Literary Hub

Dystopia is Realism: The Future Is Here if You Look Closely


Ten years ago the Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to a post-apocalyptic cannibal novel.

This year’s breakout binge-watcher’s treat is the TV adaptation of a Reagan-era book about a near future in which the few remaining fertile women are enslaved to bear children for the ruling class of an evangelical Christian dictatorship that has taken over the USA.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are among the best examples of well-regarded literary novelists crossing over into the generic territory of science fiction writers to depict inverted worlds. Because of who they are, they get away without being shelved next to the space squids and dragon trainers. It’s not just because, as the SF writers know, dystopia sells. It’s also because readers know that, despite the speculative framing, these books are telling the truth.

Dystopia is realism, at least when it is done well. It depicts the world as it really is, through the refractive prism of extreme metaphor. It’s a realism that uses mirrors, sometimes fun-house mirrors. It’s where literary modernism and science fiction naturally converge when naturalism is married with the literature of ideas. The unremittingly bleak world of the The Road is an imaginative construction, but works as an honest depiction of dark human potential—and of what it sometimes feels like to be alive in our post-9/11 age of war, torture, extraction and alienation. The Handmaid’s Tale may not be the America we live in, but as Emily Temple argued here recently of the adaptation, it shows one of the Americas that wants to be.

Dystopian novels often purport to be—or are assumed to be—set in the future, to suspend disbelief in their fantastical elements. But the reason books like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale get called “prescient” is not because their authors were practicing predictive futurism, but because they reported accurately on the character of the contemporary world they saw. The same lens used to explore what happens to the dynamics of a family when something bad happens can widen its aperture to explore what happens when some fundamental aspect of the collective family of society is altered—a change in politics, environment, technology—or some latent tendency in our natures is allowed to express. All novels are set in alternate worlds, even if most writers only invent the people that inhabit them. Dystopia just expands the scale of the alteration.

In a world upended by network culture, where we each curate our own bespoke variations on consensus reality, and the inherited institutions of established order are falling like skyscrapers in a climate change disaster movie, the paradoxical project of speculative realism has an intuitive appeal—and its dystopian variant has an accelerating urgency. You may not agree with Fredric Jameson’s provocation that it takes the tools of science fiction to really write about the “allegedly real world,” but it’s clear that increasing numbers of writers across genres see the potential for mixing these toolkits.

J.G. Ballard saw it coming. His 1974 introduction to the French edition of Crash argued the inadequacy of the modern novel of the self to deal with a technologically mediated society “ruled by fictions of every kind.” You can see it in the trajectory of his work, as it moved from the cozy catastrophes of his early apocalyptic novels (like The Drowned World, watching London devolve into a prehistoric swamp from a suite at the Ritz) to dystopias that were more disturbing because they were more mundane and plausible—from Crash’s car wreck fetishists to the middle-class revolutionaries of Millennium People, the fascist consumers of Kingdom Come, and the gangs of executives leaving their corporate compound in Super-Cannes to hunt immigrants at night. Ballard’s novels did not depict the people around him so much as the people they were capable of being with a slight change in the social, political or technological framing—informed by the true dystopia of his childhood experience seeing how the privileged products of the late British Empire behaved in a Japanese internment camp.

The process of writing a literary dystopia helps you realize the extent to which you are already living in a real one. I read several American dystopias this past year after finishing my own, and their futures all read like immanent presents. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower starts in a Southern California neighborhood that feels like one we know, a gated community in a society whose entropic tendencies have accelerated, and grows its own future by making the characters step outside and see what’s really there. In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel weaves her story of a Shakespeare troupe traveling through a post-plague North America by using threads directly connected to the present, interleaving scenes of the world that came before the virus and showing how the acts of the characters in our now unexpectedly connect and contribute to the future present. Greg Hrbek’s Not on Fire, but Burning uses subtle alterations of suburban American reality to invert the war on terror and fathom deep truths about our nature.

Just as fortunetellers learn to see what’s coming from appraisals of who sits down before them, practitioners of literary dystopia tend to produce futures that have much longer shelf lives than other science fictions—because they are really just unfurlings of the present. Read in 2017, Jack Womack’s remarkable 1993 novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence feels astonishingly contemporary in its grimly plausible depiction of a United States degenerating into revolutionary unrest, as seen through the Anne Frank-like diary entries of a downwardly mobile teenage girl living in a plutocratic Manhattan whose streets we have all walked. By describing the changes in the world through the voice of one well-conceived and honestly written character, and relying on naturalism to describe the imagined world of the book, Womack achieves illuminating revelations about how the world we inhabit really works—and is always ready to explode. And from the vantage of our current predicament, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1984 debut The Wild Shore reads like prophecy—as with the early scene in which the men who rule the ruins of post-apocalyptic San Diego are ranting about the weak liberal president who lost the nuclear war and declaring their determination to “make America great again, to make it what it was before the war, the best nation on Earth.” Robinson is not Nostradamus—he just keenly reported on our persistent Strangelovian delusions of power and supremacy.

Paradoxically, our grimmest dystopias can also hold the path to more hopeful futures. Once we become invested in the characters trapped in the dark mirror, we, as both writers and readers, are tasked with the challenging project of finding the way out. The Hunger Games and other YA dystopias offer readers dreams of revolutionary resistance to the unjust adult world they find, albeit in political realms too removed from our own to be threatening. The more honest dystopias recognize that taking on entrenched architectures of power and greed involves sacrifice. It doesn’t have to be bleak—Cory Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway uses a dystopian starting point to let his characters fight for a thoughtfully constructed, optimistic future of more equally distributed abundance, wealth, and freedom. And even the most brutal non-redemptive dystopias—the ones that take our hopeful investment in some citizen’s courageous resistance and crush it with torture, brainwashing or death—still cause us to reflect on how we can make a more just reality.

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” That trenchant aphorism, variously attributed, embeds another truth—that we need to write our way through our own ruin to have any hope of finding what could be on the other side. The greatest potential of dystopian realism—a speculative fiction that reports ugly truths about the human society we live in—is to discover its real alternatives. The imagination of better tomorrows is a project our politics seems to have largely abandoned. Maybe rigorous literary examinations can discover other possibilities, through the safe laboratory of the novel. As Ballard cogently argued four decades ago: “The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.”


Christopher Brown‘s Tropic of Kansas, is now available from Harper Voyager.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

Altro da Literary Hub

Literary Hub8 min letti
How KISS Became a Rock & Roll Phenomenon
Beginning in August 1974, KISS recorded two albums in quick succession. Hotter Than Hell, made in L.A., where producers Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise had moved, was a difficult birth for a number of reasons. First, the band’s stockpile of songs had ru
Literary Hub6 min letti
The Bounce Song That Launched a Thousand Bounce Songs
The last semester of eighth grade, right before my thirteenth birthday, my life changed for two reasons. One, the first Bounce song came out. And two? Well, we’ll get to that. Dances were the only part of school I took any pleasure in. It was January
Literary Hub3 min lettiPolitical Ideologies
The Fight for Conservatism Today
The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the deeper economic, political, and technological consequenc