Our guest post today is from Susan Kaye Quinn author of Open Minds (4.6 stars on 126 reviews).
Author Susan Kaye Quinn: Dystopias: Forging Hope for Humanity
I have always read dystopian novels, before they were a popular thing (recently in young adult novels), and before I even really thought of “dystopia” as a label. I just called the futuristic tales of mind-bending alternate realities that I loved “science fiction.”
Stories like I, Robot by Asimov (originally published in 1950), one of the first stories that made me really think about what it meant to be human. A recurring theme of the science fiction of my youth was to examine humanity through the lens of a not-human character (in this case a robot), and I soaked stories like this up, filling my spongy adolescent brain with concepts like the Three Laws of Robotics. Asimov’s Foundation series similarly blew my mind with the idea that mathematical predictions of the future couldn’t guarantee a utopia, as long as the flawed nature of humanity still existed. This is where I first understood the term “dystopia” as what usually happened when humans tried to monkey with society to make it “better.”
What I loved about these stories was that they were thought experiments. They took an idea and ran with it, playing it out into the future. What if robots really became sentient? What if we could really predict the future? Not only did I enjoy the mental gymnastics that went with these (usually cautionary) tales, I felt like they were the “equipment for living” that Kenneth Burke speaks of. I used these stories to form my young adult thoughts about the future—what it should be, and what it should not.
Many people call my novel Open Minds a dystopia, although I didn’t think of it explicitly as that when I was writing it. I thought more in terms of these classic SF stories that have long filled my head. I wanted to take one thing—what if everyone really could read minds?—and play it out. I shouldn’t have been surprised when it turned into an exploration of how the circumstances of the world may change, but human beings fundamentally remain the same.
I think this is the understructure of the current dystopian craze—classical science fiction, retooled for our modern era and sensibilities. Some say the dystopian stories of today are a bleak reflection of our post-911 world, a mirror held up to our fears of environmental disasters, terrorism, and pandemic. I think the world we live in is complex, dangerous, and at times horrifying. I think it also shines with the radiance of aid flowing to natural disasters, soldiers building schools, and an increasing intolerance of hatred as an ideology. This complicated world is rekindling a need for the kinds of thought experiments found in dystopian stories, rather than the world actually spiraling into the abyss.
And I don’t think the dystopian stories of today are any more dismal than the classic stories of the past. Some may be bleak (Forest of Hands and Teeth), but there’s almost always a thread of hope (Across the Universe). Because even when things are dire, even though evil may grip our world, there is always someone who will rebel against the wrongness and attempt to set it right. Hope is a fundamental part of what it means to be human, and stories that forge hope out of the most difficult situations will always be compelling.
And I will want to read (and write) them.