by Jaime Castle
Two of the high school English classes that I teach are currently reading dystopian novels. Each class voted on which genre that they liked best; I then choose three novels that fell under their favorite genre for each class, presented reviews from each book without telling them what the book was, and then they voted on whichever book sounded the most interesting to them. The results were that now one class is reading World War Z and the other is reading Station Eleven. I’m going to have them switch novels so that we can compare them next!
This process had me wondering what it is about the dystopian genre that teenagers find so fascinating? I asked them and they said that they like to escape into a different world that is exciting – that a sunshine and rainbows story would be boring. I had to laugh as I asked if they would prefer to live in a reality of brain-eating zombies? But is there something to it? Do we like to experience a scary reality while living in a relatively safe reality? What is interesting is that both of these books depict worlds where some kind of sickness has wiped out most of the human population and both were written before Covid-19. We are able to relate to the characters as the sicknesses first spread and the uncertainty and fear spread. I wonder if the reading experience wouldn’t be as powerful if we didn’t have that empathy?
The books are very different in the circumstances that lead to each one’s new normal aftertimes. One book is a global zombie apocalypse – a fictional nonfiction, an oral history told from the viewpoints of the survivors and the other is a story of a virulent flu that wipes out the economy and all modern civilizations leaving pockets of survivors to make of the world what they can with what they have and who they have left. What these dark stories have very much in common is the sense of gratitude and appreciation that I feel after reading each segment. I find myself grateful for the world that we have, even though so flawed. We have electricity and running water and running HOT water and air-conditioning. We have refrigerators and medicine and toothpaste and shoes. We have schools and grocery stores and can watch sports or movies or scroll online. We are surrounded by so many creature comforts and everyday wonders! Any stress or annoyances seem so insignificant after reading these tales!
Fall is arrived and the days are getting shorter and darker. It’s a time for introspection and rest. As we go into the darkness, let us take the time to appreciate it. And if you ever need a good cheering up, I highly suggest that you pick up a good, dark dystopian novel to help you gain perspective!
Sidenote: It’s my Birthday season (September 28th) and my age is: George Orwell’s dystopian novel’s title divided by 4, minus 450!