Fiction’s Dark Mirror: Dystopia and the 9/11 Generation

I knew something was wrong when I woke to the television muttering downstairs. My parents rarely watched anything other than evening news and weather. If they’d turned it on at nine a.m. on a Tuesday, it could only mean trouble. In trepidation I crept downstairs and into the living room. Mom sat in front of the tiny tube TV. She turned to me with an expression of pale disbelief I’ve never seen her wear.

“Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Tower,” she said. The grey carpet turned to lunar regolith beneath my bare feet. Taking one small step into the frightening new reality, I sank onto the couch beside my mother. We watched in helpless silence as a second jet threaded the blue September sky and the south tower bled smoke before collapsing onto itself.

11-story-from-catholicism-to-atheism-cved9b-clipartFifteen years ago today—half my lifetime ago—the world changed, and left an indelible mark on my generation. We were barely teenagers when it happened, just beginning to shed childhood. Terrorism shattered our innocence in ninety minutes. Coming of age in this stormy reality, with disasters from around the globe flooding in on waves of new digital media, is it any wonder we turned to dystopian fiction?

We didn’t invent dystopia, but we did drive it to unprecedented levels of publishing popularity. Invented landscapes of political, environmental, and technological upheaval became our sanctuaries. Exchanging one tumultuous world for another might seem counter-intuitive, but it gave us comfort. The present looked a little less bleak compared to the imaginary futures, and seeing protagonists survive societies even more dysfunctional than our own kindled resilience in our hearts. Stories afforded a safe lens for our fears, like Perseus fighting Medusa’s reflection in his shield to avoid her fatal gaze.

Perhaps this is why we not only consumed dystopian stories, we created them. Incarnations of my early-oughts self appear in the adolescent characters I write now. Dire circumstances, loss of loved ones, and persistent threats force them to grow up too quickly. In spite of that, they never give up trying to do right in a world gone wrong. Heroes of the 9/11 generation’s dystopias celebrate the spirit of that day’s real-life heroes, displaying courage and compassion in the darkest hours. We all want to believe that those qualities, the best side of humanity, will ultimately triumph.

From this perspective, dystopias are not fatalistic prophecies, but affirmations of hope. We of the 9/11 generation don’t trust tomorrow: we know that someday will come another morning when we wake to find life as we know it in pieces. Apocalyptic scenarios allow us to face those possibilities. We stare down the gorgons in fiction’s dark mirror, and reassure ourselves that no matter what happens, we’ll prevail.

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