Look At Life: Dystopias

24th March 2017

Nothing gives us the facts like science fiction…

By Summer Greatorex

It’s January 1984 and I’m eleven years old. George Orwell’s most famous novel is all over the media. I’m far too young to understand it properly, but I’m reading an extract printed in my parents’ newspaper. Until this time, 'Anne of Green Gables' and 'Little Women' have been my reading staples. This is just a little bit different. It’s also the most eerie, unsettling and exciting thing I’ve ever come across and changes the direction of my reading forever.

More than 30 years later, thanks to Trump’s bombasity and his advisor’s reference to ‘alternative facts’ in a TV interview, which was likened to Orwell’s ‘doublethink’ (the warped capacity to hold two opposing thoughts in your mind and believe both), the book’s brilliance is still celebrated. As I write, it’s trending on Amazon as the second bestselling book of 2017 so far. Another dystopian classic, Margaret Atwood’s 'Handmaid’s Tale', about a far-right totalitarian regime where women are denied basic rights to their own fertility (rings true, huh?) isn’t far behind at number 20.

In an attempt at passive resistance worthy of 1984 hero Winston Smith himself, a San Francisco bookshop has been giving copies of these two books away and urging readers to ‘fight back’. What a great story. A mystery benefactor who clearly believes the pen is mightier than the sword, or that clever reading trumps Trumpism, bulk-bought hundreds of copies and urged the bookshop to pass them on.

It’s easy to see why American Republicanism has caused a surge in sales of dystopian classics, but that’s not the only reason. It wasn’t my reason when I fell in love with the genre at such an impressionable age. There’s an enduring fascination for literature that makes us reflect on the values and structure of our own society through the prism of an alternative perspective: a seductive ‘doublethink’ of being both captivated and repelled by the story that’s unfolding.

The term ‘utopia’ was coined by Sir Thomas More in his 16th century book of the same name, which described an idealised society; dystopias are pretty much any social vision that is undesirable or frightening. Many are startlingly prescient. When Aldous Huxley wrote 'Brave New World' in the 1930s, he anticipated IMAX cinemas with his ‘feelies’, mass consumption and throw-away culture, test-tube fertility and dependence on ‘soma’ (wine without the hangover).

Dystopias also give us a voice for our concerns. In another Atwood masterpiece, 'Oryx and Crake', Jimmy is the last man left on Earth after a mystery virus has wiped out humanity. He looks back on the society he’s been forced to leave behind with a series of chilling reflections. Animals, for example, had been genetically modified to such an extent that they had become unrecognisable. If, like Atwood, you’re angry about battery farming, this is really compelling stuff.

For me as a teen, science fiction was simply the ultimate escapism. After Orwell, I discovered John Wyndham – books full of mutant humans and man-eating plants. Unable to put 'The Chrysalids down' (still my favourite of his), I managed to walk the dog, tidy my room and eat my breakfast with only the help of my peripheral vision either side of those bewitching printed pages held up in front of my face.

Happily my own teen loves dystopias too. There’s been an explosion of YA novels in this genre, which have also migrated successfully to the big screen – think 'Hunger Games', 'Divergent' and 'The Maze Runner'. One 16-year-old, asked to sum up their popularity, said: “It’s the way the characters are oppressed and have to fight to get their voices heard – that’s how you can feel as a teenager, silenced and unable to really express yourself.”

I’ve just read, and immediately passed on to my daughter, 'Only Ever Yours' by Louise O’Neill – a disturbing Handmaid’s-Tale-for-the-social-media-generation, about a future society where only boys are born naturally and girls are genetically designed by men to be physically perfect. The girls, denied an education, obsess about their looks and rank themselves competitively against each other. It’s hauntingly sad and gave me nightmares for two consecutive nights, but every teen should read it. Why? asked my daughter. So that the next time we judge or comment on social media (guilty as charged), we can do so understanding that we have a choice, unlike those poor girls.

Perhaps that’s the point, that every time we read about a disturbing alternative reality, we can appreciate what we have in our own reality. Dystopias will always be my favourite genre, and my utopia will always be putting my feet up and getting stuck into a great read.

Find Your Local