A guest blog from Zoe Cannon, writer of dystopian fiction among other things. We met in a writer’s group a while back and have kept in touch. Although we differ in our approach, myself preferring optimistic, or “antidystopian” fiction, Zoe and I find we still have much in common, including the precious need for hope. So I am pleased to present her take on it. Seems rather appropriate, given my own state of affairs.
I love dystopian stories. I always have. I love bleak worlds, grim visions of the future, characters struggling against impossible odds and not always succeeding.
But for all the dark stories I read and write, I don’t have a bleak view of humanity, or of the future. Humans are complex and fascinating creatures, with a great capacity for evil but – I believe – an even greater capacity for good. As for the future, yes, the world could go downhill in any number of ways. There are so many different opportunities for catastrophe to strike. But we’ve lived through catastrophe before. During the Cold War people lived every day with the very real threat of nuclear annihilation, and we’re still here. During the Dark Ages European civilization stagnated for a thousand years… and we’re still here.
And after whatever dystopian nightmare that could come into being, we would still be here.
Dystopia and a bright view of humanity aren’t mutually exclusive – and not only because we could survive a dystopia. Neither are dystopia and a desire to see the good aspects of humanity prevail. Dystopia isn’t optimistic; it isn’t light. It’s full of death and destruction and darkness and all the rest of those D words. But not only is there room for love and hope in dystopia, sometimes a dark story allows us to see their strength in a way a lighter and more cheerful story couldn’t.
There is no dystopia bleak enough that there can be no hope, no world grim enough that there can be no love. There is no story, no situation, that is too dark for love and hope to exist. Saying something like that is possible means saying that there is a limit to love, a ceiling on hope. And there is no such thing.
Hope comes from the human imagination. As a writer, I’m the last person who is going to try to place limits on the human imagination. And love? Love comes from being human. If someone can’t love, we treat it as a mental illness. Love in all its aspects is a trait of the human species (though certainly not unique to us!), something too basic for external circumstances, no matter how bleak, to erase.
But sometimes we can’t see how huge these things are, how impossible they are to limit. Sometimes we can’t see that unless we’re given a contrast. It’s one thing to enjoy a bright summer day. It’s quite another to be faced with a vast darkness and see that the light is still stronger. The darkest stories are often the ones with the most potential to show the sheer scope and power, the stubborn permanence, of the better side of human nature.
That side often doesn’t win major world-changing victories in these books. For every dystopia that ends with the worst parts of the world being torn down or reshaped, there’s another that leaves the world as bleak as it began. But the small and subtle victories can mean as much as the larger ones. Maybe the larger evil can’t be defeated but one person’s life can be saved. At what point is that not enough? At what level of cynicism is a human life not enough?
The point, after all, isn’t that love and hope and all the better aspects of humanity make everything okay. It’s that there is nothing strong enough to wipe them out.
And sometimes you can’t really see that until you see something strong enough to try.
[Zoe Cannon writes about the things that fascinate her: outsiders, societies no sane person would want to live in, questions with no easy answers, and the inner workings of the mind. If she couldn’t be a writer, she would probably be a psychologist, a penniless philosopher, or a hermit in a cave somewhere. While she’ll read anything that isn’t nailed down, she considers herself a YA reader and writer at heart. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and a giant teddy bear of a dog, and spends entirely too much time on the internet.