We’re in a pop culture cycle of kids in dystopian futures. Bruce Peabody explores why.
Bad states are having their moment. In these early years of the 21st century we are attracted to dark tales of wicked governments, debased people, and futures gone terribly awry.
From the runaway success of The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead, to the emergence of literary fiction such as The Circle and On Such a Full Sea, creative works with dystopian and apocalyptic themes are enjoying surging popularity.
We are fascinated with this material for lots of reasons. In an era of terrorism, transcontinental pathogens, and climate change, our sense of danger is heightened, but we are uncertain about what form it will take. Works like M.T. Anderson’s Feed, or Max Brooks’ World War Z simultaneously stoke and vent this anxiety.
Moreover, the frantic beat of technological change rapidly erases the gap between fantasy and products brought to market. Before Roomba and Siri and Google Glass, we had (usually cautionary) stories about similar inventions.
Besides visiting dystopian worlds to think about where we’re going, we use them to clarify who we are, what we value. When zombies come shuffling up the driveway, they help us think about priorities—who and what we’ll grab before we slip out the backdoor (hint: your loved ones and something heavy and blunt).
This last observation points to one of the least appreciated components of our preoccupation with bleak futures. Today’s dystopian and apocalyptic fiction teaches us about our relationship with kids and, implausibly, gives us some lessons on parenting.
This has not always been true. Previous generations of dark fiction were much less concerned with children and young adults. Works such as 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 were primarily about navigating adult relationships and individual psyches through oppressive states. Even Lord of the Flies, which used the plight of marooned English schoolboys to illustrate the “darkness of man’s heart,” is basically devoid of (living) adults.
In the twenty-first century, dystopian and apocalyptic literature is a different country. Our brave new grim world reflects changes in everything from gender roles to new ideals of good parenting to the explosive growth (and profitability) of Young Adult literature.
In our time, dystopian parents come in three basic flavors: hapless, harmful, and hopeful.
The first group of figures are critically impaired, overwrought, self-absorbed, and, consequently, incapable of caring for their offspring. Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games, loses her father in a mining accident and her mother to a resulting depression and emotional detachment. In The Road, the mother of the nameless “boy” at the moral heart of Cormac McCarthy’s book commits suicide rather than face the human and environmental degradation on the horizon. These are helicopter parents, but in a tragic, Black Hawk Down sort of way.
As bad as these passive, listless characters are, they are less deplorable than a second group. While appearing in different shades of grey and black, these moms and dads are essentially malevolent, although their evil often assumes a banal, shoulder-shrugging form.
In Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, for example, the protagonist “Jimmy” is afflicted with a professionally successful but amoral and neglectful father who grows “human neo-cortex tissue” in mutant pigs. Jonas’s father in The Giver is officially known as a Community “nurturer,” but, in practice, he commits infanticide in order to maintain “sameness” and social order.
A third group of figures, while clearly in the minority, provide some modest hope for the future of parenting. These are flawed but loving moms and dads. They include the eponymous Jennifer Government, a harried single mother who pursues justice in Max Barry’s hyper-privatized world (where the victims of crime need to raise their own funds to pay for investigations and prosecution).
With this last set of parents, and, of course, through the negative examples of the others, dystopian and apocalyptic literature offers some reflections about our own child-rearing. At first glance, this observation may seem jarring, if not laughable: the flinty individualism and rock-hard poverty of The Hunger Games or the melancholy hopelessness of the Age of Miracles are not the most nurturing environments. But, these (materially and spiritually) diminished worlds lay bare what is most important in our relationships, including those with children.
So what do these tales tell us? At many points, they emphasize the importance of being present as a parent. In The Road, the father reassures his troubled son “I’m right here” after a fitful sleep in the wild. Conversely (and perversely) Titus’s father in Feed, insists, without irony, that dinner should be respected as special “family networking and defragging time.”
Dystopian and apocalyptic stories remind us about the importance of core parenting roles. These include protection (“My job is to take care of you” says The Road’s dad), education (in Feed, the closest thing we have to a responsible adult is Violet’s father who teaches her about “weird words and irony” so she can critically assess her world), and serving as a moral exemplar (Jennifer Government’s uncompromising zeal). Good parents in dystopian novels aren’t afraid to speak clearly, make hard choices, and be different from their children. In contrast, Titus’s dad is as crude, inarticulate, and thoughtless as his son.
All of this sketches and reinforces some fairly conventional views about parenting. Apparently, being loving, responsible, and decent serves our children in stable times as well as when the zombies/plague/nanobots hit the fan.
But there’s an additional, recurring theme in these works that is less intuitive but more interesting. Good parents in bad states tell stories. A number of thinkers have argued that one of the threads linking diverse societies is a reliance on narratives to help make sense of both our individual lives and shared history. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, “man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.”
In the turbulent worlds of dystopian fiction, this is an omnipresent and oft-expressed need. Sharing stories helps characters confront the mysteries, uncertainties, and terror that are often just around the bend. They provide structure and ritual and buttress values under siege.
Thus, the father in The Road tells stories to soothe his son before sleep, following the lead of countless flesh and blood parents across the globe. In Oryx and Crake, “Snowman” constructs fables for the “Crakers,” the naïve, genetically altered superhumans who, for all their self-sufficiency, crave accounts of their origins and fate, even if these are fabrication.
There are good reasons to believe that transmitting narratives is important not just for the threatened inhabits of fictional worlds but for people living today. An emerging line of research in psychology shows that children with a greater awareness of their family history, and a deeper sense of their connection to relatives, are more likely to be happy and emotionally resilient—even in the face of real world calamities like the September 11th attacks.
Having children is a fundamentally optimistic act, both in life and literature. For all the stark landscapes and broken humanity in contemporary dystopian fiction, the presence of children is often a signal that thinking about the future is not an exercise in despair, but an invitation to engage in conscious and responsible parenting and citizenship. That seems to be what McCarthy’s father has in mind when he promises his son that he’s “carrying the fire”—transmitting, against the odds, the gifts of society, family, and human accomplishment to posterity.