why we love dystopia

At the Byron Writers Festival this weekend a late-afternoon session titled “This Book Changed my Life” incited considerable discussion about the influence of story. Chaired by Adam Suckling with Tracey Spicer, Susan Wyndham and the vivacious Barry Jones, each panelist in turn presented pivotal books from their childhood and adult-hood, followed by a recommendation for the Prime Minister, and then a tome they believe changed the world.

Amongst the socio-political manifestos and megaliths of literature, dystopian novels featured more than any other single genre, both in the panel and in contributions from the audience after. Surprising? Perhaps not. In recent years there’s been a noticeable trend toward dystopian narratives, in fiction, graphic novels, cinema and television. Classic masters such as Phillip K. Dick, Margaret Atwood and George Orwell are returning again and again to centre stage with screen adaptations, political goofs, and a growing suspicion that these fairy tales are not so far removed from reality as we think.

So why are we so attracted to these stories? After all as the conceptual antithesis to utopia, dystopia is essentially an enhanced vision of all that is wrong with the world. From the outset this rings pessimistic and unnecessarily grim, particularly when our own world leaves much to be desired. But therein lies the rub. Dystopian fiction gives us a fantastical stage on which to play out the direst of possible futures, and by immersing ourselves in our collective worst nightmares we are able to find some catharsis in the articulation of otherwise half-known and half-imagined horrors. By bringing the bad stuff into the spotlight, we are able to confront, examine and understand the monsters under our beds.

Even more significantly, great stories allow us live out both the best and the worst of the human condition – to see ourselves at our most heroic and our most desperate. Dystopian fiction brings our terrors to life and therefore describes in starkest relief the great suffering, trial and victory of confronting these fears. We’re able to see how real humans, with all their mess and complication, overcome personal anxieties and relational conflicts to unite and confront these manifestations of our despair.

Not only does this prepare us for our true future, as we see the realities of global surveillance, genetic engineering, political corruption and social atrophy becoming more and more immediate. But it works the most glorious magic of all great fiction – it opens our eyes, it edifies us, it inspires us to feats of greatness, it challenges us to recognise and mitigate our own human fallibility, and most of all, it exhilarates us with the universal reminder of the essential goodness and astonishing resilience of human kind.

In short, it gives us hope. And that is why we love it. It does in absolute terms what all good art should – it makes us better people.

Recommended Reading

The classics…

  • 1984, George Orwell
  • Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  • Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson

The newbs…

  • The Children of Men, P. D. James
  • The Running Man, Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King)
  • MaddAdam, Margaret Atwood (part of the Oryx and Crake trilogy)
  • Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  • American War, Omar El Akkad
  • Void Star, Zachary Mason



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