Let’s just say that you went to sleep one night, and everything was mostly fine (I mean, it wasn’t, like, the greatest for everybody all the time, but it definitely could’ve been a whole lot worse). Then let’s say that you woke up the next morning with a feeling in your stomach that your country had, I don’t know, willingly elected a talking orange walrus-slash-professional huckster with no credibility or experience to be its leader, sending the country down a dark road that would make life demonstrably more difficult for women, gay people, transgender people, people of color, and immigrants (although not, presumably, more difficult for those working in the spray tan industry).
Just for the sake of argument, I mean.
Where would you look for guidance and comfort, if something as stupefying and unsettling as that were to take place?
I know, I know. I’ve really put you on the spot here. It’s not like we can see dystopian futures years in advance and somehow warn each other not to participate in their arrival by doing something as mind-numbingly simple as bubbling in a little square on a piece of paper on an appointed day that we all know is coming. If it were that simple, everyone would do it, am I right?
Don’t you worry your pretty little noggin. I’ve got just the thing: a handy little guide to making your way through any (entirely theoretical, in no way real) nightmarish hellscape you might one day accidentally find yourself, constructed with a little help from some of pop culture’s best (and not at all distressingly familiar) dystopias.
This one is kind of a biggie, actually. The easiest way to survive in a dystopia is to be as much like the group in power as possible. If they all sport silly hats, then you had best get yourself down to the silly hat shop (you know, assuming you’re still allowed to shop in the store; if the owner doesn’t like the cut of your jib, they can probably refuse service – maybe check Amazon). Whatever it takes, conform your heart out. Now, this didn’t work out so well for our friend Winston in 1984.
Sure, he looked like everybody else, but that pesky brain of his just would not stop thinking for itself. A thought-crime here, a thought-crime there, and pretty soon he’s wrapping his oppressors in a big ol’ warm hug.
Now, The Handmaid’s Tale (a Booker Prize-winning novel and soon to be a Hulu-exclusive mini-series) and Children of Men point out a very minor flaw with rule #1: if you’re a different sex than the group in power or you have a different skin color, it can be, um, challenging to blend in. In dystopias like the worlds of The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men, women and immigrants tend not to do all that well. Lucky thing those stories are so far-fetched!
So what if blending in with the big wigs isn’t an option?
Find other people who are just as much trouble as you, and come up with a badass way to identify yourself to potential sympathizers. (Sources: pretty much every dystopia ever, but special shoutout to 1984 (again), The Handmaid’s Tale (again), Fahrenheit 451, The Passage trilogy, The Hunger Games, The Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta)
If rebellion is the only option, you might as well make some new friends while you’re at it. Fighting the power can get pretty lonely if you aren’t careful, which is why characters from across the soul-crushing spectrum of dystopias listed above find ways to show that they’ve got each others’ backs. Some carve messages into their makeshift prison cells, some engage in good old fashioned clandestine note-passing, and some come up with cool hand signals/whistling combos. Whatever method you come up with, your goal should be to develop a system that allows you to communicate right under the noses of those in power. But be careful, identifying yourself openly as standing against oppression in a dystopia does have its risks (I mean, usually it’s a close friend of the main character who gets found out and severely punished as a way to provide inspiration to the sometimes timid hero/heroine, but, you know, look alive).
Oh, and bonus points if you incorporate a dead language/anagrams.
If you need help with that, you might want to take a look at…
Read as many books as you can; the angrier they make the grand masters of the oppression parade, the better. (Sources: Fahrenheit 451, V for Vendetta, Station Eleven)
In some dystopias, an incredibly powerful force takes charge of an entire civilization by brute force, eradicating resistance with superior firepower or an insidious biological weapon. But not most of the time. Mostly, the person or people in power get there through totally legal means. They’re welcomed in by a population blind to what their promises of protection really mean. Sometimes they promise the return of national glory, sometimes it’s prosperity. There’s usually a group or two used as a scapegoat, and usually the people in those groups are vulnerable.
But the people who see through the falsehoods and are waiting to call the dystopifiers (it’s totally a word; shut up) on their B.S.? Those folks tend to be the ones holding books. They read all kinds of stuff, from Shakespeare to religious texts to Alice in Wonderland. Anything that makes a person think about the world and their place in it, anything that challenges easy assumptions, anything that promotes careful consideration of the capital-T truth.
In dystopias, books are like Woody Guthrie’s guitar: they kill fascists. So if you ever look around one day and suspect that you may be an unwilling participant in a dystopian fever-dream, do yourself a favor and grab a book. It’s probably the only chance you’ve got.