A hopeful dystopia
How the mind of a child can provide some hope in a tumultuous world
One afternoon, in a year when human rights were being repealed nationally, I clocked into my bookstore job and stood powerless behind the front counter. I was trying to stay present while dreading the present. Then a small child, maybe around 10 years old, approached the counter and told me and my co-workers about a fantasy series she was writing. She described a five-volume series about different dragons fighting against each other “in a world on the brink of war.” Then she showed us a sketchbook full of dragon characters in this dragon world. The girl said the first book would be titled, “I Thought the World Was Free.”
The next books, she said, would focus on the chaos the dragons are caught in. But, she added, all the upheaval would lead to the final book, titled “The World is Beautiful.” At that moment, the world felt colorful again. And my heart swelled and sank.
A year later, as U.S. states continue to take away rights and health care from women and the LBGTQ+ community, I keep thinking about those books and stories in the making. In order to stay anchored to the present, I realize sometimes I need to be adrift in a hopeful dystopia.
Last year, in response to our ongoing crises, an unflinchingly radical novel came out called “Thrust.” I recently read it, and at times I found myself wondering if that little girl with her dragon books came straight out of this novel.
One of the main characters in “Thrust” is a girl named Laisv?. She lives with her father in the not-too-distant future in what used to be New York City, where climate change and police states have created a bleak society. Laisv? is a “carrier” – by holding onto objects and recognizing the history they carry, she can travel through time via water. This allows the girl to escape immigration raids, taking her on a journey to engage with history’s working class, living hidden lives; to converse with the earth and animals in revolt against man-made destruction. “Thrust” smashes borders between fiction and history, magic and science; the past and present.
The sprawling book is non-linear, with every moment folding into each other. Lidia Yuknavitch, the author, said in one interview, “In this story, I tried to ask what it might look like on the page and in storytelling if times were allowed to speak to each other.” She added, “If the past and the present and the future didn’t hold anymore as markers of difference, what might that look like?”
The result is a novel containing a hopeful dystopia. It’s a story containing multiple stories, centering queer and female voices. The novel celebrates those fluid identities and desires often regarded as threatening evils by patriarchy. “EVIL is just LIVE going in a different direction,” Laisv? once said, adding, “People get stuck too easily.”
While I was reading “Thrust,” events were happening in the world that again felt like they leaped out of the novel. Around the Strait of Gibraltar, a growing number of orca pods are attacking and sometimes sinking boats. The Guardian recently reported that orcas around the North Sea, 2,000 miles from the Strait, are also organizing against boats. One researcher stated, “It’s possible this ‘fad’ is leapfrogging through the various pods/communities,” and there may be “highly mobile pods that could transmit this behavior a long distance.”
Now, when I hear of orca uprisings, I think of one scene from “Thrust:” on the cusp of environmental catastrophe, ancient mammoth tusks rise along the Lena River, which induces a new gold rush on a dying planet. One day, Laisv? and her family encounter a hunter prying a tusk loose from river mud. Her family keeps a safe distance behind a tree, and there Laisv? hears the tree speaking to her. “The animals are returning,” the tree says. “Water is rearranging.”
Later on, the omniscient narrator tells us that most people believe a different future is impossible. But, the narrator goes on, Laisv? knows a better world requires imagination, the kind of imagination that leaps “from sea into sky and back, like a beautiful black orca.”
Like Laisv?, the dragon girl in the bookshop carries the spirit of speculative fiction writer Ursula Le Guin – the visionary of hopeful dystopias. That’s what mesmerizes me about the imaginative mind of children. In their raw worldview, everything blends together: magic is as real as the sun and sea. In another scene from “Thrust,” earthworms are talking to Laisv?. They recognize her endless wonder for the world. They tell her, “I don’t know what kind of girl you are, but sometimes human-child spawn can travel differently. Once your species hits adulthood, it’s all over. Dead matter. Stuck inside their own dramas.”
In their own undamaged way, children recognize the man-made injustice and innate beauty of the world, while innocently demanding the impossible: a world where everyone is safe and loved. Those who carry that compassionate imagination into adulthood become prophets with pens, bringing to life other worlds for us to believe in.
– Kirbie Bennett