The Dystopians’ Guide to Positive Thinking

11th May 2012

Hello, friendly dystopians! Are you over the bemused and confused responses to why you read dystopian fiction? Like, what do you get out of it? And, can't you just read about happy things?

Even worse, are you bemused and confused about it yourself? I was too! That's why I wrote this guide about why dystopian fiction is better for the world than blind positive thinking.

Join me on a journey that kicks bemused and confused to the dust and explains for our folks, friends, lovers and colleagues (and ourselves!) why we carry our dystopias with pride.


In an era that tends to idealise positive thinking, it is easy to assume it is ‘good’ and other ways of thinking are ‘bad.’ Positive thinking isn’t all its cracked up to be though and I think dystopian fiction has something interesting to say about it.

A few years ago, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich unravelled an important false illusion about the blind pursuit of positive thinking which became a YouTube phenomenon.

She demonstrated how positive thinking can become a kind of delusion where people ignore anything that doesn’t fit with their positive worldview, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. She challenged the pervasive idea that positive thinking is all good.

One of her most striking examples is from before the last financial crisis where people were fired for raising concerns about sub-prime mortgages.

Positive thinkers couldn’t see what was happening in front of their noses for all their positivity and risk managers were dismissed as ‘negative’ (the worst thing one could be) and called troublemakers.

The commitment to positive thinking can be so pervasive that it comes complete with fundamentalist and delusional overtones.

Blind positive thinking can be very risky because it can easily become a convenient excuse for ignoring anything bad, like a ‘the Titanic can’t sink scenario.’ Dystopian fiction on the other hand recognises that being willing to identify risks and failures is the first step in doing something to fix them.

Dystopias are all fantasy though, right? Not quite.

It is true that the futuristic setting of dystopias can make their links to the real world somewhat hazy and it is understandable that stories set in the future are mistaken for the future, but they are actually about the time they were written in.

George Orwell wrote his seminal work of dystopian literature, 1984, in 1948 without any insider knowledge about the year 1984. No author has special insider knowledge of the future.

One of the reasons stories are set in the future is to put a magnifying glass to present dysfunctions so they can be seen more clearly. Margaret Atwood, author of dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, describes this as “dark shadows cast by the present into the future” and the cyberpunk pioneer Bruce Sterling likens it to seeing “the hidden bulk of an iceberg.”

Unlike positive thinkers, dystopians are not afraid to identify risks – they are far more afraid of not noticing risks until it’s too late. The risk management strategy is to zoom in close to problems so details that are not visible at a glance are illuminated. Dystopians are watching for icebergs. And if they see one, they are not afraid to sound the alarm.

The icebergs identified in dystopian fiction are based on the realities of human experience, even if their fictional futurist settings sometimes make them seem like illusions.

Atwood is especially emphatic on this point, arguing that The Handmaid’s Tale uses only situations that have actually occurred. “Nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some time in the past, or which it is not doing now,” she says.

With the recent attacks in the United States on women’s reproductive freedoms, conversations about the continuing relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale over twenty years after it was first published are experiencing a renaissance, a situation that underlines her point with disturbing precision.

It might seem that Suzanne Collins‘ trilogy of books, The Hunger Games – in which children are forced to fight to the death in gladiator-style tournament – is an exception to the idea of dystopia as the present magnified. Some have found its themes offensive and others are bewildered by what readers get out of it.

The Hunger Games has clear roots in the present though and if we take offence at the book it is because there are things to take offence at in reality. It is, of course, offensive to think of children fighting to the death – but it is certainly not without historical precedent.

Staging the fights as entertainment for an indulged elite is also offensive – but the concept of televised reality competitions that fixate on the glories and failures of individuals for an infatuated population is not new to the eyes of children today.

(That Big Brother, the show that pioneered the televised form of reality competition, shares its name with Orwell’s ominous figure from 1984 is not ironic – it is demonstrative that the warnings calls were sounded while the ship steamed straight ahead.)

People who read dystopias are like society's risk managers - unafraid to identify hazards and unfazed by advocating a change of course.A world where the majority live in destitution and are used to supply the frivolities and fancies of a few is also offensive – but this must bring to mind a planet where stuffed toys are made by the plundered resources and labour of children of one country to be distributed in walmart-economies to entertain the children of another. It must surely bring to mind a planet where a few face an obesity crisis and many face a starvation crisis when there is enough food to go around.

If The Hunger Games is resonating it is because it resonates with the realities of our world.

Positive thinking enthusiasts might say dystopians are obsessed with the iceberg, but glossing over realities in the name of blind positive thinking is not the alternative.

