Why is dystopian fiction a comfort right now?

I just finished reading Ling Ma’s novel Severance published in 2018. It blew my mind. Here’s a quick synopsis: Shen Fever, a virus originating in China, has spread globally and shut down the world. A small group of survivors find each other, including the main character Candace Chen. They hole up in an abandoned mall as their new home. Of course, the leader of this small band of survivors, Bob, is religious and controlling. (Why do cults always arise in dystopian novels? Station Eleven also had a cult plot woven into it.) So Candace eventually needs to escape.

Any of this sound familiar?

This was one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. Ling Ma’s prose is sparse and satirical. She is successfully humorous while also providing social commentary on life in New York City, office politics, capitalism, youthful idealism, and immigrant life in America. This book spoke so eerily well into today’s world and today’s global pandemic that it was impossible to put down. The only thing missing was the racial repercussions I assumed Candace Chen would experience as a Chinese American with the virus originating in China. That plot line never arose.

Finishing Severance led me searching for a review I remembered Amy Frykholm wrote for the Christian Century. Here’s an excerpt of what she had to say about the dystopian novel The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.

The delight I experienced in reading this book needs further interrogation, however, because these stories deal relentlessly with dark subjects: debilitating disease, child abandonment, child pornography, and the legacy of the cold war.

But gradually it dawned on me that the picture of human nature Johnson paints is weirdly optimistic. In these stories the human heart often acts against the narrator’s wishes, leading a contorted person on a straighter path than he or she could have created—a version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

It’s not that there are happy endings. But even amidst death and torture one can say, tentatively, if one has been able to stay with the dark scenario, that love wins out.

I think the reason dystopian fiction can comfort us in dark times is that these stories often call us back, as readers, to what is most precious about life. When everything is gone, to what do you cling? In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it was the relationship between a father and his son. In Severance, it is also a moral claim for love and relationships in spite of all the odds.

Maybe reading Severance made me feel better because I could simply say to myself, “Well, at least things aren’t THAT bad yet.”  But like Frykholm wisely noted in her book review, there’s more. In the midst of global pandemics, shit gets real and we are called to an optimistic hope that, in the end, love still remains.

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