Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
In a politically divided climate like today’s, I often find solace in the morbid escapism of a good dystopian novel. Moreover, the totalitarian governments, ravaged planets and undead apocalypses I read about make me think, the world could be a lot worse.
But recently, I’d found myself feeling rather uneasy after reading Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The book was a thought-provoking and emotionally moving portrayal of a society riddled with misogyny, oppression and environmental havoc, yet what unsettled me was that I didn’t need to open up a book in order to escape to a dystopian experience, when we were pretty close to living in one right now.
We typically believe dystopian fiction should enable us readers to explore a darker timeline, with worlds being dark, hopeless, and grimmer than our own. But when we see the political strife portrayed through thinly-veiled allegories of alien races, imagined societies or not-so-distant futures being broadcasted on our TVs, when our world begins to reflect the drought-stricken, war-torn and diseased visions conjured up in literature, where does the dystopian genre go from there?
Writers have long used dystopian literature as a means of interrogating the world around them, with events such as World War II and major advancements in technology evidently triggering the emergence of many dystopian themes. We know that Aldous Huxley conceived of his 1932 novel A Brave New World in the shadow of a world war, and similarly the looming threat of the Soviet Union inspired Orwell’s creation of 1984 in 1949. Furthermore, the group-activated hangings, clothing specific to castes and classes, forbidding of literacy and the denial of property rights read about in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale all had precedents some time in our world, and we see that even Atwood has commented on how “all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil”. As Chris Robichaud, an ethicist at Harvard who teaches a course on utopia and dystopia in fiction and philosophy, confirms, “We can work our way through problems by telling stories better, at times, than by writing philosophical treatises”.
Whilst our planet continues to plummet towards destruction, we observe an increasing prevalence of dystopian novels exploring concepts closely related to, or inspired by such events. Writers are most commonly integrating topical issues such as environmental destruction, government or religious control, loss of individualism and the threat of technology into their writing, effectively creating plots seemingly a hair’s breadth away from being an imminent reality. When comparing novels like The Handmaid’s Tale or A Brave New World to more contemporary counterparts such as Susan Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008), it becomes evident that whether written now or 35 years ago there still remains relevance in the fact that writers have continued to draw inspiration from the imperfections and downfalls of their existing societies and the people within them.
So perhaps with this in mind, we can deduce that although the predictions in many dystopian novels are now emerging as reality, this overarching idea to reveal society’s greatest weaknesses through literature may guide the dystopian genre towards a continuance of this trend, as the very nature of humanity predicts that we will always remain flawed in one way or another.
However, I can’t help but think that with the increasing blur between dystopia and reality, there also lingers the possibility that dystopia as a genre will soon become no more fiction than the news we hear about on TV. The very definition of dystopia is an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized and fearful lives. Yet what happens when the once terrifying and conventionally-challenging ideas presented to us lose their effect and become diluted in comparison to our increasingly darkened reality? And how are we to classify a supposedly fictional genre that has progressively become more and more non-fictional?
Some writers have already felt the shift in meaning of the dystopian genre through their works. Alexander Weinstein, author of the 2016 dystopian short-story collection Children of the New World, has commented that, “It’s hard to write dark speculative fiction presently, because it all seems quaint in comparison to what’s happening now”, in correspondence to his working on an upcoming book. What Weinstein suggests becomes quite plausible when we think about how dystopian genres are no longer able to appeal to the audience’s entertainment through the suspended belief that their ideas are simply exaggerated interpretations of the current issues we face. When darker dystopian ideas are no longer unimaginable, there’s a chance that the genre may lose its intrigue and spiral out of popularity.
It’s possible that with this newly disorientated view on reality and fiction, we may start to see an integration of dystopian literature into the non-fiction genre, or the gradual decline in dystopian novels all together. It’s possible that writers will continue to interrogate the flaws of society presented to them through their fiction, with absolutely nothing changing.
But for now, I think I’d rather open up a book and escape into another dystopian world, and hope that truly, the world could be a lot worse.