In literature, one of the most argued over genres is that of dystopian fiction. While other book styles have produced their own share of adjectival language (think Dickensian or Homeric), there are few more instantly understandable than those of the anti-utopian novelists, for example, “Orwellian” or “ultra-violent.” How is it that these types of novel became so entwined with our culture that they become accessible language that even non-readers are comfortable using?
Perhaps the answer is that a proper dystopian novel is not quite as fictional as we may hope.
There are hundreds of novels in this genre, beginning with Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, followed a hundred years later by Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame) and her novel The Last Man, published in 1826, which described the 21st century in the wake of a deadly pandemic. From there, the seed caught, and this particular brand of fiction bullied its way into the public psyche, never to look back.
I want to examine the five big beasts of the genre and figure out why it is that they seem timeless and altogether unlikely to drop from sight. 1984 was the bestselling book on Amazon in January 2021, with an almost 10,000% increase in sales over the last five years. The other, in my opinion, four greats, are doing almost as well. Why is it that we have an enduring fascination? Why do we keep coming back to these stories generation after generation?
Many of these books have a tyrannical edge or protagonist, often set in a dark future, and this seems to be enough (especially if there is a technological element at play) to include them in the canon. But not all have the longevity or their earned place in popular culture. Take The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, for example. It’s loosely based on the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the minotaur. The first of the trilogy, published in 2008, was an immediate success and soon on its way to becoming a blockbuster movie … but does it have the staying power to be seen as one of the greats? Perhaps not.
You see, although it talks of a divided society by class, culture, and wealth, and it exudes tyranny from the ruling authority, it is just one step too far removed from reality. Although elites have played divide and rule for as long as there have been tribal societies, the idea that to further this division, the rulers would take children and put them in a warring arena battle to the death for the glory of their home sectors is too much of a stretch.
To be a true dystopian classic, we must be able to feel the weight or portent of possibility. We must be able to see that the terrors described are a mere stone’s throw from our current predicament. It is the impending possibility that we are getting ever closer to the events, or a version of them, with no way of turning away.
My choices for the BIG FIVE of dystopian classics are 1984 by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Each of these has been selected because the terrors they propose seem all too possible… or even probable.
Let’s start with A Clockwork Orange. The idea that our cities could become no-go zones of violence by savage gangs intent on violence and home invasion is not a futuristic theme; it’s a reality for many people. But more pernicious is the government’s efforts at “curing” the dark protagonist, Alex, of his violent ways. Written in 1962, the world was all too familiar with the idea of “re-education” at the hand of powerful leaders. I-t was something that had happened in the recent past and was something to be watched for in the future.
“If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with color and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil.”
Is this not reminiscent of the absolutism with which each side of the political divide excoriates their opponents? Nothing good can be done by those who do not support us! They treat each other as nothing more than clockwork oranges; simple machines programmed one way or another.
It is this dehumanization we see writ large each and every day that is infused in the story. It resonates with us because we see the precursors once again.
During the last few years, we have seen campaign officials for Bernie Sanders caught on camera saying that Trump supporters and Republicans of all stripes would have to be sent to camps. We’ve had high-level Democrats talk of re-education… and to any thinking person, it should be a terrifying prospect. Clockwork Orange is still powerful today because it describes what we see around us and what we fear is just around the corner.
No list of dystopian classics would be complete without Orwell’s 1984. Its bleak vision of the future was meant to be an extension of Stalinist Russia, the concrete, the Party, the hate-mongering, but it had the added element of technological surveillance, meaning that people could not be free even in their own homes. What do we have now? Electronic devices in almost every room that can and do record our conversations even when supposedly turned off. Cell phones that – even when powered off – continue to provide tracking data. And let’s look at Scotland’s recent hate-crime law (“hate-crime,” there is an Orwellian word if ever there was one), whereby individuals can be prosecuted for conversations they had in the privacy of their own homes.
Some would suggest that 1984 is not so much a portent for the future but a grim reflection of the present.
The next choice is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Regarded by many as a subcategory of the dystopian genre, “feminist dystopian,” this 1985 novel has never really been out of the limelight since it was published. It tells of a time when pollution and radiation have rendered much of the North American population infertile. A religious group known as the Sons of Jacob seize power and enforce control over how, when, and with whom the remaining fertile women can breed.
It’s easy to see this as a novel that follows the all-too-familiar cry of “bad patriarchy, “bad Christians,” and of course, “bad men,” but that does Atwood a grave disservice. In both her novel and numerous subsequent interviews, that the events described have pretty much already happened in some corners of the world (think of Afghanistan before the revolution, or Iran, after it). She also points out that she is not criticizing religion but rather those that usurp religion in the name of power. Is it so far-fetched to consider that there may be politicians and parties that wear their religiosity on their sleeve yet engage in acts wholly outside the realms of almost any mainstream belief system?
Read more from Mark Angelides.