The biggest problem with positive thinking, as Ehrenreich says, is the powerlessness of it – just think positive thoughts and leave the rest to fate.

Dystopian enthusiasts recognise that if we just close our eyes and hope for the best we might find ourselves dealing with the worst. People who read dystopias are like society’s risk managers – unafraid to identify hazards and unfazed by advocating a change of course.

Most people don’t get a great deal of a say in how the future will unfold – even those we can see shaping it like politicians and scientists. Authors like George Orwell and Margaret Atwood are visible among those influencers though.

Dystopias are intrinsically statements against apathy and absolving decision-making to a controlling elite. Reading them, far from being incomprehensible and odd, is actually a legitimate and accessible way to be engaged in conversations about how the future should unfold.

Rather than celebrating negativity, dystopias imagine worst case scenarios so we can act to avoid them. It’s actually quite positive when you think about it. Far from being futile, dystopias are great literary expressions of hope – hope that as a community and a species we can learn from the worst we can be so we can live the best we can be.

Tell me, did I get it right about positive thinking or did I miss the boat? Do you think dystopians are society’s risk managers? Do you think reading dystopian fiction is a statement against apathy and a way to be involved in creating a better future? Do you think dystopian thinking is a safer and smarter option than blind positive thinking? Share your thoughts in the comments…


  • Lauren says:

    I think a great thing about being a lover of dystopian fiction is we expect the worst so when something good happens, we’re over the moon.
    It gets to a point where because I constantly read about the world about being a dark place, everything that isn’t the worst possible scenario of a situation is actually quite nice.
    To paraphrase some sort of old cliche, prepare for the worst and you will always be surprised. (Is that even right…?)

  • Lauren says:

    Also, if anyone can recommend some more dystopian fiction along the lines of The Handmaids Tale, 1984, Delirium etc it would be greatly appreciated. I am currently reading Lauren DeStefano’s ‘Wither’ but so far it is a poor imitation of The Handmaids Tale.

    • charon says:

      Hi Lauren
      I’ve literally just today finished David Ely’s ‘Journal of the Flood Year’ which is great. I can also highly recommend Ms Atwood’s ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The year of the flood’. You can read those two in any order – they are more post-apocalyptic than dystopian but still excellent. I think I might have to try ‘The Hunger Games’ next.
      happy reading,

      • Libby says:

        I loved “The Hunger Games” Charon. I read it in one sitting on my first day on the rag – I wish I could go back and start it again. Compelling. Hope you enjoy 🙂

    • Libby says:

      Hey Lauren
      Like Charon I also really enjoyed “The Year of the Flood” and I found it more reminiscent of “The Handmaid’s Tale” than “Oryx and Crank.” Another great story is “Woman on the Edge of Time” if you can get your hands on it. It has two female leads and is interesting because it is a utopia/dystopia. I read it at the same time as I read “The Handmaid’s Tale” and they reminded me so much of the other – they are forever connected in my mind.
      I’m yet to read “Delirium” – can’t wait.
      Cheers, Libby

      • Lauren says:

        Hey Libby,

        I tried The Year of the Flood and couldn’t get into it, I found it really heavy going and didn’t really get along with the protagonist, which is a shame!

        Delirium is a much lighter read than Atwood; I’m pretty sure it’s meant for 16-18 year olds in the writing style but the story is amazing. I’ve also just read the sequel, Pandemonium, and thoroughly enjoyed that too!

        The Hunger Games will be a summer job I think, excited to read them and so far I have managed to avoid all spoilers. Will also put Woman on the Edge of Time on the list!

        • Libby says:

          Hey Lauren,

          I know what you mean about not getting along with protagonists – I hated the protagonist in Sarah Water’s book Tipping the Velvet. I still enjoyed reading it but it is one of the experiences of the book that remains long after the book is finished … ha!

          Enjoy your summer reading.

          PS I don’t understand where this avatar has come from …. internets is crazy!

      • charon says:

        Wow Libby, you’ve just reminded me how much I loved ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ – read it years ago, and am off after this to dig it out of the Virago pile. Will also order ‘Dilireum’ from the library at your recommendation.
        Thanks for the tip, I’ve been looking for a new read for a few days.
        ps: Tarryn – I had no idea there is a third book in that series. Will pop over to Amazon and pre-order right now. Thanks for the tip.

        • Libby says:

          Hi Charon
          Glad you remembered ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ – I think that is the book that really changed my interest in dystopian fiction into a commitment. I’m excited about your re-read – I know you’ll enjoy it.
          ‘Delirium’ was Lauren’s recommendation – it’s now on my list along with Zoo City.
          Happy reading dystopians!

