This is the way the world ends! This is the way the world ends! Not with a bang but with … solar flares? Pollution? Overpopulation? It’s anyone’s guess at this point.
Needless to say, this type of “end of the world as we know it” alarmism is a well-worn subject when it comes to popular literature. In fact, it can be hard to keep track of all the proposed causes for catastrophe, especially when each new dystopian or science fiction book seems to have its own blueprint for societal collapse. The formula for a dystopia has become fairly standard: Modern society is hit by some major disaster, or there is a gradual culmination of social issues that eventually reached a boiling point, and then an authoritarian structure is put in place to restore order.
But while these genres may feel like stale clichés to a society oversaturated with series such as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” dystopian literature has continued to grow and evolve during the past few decades to the point of almost birthing a new genre. As concern about climate change increases, classic dystopias — which were typically limited to political and economic issues like authoritarianism and social stratification — have given way to new trends like climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” which tackles creeping environmental dangers. Even mainstream dystopias have begun to reflect this shift: “The Maze Runner” series by James Dashner, for example, takes place in a postapocalyptic future in which solar flares decimated the planet’s population and resources.
In the face of such grim, possible futures, the question surrounding dystopias becomes this: How would we pull the world back from the brink of this type of society-altering disaster? And in the event that it did come, who would we turn to in order to prepare? Young adult literature seems to place the responsibility of saving the world in the hands of rugged teens running around with makeshift weapons, à la “The Hunger Games,” while more traditional dystopian literature, the “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451” type, might suggest that there is no way of even recognizing a society in crisis mode until you wake up one day in the thick of it. If the former is true, then it seems the best solution in the event of a natural disaster is to run to an Urban Outfitters and latch on to any customer wearing camo or even just well-coordinated earth tones; if the latter, well, it was a good run while it lasted.
The issue here, essentially, is that despite their thematic relevance, dystopian and sci-fi novels aren’t all that helpful in regards to guiding individuals through times of disaster. They are too caught up in exaggeration and allegory, too dependent on turning the individual into a symbol of resistance against some heinous yet improbable authoritarian state. But perhaps under all the alarmism and daring escapist fantasies, dystopian literature actually does hint at a few concrete suggestions for disaster preparedness — suggestions that revolve not around the individual, but around the community and the state. After all, if the root causes of humanitarian disasters are institutional, at least within the dystopian framework, then why shouldn’t the protections against these disasters be institutional as well?
At first, the idea of using institutional means to enact change might seem like a mischaracterization of the genre as a whole, which is rooted in challenging corrupt governments and asserting individuality. But consider the popular James Dashner series again in which solar flares ushered in a first-class apocalypse: As was confirmed in the later books, the greatest damages came not from the natural disaster itself, but from the government’s response to it. Facing a drastic reduction in resources and fearing overpopulation, authorities decided to unleash a virus known as “the Flare” as a quick and far-reaching method of population control.
What this means, in other words, is that the story behind “The Maze Runner” is a lot more realistic than meets the eye. It warns less against the power of nature, which is always unpredictable to some extent, and more against an institution that is unable to handle the issues placed in front of it. The same can be said for many books of a similar dystopian vein, even those that don’t directly reference natural disasters.
So while dystopian literature may be exaggerated in many ways, it does recognize one basic truth: The problems that we face on this planet are getting bigger and bigger, affecting more than just local communities. Pollution, climate change, resource management — these are all issues that have no clear boundaries in space and time. And as much as we like to imagine an individual with the gumption to undo even the harshest of postapocalypses, the reality is that it will take a lot of collective and institutional power to prepare for whatever is to come. And if dystopian literature has taught us one thing, it’s that power can and should be held accountable.
That’s something worth remembering, in case the Urban Outfitters plan doesn’t work out.
Lauren Sheehan-Clark covers theater and literature. Contact her at [email protected].