The Rise of Dystopian Fiction
'The issues these novels raise are often widely different'
James Doyle | 3 April 2017

Observing the current political climate, it is no surprise the genre of dystopian fiction is once again at the forefront of media.

Working in a bookshop, I have seen a resurgence of novels such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (no doubt spurred on by the recent Hulu television adaptation), with people rushing to pick up a copy of all the classics of the genre. What is it about dystopia that remains so relevant today? Is it that we find comfort in the portrayal of a world far more oppressive than our own? Perhaps it’s that the predictions of authors from 50 years ago are looking more and more realistic...

The term ‘dystopia’ has its roots in a concept much more positive than the depictions of totalitarianism with which we are familiar. Tudor era lawyer and social philosopher, Thomas More, was the first to coin the term ‘Utopia’ as the title of a work of fiction that presents an imagined island with a perfect political system. Writers such as Orwell and Burgess have gone on to subvert this concept - hence ‘dystopia’ - instead presenting a society with the worst conditions imaginable, whether that be through the reign of an oppressive minority government, or the effects of a global disaster. The dismal futures these authors project often draw from anxieties and fears of the time in their creation, and reflect the dangers of a social failure back into the faces of the contemporary audience. It is because dystopia as a genre is divulged from providing this sharp social commentary that dystopian novels are inherently political pieces, making the authors themselves activists in some regard.

The issues these novels raise are often widely different, and this perhaps explains why particular classics are gathering new media attention over others presently. 1984 for example is especially relevant - Orwell presents a government ruled by three ministries that have succeeded in complete totalitarian control, going so far as to establish a Gestapo-inspired ‘Thought Police’ to ensure that people cannot even rebel privately. With censorship on the rise and the controversy surrounding Kim Jong-un’s state at the forefront of many people’s minds, we look to 1984 as a reminder that what we all acknowledge as a cruel government with complete control within the novel, could actually become reality, should we grow complacent. The Handmaid’s Tale is another example of a classic re-entering the wider public eye. A novel that tackles dystopia from the female perspective, ‘Gilead’, the oppressive theocracy in the postmodern tale, is a republic that staged a rapid coup in the United States and now revolves around childbirth after widespread sterility caused by a mutant strain of Syphilis. Atwood’s novel was inspired by a fear of the joint leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher threatening the progress made by the feminist movement. 32 years on from the initial publication of The Handmaid’s Tale we face a similar situation with a Trump and May, proving the need for warnings such as that provided by Atwood. The author reminds us that the rights that women for centuries have fought for are not as stable in their establishment as they appear, and similar to what Orwell’s novel achieves, urges us not to grow complacent, this being the flaw of Atwood’s protagonist.

On the other hand, we have novels such as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, that are not seeing as much attention as the other two examples - but for what reason? Following anti-hero Alex, Burgess’s dystopian work shows us how a society with a severe gang problem, and youths that indulge in drug-fuelled ‘ultraviolence’, attempts to rehabilitate those offenders in an untested but effective way that will quickly clear up its overcrowded prisons. The question this narrative explores is summed up neatly by the prison chaplain Alex spends time with, who asks: “Does God want goodness of the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good thrust upon him?”. 11th century theologian, Thomas Aquinas, has written extensively on this idea of free will in relation to Christian beliefs and holds the view that it is the constant choice to be good that brings mankind closer to spiritual wholeness. While an age-old and interesting philosophical discussion, the novel misses out on the others’ recent swell in popularity due to its timelessness; it is no more or less relevant today than it was 20 years ago, or no doubt will be 20 years into the future.

While different subsets of the dystopian genre are indeed seeing varying interest as time goes on, with the recent successes of teen dystopia - the likes of The Hunger Games and the Divergent series - and now the resurgence of more classic texts such as the televisation of Atwood’s novel in response to rise of the right wing and political instability, one thing remains clear - as long as we continue to stumble on the road to equality and peace, these politically charged authors will continue to hold the mirror up to society to affect change by warning us of what may lay ahead.


Original Image by Lizzie Debonnaire

James Routledge 2016