        • Libby says:

          PS If you’re talking about number three of the Atwood series, it’s not out yet.

  • Tarryn says:

    I loved Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake, can’t wait for the third. Also really enjoyed The Hunger Games, have only read the first so far though. Next on my list is PD James’ Children of Men, which the movie of the same name was based on. Also putting Woman on the Edge of Time on the list. A really great sci-fi/dystopian novel is Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. Google it – totally worth reading!

    • Libby says:

      Thanks for the Zoo City recommendation Taryn.
      I’m getting a warm and fuzzy feeling from all this dystopian sharing.
      I’ve never read any P. D. James, but I know the book you’re talking about. Let us know what you think of it.

  • Dragana says:

    Hi Libby.

    Nice post. I liked it.
    Here’s something you might find interesting:

    1. http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2012/04/whats_wrong_with_the_hunger_ga_1.html
    2. http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2012/04/the_hunger_games_is_sexist_fai.html

    Unfortunately, I’ve read these posts without reading the book or seeing the movie first. Until I do, I can’t give you my personal opinion about niether of the two…

    • Libby says:

      Hey Dragna,

      Thanks for sharing these links. I’ll keep my comments general so there aren’t any spoilers for you.

      Essentially the author argues that The Hunger Games are anti-woman.

      I do appreciate that just having a female lead and being written by a woman doesn’t make a story a feminist story and I think in part the author is reacting to this assumption which may well be widespread and is understandably frustrating. It doesn’t automatically stand that the results of the assumption are wrong though.

      From the outset I should declare that I don’t respond well to articles that tell feminists how to be feminists. Lines like this send all sorts of shivers through my body and they’re not fun ones: “The feminists missed this, all of this, and it is their job not to miss this.” Whoa, define your own job …

      There are lots of little things that don’t work in the articles – the assumption that fairytales are anti-woman and serious misreadings of the plot are a couple of examples. It all crashes down on one BIG false assumption though: that is that Katniss, the female lead in The Hunger Games, lacks agency which means she cannot be a positive female role model.

      The truth is that protagonists in dystopias almost always lack agency – it is a product of the genre and serves an important purpose. In the article above I talk about how dystopian fiction uses the lens of the future as a way of magnifying sources of dysfunction – controlling people and limiting their agency is one of those dysfunctions. Most of the story of The Hunger Games is about Katniss’ lack of agency – it’s talked about all the time not something that’s been hiding under the surface to be uncovered in this article, nor is it the slam dunk that makes The Hunger Games anti-woman as the author suggests. The protagonist in The Handmaid’s Tale lacked agency and yet it is one of the great feminist novels of our time.

      So, did the author of those articles expose the anti-woman undertones in The Hunger Games that “the feminists” missed? In my opinion, no way.

      Thanks again for sharing, Libby

  • Jazz says:

    Your penultimate paragraph nailed it for me: “Rather than celebrating negativity, dystopias imagine worst case scenarios so we can act to avoid them.”
    I just finished a large project designed to prove that very thought — that dystopias are satirical science fiction meant to change society. However, your point about optimism is also a great insight into why we love reading such depressing books. I think humans read for the story, to find out how it ends, and rejoice when the ending may not be happy, but it’s perfect. Well done article.

    • Libby says:

      THIS: ‘dystopias are satirical science fiction meant to change society.’
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article Jazz and I’m very interested in this project your talking about. Intriguing …
      What was the purpose? Where can we find it? Was it on your own or part of study? Please tell more if you can you share details.
      Cheers, Libby

  • Julie Noble says:

    I enjoy dystopian fiction esp Margaret Atwood – both Handmaid and Oryx, preferred Handmaid, Orwell and Aldous Huxley. I really appreciated this article as I am currently writing a novel set in the near future along dystopian lines and this made me think yet again about defining more sharply the purpose of my story and what it is saying.
    I agree strongly with this paragraph:
    Dystopias are intrinsically statements against apathy and absolving decision-making to a controlling elite. Reading them, far from being incomprehensible and odd, is actually a legitimate and accessible way to be engaged in conversations about how the future should unfold.
    But I was not sure how much influence authors might have in changing the world, but obviously it’s a comforting thought!

    • Libby says:

      Hi Julie
      I’m glad that the article sparked some dystopian receptors for your book. I think storytellers are some of the most brilliant influences – you’re doing work that makes the world a better place.
      Cheers, Libby

  • Bryan Murphy says:

    I strongly recommend Will Self’s “The Book of Dave”, even though it’s not easy reading.