The Importance of Dystopian Literature

By: Sylvia Woodbury — Guest Correspondent

In the year following Trump’s inauguration in 2016, George Orwell’s quintessential dystopia 1984 saw a 9,500% sales increase, as reported a year later on January 25. During his campaign, the book’s message circulated around the internet, becoming scarily applicable to America’s current events; when, in a 2018 speech, Trump said, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening”, repeating a particular rallying cry that had isolated his supporters from credible news sources, a quote from 1984 circulated around the internet: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” 

Ever since the initiation of dystopian literature with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a 1921 novel critiquing the socialist utopia idealized by the Soviet Union, dystopia has directly reflected on and been directly inspired by current events. Alduous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World reflects on the anxieties on ever-advancing efficiency, biotechnology and consumerism. The totalitarian society in Orwell’s 1984, written in 1948, was modeled after Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) reflects on the suppression of information during the Cold War and the McCarthy Era. The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood in 1985 after the elections of Reagan and Bush, models a society where women have been stripped of all rights, forced to breed to repopulate a dying world. 

Dystopia represents varied meditations on the past and future; it can embody a warning against political ideologies, questions on what constitutes free will and what it means to be human, the effects of advancing technology and a changing natural world, coupling with these a diverse, but omnipresent, caution against totalitarianism and mob mentality. Dystopia obsesses over the themes of “political capital, the meaning of free will, and, perhaps most significantly, fear of the state and the unchecked power of government,” writes Yvonne Shiau, correspondent for Electric Lit. 

Dystopias often constitute a reduction in plot, but not in theme, allowing very real, and often hidden or disguised, sources of abuse to occupy a frontal space in complete view of the reader. “People naturally gravitate toward a narrative that validates their own worldview,” writes Charley Locke of Wired. “people are reaching out to dark visions to make sense of an increasingly unrecognizable country. A well-told narrative, truthful or not, can awaken a reader’s imagination and push them to action—and a neat dystopia is often more satisfying than a complicated truth.” 

1984, published in the UK on June 8, 1949, was an immediate success: among the potent fears of the Cold War, the book reflected on the totalitarian states of Germany and the Soviet Union. Orwell used the very real elements of the world he lived in — the banning of books and suppression of information, for instance — to concisely explore dictatorship, hate, and the cycle of oppression, all the while allowing the reader to be newly shocked by the ideas presented in the novel. Now, the book is more relevant than ever. “As Trump took the White House, Britain voted for Brexit and populism swept across Europe, people took to talking anxiously about the upheavals of the 1970s and, worse, the 1930s. Bookshop shelves began filling up with titles such as How Democracy Ends, The Road to Unfreedom and The Death of Truth, many of which quoted Orwell. . . I was reminded of something Orwell wrote about fascism in 1936: ‘If you pretend that it is merely an aberration which will presently pass off of its own accord, you are dreaming a dream from which you will awake when somebody coshes you with a rubber truncheon.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book designed to wake you up,” writes Dorian Lynskey in The Guardian. 

Today, the book might very well have a different interpretation. As different crises have come to light with each decade, so too have the problems presented and explored in dystopian literature shifted. In the 1950s and 60s with the invention of the Turing test and the first personal computer, a fear of rapidly advancing technology changed the face of dystopia — war and technology constituted central dystopian themes. In the 1970s and 1990s, dystopia began orbiting around a fear of massive, powerful corporations and of the changing climate, a slowly poisoned earth. Similarly, 1984 has undergone several metamorphoses of interpretation. With the term ‘fake news’ liberally used by Trump and his supporters to describe real news that contradicts their message, Orwell’s concept of doublethink becomes more relevant than ever. “Consumerism, not endless war, became the engine of the global economy. But he did not appreciate the tenacity of racism and religious extremism. Nor did he foresee that the common man and woman would embrace doublethink as enthusiastically as the intellectuals and, without the need for terror or torture, would choose to believe that two plus two was whatever they wanted it to be,” writes Dorian Lynskey. 

