Arts Muse

A Cautionary Tale: Dystopia and the Modern World

Izzy Shaw wonders what the reason is for dystopian fiction’s continued popularity in the twenty first century

Although dystopian fiction undoubtedly enjoyed its glorious moments in the sun some years ago, the genre is far from outdated. Book trends come and go, but dystopian fiction has continued to captivate readers through its clever exploration of topi-cal issues in our modern society, rendering this style of storytelling timeless. While some tales may seem more extreme and fictitious than others, authors are increasingly incorporating topical themes into their work, giving their seemingly fanciful stories a dose of real-ism that tends to hit close to home for readers. 

Many people immediately think of Orwell as an exemplar of this style of speculative fiction. Certainly, Nineteen Eighty-Four offers a fantastic example of how an omnipresent government can result in oppression, indoctrination and an absence of free thought. A social warning, Nineteen Eighty-Four envisions a dystopian Britain where people are slaves to government surveillance, history is rewritten to conform to a state-constructed narrative, and people “mysteriously” disappear after uttering revolutionary language. Whether it be the enhanced level of government surveil-lance, the internet tracking our every move, or the unfortunate fact that many people are fed and believe lies told by political leaders, the advances in technology and the recent increase in patriotism within the country are all telling of Orwell’s eerie vision of our future world.

More recently, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games emerged as a popular and compelling trilogy, casting light on some rather heavy topics while single-handedly introducing the dystopian craze to a new generation of readers. Collins’ take on dystopia is more speculative and imagined than Orwell’s, crafting an entirely new world following the global downfall of society in the distant future. This young adult trilogy does not fail in providing an insightful commentary on the socio-political issues we face today though. The annual public lottery where teenagers are chosen to fight to the death seems unthinkable to many readers at first, but similar concepts are not entirely unheard of within our modern world. Several countries still have a military draft system, and Thailand even has a ‘conscription lottery’, which involves potential recruits drawing either a black or a red card, with the for-mer promising military exemption and the latter meaning up to two years of service.

Modern dystopia also tends to explore more generational themes, providing a subtle critique on our  fixation with reality television, social media and stardom. Like so many of our current reality TV shows, The Hunger Games is broadcast nationwide each year and involves an element of audience participation. Just as we so often vote to save our favourite stars from elimination each night, citizens in Panem (the post-apocalyptic United States in Collins’ world) root for their favourite tributes in the Games, bet on potential winners, and can even sponsor them to aid their survival. By merging the themes of political oppression and entertainment as a means of keep-ing society in check, Collins warns that the future of reality television could spiral into something much more sinister than Love Island.

Similarly, the 2013 dystopian novel, The Circle, further delves into a digital dystopia, crafting a world which involves total online transparency and a sacrificing of all aspects of your private life in exchange for technological advancement and a greater online presence. The Circle comments on the submission of individuals to technology and the growing power of the internet in our modern world, further driving the ever-popular dystopian narrative surrounding the perils of our social media obsession: the line between the online world and the real world is becoming blurrier by the day.

Dystopian fiction can also act as a political outlet for authors, allowing them to express their personal views and envisage the potentially bleak future of civilisation if politics and society become too indistinguishable from one another. An interesting take on modern social debates escalating into extreme forms of dystopian realities is provided by Neal Shusterman, who delves into the controversial topic of abortion in his 2007 novel, Unwind. He envisions a world where legal abortion has been banned and, as its replacement, a system of organ donation has been implemented where parents can sign up their children to have their organs harvested to save future lives. Shusterman’s dystopian world is driven by prominent modern social debates, and depicts a society where freedom is lacking, injustices are prevalent, and the law is unforgiving.

What is clearly compelling about dystopian literature is that it continues to explore entirely plausible ideas. How many times have you read a dystopian book and thought that the themes explored weren’t actually that far from real life? Dystopian fiction pushes the boundaries while appealing to what we know, distorts our society into a more detached yet eerily familiar narrative, and leaves us questioning everything we thought we knew about society and the future.

Photo Credit: Lionsgate

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