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Haunting Powerlessness: Why Dystopia is Horror on the Societal Level

By Steven Lloyd Wilson and Genevieve Burgess | Think Pieces | September 26, 2014 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson and Genevieve Burgess | Think Pieces | September 26, 2014 |

There’s been a rash of dystopian fiction lately, particularly of the young adult variety. A lot of it is really badly written, but then Saint Sturgeon taught us that ninety percent of any genre is shit, so we shouldn’t really judge it too harshly for that. A lot of ink gets spilled on why we enjoy dystopian fiction, and a particularly interesting subgenre of critiques focus in on exactly why certain cultures and certain times produce the dystopias that they do.

So the eruption of the Soviet Union into a superpower leads logically to Animal Farm. Fears of totalitarianism of the fascist, communist, or even the well-intentioned democratic variety lead to 1984. Drug culture and mass media lead to Brave New World. Incompetent corporate bureaucracy given absolute power in the face of terrorism is the kernel of Brazil. The Stand comes on the wings of epidemic scares and religious fanaticism. The Maze Runner and Divergent from the very real fear that teenagers are fucking idiots.

Generally dystopian fiction gets lumped into the category of science fiction, if only because dystopias tend to logically be placed at a point in the future. But they have a lot less to do with science fiction than they do with horror. Because like horror, they seek to terrify us.

And in the comparison of two genres that have at face value only a tenuous connection, we can tease out a commonality that is at the root of them both: powerlessness. Riffing on the truism made famous by SVU: horror and dystopia are not fictions of violence, they’re fictions of power.

See, horror does not derive from horrible things, seen or not. It does not derive from evil having its way, whether monstrous, spectacular, or mundane. It derives from powerlessness. That’s why the best horror movies don’t need to show anything at all on screen other than the hopeless terror of their victims. The boogeyman, in whatever eighties incarnation, is not terrifying because of hooked hands or machetes or butcher knives, but because of its inevitability. Because when you look in the mirror, it’s already right behind you, because when you fall asleep it’s waiting for you, because no matter how many times you shoot it, stab it, or drown it, it always comes back one more time. Horror is at its least effective when all it has to offer is viciousness, and is soul-rending when it offers slow inevitability.

Dystopian fiction is horror on the playing field of civilizations. It might often have the trappings of science fiction, but its impact is straight from horror stories, but scaled up from the experience of the individual to the experience of the world. It is societal horror.

Humans fighting against each other are stories we are all familiar with, and very few dystopian stories deviate from that familiar formula. People got us into whatever mess they’re portraying, people will get us out. We are the heroes, we are the villains, the setting just lends a greater sense of importance to our interpersonal struggles. Most dystopian fiction that goes beyond this and presents new monsters or creatures to fight against is categorized as horror (like H.P Lovecraft) or is more firmly science fiction (anything with aliens). Dystopia is a feature of those stories, but not the central struggle. Two stories stand out as walking a different path; Children of Men and The Handmaid’s Tale. Up until The Hunger Games they were the only works of dystopian fiction we (the authors) had read that were written by women, and both present a world where humans are on the verge of extinction not due to an outside threat or our own aggression, but because we have lost the ability to reproduce. Whatever struggles the characters encounter, there’s a pervasive sense of hopelessness about these stories. Thematically, they are more similar to the Lovecraft stories in emphasizing how small we are in the world and how fragile we are.

But the more our species endures, the more we want to embrace that weakness. Recently there were a lot of complaints that the end of True Detective was disappointing with the ‘build up’ that many saw pointing to some sort of larger mythological or even supernatural conclusion, even though it was a very straightforward cop show. We watch The Leftovers and sulk that there’s no explanation for what happened, as though the fact that it happened isn’t terrifying enough all on its own. We’ve also seen an explosion of a variety of supernatural genres in the last several years, some aimed at teens, and some more firmly aimed at young adults. The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on TV now, and so far it appears to be documenting the end of humanity. Not as we know it, the end of humanity overall. With so much of our world demystified by science, our battles need new villains to make the fight seem fair. But we have made them unbelievably powerful, perhaps more so than we understand.

The most interesting dystopias and fictions are not the ones where we maintain power, where we are at fault for our own destruction, but the ones in which we take the power out of our hands and give it to fictional creatures or forces greater than ourselves. It proves how short-sighted we are, though, because inevitably in these stories we end up focusing on small battles that do nothing to sway the larger tide of destruction or decay. It is easy, after all, to focus on the small but easily understood details while ignoring the larger causes and themes. It is easy to tell women to wear more modest clothing or not to drink too much. It is harder to take a hard look at a culture that has long considered women status symbols rather than people. We are bad at seeing the problem, even when it’s right in front of us. Children of Men has one of the bleakest endings to any dystopian story; there is a new baby, but its survival (and the question of whether any other babies will ever be born) is left unclear. After the final climactic struggle, it brings the reality of these characters’ lives crashing back down on the reader. Has our hero changed the world? Does it matter? Perhaps not. And that’s what we’re really scared of.

Steven Lloyd Wilson normally cut n’ pastes something about scions and elder gods down here, while Genevieve Burgess typically says something witty about the article she just wrote. Both approaches have been rendered questionable by co-writing something serious.