“You hear the word ‘dystopia’ a lot more these days,” remarks a friend, his intonation Eeyore’s. Well, yeah. News outlets now go to great lengths to give us “A Break from the News.” I can no longer even remember what it felt like, back in 2008, when Barack Obama said, “Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world.”
Still, I am curious, so I enter “dystopia” into the Google Books Ngram database…and a dramatic graph pops up. There is a long, nearly flat line, and then, in 1960, the use of the word “dystopia” in books begins to increase, and in 2008, it begins a sharp ascent, near vertical, that never levels off again.
The frequency of dystopian novels charts a different course, with peaks around World War II and the Cold War, a valley around September 11, and another peak after the 2008 publication of The Hunger Games.
That series always did trouble me, because teenagers took to it with such abandon. Were their experiences of school and social life so competitive that it resonated to watch someone their own age fight a peer to the death just to survive? Life should not feel that dangerous before you can even drive, drink, or vote.
The Hunger Games, and Lois Lowry’s brilliant The Giver before it, paved the way for a long list of dystopian novels aimed at adolescents. They, after all, have the most to lose in a world that has lost hope, a future that has lost its humanity, an environment that no longer sustains life. And the teenage agenda—to figure out who you are and how to be brave, then rebel at all that is wrong with the world—fits neatly into the usual dystopian plot, in which a heroic individual must take on a corrupt or totalitarian system.
Back when dystopian literature was written for grown-ups, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, shaken by world war, wrote out their own angst. “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books,” critic Neil Postman remarks. “What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one…. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy.”
The best dystopian novels are not only mirrors but crystal balls. In 1931, Huxley predicted human cloning. In 1899, H.G. Wells predicted a twenty-first century with citizens enslaved by propaganda, “helpless in the hands of the demagogue.” People raced to reread Orwell’s 1984 in 2017, after Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Kelly Anne Conway, blurted something about “alternative facts.” The Handmaid’s Tale sales shot up when women’s reproductive rights were again challenged.
Margaret Atwood’s material for Handmaid came from a file of news clippings. Dystopian plots take their cues from existing problems, exaggerating them for story’s sake, so readers can feel they are escaping even as they are confronted with the most ominous truths of real life.
In an essay on Electric Lit, Yvonne Shiau reviews dystopian plots by the decade. In Brave New World, “people come to adore the very authorities that undo their capacities for thought.” In 1984, individual freedom was sucked away by government surveillance and the control of information. In Kallocain—written in 1940, long before today’s pharmacology of psych meds—a drug is used to control the individual’s thoughts. It Can’t Happen Here predicted a fascist America under the control of a dictator. Make Room! Make Room! showed the government rationing and apportioning a mysterious substance that today might remind us of a vaccine, but was actually liquid people. In The Camp of the Saints, Europe is overrun by immigrants whose skin was darker than that of the native-born. In the book with my favorite title—Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—a man wonders about the difference between humans and androids.
Then there are the dystopian novels for young adults. In Mindwalker, therapists erase a patient’s traumatic memories with a direct neural link. In The Glimpse, people are divided into Pures and Crazies. In Gated, the end of the world is near. In Feed, people have computer implants in their brains to control their environment. (All currently plausible.)
Five years ago, Jill Lepore heralded a new golden age for dystopian fiction, calling such novels “histories of the future.” She listed off problems that were turning into plot points: environmental degradation, climate change, nuclear weapons, corporate monopolies, technological totalitarianism, the fragility of human rights…. Five years later, where are we? Her list still holds—plus, we had a pandemic that felt dystopian all by itself. An Atlantic report on increased weird and antisocial behavior notes that COVID increased isolation, severing or weakening people’s ties to social groups. Now hostility is up, Americans have chosen sides, more people are drinking, more own weapons. The old comforts of religion and civic order continue to crumble, and the economic gap continues to widen.
We have, in short, the perfect conditions for dystopian literature to thrive. But dystopia, Lepore points out, is increasingly unhealthy. Once a form of resistance, it has become “a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely and sullen twenty-first century…. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one.” Instead, dystopian novels (and films) let us wallow in our fears and stoke our radical pessimism. And that, she said, has “contributed to the unraveling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism.”
Dystopia is also less satisfying now, Lepore says, because its “natural affinity with American adolescence” caused its popularity to explode in the young adult category. As a result, many of the books have taken on a pouty, hostile adolescent sensibility, “characterized by a withering contempt for adults and by an unshakable suspicion of authority.” Even in the novels still directed toward adults, the hero is often hanging out with younger people, sharing their cynical disaffection.
That sort of worldview was once the purview of adults with enough experience to be jaded. Now, kids are starting out without hope. Or maybe they do have hope, but a solitary sort: the fantasy they are immersing themselves in promises that they, as the lone individual who sees through the evil state or corrupt corporate world or environmental destroyers, can escape alive and intact with the help of a few allies. Seldom is there any promise of larger-scale collaboration, strengthened community, or the restoration of a humane world.
The future is in their hands, and this is what we give them to work with, stories of ruin? “Wreckage is romantic,” Lepore concedes. “But a politics of ruin is doomed.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.