𝗝.𝗠. 𝗕𝗘𝗥𝗚𝗘𝗥 #readoptimal
Mon Jul 20 18:06:29 +0000 2020

Is dystopian fiction good for society? Time for a THREAD! https://t.co/uPT9huJk7H

The proximate cause of this thread is the following article by @peterwsinger @august_cole whose #burninbook you should check out, if you haven't already. https://t.co/npGLf2azr6

This thread is a friendly dissent to the article's premise that we need dystopian fiction now more than ever, and additional comment on broader implications of this argument.

By way of background, I've been researching a book on the history of the dystopian genre for some years. The book is currently on hold for a variety of reasons, but hopefully not forever.

Singer/Cole present an apologia for the genre, arguing for its worth in highlighting risks to society. The argument is good in the abstract, but not necessarily reflective of the history.

First, risk is in the eye of the beholder. In my dystopian bibliography (around 1,000 books, films and TV shows), the most common risk described in dystopian literature is the failure of racial (most often white) supremacy. https://t.co/1jP5qNjrwh

Racial dystopias -- fearmongering about race war and miscegenation, or pipe dreams about racial supremacy/genocide -- are not only the most numerous, they're also responsible for driving the growth/establishment of the genre in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

I talked about some of that in this paper https://t.co/tTpeCkWajy but only the tip of the iceberg. The genre emerged more forcefully *after* the Civil War, with "yellow peril" dystopias and an emerging black nationalist genre (more nuanced and better written, but still).

You find the occasional gem of social commentary in this subgenre (Black No More, by George Schuyler, is a notable example) but most of this subgenre is the weaponizing of dystopian narratives against marginalized people. https://t.co/d0cigeSut3

Even when race isn't front and center, it's a big part of the genre. Consider the racial segregation described in The Hunger Games, which is hardly addressed in the narrative. Consider: https://t.co/Q5ERwekNvj

Singer/Cole argue that dystopian authors as a class are "optimists." Some, sure. But many dystopias (the racial ones especially) are clearly motivated by fear more than hope. And the works themselves are not optimistic.

Relatedly, Singer/Cole also argue that "dystopian stories are about the agency of the people in them" and are stories of "perseverance." This is often (but not always) true. But people trying to exercise agency in dystopian stories have a tendency to lose.

Consider 1984, Brazil, The Handmaid's Tale, Rollerball, Brave New World. All of these stories are specifically about the defeat of personal agency at the hands of an overwhelming system, or at best a Pyrrhic victory. https://t.co/2deRslTkGU

Consider @GreatDismal's Agency, which is literally all about who gets to have agency. Its protagonist and most of its (human) characters don't seem to have agency, or choose not to exercise it. https://t.co/daVi3ijWbA

Ultimately, it's easier to point to *concrete* examples of how the dystopian genre has hurt society than helped it.

Whether by shaping the legal arguments for the Chinese Exclusion Acts https://t.co/teHLmC1i7B, by inspiring murder https://t.co/KgK4RhAKjo https://t.co/57Q9sPtxHy or by inspiring our current broken political system https://t.co/AI1aIv4lOJ (ymmv on this one, but come on).

Even well-intentioned works often land negatively. Rollerball, for instance, inspired people to try to create their own Rollerball leagues, completely missing the point of the movie. More on that here https://t.co/KDaCnGZGqE

The Purge movies have similarly inspired actual or notional violence in ways that actively flout the intended message of the movie (partly but not wholly attributable to confusing messaging in the early going of the franchse https://t.co/UieD0KKwSe)

None of this is to say that the genre is inherently bad (I am currently trying it myself). But it's definitely not inherently good, and it may skew bad overall. It's a complicated dark landscape. https://t.co/WyRe0Gh8Dt

I think a lot about how my own forthcoming work might be misconstrued by readers.

Dystopian works are powerful because they describe fundamentally broken systems. That's why in my book Extremism, I identify dystopia as a major category of crisis narrative used by extremists, and also why extremists utilize dystopian fiction aggressively https://t.co/PANocpkerR

Dystopian works have a lot to contribute, but it's a complex genre with a lot of pros and cons. As Singer/Cole argue, it can indeed help us understand and respond to current problems. But it can also stoke fear and create new problems. Like most tools, it's double-edged. /fin https://t.co/FWIaPpxgAd

Mon Jul 20 18:06:39 +0000 2020