Monday, May 14, 2018

Dystopian Fiction Is the New Realism

Dystopian fiction always rises in response to a difficult historical moment. We’ve been in one for a decade now.  ♦ 
Ten years ago, the dormant subgenre of dystopian literature—which in most readers’ minds probably still meant George Orwell’s novel 1984—was suddenly brought roaring back to life with the release of the YA phenomenon The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of books stands as an example of the best qualities of dystopian fiction—in its questioning of the overly-wealthy and how those in power operate to hold onto that power; in its willingness to include diversity and speak for and to those groups who are marginalized and subjugated. The film adaption, as film adaptations are wont to do, omitted most of the commentary about race and power that exists in the novel—the olive-skinned protagonist Katniss was portrayed by the white actress Jennifer Lawrence, and the tensions between the poor community of people of color and the better-off white residents of District 12 was absent entirely—but the reception of both the books and the films marked The Hunger Games as a legitimate sensation, and their timing suggests why: the book debuted in 2008, the films in 2012, in the heart of the Great Recession.

The commercial success of The Hunger Games inspired a number of YA imitators—chiefly Divergent and The Maze Runner—which didn’t have quite the mainstream appeal as the original, perhaps because these works didn’t speak to the moment in the same way: both incorporated class, and therefore power, distinctions into their narratives, but they lacked the hard-hitting commentary that characterized the genre and The Hunger Games. They even followed a similar outline and plot, including arbitrary divisions of people and a teen protagonist needing to be convinced that they are The Chosen One destined to save society. But The Hunger Games succeeded not just because it told a great story; it told one that audiences shaken by the threat of global economic disaster felt connected to.

This perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise, as dystopian fiction, in addition to dealing with environments that are typically totalitarian, authoritarian, and environmentally degraded, has always stemmed from and reflected real-life events and concerns. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale correlates to the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s; J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World derives from the concerns about environmental changes in the 1960s, after the impact of nuclear weapons were understood in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Speculative sci-fi author Octavia Butler incorporated her own experience as a black woman into her trilogy Lilith’s Brood, where the titular protagonist struggles with losing her autonomy to an oppressive force and being discredited by her former allies. The commentary on womanhood, namely black womanhood, pointedly addresses the unending quality of life gap between black and white Americans, between men and women. Dystopian authors often embrace rather heavy-handed literary techniques when it concerns self-insertion into their stories, true, but this personal experience colors the genre with genuine commentary on the world, rather than simply being imaginative stories well-told.

What’s interesting is that The Hunger Games wasn’t an isolated hit but the start of a decade-long run where dystopian fiction, both new and old, has suddenly found mainstream success and renewed relevance. Whereas George Orwell’s 1984 was written in response to the rise of totalitarianism following World War II, it also appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding fears of technology and surveillance—see Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple Homepod—and even jumped into the #1 spot on Amazon following the tumultuous 2016 election. Likewise Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, based off the Phillip K. Dick novel of the same name, explores an entire alternate reality stemming from the Axis triumphing in World War II; it was adapted for Amazon during the divisive eighteen-month campaign for the 2016 presidential election that saw the rise of the “alt-right”—white supremacists whose views align with 1930s Germany. The Hulu adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale premiered in 2017, the year of the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement. Even Netflix’s Black Mirror adopts stories that consider where technology can take us, or has already taken us, which seem both futuristic and as close as today.

Dystopian fiction, in any of its storytelling forms, demonstrates increased connectivity to political turmoil and social unrest, and its rise in popularity over the past decade reflects our public concern and emphasis on troubled politics and the societal psyche. Sure, it’s scary to think about Big Brother or the Capitol, but when you read warnings from a voice that has experienced oppression, it means more and allows you to connect your fears to those portrayed in the work. Dystopian fiction remains in the spotlight not because it tells an otherworldly story but because the stories are grounded in reality: ours.

  • About the Author
    Alex Grana is a junior studying Professional Writing at Miami University. She is currently prepping for the LSATs and applying for law school in the fall. At Miami, she is a member of the feminist group F Word, College Democrats, and serves as the executive treasurer for the Miami Dance Corps.

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