot of popularity recently- due to the awesomeness of The Hunger Games. However, those themes have been popular, particularly among teenagers, for a lot longer than that (see the Rush album 2112, which my dad loved when he was my age, for example).

In Matched, by Ally Condie-- which isn't necessarily the most original or mind-bending book-- the government monitors the behavior of its citizens closely, and chooses the optimal spouse for everyone (their Match). And for the purposes of this post, they really truly are the best possible people for each other.

Which poses the question: If the "super controlling government" honestly is resulting in truly happier citizens (not people who merely think they're happy, as in Fahrenheit 451), is that control still wrong? Obviously it's impossible to actually Match everyone up perfectly, so it's not an issue that needs to have a resolution, but what if we could?

It's an interesting debate, and one I'd gladly have elsewhere arguing either side. However, the point of this post is not whether or not a pervasive government is desirable if it effectively ensures maximum happiness, but why specifically teenagers find such questions so fascinating.

Teenagers are people who have started paying attention to the world at large fairly recently, compared to everyone else. Kids will hear about world events, and they'll care about them, but at the end of the day, life consists of their life. "Politics are boring," they'll say. "Who cares about the economy?" But we've gotten to the point where we are interested in such things, and so we think about the world globally rather than in the microcosm of our place within it.

Yet we're still living in that small place. We have parents and siblings and learning and friends. We're in the process of becoming "adults." We're trying to grow up, regardless of whatever's happening around us.

We like dystopian/negative-utopian stories because they mirror the questions we're asking ourselves in our immediate lives, but in the context of the greater world that we find more interesting/important.

The question changes from "Should the government be allowed to control our lives to a far greater extent than they are now if they really are making us happier in the process?" to "My parents really do want the best for me. Should I go along with what they think because they're older and (hopefully) wiser and love me, or should I assert my independence simply on principle?"

The answer, of course, is never yes or no. In fact, I don't know if there is an answer. It's a question we continually ask ourselves, and we continually have to rethink our response. 

That, I think, is what's so appealing about dystopian/negative-utopian fiction, and why I keep reading the novels even though they're all virtually the same in many ways. I still don't know the answer, so I'm willing to reread the question within the context of a book again and again-- different words and different worlds each time, but the same dilemma.


  1. I think you may have hit the nail on the head. The question of whether or not to resist a benevolent dictator bent on Utopia is startlingly similar to the question of independence from our parents. And, since The Giver is my go-to benevolent dystopia, I have to admit, what parent wants their child to experience pain?

  2. I think a better question, and this might be my channelling my AYLI character too much, is does happiness truly exist. If you take Farenheight 451 or 1984 everyone thinks that they are happy except the protagonist and a few other people. If you think you are happy then aren't you happy. Isn't happiness just what you tell yourself. Depressed people are told to change the 'tapes' playing in their heads and that they should decide to be happy. So if you can decide to be happy then happiness is just what you tell yourself.

    Johnathan Franzen wrote

    "It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties,” Walter said. “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to screw up your life whatever way you want to."

  3. Happiness exists. The even better question is "is happiness an objectively definable emotion." And...probably not.

    But in the case of Fahrenheit (and I haven't read 1984 yet), I think having everything you think you need in order to be happy doesn't translate to being happy. Montag isn't actually happy even before Clarisse asks him and makes him think about it-- it just doesn't occur to him to be sad. Then again, it's not written in 1st person so there's no way of knowing what his actual emotions are.

    Unless you want to define being happy with life as accepting your life for what it is and being okay with it, in which case it is a decision.

  4. I think we'd have to define a bit better what we mean by happiness before we could discuss whether it exists. I've tried to come up with a good definition of happiness before, but don't really have a satisfactory one to share.

    Anyway, another question that interests me is how important is happiness? Lots of great advances have been made by people who were quite miserable, Newton, Cantor, Goedel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer to name a few.

  5. Happiness derived in moral and healthful ways, in my opinion, is one of the most important things there is-- and I say that as someone who isn't always terribly happy yet has moments that are simply amazing.

    Perhaps this is related to my chocolate addiction- dopamine ftw.

    As for the productivity/advancement of the human race...I don't know, I think it's still important. Surely all of those people's developments brought them some small amount of happiness, even if they were generally miserable most of the time. Isn't almost everything we do either for our own happiness or that of someone else?

  6. Perhaps it is the absence of unhappiness, as in light and dark (absence of one another). Can one truly exist without the other? Also, happiness might (I'm not certain) be greater after overcoming adversity; rest feels better when you've run for an hour, water tastes better when you've been parched, etc.

    Just a thought. (By the way, sorry about long-time-no-comment.)

  7. Sorry that I keep quoting Johnathan Franze(actually I'm not because he's a genius and writes a lot about happiness) but he said that "There is, after all, a kind of happiness in unhappiness, if it's the right unhappiness."

    However, to go back to my original point, if you can decide to be happy or suddenly realize that you are unhappy then can you say that they are real things. Aren't they just perception? If I got cancer tomorrow I would undoubtedly be unhappy but there are cancer patients on their death beds who are very, very happy. Happiness or the lack thereof is just the filter through which you view things. Two people can get into a car crash and suffer the exact same amount of damage and one can walk away scared to drive for weeks and the other can have no problem driving. It's all in how they view.

    If it doesn't occur to you to be unhappy then how, in any way, can you be unhappy. If you change the filter then you become unhappy, but what has happened hasn't changed, just the way you look at it.

    So in Fahrenheit 451(A book I despised, but that's a different conversation) if the protagonist was happy, or thought he was happy, until the girl told him he wasn't then wasn't he happy until he realized that he

    One of the big themes of Shakespeare's As You Like It is Ignorance is Bliss and, in Act IV Scene I, Rosalind has the following exchange with Jacques, the most depressed person in the play,

    I fear you have sold your own lands to see
    other men's; then, to have seen much and to have
    nothing, is to have rich eyes and poor hands.

    Yes, I have gained my experience.

    And your experience makes you sad: I had rather have
    a fool to make me merry than experience to make me
    sad; and to travel for it too!

    The point of that conversation, in my opinion, is that anyone can be sad if they choose to be and everyone can be happy if they choose to be, and possibly receive medical attention, so it's better to choose to be happy then choose to be sad. "I had rather have a fool to make merry than experience to make me sad."

    It could be argued that happiness is merely a delusion, and that is certainly the argument made in As You Like It, that if you look around at all that goes on the only response is to be unhappy thus it is better to delude yourself and thus have a happier existence, because, in the end, what does unhappiness accomplish? Nothing, but happiness surely does accomplish things.

  8. (I really like that Franze quote.)

    Just because happiness is a filter/perception doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Nouns are defined as people, places, things, and states of being. Happiness is a state of being, so even if it isn't a qualifiable thing, it's still real.

    If it doesn't occur to you to be unhappy, then yes you aren't unhappy. But if it doesn't occur to you to be happy either then you still aren't. You're just living.

    Before Clarisse brought up the subject of happiness, Montag wasn't unhappy. He was fine. But he wasn't happy, either. He wasn't getting joy out of his life-- he just wasn't feeling any pain about it either. He wasn't UNhappy. He was just not-happy.

    I don't know, I think unhappiness can accomplish a lot (although just in the sense that things are only accomplished due to the quest for happiness). Martin Luther, for instance, was unhappy with the Catholic Church, so he created an entire branch of Christianity.

    Maybe not necessarily delude yourself so much as focus on other things (which could be considered a form of delusion). "My family has food on a consistent basis." "Our economy didn't default." "I managed to register for Pottermore early." "I'm not sick like my sister is today." All of those things are making me happy right now, and that's a genuine feeling, even if I look at the world as a whole I have a whole lot of reasons to be depressed. Being happy makes us more productive and, well, happy. So we seek it out.

  9. I haven't gotten the chance to read 451 yet (the school system sucks, but that's a different story), but I too like the quote and agree with the points. A sort of neutral state of not-happiness is indeed possible, and it's all a blurry line of optimism. I could whine about war, and politics, and animal cruelty, prejudice, climate change, etc., but that would likely earn me the label of pessimist. While it's good to acknowledge the state of things, dwelling on them won't accomplish anything.

    At the same time, some unhappiness is necessary at times: if one is smiling and laughing at a murder scene, that's not called optimism - it's just sick and inappropriate.

    Even so, looking at negative things and acknowledging them is one thing, but it also bears import as to what to do: if I whine about how it's raining and nasty out (which I wouldn't, I LOVE rain), it's not the same as if I said, "Shoot, it's wet," and got an umbrella.

    One more thing: similar to fiction and drama, I think life needs some conflict: not to that extent, but to the extent that we may improve. If everything was perfect from Day One, we'd never do anything and might as well be immobile statues.

  10. Wow, I think you did such a good job at exploring the reasons behind this trend in genre writing. I'm not a big fan of dystopian novels (because, admittedly, I like stories that come off as a little more brighter and happier, haha), but I totally get where you're coming from when you say that this is one way teens can think about the questions that they've begun to ask. I think good books make you do that anyway, but this particular kind of story is more obvious :)

    Great job!

  11. @CloudyKim Thank you! :)

    @Danny Why not...just read Fahrenheit, separate from school? And if everything's perfect, being immobile statues wouldn't be a bad thing. We're just so absorbed in the idea that stasis is bad (because in an imperfect world, it is), that it's difficult to imagine a reality in which it is not.

    You say "but that would likely earn me the label of pessimist" as if they label is something to be avoided for its own sake. Pessimism in general is less favorable than optimism, but that's about outlook and emotions-- not how other people describe you (judgmentally or otherwise).

  12. I'm reading it now. :) And I don't entirely mind what others think of me, depending on who they are, but if I thought myself to be a pessimist, I would try to change it, as it doesn't altogether suit me.


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