The Dystopia of Today’s Popularity Cult

Though Virtual FantasyCon may have passed, I have another guest post to share with my fellow writers and readers. This one is by Arie Farnam and it’s quite the read. One of the biggest debates in the Fantasy and Sci-Fi genre is how can a dystopia be contemporary? Arie attempts to explain this with the reference of her own work and other popular examples in the literary world.


I get some funny looks (and comments) when I say I write contemporary dystopia fantasy.

“Wait. Dystopia is supposed to be in the future, isn’t it?”

Let’s examine that notion for a moment. A dystopia is supposed to be an unjust society of some kind, usually one that ostracizes an individual for some random reason—looks, genes, odd abilities or lack of abilities, too smart, too dumb, too tall, too fat, too skinny, a lottery system, whatever. Then the story is all about the individual or a small group battling the status quo.

Yes, this is usually set in a grim futuristic world (because we all take after George Orwell and some of us were even born before 1984), but I don\t see anything in the general description that precludes it from being based on today’s world.

Let’s look at western (particularly US) society from the perspective of an outside observer, maybe an extraterrestrial or someone from the distant past.

Here’s a high school cafeteria with its ironclad rules about who sits where–tables for the gamers, the emos, the jocks or the geeks among the boys and for the girls the clusters around this or that social magnet. Most strive to fit in with one group or another or at least slip through relatively unnoticed. A few actually thrive in this acrid environment. And some are torn to bits.

Often one is picked out and hounded to utter psychological collapse, sometimes until they commit suicide. Their crime is being different–not abiding by the norms, not wearing the right clothes or the right makeup or sometimes having some sort of minor impairment or disability.

Obviously this part of society is immature and it can’t represent the whole. Can it?

But among adults our observer discovers mommy-cliques and business circles.

Mommy-cliques may look a tad more sophisticated, but the rules are still pretty much the same. The ammunition is still fashion and small talk, but you have to add in flashy birthday parties, magazine-quality Pinterest photos of crafts and cooking, kids fashions, kids behavior, parenting styles, how early you potty-trained and how well you can talk about it all without bragging too blatantly. The stakes are now isolation with screaming toddlers, children who ask “Mommy, why can’t I play with Johnny?” and the knowledge that the reason is that you are not cool enough for Johnny’s mom. You may not commit suicide because you wouldn’t do that to your kids, but that doesn’t mean it hurts less.

And as for business, if there was ever a world where who you know matters most, this is it. We call it “leadership” among adults and make it out to be honorable. But the old rules still apply. Social and economic classes remain very stable. Without wealthy friends of the family, a new business person is very unlikely to succeed, no matter how good their business plan. And if they do it will be largely due to people-climbing.

The stakes are the same as they were in high school–inclusion or exclusion, popularity or oblivion.

In this world, status is now measured in “likes.” The “likes” don’t necessarily do anything but how many “likes” you have determines how much or little you should be respected. And this society claims to be democratic. “Likes” are given by individuals, so the more you have the more people must support you, right?

But this too is an illusion.

Being a scientifically minded alien, I post two possible book logos on various fantasy and sci fi Facebook groups and ask members to vote by saying if they like the one on the left or the one on the right. In every group there is always an enthusiast who pipes up quickly and gives their answer, either  “right” or “left.” The first time this happens the observer is infused with belief in democracy. Hey, it works. People even find common ground. The first person chose “right” and there followed a stream of agreement, “right,” “right,” “yes, right’s the best,” a dozen or more responses. The society run on “likes” works after all!

But then the alien looks at another group. There the first person to answer said “left” and the whole string of replies agreed that the left-hand choice was the better one. Out of six different groups, the responses were about even, but they always followed the leader, like little ducks… or lemmings. So much for the democracy of “likes.”

After many similar experiences, the outside observer must conclude that “likes” are far from democratic. What is popular is popular because of how people follow the leaders, not because of popular appeal or true support. I call it “the cult of popularity,” But given that the same phenomenon that works with Facebook “likes” works in international politics, I might as well call it “the cult of power.”

Political organization, social structures and economic entities all use the psychology of high school cliques. Those who are popular get there by being or appearing popular already. When a leader degrades another, crowds quickly turn to follow suit.

So, are humans just wired to ostracize – to pick sides, pick out and pick on? When will those who are bullied stand up together instead of fighting one another for a place at the “tolerated” table? Will bystanders ever wake up and say enough is enough? For as long as there have been poets and bards and storytellers by a fire, some of us have tackled the tough questions of our times with stories and fantasy.

That’s how contemporary dystopia was born. A writer takes the realities of today and turns them in the prism of imagination, changes a factor here or there, comes up with reasons for the events and norms of today or adds some “special physics” (generally meaning either magic, the paranormal, alternative history or some foreseeable twist of science).

