This Year, Dystopian Fiction became my Refuge from Dystopian Reality
I’ve become a masochistic reader — the more fucked up a tale, the better. After a long day of doomscrolling through news outlets, I’d ask myself: Could things get any worse? Then I’d sink into bed and open a new novel of horrors. Yes, I’d sigh in relief. They really could.
In March, I raced through Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation from my own tiny, windowless apartment in New York City. I savored the book’s claustrophobic vibe, feeling the protagonist’s anxiety as she took prescription meds to try and sleep a full year. Imagine if someone slept through this year, I thought. Seems fine honestly.
Then I made my way through Severance. Escapists warned against reading it during the pandemic, so obviously I picked it up immediately. I was completely transported to Ling Ma’s post-apocalyptic world, where a fungal infection has turned nearly everyone to zombies. At its heart, Severance is a satire of late capitalism and consumer culture. All of it is uncannily parallel to America’s hustle culture, down to the citizen’s empty, glazed-over stares.
The book I keep returning to, though, is Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, a Japanese sci-fi novel published in 1984 and translated to English in 2019. The setting is an island under the tyrannical control of a brutal police force. In this way, the surveillance state eerily mirrors our current situation in the U.S.; the pandemic has shed a bright light on power dynamics and corrupt authority. We live in a state of distrust and misinformation, our data collected and used against us.
But Ogawa adds one additional terror to this mysterious island: a plague of chronic disappearance. The fascist Memory Police are the perpetrators, stripping the island of everything from birds to stamps to roses. When the physical item is lost, so too is the island’s memory of what it was and what it meant. As the protagonist’s mother explains to her:
“Things go on disappearing, one by one. It doesn’t hurt, and you won’t be particularly sad. One morning you’ll simply wake up and it will be over, before you’ve even realized. Lying still, eyes closed, ears pricked, trying to sense the flow of the morning air, you’ll feel that something has changed from the night before, and you’ll know that you’ve lost something.”
I’ve been considering my own mortality more and more over the course of this year.
What is it that matters? Does anything? Am I OK? These questions are what draw me to dystopian fiction, stories that just slightly tweak our realities. I’m enthralled by the re-imagining of known structures. The exaggerations shed a glaring light on terror towards which we’ve grown complacent. These books force us to face our truths head-on and grapple with them.
Last week, I flipped through my dog-eared pages of The Memory Police and saw a passage I’d highlighted:
“As things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow.”
I’d dated the marking May 18, 2020. This was when everything in my actual life felt hopeless. Manhattan’s streets were empty and silent, except for the constant cascade of sirens.
Months later, much is still uncertain. But when I close the book this time, I climb out on my fire escape and hear a piano playing next door. I’m no longer the building’s only tenant. My little basil plant sways, and I remember how it felt to hold soil in my hands and watch the world breathe life into little seeds. I read because there could be hope for us yet. We don’t have to forget.