Dystopia: why do we continue to enjoy a perverse game of real-life ‘what-if?’


It is unsurprising that dystopian fiction holds a particular grip of our attention during times of anxiety. We have grown all too familiar with comparisons of American abortion laws to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale or real-life surveillance states that supposedly rival those in Orwell’s 1984. The genre presents itself as a perverse game of real-life “what-if?” that many, including myself, enjoy deeply.

Dystopia is ever-popular due to its divisive nature. John Carey describes dystopia as “merely a utopia from another point of view”. There is something hideously alluring about being presented with a fictional landscape that challenges any trust we hold in society. To further this, there is also the intense realisation of recognising that our own perspectives and the society we live in remain human constructs and can be drastically altered. The genre gains an existential timelessness through its paradoxical warning against a dangerous, looming future that can only ever be read from the present; we become aware that the problems presented are based on current truths, and fear is generated through the uncertainty of how legitimate dystopian plots may one day become. 

‘There is something hideously alluring about being presented with a fictional landscape that challenges any trust we hold in society.’

Like many others, I was introduced to dystopian fiction in the form of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. It gained the coveted position of my favourite series at the age of eleven and remained there for a notable amount of time during my school career. Of course, Collin’s novels triggered an intense delve into similar Young Adult dystopian series: Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner and the list goes on and on. 

Undoubtedly, all contain the typical, overused clichés that we’ve come to expect from YA fiction: an underdog protagonist who single-handedly takes down a tyrannical regime, a system of sorting people into groups, love triangles that uphold unattainable ideas of romance, incredible feats of scientific advancement which are grossly misused by those in power. As much as people may criticise the sickly sweetness of these overused clichés, they succeed in illuminating innate fears which we all fall prey to. The constant battle between individualism and singular glory versus the security of blending into the masses, fears of isolation against rejecting or losing a dear lover, questions regarding complex ahead-of-its-time technology and which careless hands they may fall into. While we can all appreciate the fictional entertainment that dystopia proves, the darker side is what concerns the subconscious whilst we consume sugary, simplified trauma.

‘While we can all appreciate the fictional entertainment that dystopia provides, the darker side is what concerns the subconscious.’

The next logical step onwards was 20th century ‘classic’ dystopia, I relished the simplicity of Aldous Huxley’s ‘utopia’ in Brave New World and sympathised with Guy Montag’s intrigue for answers in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The main difference is that these novels were explored as almost pseudohistory books. Fear arises from our collective decision to ‘learn from the mistakes of history’ and yet these same issues are able to manifest themselves time and again. 

Bradbury’s book instinctively generates connections with book burnings under Nazi rule, the title Fahrenheit 451 is explained as “the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns”, the plot follows the protagonist, a fireman, whose role is to set illegal books alight and destroy their contents. While we thankfully don’t live under the type of authoritarian rule that Bradbury sets out, modern takes on censorship, media and even cancel culture could make successful comparisons to the book. Although this can be blamed on the rise of social media and general accountability that comes from residing in a connected world, the very fact that dystopia from the 1950s and earlier is just as relevant today paints a dismal picture of society’s ability to learn from the past.

Dystopia feeds off divisive opinion and we have witnessed intense polarisation first-hand in recent years. Whether you blame technology or a fearful population for its current relevance, dystopian fiction clings to our bookshelves and enters our mainstream media with our willingness. For me, despite knowing how upsetting the read will be, there is a small victory in pretending that we can predict what will come of society and I take great joy in testing the boundaries of fictional bleakness before reality finally catches us up.

Image: Kate Williams via Unsplash.

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