You can, of course, do this by creating a world that sort of looks like today’s world and taking all the liberties you want, changing the names of countries, the social norms, the political systems and even the gravity of the planet. But this is essentially writing fantasy or science fiction based on a world that is just at a similar technological level to our own. It isn’t true “contemporary” fantasy or science fiction, let alone contemporary dystopia.

There are two forms of contemporary dystopia which I personally find most interesting. Those are either based on alternative history or alternative explanations/magic. If it’s neither of these it’s probably contemporary literature with a depressing outlook on society and neither science fiction nor fantasy related. (That can be good too but it’s beyond the scope of this post.)

Alternative history is the type of contemporary dystopia in which you ask “what if” questions about history. What if the Nazis had won WWII? What if Joan of Arc had not died? And then you extrapolate the consequences of this different history until today. Depending on the skill and historical/and sociopolitical knowledge of the author this can be fantastic. It can involve magic in history but usually doesn’t.

Dystopia by alternative explanation is less common and there are only really a few good examples. Alternative-explanation dystopia doesn’t change anything about widely known historical events. Instead it suggests underlying explanations for the current state of society based on fantasy, a conspiracy theory, magic or some other special physics. It generally requires a premise of secrecy or conspiracy of some kind. The world appears as it does today but there is something fishy going on under the surface.

Harry Potter is an example of alternative-explanation contemporary fantasy and it shares a lot with dystopia but isn’t usually categorized as such. It also uses humor and exaggeration of social norms rather than attempting to make the existence of the Wizarding Community literally plausible, which is a mark of adult versions of this genre. Still J. K. Rowling is an excellent pioneer in the field.

The trick with an alternative-explanation story is to keep the norms of the outside world near to reality, while making a hidden fantasy or science fiction premise utterly plausible. Done well, this is the kind of story that can give readers nightmares or make them think about the book all day and return to it compulsively.

This is my basis for calling a set of books “contemporary dystopian fantasy.” The Kyrennei Series falls into the second category—alternative-explanation dystopia and it is also broadly defined as urban fantasy because the alternative explanation involves magic.

Everything appears on the surface just as it does in today’s world, but behind the scenes things are darker than most people know. From high school cliques to international business, the social and political games of today are played for the purposes of a mind-control cult that usurps the wills of individuals, causing them to desire what the cult desires–unmitigated power and wealth for cult leaders.

12170371_906815179397001_1366684771_nI started Book One (The Soul and the Seed) a few years ago with that simple premise. I like “what if” stories, and I tutor both teenagers and adults in foreign language. When we talk, I often ask my students if they like popular culture. Almost everyone feels out of touch with what the media claims is most popular. And sometimes you see it happening. Online polls show Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic primary debate by a landslide, but those polls are deleted and headlines proclaiming the wild popularity of Hilary Clinton replace them.

This is the real world, and yes, there are real-world political and economic undercurrents to explain these things. But what if they explanations we are given were not true?

How many people really like the popular soft drinks, clothes, music and reality TV? Some do but many, and in my experience most, actually don’t. If media and clothing companies are truly motivated by the free desires of consumers, why would they force feed us things we don’t like and claim that they are popular?

At the heart of it, is the power cult called the Addin (at least in my dystopian fantasy). And from that all other things flow. But that’s only half the premise.

Here’s another question. Why are there legends about light, graceful people with pointed ears in widely separated cultures like Ireland and Vietnam? And while we’re at it, why are there many different subspecies of dogs or apes, but no other subspecies close to humans? Why are there no non-human races such as those in Tolkien’s Middle Earth but there are so many similar legends about them?

In my story the answer is that there were such people, and they were annihilated by the power cult. Even their memory was wiped from history.

Why? Because they were immune to mind control.

And now you’re off and running with a terrifying tale that is so close to your reality that you can taste it. No need to change the facts of history. Mix in a little speculative science fiction about dormant layers of genes recalling ancient interspecies ancestors (based on a real theory involving cancer cells) and you can even have the extinct non-human race reappear in today’s suburbia.

That’s the logic behind one contemporary dystopia. There are plenty of other ways to run with the ideas of this subgenre and many interesting (and wonderfully creepy) avenues to explore. Contemporary science fiction/fantasy is a very new genre and its depths have yet to be charted. And that’s why I love it.

Join the discussion. What’s your favorite contemporary science fiction or fantasy? Is there anything about today’s world that stands out as strange, unexplained or dystopian to you?

About Arie Farnam:

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Arie Farnam is a former war correspondent and urban documentary filmmaker turned fantasy and dystopia writer, living in Prague. She is the author of The Kyrennei Series, which presents a magical and frighteningly realistic alternative take on contemporary international affairs and social dynamics. She also writes about practical herb lore and things that arouse her passions at www.ariefarnam.com. When not setting keyboards on fire with speed typing, Farnam practices urban homesteading, chases her two awesome children and concocts herbal medicines. You can sign up to get one of her books for free at www.ariefarnam.com/signup and she can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/arieanna.farnam.

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