“On the eve of 1984, the science-fiction writer Marta Randall argued that one thing Orwell didn’t predict was the spread of cynicism: ‘It would be very hard for “Big Brother” to convince anyone of anything post-Watergate and post-Vietnam.’ In the 1980s, she suggested, Orwell’s target would have been the trivialisation of the news media. ‘We may quit relying on “authoritative” news stories entirely.’ Over time, this distrust of establishment narratives led many people to seek the truth but many others to choose their own ‘truths’. Combining cynicism with credulity, people who were proudly skeptical of CNN or the New York Times were perfectly happy to take unsourced Facebook posts and quack science at face value.”

“Nineteen Eighty-Four is about many things and its readers’ concerns dictate which one is paramount at any point in history. During the cold war, it was a book about totalitarianism. In the 1980s, it became a warning about technology. Today, it is most of all a defence of truth. . . . In its original 1949 review, Life correctly identified the essence of Orwell’s message: ‘If men continue to believe in such facts as can be tested and to reverence the spirit of truth in seeking greater knowledge, they can never be fully enslaved.’ Seventy years later, that feels like a very large if.”

Despite the omnipresent legacy of 1984, the book is not irreproachable; nor should it be venerated beyond its failures. The book is still situated strongly in the lens of a straight white man; as such, the scope of oppressive measures is contained within that experience. “. . . oppressive regimes begin by simply extending oppressive measures already in place to other bodies. After all, stripping Americans of their basic rights and declaring them property is the grotesque foundation — and enduring legacy — of so many U.S. religious, political and cultural logics,” writes Michelle M. Wright, Professor of African American Studies and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University 

“1984, while a fantastic novel with many insights, is almost wholly concerned with the liberties intrinsic to Western democracy’s citizens par excellence: the heterosexual white male. What it misses is what the anti-Trump movement also seems to miss: that legal precedents, historical practices, and cultural beliefs have enabled this democracy to practice slavery, genocide, state-sanctioned rape, and rampant xenophobia long before the alt-right found a winning candidate. And we can’t afford failure. Not now.”

“Looking to literature to make sense of our world is essential, but we must draw from a wide array of works that speak to the layers and subtleties of our nuanced world. Indeed, now more than ever, such understanding and awareness of the complex and varied human experiences in our social structures will guide us to the greater political awareness we so desperately need.” 

Wright suggests supplementing knowledge of 1984 with other novels, including Harriet Jacob’s 1861 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Richard Wright’s Native Son, which depicts the “rich cultural ties and deep historical roots” of Black neighborhoods in Chicago. “Native Son is a searing warning. It reminds us that reducing people and communities into simplistic, symbolic ‘problems’ — no matter the intent — encourages inhuman ‘solutions’ with very human consequences. And Chicago, as we know, is hardly alone: Black Lives Matter everywhere,” Michelle M. Wright explains. 

She also lists Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a must-read. Told from a female perspective, the novel expounds upon different frontiers of crisis and fear. Offred, the book’s precisely observant narrator, lives in a society where women have been forced into sexual slavery to repopulate a dying earth. When writing the novel, Atwood was careful to not include any narrative point that didn’t have a basis in reality. She took inspiration from articles about the banning of abortion birth control in Romania and Republican campaigning to withhold federal funding from abortion clinics. Atwood learned of congressional hearings intended to regulate corporations’ toxic emissions, and of a restrictive religious sect where wives were renamed “handmaidens”. 

Atwood’s novel, too, cautions against complacency. “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on,” she writes in The Handmaid’s Tale. 

Atwood is still concerned about the safety of women’s rights in America today. “It’s the return to patriarchy,” she said in a 2017 New Yorker interview. “Look at [Trump’s] Cabinet! Look at the kind of laws that people have put through in the states. Absolutely they want to overturn Roe v. Wade, and they will have to deal with the consequences if they do. You’re going to have a lot more orphanages, aren’t you? A lot more dead women, a lot more illegal abortions, a lot more families with children in them left without a mother. They want it ‘back to the way it was.’ Well, that is part of the way it was. ”

Dystopian literature is a lesson in critical thinking, requiring us to look at the urgent and compromising problems through a new viewpoint and apply them to the narrative. Margaret Atwood perfectly sums up the importance of paying attention and engaging with conflict with a quote from The Handmaid’s Tale: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” 

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