Thursday, 4 September 2014

You like to think you're changing the world, but... by David Thorpe

When I was starting out as a writer as a student and concentrating on comics I had a mental crisis that I wasn't going to make enough of a difference to the world just by writing comics. 

But then I had a dream (while camping in the Bois de Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris) which was very explicit. It said that if one person has their life changed as a result of something I write, then it would have been worthwhile.

Fine. So, eventually, I ended up working for Marvel comics, etc.

Then I started writing YA dystopias.

And I thought that by writing dystopias I was getting people to question the way the world was going and perhaps work for a better world. After all that's how it worked in my case. (I have parallel careers as an environmentalist and a writer.)

Then dystopias became two-a-penny.

And it turns out I was wrong. Firstly there's this article which has just appeared in the Guardian Online, which appears to suggest that modern dystopic YA novel such as the Hunger Games do nothing of the sort. This, despite the obvious satirical intention was partly a critique of mass entertainment.

I don't particularly agree with this critique, which also says that this book and Divergent are right wing attacks on more egalitarian types of government. I think it's more than a little paranoid. I think it's more likely that readers only end up being sucked into the consumer market, instead of questioning it.

But here's something even more damning to the notion that by getting kids to read dystopic fiction we're helping to create a better world.

My friend George Marshall was researching his new book Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change and, because he is a comics fan, despite the fact that his book is about psychology, managed to wangle it that his research included going to the biggest comics convention on the East Coast, ComicCon. Well, of course.

In between looking for great graphic novels, he asked fans of dystopias what they thought the future will be like. He said: "My reasoning is this: These people are young, smart, and curious about technology and future worlds. They must have some good ideas."

But no. Marshall writes:
Brian Ferrara is selling nine-hundred-dollar replica weapons from science fiction video games. “I’m not a doomsday prophecy kind of guy, but I am a realist,” he says. So, being realistic, he doesn’t see a bright future, but he is very vague about the details. Maybe, he speculates, we will be immobilized, strapped to a chair with a feeding tube.  
One couple are more politically alert, having spent time with the Occupy movement. They anticipate some kind of corporate dystopia, But, they say, there are other issues too. Overbreeding. The constant battle over fertility rights. “Yes,” says the woman, warming to the theme. “Politicians! Get out of my uterus! Leave my lady parts alone!” In her onepiece latex Catwoman outfit, she looks reasonably safe for the moment. 
And climate change? In over twenty interviews, not one person mentions climate change until I prompt them to do so. Then they have lots of views. No one doubts that it is happening or is going to be a disaster. “It will escalate into catastrophe.” “If we can’t cope with that, we’ll all die like the dinosaurs.” But asked to identify when these impacts might hit, they reckon it’s still a long way off. “Maybe my great-grandchildren will have to deal with it,” Catwoman says.
It doesn't really prompt them to do anything about it. Except buy more comics.

So, I conclude, dystopias have become just another commodity, dealing out escapism. Which is a bit depressing, given that my next novel, Stormteller, out next month, is a dystopia/fantasy about climate change.

Do you think your writing can change anything?


Sue Purkiss said...

Well, I suppose you're never going to know, are you? Something you write may change the mindset of one particular reader, who then takes a different path to the one s/he might have followed, ends up studying climate change and discovers something amazing - but you'll never know, even though it was the pebble you dropped into the pond that started it all. So keep on keeping on, and good luck with the book!

Joan Lennon said...

There's the act of reading itself which lays down pathways of empathy in the brain. That changes lives, and the world.

DavidKThorpe said...

Yes, Sue, I hope so! And, Joan, empathy is vital too.

Lydia Syson said...

Oh dear - that is rather depressing… But I think Sue is right and you have to keep believing that every tiny thing will make a difference ultimately, however hard it is to detect, and even if you'll never know. Maybe it's harder when you're writing dystopias, and history is another thing entirely, but I find myself endlessly inspired by reading and writing about people who've tried to change the world in the past - people whose actions and beliefs have visibly made a difference. And a lot of them have been inspired themselves by their reading. I'm sure your new book will make someone think differently about the world. Good luck with it.

Nick Green said...

I know what you mean, David... you spend years crafting a certain kind of book and then a million come along at once.

My Firebird trilogy (out yesterday) isn't dystopia as such, but it is YA science fiction with a similar sort of theme to the concerns you raise, such as the environment and the long-term survival of the species.

I think The Guardian article was a little green-ink-brigade, shall we say, but I share the gloomy view that most kids just read dystopias for the thrills and kills and love triangles, not the themes. Also, the feeling of being alienated and oppressed has always played well with teenagers, who may tend to feel like no-one understands them and everyone is against them.

I did think The Hunger Games suffered from a terrible internal contradiction: in that the horror was supposed to be that these kids were being made to fight each other; but nearly all the excitement comes from the kids fighting each other. We are inherently complicit as readers in the crimes of the fictional state. Now, that might be incredibly clever of the writer, but if it is then most readers are missing that point.

DavidKThorpe said...

Nick, you're right about the contradiction in Hunger Games, but I do feel there is a parallel with city gangs. Kids in these areas feel compelled to join again and fight each other. At least in Hunger Games the main protagonists try to find ways of binding together to avoid the worst violence.