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The Dystopian Novel: A Surprising Source of Hope

By

Chris Clancy

Decades after their publication, some of our most popular dystopian novels still feel eerily prescient. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, for instance, with its explorations of perpetual war and mass surveillance, has enjoyed continual shoutouts by newspaper columnists since at least the passage of the PATRIOT Act in 2001. Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has given voice and focus to the waves of protests following last year’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. It’s as if they saw what was coming and tried to warn us. 

A number of high-profile books have joined the dystopian ranks in recent years: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, Submission by Michel Houellebecq, The Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin. And let’s not forget Suzanne Collins’ blockbuster The Hunger Games trilogy, which essentially reinvented dystopian literature for young adults.

Joining these notables most recently is Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, published this past May. It tells the story of Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE), a pay-per-view program run by the private prison industry that pits prisoners, known as Links, against each other in gladiator-cum-WWE-style combat. The winner gets their freedom, the loser gets killed. 

A glowing review in the New York Times sums up the perverse pleasure of such a story by warning, “Even readers who acknowledge the brazen evil of the dystopian premise—these televised duels offer prisoners a path to freedom—might find themselves titillated by its depiction, which functions as both satire and straight-up sportswriting.”

But as trenchant and titillating as novels like Chain Gang All-Stars may be, one might wonder whether a backlash against dystopian literature could be on the horizon. After all, could these stories feel a little redundant in the very dystopian-sounding year of 2023? Given climate change, the dawn of Artificial Intelligence, the creep of “strong man” fascism in formerly democratic states, et cetera, what possible pleasure, perverse or otherwise, can be had in reading about worlds even worse off than this one? Just what are we doing, here?

British author and environmentalist Olivia Laing reflected along these lines in a September 2022 column for the Sydney Morning Herald, “Enough with Dystopian Stories. We Need More Hope and Less Gloom.” In it, she reports feeling “increasingly skeptical about dystopias as a tool for political change,” and observes that “sounding a warning does not necessarily change behavior.”

Fair point. Sounding a warning does not necessarily change behavior, or else terms like Orwellian would have long ago died out from lack of use. But I would argue that Laing might be mistaking the worlds that exist in dystopian stories for the stories themselves.

Yes, most dystopian stories take place in worlds that feel hopeless, where those wielding power have either convinced or forced the general population to turn off some key aspect of their humanity: individuality, empathy, memory, imagination. But no dystopian story gets going until someone wonders whether things could stand to be a little less savage and miserable. This wondering, better known as hope, is the catalyst for all dystopian stories. Without hope there is no consequential action, and without consequential action there is no story.

No dystopian story gets going until someone wonders whether things could stand to be a little less savage and miserable. This wondering, better known as hope, is the catalyst for all dystopian stories.

Hope can take many forms in dystopian literature. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, hope takes the form of a love note passed to Winston Smith from his colleague, Julia. In The Handmaid’s Tale, it takes the form of graffiti found carved into the baseboard of Offred’s bedroom (Nolite te bastardes carborundorum). In The Hunger Games, hope takes the form of Katniss placing wildflowers around Rue’s body in defiance of the Capitol.

Just as it does in real life, hope in the dystopian novel threatens to upset the status quo. And because the status quo in dystopian literature depends on hopelessness, the mere presence of hope sparks conflict. How that conflict plays out is the story. Sometimes hope wins out (The Hunger Games), sometimes it gets its ass kicked (Nineteen Eighty-Four).

Seen in this light, the best dystopian stories are as much about hope and the perseverance of the human spirit as they are about how horrible things might become. Whether this makes dystopian literature an effective tool for political change is subject to debate. But it certainly makes for a good story.

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