Particularly in the last few years of political upheaval, financial turmoil, and a global pandemic, dystopian fiction has seen a bump. They’re at the forefront of bookstores, prominent on Bookstagram and BookTok, and regularly being adapted to film. But why? What is the appeal of dystopian fiction?
To understand the appeal of dystopian fiction, we first need to define it. The modern definition of dystopian fiction actually includes two literary sub-genres: dystopian and anti-utopian fiction. The two have many similarities. They both create worlds counter to the author’s ethos, including themes like poverty, loss of freedoms, and authoritarian governments. In a dystopia, the world is actually a utopia for many of the citizens. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for instance, most of the population is content in their ignorance. They think they live in a utopia, but they are wrong. Or in The Hunger Games trilogy, those living in the capitol live in a utopia while the rest of the districts pay the price.
An anti-utopia, on the other hand, is a world in which no one or very few would see the world as a utopia. In George Orwell’s 1984, everyone knows they live under a tyrannical thumb. Maybe those at the very top of the power pyramid are living in a utopia, but that utopia is out of the public eye. For more on the distinction, check out “Anti-Utopia and Dystopia: Rethinking the Generic Field” by Antonis Balasopoulos.
But again, in the modern definition, both of these have come under the umbrella of dystopian fiction. Language is a living thing, and I’m not going to be prescriptivist about it, but rather meeting the language where it lives.
Our Dystopian World
Now that we understand the accepted definition of dystopian fiction, what is the appeal? Given everything going wrong in the world today, it seems like we’re living in a dystopian hellscape already. That, in fact, is part of the appeal. When we read a book, we need to identify with the characters. Maybe it’s because they look and sound like us. Maybe it’s because we like the characters and want to hang out with them. Often, it’s because they’re going through a situation we can identify with, like navigating a dystopian world.
Katniss Everdeen watches her friends and family work too hard for too little while those in power feast and waste money on frivolous things. The media paints a picture that doesn’t align with reality. Yes, the world is Panem and there are districts instead of states, but it all sounds very familiar otherwise.
In Fahrenheit 451, books are being banned and burned, knowledge and truth suppressed. In Station Eleven, the remnants of society are struggling to survive and make art after a global pandemic. In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are second-class citizens, their rights perpetually stripped away in favor of a patriarchal theocracy. Again and again, these worlds and the characters that struggle through them are all too relatable.
As a side note, it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the most well-known dystopian novels are almost all by and about white people, when dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale pull from real, horrific acts of oppression of people of color? Who are these dystopias for? Who are they assuming the reader is?
Fight the Dystopian System
Spoilers for many dystopian books ahead.
Even more than mirroring our own world, the biggest appeal of dystopian fiction is the fight against those dystopian systems. Some books like 1984 and Brave New World don’t end well, with regimes staying unchanged in the face of an insignificant insurgence. Many dystopian novels, including Parable of the Talents, end on brighter, hopeful notes, particularly the recent dystopian novels of the young-adult variety.
Katniss eventually brings down President Snow and the system that keeps the districts oppressed. Tris and her friends tear down the feudal, caste-based structure forced on society in the Divergent series. The immune kids in the Maze Runner series start a new civilization after breaking down the tyrannical systems of control. Over and over, the young people leading these stories overcome incredible odds to topple authoritarian regimes.
And that’s the real appeal, isn’t it? Too often in real life, the systems seem unbreakable. Corrupt politicians spout outright lies, seemingly unchecked. Media companies calling themselves “news” work instead as spin doctors for political factions. Courts are undermining legislation. Gerrymandering and voter suppression make the mere act of casting a ballot feel daunting. But in many of these dystopian fiction stories, our heroes are fighting back. They face setbacks, but they keep coming. They gain small victories and take that momentum to the next fight.
In many of our favorite dystopian novels, the heroes are destroying the authoritarian systems that mirror those in the real world. That’s the appeal, the hope that dystopian fiction gives us: the hope for a brighter, more equitable future.
Want more examples of great dystopian fiction that might appeal to you? Check out these great lists: