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Against realism

Jennifer Mills on the value of fictional dystopias

Originally published July 28, 2019
Last updated July 27, 2019
Posted in ,

Dystopia does not require much imagination; as I have said elsewhere, it already has a postcode. It is Nauru, Manus Island and Don Dale. It is deaths in custody. It is the NT Intervention. It is family violence, defunded shelters, no escape. It is punitive welfare systems and robo-debt (all debt). It is feudalism in the arts. It is a parliament of small-minded, self-interested individuals, plotting endless revenges. It is watching your farm die while these same corrupt politicians spruik for coal.

What is often forgotten is that dystopia is the literature of the underdog, the genre of the disempowered. There is a reason it is so prevalent in teen fiction. In this context, the urge to put dystopias down seems less a literary opinion and more a political one: it is a dismissal of the whining voices of the oppressed, an impatience with the boring victims of society’s many inequalities, a policing of the novel’s potential for the expression of social possibility.

Political realism shames us for desiring more and better. Those desires are personal and social, abstract and concrete: freedom, equality, housing, art, safety, clean air, health care, more time. The compulsion to be realistic shrinks our sense of ourselves as historical actors, as protagonists in our own stories, as agents of change in a functioning democracy.

I believe fiction can help to restore a sense of agency through solidarity. The question is not whether the future will be better or worse, but rather what we will do about it when we get there, what we are doing about it now, and what that ‘we’ might mean.

Dystopia, an explicitly political genre in which fiction and metaphor are used to explore the negative consequences of various forms of social organisation, soared in popularity in the mid-twentieth century in response to authoritarianism, and it rises again now in a strikingly similar historical moment.

Mills, Jennifer. “Against Realism.” Overland Literary Journal (blog), December 11, 2018. https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-233/feature-against-realism/

Alex Bayley is a tech industry refugee, independent researcher, writer, educator and community builder. They live in Ballarat, west of Melbourne, Australia.

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1 Comment

  1. Clare on July 28, 2019 at 4:58 pm

    Clare liked this read on twitter.com.