Dystopian novels reflect our current milieu

Two authors speak on “Fiction from the Not-Distant Future” at Virginia Festival of the Book


Authors Christina Dalcher and Adam Nemett took part in a panel on dystopian fiction as part of the 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book.

Courtesy Laurens Arenas (left) and Jen Fariello (right)

Authors Christina Dalcher and Adam Nemett addressed a crowded room at Central Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Thursday as part of the 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book. Both authors have recently written dystopian novels which take place in the “not-distant future,” to use the phrase provided by the Festival. At the event, titled “Cautionary Tales: Fiction from the Not-Distant Future,” they discussed their novels and the ways which they are and are not reflective of the moment we live in.

Dalcher’s novel, “VOX,” tells the story of a woman named Jean McClellan, who lives in a dystopian society where women are forbidden from saying more than one hundred words in a day. Her book is part of a recent spate of feminist dystopian fiction that has sprouted in the wake of the 2016 election and shares a lineage with Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” published in 1985. 

Nemett, on the other hand, was promoting “We Can Save Us All,” a much more broadly dystopian novel. While his book is still dealing with current political issues such as climate change, it does so in a more underhanded way, preferring to focus on its young characters who draw inspiration from superheroes rather than real-world activists. Even so, a major theme of the session was the lack of separation between the current world and the ones that the novels inhabit.

Both authors read sections from their respective books to start the event and spoke on certain similarities that their works shared. For instance, both stories originated as works of flash fiction before being expanded into novels. Both writers also recognized that their novels came from a fear of being controlled. Dalcher, as a linguist, was terrified by the prospect of having a limit on the number of words she could say, while Nemett feared that climate change would eventually limit people’s ability to control their lives.

While both “VOX” and “We Can Save Us All” begin in necessarily dark places for the American public, they also have in common a faith in the human spirit. At one point, Dalcher mentioned that her book took place only after women had become tremendously powerful and outspoken. She bristled at those who labeled her book as “timely,” saying that the long history of feminism and women’s rights make it “timeless.” She sees the plot of “VOX” as merely one possible — but not probable — outcome in the continuing struggle for gender equality. 

After the authors finished reading sections from their books, they took questions from the audience, many of which related to the creative process behind the novels. One woman in the audience challenged Dalcher’s stance that the premise of her book could not happen today, due to the serious resistance that would arise should a legal word limit be placed on American women. The audience member said that women today are being silenced, pointing to Christine Blasey-Ford as an example. Dalcher responded that “there is a difference between being silenced and not being listened to” — for example, being denied the right to vote was silencing women, whereas Blasey-Ford was allowed to speak, but was not listened to by those in power.

“We Can Save Us All” is also a product of Nemmett’s belief that nothing in our collective future is doomed to happen. The novel’s protagonist, David Fuffman, has a “thing for superheroes” which allows him to imagine the other characters as heroes with one particular useful skill. Themes of teamwork and camaraderie pervade the novel, leading to David’s ultimate realization that yes, “we can save us all.”

This program was an example of the impact that fiction — and art more generally — can have on the way we perceive real-world issues. Books such as these remind us that literature has the power to shape ideas and reflect aspects of the political landscape that might otherwise have gone uncommented on. While Dalcher and Nemmett set out primarily to create compelling characters and narratives, they were also able to view hot-button subjects in unique ways. The passages they read and the answers they gave reflected two minds which seek to understand, and to help us navigate, the pressing issues of our time. 

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