Fear Itself

With the upcoming Rapture, I thought today would be a good day to talk about something I’ve been thinking about for the past few weeks. As you all know, the face that symbolized “evil” to many Americans, Osama bin Laden, was shot in the head and killed. Like many Americans, I felt relief and a sense that justice had been done. And as someone who appreciates symbolism, the importance of this event, no matter how irrelevant overall it may be, is not lost on me.

The reason I’m bringing up this semi-old news is because the queries have started coming in. The ones about “life after Osama,” fictionalized accounts of the men who killed him, and the rise of a “new face of evil.” The hope, of course, is that the writers started these books before he was killed. Otherwise, that’s some pretty quick turnaround. Through all of these new queries, there are the ones I’ve been getting. Since I’m pretty vocal about my love of science fiction, I get a lot of queries for it. But some of them – the dystopian science fiction, specifically – suddenly don’t feel as relevant. It’s as if Osama’s death made them less threatening, the plots less enticing.

When science fiction is done well, it reveals more about the current realities of our society than any non-fiction work ever could. World Wars I and II, the space race, global imperialism, Roswell, and, yes, terrorism have all influenced science fiction. Yet it wasn’t until we entered our “post-9/11” world that we experienced a strong resurgence of dystopian novels.

But these are not Orwell’s dystopian novels anymore. And it’s not hard to see why. After 9/11, Big Brother didn’t feel so fictional, let alone like science fiction. The U.S. government took advantage of the fact that full-blown foreign terrorist attacks just don’t happen here. They exploited that panic to instill the likes of The Patriot Act and Homeland Security; they could monitor our online searches, and made racial profiling become acceptable. The stuff of science fiction – exotic new villains, conspiratorial leaders, widespread paranoia, and constant surveillance – was becoming our reality. So what was left to write about?

Enter the new dystopian. Now that Big Brother was practically a reality, our science fiction novels shifted into complete and utter destruction. The threats had to be bigger because old-fashioned government control was too close to home. To up the ante we invented other ways in which our world could be destroyed: mass floods, plague, humans taken over by a vampiric disease. The more elaborate the better because if those other sci-fi novels could become our reality, we needed to make sure the new sci-fi stayed fictional. The world as we knew it had to go, and it had to go in a big way. We were beyond paranoia. The only way to save our country, and the best way to save science fiction, was to rebuild our worldview and start over.

Teens especially have taken to dystopian fiction, which is interesting when you think of the fact that by the time they were old enough to read, 9/11 already happened. As far as their memory is concerned, we’ve always lived like this. They only know war and fear and distrust of government.The Hunger Games, the most popular to come out of the trend, has them literally battling each other. War was not something that happened “over there” anymore.

So where does Osama bin Laden come in? Well, his death by itself is fairly inconsequential. But in the same way that his actions allowed us to change the way we live virtually overnight, his death will allow us to slowly return to the world we knew. That gunshot erased the face that was given to the name, and soon, with time, it will reverse the Patriot Act, eliminate a need for Homeland Security, and allow us to, finally, stop being afraid. At least this is my hope.

When I get queries now about a government (or metaphor for government) that has gotten too much power because of one singular event, I think to myself, will this be enough anymore? It already sounds dated to me because I can foresee that in the two years it will take for that book get published, the world could look significantly different than it does today.

I’m not really sure where dystopian will go from here. I am ignoring the fact that the market is so saturated with it that it’s likely going to die out soon anyway. That’s because sci-fi never really goes out of style. This particular sub-genre will. At least for now. We brought it back when we needed it, and hopefully we won’t again for a very long time.

Where do you see science fiction going? Do you think the more supernaturally inclined disaster scenarios will continue? Or do you think the old standby of fear (whether of outside forces or of our own government’s power) will keep the genre as strong as it has in the past?

Hope you all enjoy your last day on earth! And if you’re reading this after the Rapture, sorry you got Left Behind!

8 thoughts on “Fear Itself

  1. I really enjoyed this post – thoughtful and thought-provoking! When dystopian is the YA mainstream, I worry a bit about the emotional health of this generation.

    (And when the *guaranteed rapture* is the news mainstream, I worry about the state of the news)


    (in YA fic, not in the news.)


  2. Wow. Great great post. I've recently stumbled onto this site and am now addicted. As for the topic today, it hits home. As a high school teacher, it's always fun to see what my students are reading and to talk to them about life, and based on recent observations I agree that dystopian works will probably fade. I think that my students, at least, are ready for something a little more upbeat. The day after the Osama announcement, I could hear kids chanting “U.S.A” throughout campus. One kid even wore a Ronald Reagan t-shirt. After parents losing jobs, a scaling back of expectations for a rosy job future, etc. my students seem to just want to fight for happiness lately. I've seen an uptick in philanthropic clubs on campus, more students attending dances, etc. in the past six months-year. My kids were ready to be done with the heaviness and when Osama died, they used it as a catalyst to rally. I'm intrigued to see how this shift will translate into the next trends in YA lit. Thanks again.


  3. Even when I was in high school, Orwell's 1984 didn't seem like that big of a deal. My mom said it freaked her out and I laughed. I graduated back in the nineties. SO, yeah, different world, different fears. And the dystopian that gets me is the stuff I can imagine actually happening, but is still extreme. It's a hard balance for those dystopian writers out there.


  4. The fact that you have ceased to feel so much fear (although the chance of being hurt by a terrorist was far tinier than the chance of being hit by lightning) demonstrates the fact that you can be 100% certain the powers-that-be will come up with something else to scare you as soon as possible.

    I'm afraid it's naive to think the the Patriot Act and Homeland Security (and their equivalents in other countries) will be disbanded.

    I'm sorry to say that fear you had is exactly what they want you to feel, because then you're easier to control and it's easier to curtail your human rights.

    I hate being a cynic but it's the only way to stay afloat in the mire of illusory threats and misinformation.


  5. I don't think the trend to dystopians comes exclusively from 9/11. I think it has more to do with the economic collapse. These kinds of things affect teenagers more acutely than they affect adults. Teens don't see hope in the future. This is not because of 9/11 but because of the current economic climate. It was the same in the 80s when teens (my generation) believed the world was going to be imminently destroyed in nuclear holocaust. I think the current trend of dystopians will not begin to ebb until we begin to see real and lasting economic recovery. Only then will teens believe they have a future to look forward to and lose interest in fiction where there is none.


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