The Rise and Rise of the What-If World

6th September 2019

Dystopian fiction is increasingly dominating the bestseller lists. Escapist it may be, on one level, but it’s a far cry from ‘happily ever after’. Jennifer Lipman investigates…

Global temperatures are rising, the political situation is febrile, extremism is on the march, and our newspapers are full of warnings about food and/or medicine shortages. Could there be a better time for dystopian fiction to experience a comeback?

Books that imagine a dark reality or conjure up a parallel universe in which bad things happen to good people have a long and storied history. As a genre, dystopian fiction dates back at least to the French Revolution, perhaps earlier. Over the centuries many such tales have captured attention, from George Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and more besides.

Dystopian fiction, explains Natasha Bardon, publishing director at Harper Voyager UK is “about reflecting huge ideas and concepts onto what-if worlds”. One of the most famous examples is Margaret Atwood’s feminist parable The Handmaid’s Tale. Having sold around a million copies since it was published in 1985, the Canadian author’s account of a patriarchal, theocratic society continues to resonate.

It was a response to the political situation of the time, as Atwood saw it. “The 1980s was a decade of pushback against the uprising of the many kinds of feminism in the 1970s,” she explained recently. “People were saying that they would like women to be back in the home.” Her book imagined what would happen if they had their way.

This month a sequel, The Testaments, comes out, with anticipation buoyed by the popularity of the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, now in its third series. Even before publication The Testaments had made the Booker Longlist and been dubbed ‘the literary event of the year’ by The Guardian. Moving the story on to a new generation of women forced to bear children in servitude, Atwood has said her inspiration is “everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner working… well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”

The original novel remains a mainstay of dystopian writing. “In 2017 alone it sold 270,000 copies, with both the TV tie-in and the 1996 classic edition regularly charting in our weekly print Top 50,” says Kiera O’Brien, charts and data editor of The Bookseller. “It was also hugely popular in e-book.”

This is part of a wider trend. “It started in 2017 with a resurgence for George Orwell’s 1984, which has sold over 150,000 copies in the last two and half years,” says O’Brien. In the US, it went to number one the week of Trump’s inauguration. Other books that benefited from the Trump bump included Animal Farm and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.”

So why now? As she says, “every book trend is said to be ‘because of the current political climate’, but dystopian fiction really was a very direct reaction to the election of Donald Trump.” Brexit may also have been a factor; O’Brien notes that 1984 bounced the week of the referendum and sales increased 50% in 2019 on 2018, as the threat of No Deal spiralled. Indeed, the white-bonneted, red cloaked Handmaids have cropped up in any number of political protests of late.

But it’s not just readers rediscovering old titles. “Publishers cottoned on and many new literary dystopias have won critical acclaim,” says O’Brien. Books like Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff, The Wall by John Lanchester (another 2019 Booker Longlister), Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Nick Clark Windo’s The Feed and Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure are just some recent additions. “It’s been a fantastic few years for dystopian fiction,” says Bardon.

Not all will have been written directly as dystopian stories. Jennie Melamed is author of Gather The Daughters, about a patriarchal community on an isolated island, where girls are married off at puberty. “I didn’t particularly set out to write a dystopia,” she says. She simply wanted to tell a story of a place removed from the modern world. “I didn’t really understand the full ramifications of this until long after I came up with it.” 

Hers is one of several recent novels told from the female perspective. We’ve had worlds where women can kill men using the palm of their hands (Naomi Alderman’s The Power), where babies gestate outside the body allowing both genders to carry them (Helen Sedgewick’s The Growing Season), where women are constrained to 100 words a day (Christina Dalcher’s Vox) and where abortion is outlawed (Leni Zumas’s The Red Clocks). This summer’s hit The Farm, by Joanne Ramos, explored where increased use of surrogates could lead.

These novels are explicitly feminist. “Pre-2016, dystopian fiction was primarily in the young adults arena, after the huge success of the Hunger Games—but it’s quickly carved out a space in the (adult) literary fiction category, with a more feminist angle,” says O’Brien.

Bardon agrees, saying that current dystopian trends are “fresher, more feminist and incredibly poignant”, with books “saying something about women’s productive rights, politics of today and how our world is changing irrecoverably”.

Again, this can be seen as a response to real events; from the #MeToo movement to the rise of the incels (men who are involuntarily celibate and blame women for this) and the mainstreaming of anti-abortion laws in the US. Even in the UK abortion limits featured in the Conservative leadership campaign. “Dystopian fiction has always been a vehicle for contemporary issues, but I feel like the world is now on the cusp of a possible dystopian future,” suggests Bardon. “Audiences are recognising that and responding to it.”

Melamed’s book, in which sexual assault is commonplace, was published in 2017, before some of these developments. But it was nonetheless a response to the very real threat of male violence that exists. “The fear I felt growing up infuses Gather the Daughters,” she explains. “The idea came to me early in college, when many women were opening up about their childhood sexual abuse… I wondered what a society would be like where it happened to everyone.”

Attwood thinks her book is more relevant now than ever. When she wrote it, the US was seen as a bastion of democracy and freedom. “They thought: total fantasy …. That’s very different now,” she has said. “In England it was a jolly good yarn, but with a ‘No thanks, we had our Oliver Cromwell moment’.” Britain may not today be facing a religious puritanical regime, but as she says “the civil war is going on right now. It’s just it’s not a war, it’s the Brexit split”.

What’s clear is that audiences do respond to dystopian fiction. Yet why would we want to escape into novels that speak of a worse reality? When the outside world feels frightening, why wouldn’t we opt for happily ever afters; romance novels or ‘up-lit’ like Eleanor Oliphant?

“They do say people turn to crime fiction in difficult times, because at the end the villain is always revealed and evil is defeated. Perhaps dystopian fiction is a similar thing, with the oppressed protagonist always fighting back against an evil regime,” suggests O’Brien. Melamed echoes this. “Dystopian novels strike a chord because they tell us meaningful stories of how things fell apart, and often of those rare individuals that rise above the chaos - as happens even in the worst of circumstances.” “For me, dystopian fiction gives hope in a hopeless situation. It feels like we need hope now more than ever,” adds Bardon. “Think of popular film franchises – they grow more dystopian with every film. They resonate with audiences though because they’re about fighting that injustice through characters viewers can relate to.”

Whatever the reason, dystopias are undoubtedly in vogue. “The Power won the Women’s Prize in 2017 and The Water Cure was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize, so it’s definitely a genre that’s being taken a lot more seriously,” says O’Brien. That means plenty more to look forward to. This month also sees the publication of Kassandra Montag’s mesmerising After the Flood, which imagines a world where water has submerged the earth leaving humans scraping by on isolated pockets of land.

Given the rising focus on climate change, Montag’s is likely to be the first of a number that posit the implications of rising temperatures. Meanwhile the march of feminist dystopias is likely to continue unchecked – and who knows what else will follow?

For fans of dystopian fiction, it’s hardly the end of the world.

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