From Margaret Atwood’s newest book to The Hunger Games to Nineteen Eighty-Four to The Selection to A Clockwork Orange, dystopian novels are, have been, and continue to be incredibly central to genre literature. In part, perhaps, because dystopian literature can include elements of other genres—sci fi, speculative, and others—but also most likely because since the advent of dystopic literature, we’ve found it intensely appealing, terrifying, and most importantly: relevant.
It’s also, you may be surprised to learn, an incredibly old genre that spans hundreds of years, all the way back to that ever-beloved period, Tudor England. Thomas More, Henry VIII’s right hand man (until his head was lopped off), wrote Utopia, which believe it or not is actually similar to what we consider dystopia today: the work, which at the time was seen as a work of philosophy, a kind of thought experiment, describes an island where cities and households are deliberately and carefully controlled and counted and planned; there’s no private property (Marxist, much?); and every household has two slaves. Sounds…not so great. Kind of disturbing actually.
Like much dystopian literature, Utopia was meant as a critique of the society in which More lived. The same is still true of today’s dystopian literature, which is again why we maybe find it so enjoyable, so fascinating, and so incredibly disturbing. Take a look at the ever-popular trilogy, The Hunger Games, for example. Its world is roughly North America divided into different districts, and it uses reality TV (a relatively new development) as its main point of horror. It has entertainment becoming not only humiliating or exploitative as some reality TV can get, but deadly. The Hunger Games are the biggest show to take place every year, and are used both to dominate the districts that are beholden to the Capitol’s support, and to amuse the citizens of the Capitol who live a life of opulence and ease otherwise.
Dystopian novels explore worlds that could be, that might be, and serve, sometimes overtly, as a warning to us. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale warns us of a future in which women are so severely oppressed that they won’t be able to control their reproductive systems or be allowed to read (which brings to mind the quote by romance author Lisa Kleypas: “A well-read woman is a dangerous creature”). Another of Atwood’s novels, also featured on this shelf, takes a good hard look at the current financial crisis and a possible Silicon Valley mixed with Third Reich kind of solution to it.
Many dystopias are post-apocalyptic, but not all. This is where the most interesting dichotomy lies: is the dystopian future one that’s snuck up on people, slowly becoming something through changes in technology or the regular ebb and flow of world powers and wars, or is the dystopia set off by a pandemic, a terrorist attack, a rebellion, a nuclear fallout, a meteor crash, an alien invasion? On the other hand, what much dystopian fiction shares is how eminently believable it is, how strangely plausible. This is part of what seems to draw us to it; we see our futures, or our children’s futures, represented in fiction, which either makes it seem more far-fetched (yes, it makes sense that this could happen, but it’s just a book, right? Just a story), or makes it seem too close for comfort (I think I’ll go protest and organize and sign some petitions or write about these issues now).
Maybe it’s this strangely close realism that makes dystopic literature fly under the radar when it comes to genre snobbishness as well. After all, Atwood isn’t considered a great genre writer, but just a great writer. Chang-Rae Lee, who wrote On Such a Full Sea, is seen as a genre-bender rather than strictly writing dystopian literature or sci-fi. And Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a considered a classic, and not just for genre lovers.
It seems that with the rise of technology, the increasingly fast-paced news cycle, and the ability to see terrible things unfolding around us in real time or on instant replay online, dystopic literature is getting closer to our real lives, which is alarming, but is also yielding some wonderfully imaginative new books from the genre. In this shelf, we’ve put together some of the best of both the old and the new.
What is some of your favorite dystopian fiction?
Bookshelf curated by Ilana Masad.
Image credit: Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock.com.