Pernell Plath Meier
To say I was a quirky kid would be an understatement. I preferred spending time with trees than people. Trees don’t yell or make you feel small. Trees shelter and protect, and that’s just what the little copse of bushy trees did for me as a kid. I would snuggle in the middle of their hollowed out area with a blanket and book and pretend as if nothing else existed. My early favorites were science-fiction and fantasy, but fairly quickly I moved onto more intense works of fiction, including dystopia.
I started out with Brave New World, and I don’t think I’ve looked at power, authority and personal freedom in quite the same way since. Huxley painted a picture of a society that demanded unquestioning subservience to authority and considered anyone with an independent mind to be a threat. Huxley also highlighted how mind-numbing chemicals are an almost necessary ingredient for enduring the psychic pain caused by extreme conformity. Though 1980s America wasn’t exactly a Brave New World, as someone with ideas a bit different than the mainstream, I felt that pressure to conform and how painful it could be to not. The novel left me with a skepticism of following any leader without drawing my own conclusions.
Next up was Animal Farm, which further reinforced my views on blindly going along with leaders. Though, Animal Farm added another nuance – a concern that those in power will take more and more through nefarious means if allowed and distort ideas, facts and history in order to do so. Orwell eloquently laid forth the means and motivations of such authoritarians and further expounded upon these concepts in 1984. Unchecked power could clearly lead nowhere good. The Handmaid’s Tale was on my reading list in my early twenties and introduced the concept that women’s bodies were part and parcel of power and control in modern society. Atwood also brought forth the concept that one person’s religion can and does have deletrious effects when forced on another. A few years ago I finally consumed Fahrenheit 451, thus bringing all the dystopian greats into my mind and reinforcing the concept that knowledge is power.
What all these novels held in common was that information and dissent are dangerous to authoritarians. In order to control a population, ideas must be managed, dissected, and pureed into spoonfuls palatable to the leader or for the leader’s direct benefit. These dystopian authors made clear that we do not need our bodies imprisoned to be prisoners. A carefully curated society can compel its citizens to be their own mental police, to purge ideas that don’t fit with the Party line, and bring their own selves to heel out of fear, ignorance or both.
In the modern political era, Orwellian doublespeak is the playbook of the current wannabee dictator in the Oval Office. “Alternative” facts are put forth to explain the inexplicable and inhumane, and every story out of the White House is spun to portray the Dear Leader in the best possible light. The ways in which fictitious dictators controlled their people are coming to pass before our eyes. Efforts to control information and ideas are in full-swing and leave many of us scratching our heads in disbelief. Had I not been so immersed in this free-thinking literature throughout my life, I may not have caught the signs of trouble as early or at all. But once someone has read and digested the concepts that those authors were conveying, the genie is not easily put back into the bottle. The mind knows what it knows, and pushing it away requires mental gymnastics at a level that would require Huxley’s Soma to forget. And this is why ideas are dangerous to dictators.
These novels are what propelled me to write my own contribution to the genre, In Our Bones. My novel is a bit different than these others in that I wrote it specifically for this moment in time. I wrote it as a caution to the circumstances we find ourselves in now as a nation. I created this book out of a similar existential fear that the other writers had nestled into their hearts, though, when they put pen to paper. I was attempting to create a world that’s just barely out of focus now, but that can become all too real if we don’t change course. Though I cannot claim to have written a novel anywhere close to the greats I’ve listed above, my hope is that my readers will use the same skeptical lens those authors used to discern current events.