It has been an excellent couple of years for dystopian fiction. The closer we feel to the brink of humanistic and political catastrophe, the more we turn to fictional dystopias, as though to torment ourselves with the preponderance of warnings to stay alert to the erosion – however gradual – of the freedoms that we take for granted. “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it,” runs a quote from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet the incredulity with which many of us are meeting contemporary politics has somehow proved insufficient to stop the spiral of real-time ‘doublethink’ and ‘newspeak’ that has somehow pervaded our reality with all the character of a social and political satire.
Over the weekend, I read an excellent article about the legacy of George Orwell’s 1984, written by one of Orwell’s more recent biographers, Dorian Lynskey. Drawing on the parallels that exist between our current political experience and the prophetic predictions of Orwell’s most famous work, Lynskey talks about the enduring nature of 1984 – even in the face of some outright criticisms of its agenda. I’ve alluded before to the massive increase in sales of 1984 that accompanied Donald Trump’s election in 2017. Yet, there is something truly intriguing about our propensity to immerse ourselves in the dystopian worlds of Orwell and Atwood at a time when confirmation of the parallels can surely only serve as a crux for despair. We have entered an era where the notion of ‘alternative facts’ has dictated the reach of one of the world’s most powerful political administrations, ushering in a period of time where objectivity, science, and actual facts are no longer a foundation for decision-making. Playing with truth in this way is one of the most effective tools for those looking to maximise their own power. Without access to an objective truth, the opposition is robbed of the ability to argue back or mount an effective dissent – how, after all, can one debate someone convinced that ‘facts’ need no longer have a basis in truth? The Party of 1984 approaches politics in much the same way – “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’.”
Is it, then, the prophetic nature of works like 1984 that make it such a draw to those of us baffled by the current state of political discourse and activity? This feels counterintuitive – as though we’re instituting some kind of punishment upon ourselves for failing to prevent the dramatic turn from what most of us supposed to be a swinging pendulum from the ‘norm’ of leftward-moving centrism. In 2012 – so well before Donald Trump was on anyone’s political radar – Dave Astor considered the conundrum of our attraction to dystopian fiction in an article for the HuffPost. His argument that we enjoy dystopianism in part for the lesson in what to avoid – while undoubtedly ringing true pre-2017 – loses some of its momentum when we look to the increase in popularity post-2017. It is, in fact, his thoughts on the honesty of dystopian fiction that perhaps most resounds with our current attraction to these literary offerings. There is something fundamentally honest about the world of dystopian fiction. These novels typically rest upon a narrative of ‘human society gone wrong’, where an overly zealous leader, a reconfiguration of social barriers, or a conflict, has led to a place wherein violence, authoritarianism, and the obfuscation of facts have become the norm. In a world where ‘alternative facts’ have become an acceptable basis for political discourse, it is no wonder that many of us would turn to dystopian fiction as a place of honesty and, strangely, of hope. While few dystopian novels end with an overturn of the warped and apocryphal establishment, they are almost always premised on the few individuals who see the truth and are willing to speak for it. Even where the establishment is able to bring these characters down, there is a reassurance available in the fact that the characters were awake to the truth, however briefly.
Dystopian fiction is a bit of a conundrum. The sudden upsurge in popularity, as the world appears to be headed closer in the direction of realising these Orwellian visions, is fascinatingly odd. No longer do these predictions feel so much like a warning but more of a timeline. Although this is certainly not to say that we should view Orwell’s 1984 as an inevitability – something Orwell surely wouldn’t have, were he alive today – it is less for a warning and more for its honesty that we turn to dystopian fiction today. There is much to be feared from contemporary political and social dynamics but, as dystopian fiction certainly reminds us, there is also always hope.