If a utopia is an ideal world, then a dystopian one is where civilization has gone awry, either because of an environmental crisis, political and social circumstances or both. The result is a world where many people are unhappy and afraid, and often unfairly treated. The term came into being to describe classic literary novels like 1984 by George Orwell (once again on the bestseller list more than 65 years after publication) and A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Those books inspired others that present a hellish future for mankind including Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (a society where books are forbidden), The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (a future world where women are kept as birthing slaves) and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (a frightening fable about good, evil and free will).
In the last few years there has been an explosion of dystopian novels, particularly in the sub-genre known as post-apocalyptic fiction. These books focus on characters trying to survive after a catastrophic event alters civilization as we know it. The Wool trilogy by Hugh Howey and The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin are two hugely popular series in this genre. The Road by Cormac McCarthy presents a complex and subtle literary take on a harrowing post-apocalyptic future, while Michael Hopf’s New World series (The End) and William Forstchen’s John Matherson series (One Year After) offer intense action and adventure as characters try to survive in a world turned desperate and brutal.
Dystopian themes have also been extremely popular in young adult fiction. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins presents a vision of a disturbing world where young people must fight for their lives in horrific games that provide entertainment for the masses, The Maze Runner series by James Dashner and the Divergent series by Veronica Roth feature similar themes. Other popular YA dystopian titles include the Delirium trilogy by Lauren Oliver (an alternative earth where love is a disease) and The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey (human-looking aliens kill everyone they encounter).
Many dystopian books take place in the near future and feature technology run-amuck. A classic novel of this type is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, This book became the basis for the 1980’s movie Blade Runner, a sequel to which is currently being filmed. More recent science fiction dystopias are envisioned in The Circle by Dave Eggers (a movie version out at the end of April) and The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
There are several theories for the current popularity of dystopian fiction. For people who feel our society and world are headed in a frightening direction, dystopian fiction confirms their viewpoint, but also offers hope. The main characters in these books manage to prevail against dire threats, implying that good will prevail in the end, and the human spirit will triumph despite horrific circumstances. Another theory is that by presenting us with societies that are far more crushing and brutal than the one we live in, dystopian fiction makes us feel better about our own lives and circumstances. Or the appeal of these books may simply be that by offering us rich and compelling, if disturbing, alternate realities, dystopian fiction, like most fiction, offers us an escape from the all-too-real problems of modern life.
A bibliography of dystopian fiction, both classic and contemporary, is available at the library’s 1st Floor Ask Here desk.