We all know the cliches of dystopian fiction by now: Plucky kids fleeing violence are torn away from their parents, taken to a government facility where they’re sorted and imprisoned, forced to live like animals. They’re put under guard. The older ones try to soften the blow for the younger ones, bouncing squalling babies in their arms, whispering to the 6-year-olds that everything will be okay, though no one believes it. Their clothes reek. They can’t bathe. Cruelty seems to be the only point, except that somewhere, there are cartoon oligarchs making money off the whole scheme while families despair.
So, knowing these cliches, how have we slid into dystopia ourselves?
How have we ended up in a situation where, despite public outcry, children seeking asylum from violence are still being yanked away from their parents and lost in a system designed as a spectacle of cruelty? Where, as in a lurid novel of sci-fi oppression, people seeking safety and freedom are kept locked up in squalid, chaotic camps that have been condemned as inhuman even by our own government?
“We write dystopian stories to be cautionary tales, not instruction manuals,” says Neal Shusterman, author of best-selling young adult dystopian series Arc of a Scythe and Unwind. “We are watching America slip into dystopia, with too many people either consenting or choosing to turn a blind eye. There will come a time — there must come a time — when our nation, as a whole, looks at itself and says, ‘My God, how did we become this?’ ”
The images are straight out of a cautionary movie about a wicked regime: kids who haven’t bathed for days or weeks, constipated from a diet of chips and bologna, wearing clothes covered in dirt and snot; kids sleeping on concrete floors under silver sheets; kids crammed in overcrowded cages; kids dying without medical aid; kids bullied and groped by guards; infants left to stew in their own feces. These are not criminals — these are refugees waiting to be processed. People who have lost everything, people who believe in the story of American freedom, who have been bold enough to come to our shores.
“Dystopia is not fiction,” says Marie Lu, author of the popular Legend and Warcross books. “We’re living in one right now.”
We see paraded in front of us the heavy-handed, adolescent ironies of dystopias from “We” to “1984” to “Brave New World”: the politicos screaming about the rule of law while their own brutal detention system openly breaks the law; pundits drawling about a land of opportunity, while immigrants are thrown into for-profit prisons enriching faceless plutocrats; government officials arguing that cages should not be called “cages”; smooth-tongued stooges claiming that “safe and sanitary” conditions should not have to include soap, towels, dry clothes or sleep. The deceptions are outrageous and out in the open. The lies are Orwellian. They are doublespeak.
For Lu, the conditions in these detention centers are not merely a partisan question — they raise a moral question. “There is nothing political about the horrors that are happening to children being kept at our border’s camps. We are witnessing evil, plain and simple, and if we don’t speak out against it, we are just as complicit.”
Typically, our dystopian novels are built around the exaggeration of one element: What if the government sorted people by personality type, for example, or what if humanity had found a way to conquer death? For rhetorical purposes, the struggle is made clean and clear. As Veronica Roth, who wrote the blockbuster Divergent trilogy, says: “In dystopian fiction, the narrative is about a single, focused overhaul of the system — or succumbing to it. Reality is more complicated than that. There is no single, final battle ahead of us — the struggle is here, and it’s now, and it’s in a thousand different arenas, and this is one of them.”
Nonetheless, she offers some specific advice about the detention centers: “Call your representatives, donate to RAICES and other charitable organizations, speak out against this injustice.” She cautions, “We aren’t doomed to replicate fiction in our world, but we must act, and do it now.” RAICES is the acronym for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
In many of these novels, including hers, a coup is all that can change a corrupt system. In reality, we, the public, actually already hold the power of transformation — if we would only use it. Members of Congress voting on how to direct the recent appropriations for the border detention system should know that they’re being watched, not just by adults inured to graft and greed, but by a new generation — a generation of readers who are sick of the dystopian world being left to them, alert to deception and fierce for justice.
“People often read dystopia because it makes us wonder what we would do in those situations,” says best-selling author Ally Condie (“Matched,” “Crossed,” “Reached”), “if we would be the ones to stand up for ourselves, for others. If we look at these kids and families being separated and detained and say, ‘That’s not me, those aren’t my children, this isn’t my problem,’ then we have our answer. We are the villains. We saw what was happening, and we turned away.”
M.T. Anderson, a National Book Award winner, is the author of “Feed” (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and “Landscape with Invisible Hand.”