The independent news organization of Duke University

Books vs. Dystopias

All chat names come with good reason. Every so often, four friends and I text each other in our iMessage group Dystopian Plots. While nobody dwells on this name nowadays, it originated from a lengthy conversation during last year’s (excuse for a spring break marked on calendars as) “Wellness Day.”

We had been hiking. To be honest, it was more of a walk, or a stroll, through the leafless, brown, mid-March wilderness of Hillsborough, North Carolina. Gray skies, dirt paths, brachial branches. As we trudged along, burdened beneath backpacks of picnic blankets, books, and food, one friend commented: “I feel like we’re in the Hunger Games!” A debatable statement, but her casual reference to the dystopian series sparked a new conversation, during which another friend remarked: “We’re a generation that grew up on dystopian plots!”

012522-chin.jpg
Hannah Kitakule, Class of 2024

 Photo: Hannah Kitakule, Class of 2024

I was surprised by her claim’s simple truth. When we were young, popular titles included: The Maze Runner, The Giver, Divergent, The City of Ember, The Hunger Games. Anything sound familiar? Jonas, in learning from the Giver, taught us to ask whether society would truly be better freed from all pain, crime, and sadness. Tris and Four, in uncovering secrets about their society’s factions, inspired us to bravely pursue truth. And Katniss Everdeen, in her refusal to follow blind orders, showed us her strengths in self-sufficiency, selflessness, and striking alliances.

As we grew older, our family of dystopian tales grew to include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, and Brave New World (1932) by English author Aldous Huxley. Most recently, I read The Memory Police (1994, translated 2019) by Yoko Ogawa — with a twist of fantastical magic, it’s a Japanese story about memory and erasure. Common themes that bridge all these books include censorship, corrupt authority, social experiments, and some sort of new technology, usually a scientific threat.

It also appears that authors globally have long felt that books were under threat. Is storytelling an inherent connection to being human? Are books and dystopias mutually exclusive? I think so. Perhaps our literary past guides us straight to our futures. The stories we grew up reading, then, cast an ominous warning. Professor John Sutherland wrote in A Little History of Literature that we already live in a world these authors have long before predicted. But part of me hopes that our generation has yet to (and will not) fulfill these authors’ prophecies.

The first week of EDUC 101, our professor asked everyone “where do you stand?” on 20 values or goals adopted by schools at different times, such as: “Provide a dynamic vehicle for social economic mobility,” “Provide child care for the nation’s children,” and “Prevent unwanted pregnancy, AIDS, drugs, addiction, and alcoholism.” In addition to dividing this list among four levels, from TOP PRIORITY to definitely not do this, we were asked to rank what we believed to be the top 5 and lowest 5 priorities schools should advocate.

Our class’s results reflect this population well: Gen-Z students attending a liberal university. The top priority based on our rankings was “Encourage students to question current practices and institutions, to promote social change.” The second and third top priorities were “Lead the world in creating a peaceful global society, stressing an understanding of other cultures and languages” and “Prepare educated citizens who can undertake actions that spark change.” If schools really did prioritize these values, wouldn’t Guy Montag and Winston Smith’s societies be far from reality? Correspondingly, the lowest-ranked value was “Encourage loyal students committed to the US; to instill patriotism.” While not a sequence of cause-and-effect, I believe it’s no coincidence that this generation — who grew up reading Divergent and The Giver — believes loyalty to institutions is not an imperative focus for school.

I’d even suggest that WII and Cold War-era literature we read in high school make us relatively suspicious of government and overbearing technology. Yet the average American spends over 7 hours on a screen daily. That’s nearly half our waking hours if we sleep the recommended 8 hours at night — and while college students likely sleep less, we also have an average screen-time of 8-10 hours. Our screens have become like an extra limb: not carrying a phone not only affects your own life, but also the lives of those whom you usually interact with through texting, calling, and social media. For this generation, even pivotal academic moments are experienced through a screen: College Board just announced yesterday the SAT will be fully digital in 2024. A friend of mine at UChicago joked about getting a QR code tattooed on his arm — when people scan it with their phones, they’d be directed to his Linktree and calendar. Even funnier, everyone around the table began entertaining his idea, considering its practicality.

Perhaps coupled with the rise of technology and the internet, it’s also easier now to “promote social change.” Virtue signaling is, unfortunately, more effortless than ever. Without having to read in-depth, we can take issues at face-value, and with a simple repost, contribute to the discussion without considering the complexities behind and within a single issue. We may think: Hey! At least we don’t live in a futuristic society where nobody makes independent choices or At least we don’t sacrifice twelve teens to fight each other to death annually! “But in other ways,” as Sutherland said, “the ‘Orwellian’ future has, indeed, come about.”

We live in a society where all our personal identifying information is free real estate to companies, and our routine actions are easily tracked by Big Brother. Additionally, our physical reality is increasingly blended with the “reality” of online universes, which is what media companies want for profit. New virtual realities such as the Metaverse are, in my own words, “mad sus.” Mid-20th-century authors taught us to question authority figures in politics, and our childhood novels echoed that sentiment. But in this current age, we may need to redirect our attention to the dystopian realities that have already been integrated into our daily lives.

I believe these virtual realities appear trustworthy because they promise to give us what they are, in reality, taking away: social interaction. Last week, my peer columnist published an article in which they wrote: “the continuing desire to live behind a screen well into the future seems like another excuse for blurring the lines between work and life, appearance and reality, until there isn’t a distinction, and thus no need to cultivate a personal identity beyond one’s online interactions and activity.” Notably, this comment was only tangential to the central point: calling out of Duke’s performative actions. This is an article in which a student voice criticized authority for stripping away our interactions by normalizing virtual meetings. As long as these voices continue to write, and we continue to read, I have hope.

Every so often, our professors and convocation speakers dramatize: you are a young, promising generation, the world’s next leaders! I wonder if, raised under the genre of dystopian authors and novels, this generation can evade the destiny laid out by literary warnings — or if we are nearing the era where these predictions finally come true. Arguably, they already have. So here I am, texting and typing away, continuing a conversation about our blurring realities for you to read from a screen. Maybe the speakers were right about at least one thing: it’s up to us.

012522-chin-2.jpg

Photo: Hannah Kitakule, Class of 2024

Jocelyn Chin is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, Bibliobibuli, runs on alternate Wednesdays. Coined by H. L. Mencken, bibliobibuli means “to be drunk on books”: from the Greek biblio (books), and the Latin bibulous, from bibere (to drink).

Discussion

Share and discuss “Books vs. Dystopias” on social media.