Feb 14th, 2017, 03:45 PM

Dystopian Fiction: The Future We've Been Warned About

By Asia Letlow
Image credit: @Booksmith on Twitter.
With George Orwell's 1984 back as a bestseller, the dystopian novel is the bible of our times.

The dystopian novels seems to be the bible of our times. Their pages tell stories of dim, dark futures and the rise of incompetent rulers.

These books — for example, George Orwell's 1984 — are often considered controversial. As invaluable parts of the Western literary canon, they are meant to inspire readers to think and critique the realities of this world. The surge in sales come in the wake of the political turbulence in America United on a variety of issues — for example, education, women's reproductive rights, and immigration. Who would have thought such plots would stir up the current political landscape of today?

I was first introduced to the wonders of the dystopian world and other canonical works when I was in the seventh grade. My English teacher assigned Lois Lowry's The Giver. In a class of eager preteens, I was immersed in Jonas' crumbling, dictated world. We laughed together at chapter five when she discussed his "stirrings" and thought nothing of a world where women were sent away with the sole task of being reduced to objects for procreation. In those days — Barack Obama had just moved into the Oval Office — I was only twelve years old, a long way from womanhood. I never had to think critically about the direction the country was headed in. However, novels such as Lowry's served as a good transition from my status as idle teenager to active citizen.

Orwell's 1984, originally published in 1949, has recently become Amazon's #1 best-seller. Often cited for its chilling line, "Big Brother is watching you", the novel predicted the fall of society in the mid-1980s and chronicled the domination of people's consciences. Its rise in popularity has led to the production of several reprints. Needless to say, to some it only took a few decades for its fictional account to echo reality. In San Francisco, an anonymous benefactor purchased fifty copies of Orwell's novel along with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale from the independent bookstore Booksmith in Haight-Asbury. The books were given away with the battle cry, "Read Up! Fight Back!" 


Atwood herself has responded to the rise in popularity of her 1985 novel, and has attributed it to Trump's tumultuous presidency. The issues she addressed in the novel about bodily autonomy and sexual repression from the perspective of her protagonist, Offred, are chilling and impactful in real life. Movements such as the Women’s March would not need to take place if this were not the case. In an interview with the Guardian, Atwood said: "We think as progress being a straight line forever upwards, but it never has been so." 

The movements these works of literature inspire are what literature is all about. It is a written reflection of society created to make people think, and be uncomfortable enough to incite change. However, while some novels serve as invaluable parts of the Western literary canon, others only serve as dim fables that convey ideas archaically (come on, Scarlet Letter, I see you). Works of literature we study need to be able to inspire change, but change can't take place if we only read about boring white dudes who come into power. They should make us think. As a black girl who came from a very white, suburban town, it was not often that I encountered classic novels with characters like me. Well-known authors of color were given a minute of thought in the shortest month of the year, and then it was back to Holden Caulfield's angsty, privileged narrative in The Catcher in the Rye. 

Diversity aside, all these novels have one thing in common: they have been banned or challenged to shield people from their raw interpretations of  a dysfunctional society. Censorship, while effective for small children, is dangerous. Novels such as Orwell's 1984 and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale play a crucial role in everyday life; without them, we are not able to question what we are told, and remain uninspired to make a difference.