Hope Or Truth

In my post today over at Spec Faith, I’m asking questions about why dystopian fiction is so popular these days, especially among young adults.

There are some great comments. One of the things that’s come up is that dystopian fiction, even if it ends with an element of light, largely traffics in despair.

That got me to thinking about fiction as escapism and the large numbers of people who say they prefer to read stories with happy endings. Not everyone is in this camp, however.

And the dystopian stories, while encased in speculation, are built on a foundation of reality. Government is big and getting bigger, more evasive. Man is cruel and getting crueler, more aggressive. The planet is dirty, the resources are dwindling, the games are risky, the work is meaningless. And dystopian novels show these social and political realities. They can also show the place or absence of God.

So that brings up the question. Which is “better,” to read a story that offers hope (and encouragement as a side dish) or one that exposes the realities of the human condition, offering little more than a warning?

My early exposure to dystopian novels was via George Orwell (1984) and Aldus Huxley (Brave New World). These books are uncomfortable and heartbreaking, but they say something about mankind that needs to be said. Neither of them offers hope.

In 1984 the protagonist ends up betraying the woman he loves, and she, him as they are both integrated properly into society run by Big Brother. In Brave New World the protagonist is so disillusioned by the society he hoped in that he commits suicide in the end.

And here’s where the truth of those books falls short. Because hope exists. Not in this world. Not in government or hedonism or power or science — none of the things exposed in the novels. Hope lies in God alone.

Some readers who prefer happy-ending stories say that the hope shown in books like romances, however temporary, creates a longing for the permanent hope and joy Christ provides.

Others say such hope is false, a superficial sham that hides reality and covers over what ought to be exposed.

Tolkien, however, says that escape from what imprisons is a positive thing, to be encouraged. Hence “faery stories” are ideal because they raise the reader, ennoble him, infuse him not only with hope but the desire to do greater deeds, to be a better person.

Perhaps there’s a place for both. I, for one, am glad I read the dystopian stories I’ve read, and I’m even gladder that I’ve read a fair number of faery stories.

I can’t help but think, however, that Tolkien may have sold himself short. I think his Lord of the Rings trilogy was dystopian fantasy set in Middle Earth. Rather than having his protagonist fail, though, he had him fail and succeed. It’s part of Tolkien’s genius, perhaps, that he showed the world as it is and that he offered hope.

7 Comments

  1. Oh, I commented over at spec faith saying I thought dystopians were a fight of good against evil. But I wasn’t thinking of ones that ended in despair, obviously. I hate novels that end in despair. They aren’t true. The truth is that the good wins in the end. We live in a dystopia now. We are outside of the garden. But there has come a hero to defeat our enemy and he will come again and return the garden, and us, to our former states.

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  2. In my opinion, it’s better to read the dystopian story. Recently, I read Forester’s “The Machine Stops”, a story that fits into the dystopian category. While it has a dark setting and portrays the modern reliance on technology, I think that it portrays the modern ideological battle between relativism and Judeo-Christian values and history(I plan to write a paper on it this summer, but you can find a recent analysis on my WordPress – just too lazy to log on tonight).

    While most dystopian tales don’t have the happy endings we hope for, they do provide the truth of the human condition. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we learn the power of the government and how subjective humans can become to it. In the text, Winston goes through many programs throughout the day. Now in Obama’s programs, both federal and state governments want to implement new mandates that will place further control over our lives(April 15th is painful enough – I don’t want until I’m 18 to get circumcised). Huxley predicted that technology would change both society and humanity. Social networking and texting has reduced face-to-face human interaction, and pregnancy options for women has reduced the population, in a time when it could truly help the housing market.

    I agree with what you’re saying, Sally. In the end, moral good will win, and the rebellious will suffer in Hades. The reason these books were written with negative endings is because the authors predicted a society that would end negatively for people that held onto truth, like Orwell’s Winston and Huxley’s John. Right now, I’m working on a dystopian novel with the basis similar to theirs, but more modern-based, and it will have a positive ending.

    God Bless,
    Pravda Veritas

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  3. Sally, I’d still agree with you — even though some dystopian novels end in despair, they still relate a struggle between good and evil. But you’re right to say they aren’t truthful. For one, they identify the evil as the state or group-think or something other than the sin within. Second, they see no way out, no way to hope.

    In some ways they are right in that without Christ, who they leave out of the picture, there is no hope. So I guess, as far as they go, they are truthful. They just don’t see the whole picture.

    Becky

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  4. Karl, I hope you get your dystopian novel out there. As I said in my comment to Sally, I think there is so much truth in dystopian novels, and I don’t think I’d want some sort of artificial fix, like give government a chance or education solves all problems, silly things that try to bandage cancer.

    No, we need to see true Hope in the person of Jesus Christ.

    Becky

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  5. Exactly. In Huxley’s work, it’s made clear enough that the government makes all provisions for everyone. Now schools are trying to make provisions for children, from the story of the birds and the bees to lunches. In Thomas Sowell’s “Inside American Education”, he points out that efforts made in death education programs have failed, actually making children more scared of death. Not only do the programs backfire – they cost Ceasar his money.

    The other aspect I like about these novels is that they were written several years before such technologies and methods in the books came out. These stories include phone conferencing, test-tube children, and hovercraft, all before they were created or conceived.

    I enjoy your perspective on it, though. I’ve never stopped to consider or realize that it shows truth(well, the specific idea, anyways).

    God Bless,
    Karl

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  6. The problem with dystopias, as you noted, is that they “traffic in despair”—and that this is their defining characteristic. (Let’s be clear about what we’re talking about: I’d say a story with a more-or-less dystopian world that presents hope that all may be right in the end is not a dystopia.) For the discerning reader, they can be highly valuable despite this—what fiction is perfect?—but they are highly dangerous, because they warn (truly or falsely) of grave hazards without giving any hope.

    Contrast dystopias with the old Norse myths, or for that matter Puddleglum or the stand of the Army of the West at the Black Gate. Even in the face of certain defeat, neither despair nor defection is a necessary choice. Tolkien had, in the tale of Frodo’s long trek to Mordor, the makings of a dystopia—as you noted, at the critical moment Frodo fails his great moral test—but rightly chose to make something else of it, portraying hope and eucatastrophe rather than despair. Whether long-expected or unexpected, salvation always comes at the proper time.

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  7. […] — the escape from prison J. R. R. Tolkien so famously talked about (see related thoughts in “Hope Or Truth”). Others turn to it for an explanation: why do people act in such horrific ways? Still others look […]

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