The Golden Age of Dystopian Literature
Orwell’s 1984 cult classic is back in fashion these days – bringing nostalgia to a newer, much younger readership. Everything that is old is new, from novels about presidencies going wrong, to post-apocalyptic Tolkien styled fantasies. In the last couple years, popularity in dystopian fiction has seen a dramatic rise and fall, yet its climax is still yet to come. In times of political and social havoc, it only makes sense to see this widespread trend. Novels such as Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Lewis’ It can’t happen here are being held up as the new hall markers of literary pop culture.
Penguin publishing has seen a substantial increase in sales for Orwell’s 1984 ever since Trump’s inauguration. With the success of literary classics such as A Handmaid’s Tale and its several adaptations, it is hard to imagine mainstream culture without these dystopias. What makes these kinds of shocking fictions so desirable in an era of fake news and sensationalism?
The dystopian novel emerges as a response to the first utopian novels, like William Morris’ utopian science fiction News From Nowhere, envisioning a society without courts, prisons or class systems. This futuristic society sees private 19th century buildings replaced by communal gardens, and removes children from education in the pursuit of letting “their curiosity lead them”. Although not necessarily the most convincing argument, these kinds of fictions sets up the more radical distorted ones that we are all well and truly familiar with. Utopias such as News From Nowhere, as well as other similar titles have been imperative in generating counter-utopias, or what we call today the ‘Dystopian novel’.
If utopias believe in progress, than by default, dystopias do not. The turn of the century seeks to break apart these Eden-like images, making them completely unrecognisable. At this time, novels like Orwell’s infamous 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World hit the market with the kind of bleak pessimism all too familiar to us today. Novels deeply interested in, not only the future of political inequality, but also the presence of the eerie ‘big brother’ hanging over us.
2017 brings an overly saturated dystopian worldview – a chaotic whirlwind of dystopian plot lines, from art, to music to books. It has become part of our mainstream identity, and an ironic one to say the least. Whilst not everyone has read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopia We, it’s hard to miss Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games. Conflict narratives, namely plot lines dealing with ‘good and evil, adult and child, proletariat and bourgeois’ are hardly new, yet it is more popular now than ever before. The Hunger Games along with re-commercialised A handmaid’s Tale situates struggle in the present, rather than an unimaginable future. Its bloody battlefield is arguably a telling of the teenage experience within high school, made up of factions, the ‘mean girls’, ‘jocks’ and ‘low-life’s’. Originally written from the perspective of an educated adult, dystopias have branched out to younger audiences, dealing with the hormones of everyday life alongside wider issues of power and dominance.
It would be a stretch to say that this is what original dystopian authors first envisioned when creating their fiction – but what we have now seems to have strayed a little too far. Instead, we are bombarded with overly predictable romantic subplots that tend to distract from dystopian intention. The revolutionary warning bells fade behind the sound of sappy soundtracks used to rack up sale numbers. What was once a revolutionary and contested genre now seems like mindless Saturday night entertainment.
Dystopia – a repository for subversion and change, now looks like collective pessimism leading to nowhere. In the past, what dystopia offered – a working through political problems, is no longer useful. Things are less shocking and it is getting harder to write speculative fiction because it seems so quaint in comparison to life. If these books act as a mirror to hold up, what are we looking at? Are we living in our own kind of dystopia, bound by our obsession with screens?
With our current fixation on social media, it can sometimes feel like we are losing touch with humanity, instead, messages of violence and terror are pumped through us daily. It would be safe to say that these dystopias offer an outlet in which we can possibly win these wars, if not at home, than at least in our minds.
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