Karen Booth | Good News Magazine | In Praise of Dystopian Literature

Original Posting At http://karenbooth.goodnewsmag.org/in-praise-of-dystopian-literature/

signWhen it comes to fiction, many of my favorite books are dystopian or apocalyptic in nature. Whether it’s paranormal monsters, mutated viruses, nuclear bombardment or just plain stupid human beings, I love reading about the dysfunctional societies or earth-shattering disasters they create. And I love finding out how things work out for the main characters or the whole human race in the end.

Maybe it’s because I’m what one of my friends calls a “negative scanner,” habitually noticing what’s wrong with the world. Or, more likely, maybe it’s because most of this kind of material has a very clear sense of right and wrong, with right usually (but not always) prevailing.

Some of the most memorable books I’ve read also have a religious slant. For example, back in the early 1980s when I was trying to discern whether or not I had a call to ministry, I read and re-read Stephen King’s book The Stand. I had lived for over a decade in a personal world that was morally and ethically “gray.” So the storyline about choosing between ultimate good or evil was one I sorely needed to consider. (And I would need to reconsider it many more times while I was in seminary, which was also fuzzily “gray.”)

A few years ago a friend introduced me to the Children of the Last Days series by Roman Catholic author Michael D. O’Brien. The six books graphically portray a Western culture that is spinning quickly out of control under the influence of a brutal totalitarian government. There is stark biblical symbolism, too, including a character who is the Antichrist. But in my opinion, they are better written and more theologically provocative than much of the sensationalistic Christian “end times” fiction that’s currently popular.

So far I’ve only read the first three books ― Strangers and Sojourners, Eclipse of the Sun and Plague Journal, which tell the story of the Delaney family, Canadian immigrants who settle in British Columbia. At the heart of the novels is the father, Stephen, who is the editor of a small town newspaper. When he publicly challenges the morality of the ruling government, he is arrested and his family has to flee into the nearby forest. His and their fight for survival is the continuing focus throughout.

Here is how the Goodreads website explains the trilogy:

As O’Brien … draws together the several strands of the story into a frightening yet moving climax, he explores the heart of growing darkness in North America, examining events which have already occurred. The reader will take away from this disturbing book a number of urgent questions: Are we living in the decisive moment of history? How dire is our situation? Do we live in pessimistic dread, or a Christian realism founded on hope? This is a tale about the victory of the weak over the powerful, courage over terror, good over evil, and, above all, the triumph of love.

The Goodreads description points to the other thing I love about dystopian/apocalyptic books: they are often quite prophetic in outlook, especially the classics like 1984 and Brave New World. Their glimpses of “the shape of things to come” were often a wake-up call for society to do a “course correction” before it was too late.

I think O’Brien’s fiction may fall into that category, too. As a native of Ontario, Canada, the author has lived and worked under the restrictions of his nation’s punitive hate crimes legislation, of which the section on “hate speech” was only recently rescinded. It isn’t a very long jump from his contemporary reality to the repressive and dangerous world that he imagines.

As Americans continue to deal with the clash between free speech and the rights of sexual minorities, O’Brien’s vision and message could give us much food for thought.

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