Can a dystopian story have a happy ending?
In some ways, the objective of the dystopian story is to rule out any possibilities for a happy ending as a sort of warning. At the end of 1984, for example, there is no hope or release for Winston Smith, just the promise of death after being driven insane. In many ways, the happy ending for a dystopian tale is closing the book after digesting it fully and walking away, knowing that the lives of the poor saps featured inside that fiction don’t resemble yours very much (or at least, I would hope not).
But I feel like there’s another reason, outside of inspiring some meta-happily-ever-after, why dystopian tales end up so grim.
I don’t know that there is something more personal about a person than knowing what they are truly scared of. Dystopian literature has always been a model for writers to express their own fears in a way that also tries to inspire change in a society. In that way, dystopian literature is some of the most personal literature that exists, perhaps even more personal than memoirs, because in a dystopian story you are given the complete unloading of an author’s fears for the future (and so, for him or herself).
I think dystopian literature is important in a societal sense because it puts a face to the fears we have. You know, the things I make up are just a response to what I interpret from the world around me—some of this includes other pieces of art and dystopian literature, but a lot of it is just what I see happening politically, economically, and societally. And if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my time in this world, it’s that my experience is much more ubiquitous than the self-centered part of me would like to think. What I see, others see. What I am afraid of, others are afraid of. The unique portion of being an author is just creating a conceivable canvas for those fears and thoughts and stringing them all together in a linear package for an audience.
And so, because these dystopian stories are so honest about fears, I think that’s why they often tend to subvert or just do away with the happy ending altogether. Happily-ever-after endings are great, and stories that incorporate them are probably dealing with the other side of the lizard brain—the part that focuses on desire. We really want everything to have a happy ending, but we really are afraid that no happy endings exist. And I think it’s sort of easy for us to fling headfirst into one side of the spectrum or the other and to insist that one kind of ending is more “true” than the other. But they are both true, simultaneously.
So, for myself, I don’t know that I believe very much in “happily ever after” for most stories that I write, but I do believe in “happy as can be, given the circumstances.” I think probably my novel Dust Bowl follows that mold. I didn’t write it consciously thinking about a happy ending or not—I knew the right ending very early into writing the piece, and I just stuck with it. I think it has a sort of uplifting ending, but maybe that’s only because so much of the novel skates around at the bottom of human moral capability—it’s a dystopia, after all, so there’s a lot of suffering and events going horribly wrong.
So in Dust Bowl, the protagonist Ward, a really troubled young man who is drawn into this really violent and inhumane society, has some good things and some bad things happen to him, but they are all second to his association with his problems and his inability to accept life on the terms that it’s presenting. So, by the end of the story, I feel like he’s much closer to being able to do that—which is a happy ending in my mind.
About the Novel:
With the world ending around him, Ward flounders for purpose and survival. Resources are gone, disease is rampant, and governments have all but dissolved. The only way off the broken planet is with the Order. Obsessed with technology, the Order is a cult that has developed the means for faster-than-light travel. They claim they can populate the galaxy and save humanity.
Ward joins the Order, inspired by sudden and irrational love for a mysterious beauty named Kansas who saves his life. But quickly, he finds out Kansas and the Order want him to kill adults and kidnap children from across the country. With impressionable youth filling their starships, the Order hopes for their tenets to be spread to all future generations of humanity.
The Order is Ward’s only chance for survival in the wreck the earth has become. Worse than that, those in the Order come to accept him and value his skills for their nightmarish quest across the dystopian landscape of America. But, somewhere inside of him, still, is the strength to strike out on his own and protect whatever good he can find left in the world.
“Would you be willing to kill a thousand parents so that there might be a thousand million more in the future? Would you orphan a thousand children just so they could foster thousands of their own? That is not a name put to courage. That is not something you don’t understand. That is something very simple to understand, you just don’t have the will to do it yourself. That is a name put to strength. To resolve. That’s what a set is.”
There was a light in the office behind the booth, flickering every so often and casting strange, tentacled shadows into the room. Joe looked at Ward and his face was sagging with fear. Maybe understanding had not quite dawned in the liquored canals of his mind but it showed in his eyes, and Ward felt satisfied for the first time all day.
Joe shook his head. “Why you telling me this?”
“I thought you should know what’s going to happen here.”
“Just what exactly is that gonna be,” asked Joe. “Or have you told me already?
Ward looked at him for a moment and took his gun out of its holster. He laid it on to the table with his hand resting on it, just in case he needed it. In his imaginings, usually people tried to run.
“Every adult here is going to die. One by one, mostly. Some of this will be done by me.”
The eyes of Joe stayed fixated on the gun on the table.
J.P. Lantern lives in the Midwestern US, though his heart and probably some essential parts of his liver and pancreas and whatnot live metaphorically in Texas. He writes speculative science fiction short stories, novellas, and novels which he has deemed "rugged," though he would also be fine with "roughhewn" because that is a terrific and wonderfully apt word.
Full of adventure and discovery, these stories examine complex people in situations fraught with conflict as they search for truth in increasingly violent and complicated worlds.
To learn more about J. P. Lantern and his writing, visit his website, stop by his Facebook page, or check out his Amazon author page. Dust Bowl is available in both paperback and Kindle.
Remember, he's giving away a $25 Amazon gift card to one commenter at the end of this tour, as well as a digital copy from his backlist to one commenter at each stop. For more chances to win, go to Goddess Fish Promotions for links to the other stops in this tour.