My vision of dystopia was framed by the literary classics, books like Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984 that I was introduced to in school; Lois Lowry’s masterpiece The Giver; and numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone, especially “The Obsolete Man.” The allure of stories like these is that dystopian protagonists aren’t necessarily your typical “Chosen Ones.” They’re often average people who are perhaps a little different from most of their peers — different enough to give them a slight edge, or get them to ask the right questions — or maybe someone else opens their eyes to the flaws in their society. The heroes of the dystopian stories I enjoy best are often the nerds, the geeks, the ones who wear their hearts on their sleeves… In other words, those most likely considered outcasts in our society today. Yes, the geeks will inherit the earth. These are our heroes.
One of my favorite dystopia stories, certainly the most memorable for whatever reason, is Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron.” It first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I encountered it in a slim collection of Vonnegut stories titled Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). “Harrison Bergeron” is only about eight pages, so I encourage you to seek it out online or at your library, but it’s basically about a society where the government enforces equality for all by quashing talent and intelligence. For example, ballet dancers are encumbered with sandbags and masks so they won’t appear more graceful or beautiful than anyone else, which could inspire envy and sadness.
It may be blasphemous to admit, but the version of “Harrison Bergeron” that resonated most with me was the 1995 Showtime film adaptation of the same name, starring Sean Astin (aka Samwise Gamgee) in the title role and featuring Christopher Plummer and Miranda de Pencier (because of course it had to become a love story). This movie feels more YA than the story, expanding on the premise of the source material and taking it in a very different direction. I also was able to relate more to Astin’s Harrison: He’s highly intelligent, and ends up trying to open the eyes of everyone else by locking himself in a TV station and broadcasting beautiful, shocking images from their forbidden archives. Essentially, he reveals the truth, before he decides to kill himself on live television.
The story adds to the tragedy of the original story (in which his parents see him die but aren’t able to understand what happened or remember him as their son), because Harrison’s sort-of girlfriend is pregnant. But it also projects how Harrison influences society later, because those images he broadcast are later circulated on a black market, perhaps offering some hope that their message will ultimately get through one day.
I don’t think I would be much of a survivor in a dystopia, or much of a leader. But since hoarding books and video is a hobby of mine, I can see myself filling the role of someone who helps to preserve and share information. Someone who, by wit or fortune, recognizes that society is wrong, society can be better, and then tries to reveal that truth to and inspire others to fix things. Which is maybe not too far off from what I’m already doing? Words are powerful, they are important. Words can persuade and educate and be a call to action. The revolution will be televised.
So yeah, as long as some other folks help keep me alive in that dystopia, come to me if you need those banned books, or an underground newspaper, or a stirring speech, and we’ll get the truth out there.