BY RENN ELKINS ’ 20
“The future looks a lot like the past,” declares Esther Little, an enigmatic, semi-mortal woman of astounding psychic power, in the latter half of David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks.” She warns that “power grids [will] start failing in the late 2030s,” and that this is the “inevitable result [...] of population growth and lies about oil reserves.”
Mitchell’s novels are well known for their erratic temporality, with narrative threads often hopping across decades, centuries and even millennia with little warning. “The Bone Clocks” is no different: 100 or so pages after Esther Little’s prediction, the narration shifts to a post-apocalyptic 2043. At this point, readers have followed the protagonist, Holly Sykes, since her teenage years in the 1980s. This arc illustrates an eerie truth: perhaps the more unbelievable transformation of the world is that which has already occurred. This not-so-distant future is rife with unnerving lines on the present: “Is it really true,” a young character asks, “that when you were my age you used to get as much electricity as you wanted all the time, like? [...] And aeroplanes used to fly all the time? Not just for people from Oil States?”
In recent years, young adult novels in particular have depicted one dystopian future after another: Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” and James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner” are just a few prominent examples. All of these stories have some things in common: they’re fast-paced, exhilarating and compulsively readable. Their worlds, while brutal, are fun –– readers love imagining themselves in the situations of Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior.
“I definitely fantasized about being in ‘The Hunger Games,’ in a romanticized sort of way –– I’ve even had dreams about it,” says Eleanor Schanilec ’20. Sheclarified that these dreams were in no way nightmares, but rather thrilling adventures.
Arden Hegberg ’20 adds that the structure of the novels themselves almost encourages readers to envision themselves in these brutal situations: “I would always think about what strategies I would use if I were in the Games,” they explain, “or what sort of weapons I would choose.”
This is because “The Hunger Games,” at its core, is about just that: a game. Even “Mockingjay,” the final installment in the series, manages to turn the serious political revolution into a literal obstacle course as the heroes head in for their final assault on the corrupt Capitol. The premise of “The Maze Runner,” likewise, places its characters in the center of a labyrinth, with the sole objective of escaping. These oversimplified futures, though steeped in grimy and gory imagery, are cinematic tales about teenagers playing games — and all three of the ones mentioned above have indeed been made into box-office-shattering films.
The respective worlds of Collins, Roth and Dashner are also crucially distant. A vague history involving natural disasters and world wars is provided as an explanation for these far-fetched futures, but they tend not to have any tangible connection to our present-day lives. Even if specific dates aren’t provided, we can assume that these characters are living generations after us; we can enjoy their harrowing tales because they couldn’t be farther away from our reality.
Mitchell’s dystopia is not so gentle. 2043 is in less than 30 years –– the majority of Earth’s present population will still be alive. And as Esther Little says, the bleak, resource-stripped nightmare world of “The Bone Clocks” is not so much a possibility as an inevitability. The exponentially increasing digitalization of our world, coupled with the looming threat of nuclear war and the ever more striking evidence of catastrophic climate change, is the beginning of a dystopia that is the farthest thing from fictional. We are rocketing headfirst into a post-apocalyptic world of our own, and there is not a game in sight. Our enemy is not a malicious Capitol or a freak disease bent on annihilating the world’s population. Rather, it is ourselves, in all of our aggressive, overpopulated, resource-greedy glory.
We need to stop waiting for a calamity that is easy to combat, because it will never come. Our struggle is taking place now, day by day, sliding under our awareness as we turn off the news but leave on the TV. A dull, cold, energy-robbed future is the inevitable result of our current behavior, if it carries on.
Yet, it is in nobody’s power but our own to change direction while we still can. And it will take work that may often enough be grueling and uninteresting, but also impassioning, inspiring and vital.
It’s time to stop fantasizing about dystopias and start looking at the one around us. Unlike the ones we read about, it won’t go away with the shutting of a cover.