The Secret Hope of Dystopia

Reports from various news sources, including the Atlantic and the New York Times, have commented on the spike in sales of dystopian literature following the 2016 presidential election. This is a common trend in election years, no matter which political party is voted into office. Dystopia also flourishes right after major crises and government scandals.

Some of the most famous and bestselling dystopian novels include 1984, by George Orwell, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, and The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck. These books all see skyrocketing Google searches and a rise through the Amazon ranks during election years. Whichever party lost buys up all the dystopian books it can get its hands on in the weeks following the election.

What is dystopia? At its root, dystopia suggests that there is some fundamental problem in the world which will lead to serious consequences if not addressed. Typically, books in this genre depict a bleak future in which totalitarian governments have taken control and corrupted the basic ethics of society. In Brave New World, Huxley introduces us to a culture where excessive pleasure-seeking has caused its inhabitants to cease feeling strong emotions, either positive or negative. The theme of desensitization is prevalent in many other dystopian books as well.

Dystopian literature reached its peak in the 1950’s, when the threat of nuclear war and communism struck terror into the hearts of the Western world. Literature reflects the ideas, hopes, and fears, of its time, so it isn’t surprising that so many authors felt helpless and hopeless against the larger-than-life threat of the atomic bomb. More recently, dystopia has made a comeback, often as part of the young adult genre. Many popular YA franchises are set against a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, totalitarian society, such as The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and The Maze Runner.

The spike in dystopia geared towards youth is somewhat telling of this generation’s collective depression for the future. Most of today’s teenagers and young adults have grown up in the wake of the 2008-9 financial crisis that rocked America and much of Europe. They have grown up with little and are now highly skeptical of government interests and capitalism, and this skepticism and fear for the future is reflected in the types of stories that do so well among the younger demographic.

Dystopia may be depressing and bleak, but its presence as such a solid force in literature should be a cause for hope. The fact that authors are free to criticize their government and to warn of the perils of whatever belief system seems dangerous to them is a sign that such totalitarian rule has not arrived. Regardless of whether you are one of the people celebrating Donald Trump’s victory or buying up all the dystopian literature you can get your hands on, hopefully you can see the secret hope of dystopia and gain confidence for the future.

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