The Real Reason Dystopian Fiction Is Roaring Back

From the “everything old is new again” files:Bygone dystopian fiction is officially back in vogue. As reported last month, Penguin Random House has seena 9,500 percent sales increase for George Orwell’s1984since Trumps inauguration;that was enough to propel the book to the top spot on Amazon’s bestseller list. The publisher alsosaw enough demand for It Cant Happen Here,Sinclair Lewis 1935 satirical novel about an authoritarian president, to reissue a paperback edition in Decemberand then double down with arobustsecond printrun in January.

Nor is this newfound popularity a reflection of blue-state tastes. At Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas, general manager Ben Rybecksays copies of 1984 and other titles areflying off the shelves. Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho sold eight copies of 1984 in Januarycompared to one in January 2016. And at Book Loft in Columbus, Ohio, sales manager Glen Welchhas seen unprecedented demand. All of a sudden, these books started taking off, says Welch, whodescribes the store’s customers as an even split between liberal and conservative. I havent seen this before, in my 10 years here.

Part of the appeal of these classics, of course, is a morbid strain of escapism: Dystopian fiction enables readers to taste a darker timeline, albeit one that a protagonist invariably triumphs over. The world could be a lot worse, you think while reading.But the thrill goes beyond the vicarious. A dystopian worldview,whetherderived from fiction or real-world events, can have therapeutic valueno matter which side of the aisle your politics belong on.

“We’re Saturated With Dystopia”

Dystopian literature has long given writersa meansofinterrogating the world around them. Orwell conceived of1984under the looming threat of the Soviet Union, and Margaret AtwoodwroteThe Handmaids Taleafter the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. We can work our way through problems by telling stories better, at times, than by writing philosophical treatises, says Chris Robichaud, anethicist at Harvard who teaches a course on utopia and dystopia in fiction and philosophy. You look to fiction to see how people are wrestling with serious problems. That’s valuable for readers as well, especially in a politically divided climate like today’s. We cant look at dystopias as merely some bad slippery slope argument, says Robichaud. Rather, they challenge us: What are the values in this dystopia, and what do they say about our values right now?

In fall 2016, Skidmore College professor Nicholas Junkerman taught a course on utopia and dystopia, with a reading list that includedOctavia Butlers Parable of the Sower and Kazuo Ishiguros Never Let Me Goas well as Trumps acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. The English professor planned to include modern utopian narratives as well, but found that 20th-century textsand preoccupationsskewed pronouncedly pessimistic. “Were saturated with dystopia,” Junkerman says. That outlook suffuses not justDonald Trump’s rhetoric (“American carnage,” anyone?), but his supporters’ as well: “‘Make America Great Again’ is about finding our way back to utopia.

Some writers feelthe same way.Last year, Alexander Weinstein publishedChildren of the New World, a dystopian short-story collection about our reliance on technology, as a way to warn readers about a possible future. Now, Weinstein is working on his next book, but its scopeit’s a fictional field guide to a lost continentgives him some agita. Look at this society,” he says. “What am I doing writing about fantastical locations, when the world is going down in flames? Weinstein has no plansto change his current project, although even if he did, the results might not be what one would expect:Its hard to write dark speculative fiction presently, because it all seems quaint in comparison to what’s happening now, Weinstein says.

People naturally gravitate toward a narrative that validatestheir own worldview. For some, President Trumps tweets abouta conniving elite and a corrupt media echo their feelings that the odds are against them. For others, George Orwells chronicle of totalitarian doublethink provides comfort that we’ve fought “alternative facts” before, and we’re still standing. Either way, 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 readers imagination and push them to actionand a neat dystopia is often more satisfying than a complicated truth.

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