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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Raab

Dystopian Fiction

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

One of the most disturbing dystopian novels I’ve ever read was the Handmaid’s Tale. Watching a familiar America turn into a misogynistic zealous totalitarian dictatorship scared the living shit out of me. I read in an interview that Margaret Atwood took elements of current events and wove them into her story, which is what made it so haunting.

The other day my husband and I were searching for something to watch on streaming tv (we don’t have cable). He asked if I had watched the Handmaid’s Tale. I said no. He asked why. I said … when it started … I just couldn’t. It wouldn’t have been a catharsis at the time that it aired. It would’ve felt like hitting an open wound. It was the world I was afraid that we were heading into. Maybe not a religiously zealot one, but one run by a totalitarian oligarchy, where injustices towards POC, women, nonChristians were considered moral and legal. It was just too much. I wanted and needed hope.

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Neil Gaiman,

I needed to see that the dragon could die. However, because I had read the book and because I knew that the world was a dystopia, I knew that the dragon in the Handmaid’s Tale would not be vanquished. There was no chosen one.

The young adult movie series Hunger Games ends on a hopeful notes, where the lynch-pin dictators are killed and then freedom for the masses is restored. In the movie, we see a flash forward of Peta and Katniss playing with their children in a meadow in a bittersweet resolution, where the Hunger Games would never darken their children’s lives and the trauma they suffered would live in the past.

Stories are ways that we can safely understand the world. One of the reasons that people read or watch dystopian stories, I think, is so that they can get their heads wrapped around things going on around them. Margaret Atwood wrote about things that happened to women all over the world, which made The Handmaid’s Tale seem prescient to some. In an interview, she said that she took elements from current events at the time that she wrote the novel. Making the story take place sometime in the near future made the story distant enough so that it was easier to deal with the issues emotionally. At least in my opinion. I still can’t watch the TV series, though I still love the book, because it would not be a catharsis for me. But writing the story that I am is.

I’m writing a dystopian novel, definitely not as artfully and skillfully as Margaret Atwood did, but I’m writing one. It’s not going to be a story for everyone. There is no chosen one. Well, the main character of the first book certainly isn’t. She’s our conduit into the world, but she’s not chosen to solve the world’s problems. She’s there to understand the world. She doesn’t quite get it, so we learn about the world right along with her. The first novel will not leave you on a hopeful note, but for those who like the satisfaction of having questions answered, it will be satisfying. It’s the first of a series, so not all of the questions will be answered, but there will be one big question answered.

I wonder if that’s why I’m afraid to watch the tv series. I’m afraid that there won’t be any questions answered, like is there a way to topple the regime. The fact is that any regime, authoritarian or not, can be toppled. You can change even the most systemic exploitative belief system. At one time, there were empires that had human sacrifice as a major part of their religion. Those empires no longer exist. That kind of codified exploitation of human life no longer exists. So, it is possible to eradicate some forms of human exploitation. Sometimes it just takes toppling the empire to do it. Wasn’t that what the movie Apocalypto was about? Sure. It was replaced by another form of exploitive regime.

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