A Future Without Fiction: Dragons and Book Bans by Jason Pargin

If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe

Last Updated on November 28, 2022

I don’t want to be an alarmist and imply that the United States is on the verge of a Fahrenheit 451 scenario. If a candidate ran for president on a book-burning platform, they’d likely lose by, I don’t know, five or six points? It would depend on how the economy is doing, I suppose. But I do worry that a hundred years from now, you’ll find a society in which truly free expression barely exists. To explain why, I need to take us back to the invention of the dragon.

Weirdly, nearly every culture on earth independently conceived of some version of dragons. As to how this happened, experts only have theories (my favorite is that humans are genetically predisposed to fear certain types of predators — large felines, serpents and birds of prey — and that our brains just mashed them together, then modified the result into a “dragon” per our innate predilection for things that are badass). Now note that these cultures all thought dragons were real, eventually figured out they weren’t, then kept telling dragon stories anyway. 

Now let me hit you with a sci-fi thought experiment: If aliens came to earth, would they find it strange that we did that? Would they think the whole concept of fantastic stories, of transmitting accounts of events that could never actually occur, was just an evolutionary glitch?*

After all, it would actually be hard for the average person to explain to the alien what practical purpose these stories serve. We might say that heroic tales of space and magic inspire us to be great, but why would a fake story of heroism do that? What’s the benefit of asking a child to imagine themselves as a knight slaying a dragon — a job that no longer exists and an animal that never existed — instead of encouraging them to imagine life as a meticulous bricklayer? If your answer is that this would be extremely boring for the child, then the alien’s next question is obvious: “Don’t they only consider real life tedious because they compare it to your impossible tales?”

The justification we’d land on, I think, is that stories persisted as a way to convey important cultural norms in a format that sticks in the mind. It’s boring for a kid to remember which berries are poison, but package it as a harrowing folk tale of how touching deadly nightshade will bring you face-to-face with the devil, and you’ve seared the information into a terrified child’s mind. At this point, our hypothetical alien would likely nod and say, “Considering the crucial role stories serve, storytellers are surely carefully trained and controlled by your authorities.” And if we’re honest with ourselves, our reply would be, “Not yet, but we’re working on it.”

If you follow the news, you know we’re in another book-banning era. Politicians are loudly pushing to eliminate certain titles from libraries and the typical rebuttal is not that they shouldn’t be banning books, but that they’re banning the wrong books. Opposing factions will declare certain works to be problematic, obscene or blasphemous, but all seem to agree on this much larger, stranger premise: that fiction writers are now in charge of shaping public morals. Otherwise, what problem is a “problematic” book threatening to cause? Who cares if a novel is obscene if not for the assumption that obscenity can ruin a human mind? The claim of blasphemy is the most astonishing of all: not even an almighty creator can stand up to the raw, destructive power of the wrong words typed in the wrong order. 

Meanwhile, those who are not directly pushing for restrictions still judge stories entirely on how effectively they transmit the right social and political messaging. In my other browser tab, redditors are currently debating how well a recent work is conveying the precepts of modern feminism. The work in question is a TV show about a female lawyer who is also an Incredible Hulk. 

I’ll just say it: As a professional novelist who spins gruesome (and frankly, implausible) tales of time-hopping demons, I am not up to the task of shaping collective morality, especially if I’m primarily answering to corporations who cater to whatever group is yelling the loudest that week. But I’m also a hypocrite; if a fan says my last book made them a better person, I’ll happily accept the compliment. I can’t have it both ways. If my stories hold that kind of power, I have no argument against regulating them. Likewise, if I read a novel about, say, a race of alien slaves who learn to love their slavery, I’ll join the voices asking how in the world such a thing was approved for publication.

If you think it’s a ridiculous leap to suggest that fiction will soon be regulated into a tasteless paste, please remember that our current state of affairs — in which everyone is drowning in an ocean of cheap media — is incredibly recent. There are people alive who remember when television was brand new, and their great-grandparents likely had friends who never learned to read. Suddenly there’s this exponential explosion of storytelling, resulting in the control of cultural norms being yanked from politicians, priests and parents and handed to a bunch of weirdos like me. The traditional powers in society haven’t yet had time to adjust. 

I believe they are adjusting now. 

If fiction really does have the power to mold minds, it means it also has the ability to erode faith in institutions and foment radical change. That means the institutions that survive will be the ones that convince the population that stories are dangerous, that they must kick creatives out of the cockpit and let someone else take the controls. The result will be a world in which the only permissible fantasies are morality plays and propaganda, in which audiences read and watch bland feel-good messaging, feel nothing, but applaud anyway lest the surveillance drones detect their lack of enthusiasm.

If I’m to choose between that and a collective agreement that stories don’t really matter all that much, I’d prefer the latter. I mean, in theory, we wouldn’t have to choose if we could build a society in which it’s safe for creators to play with even the most repugnant ideas because their audiences have gained enough critical thinking skills to realize fictional stories aren’t marching orders. But I try not to let my ridiculous fantasies get away from me.

*Yes, I realize this was the plot of Galaxy Quest.

Jason Pargin is the author of If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe, on shelves Oct 18, 2022.

Read Jason Pargin’s New Book If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe

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David Wong

David Wong

Jason "David Wong" Pargin is a New York Times bestselling author whose work has been read by tens of millions of people worldwide. Granted, most of those people did not in fact pay for said work, as they read it for free on Cracked.com where Jason served as editor for twelve years and wrote essays like 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person and How Half Of American Lost Its Fucking Mind. He is also the author of five alarmingly successful novels, the first of which, John Dies at the End, became a feature film. This was followed by a sequel called This Book is Full of Spiders, which was followed by What the Hell Did I Just Read.