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The Rise of Dystopian Literature

George Clark discusses the rise in dystopian literature in recent years and questions why this rise has occurred.

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It’s the same appeal as Game of Thrones fan theories: you know that no one’s got it exactly right, but it makes you wonder how much of it might be right. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, along with
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 are widely considered the original holy trinity of the dystopian genre. All three feature protagonists locked within repressive totalitarian societies who try, often in vain, to work against them. These texts set up many of the tropes that would later go on to inform other great books like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But why has there been such
a recent spike in the sales and new publications of dystopias? Why does the genre continue to endure?

feature protagonists locked within repressive totalitarian societies who try, often in vain, to work against them

From Atwood to Bradbury to Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) and Veronica Roth (Divergent), there seems to be a never-ending stream of new dystopias hitting the market.
On one level, that’s because they can be damn good fun. Who doesn’t love reading about Katniss going to town with a bow and arrow or wildly erratic theories about how technology is going to develop in the future? The teen fiction scene has hugely embraced dystopia and for good reason: alternate futures make the books socially relevant but open to embellishment; grounded in current fears but able to wildly exaggerate them.

In spite of the more fun aspect to some of these novels, one thing that every dystopia shares is a nihilism about the future. This in part seems to be a wider social attitude emerging out of the two World Wars and various other historic, horrific encounters that have since come to pass. For example, Orwell novelised the widespread fears of totalitarian rule in the aftermath of World War Two; Huxley satirised the utopian novels of H. G. Wells (he called his book a “negative utopia”) in the early 1930’s. These writers were living in a time where fears of perpetual war and the control of hostile, omnipotent governments were at a breaking point.
There’s a reason we haven’t seen a significant rise in the utopian novel.

We live in dark times; it’s certainly easy for writers to imagine our futures turning out even darker

Though, I think the reason the genre has kept going as long as it has is because of just how right the first dystopias turned out to be. In Brave New World, Huxley basically predicted with exact precision the developments of human cloning and hypnopaedia (being fed information while you sleep). In 1984: Orwell literally wrote about “telescreens”, which broadcast information as well as act as monitoring devices with microphones. If that isn’t a stellar prediction of the modern computer, I don’t know what is. These works have endured and produced new works consistently, because they are still, and perhaps always will be, culturally relevant. For example, there was a huge spike in the sales of 1984 on Amazon after Trump’s campaign advisor Kellyanne Conway famously coined the phrase “alternative facts” in 2017. Dystopias are often characterised by a distrust in the truth; it’s really a no-brainer why such an absurd and bizarre statement fed back into the sales of a dystopian novel.

they are still, and perhaps always will be, culturally relevant

While human beings have always lived without a collective trust in systems of power and perhaps even, in human nature, the last 100 years have seen a particular nihilism towards the systems of repression, rebellion and interaction that govern our lives. Dystopian novels continue to be a major driving point of the literary canon because the systems of oppression they theorise are based on real concerns, real events, real governments. And they will continue to garner interest because at the heart of every dystopian novel lurks a question in the back of every reader’s mind: this might be fiction… but what if it becomes my reality?

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