Art-pocalypse: On dystopian fiction's endless popularity

There is no shortage of dystopian fiction in the modern day world. Every bookstore, every library and every nightstand is host to some sort of desolate, oppressive world made of ink. The stories are as diverse as they are plentiful, with new, convoluted societies in every one. In fact, the market for such novels has become so oversaturated that people have even begun to scorn the genre as “basic” and “mundane.” And yet, year after year, it maintains its popularity. Sure, it comes in waves, but nevertheless, dystopian fiction has never and probably will never go completely out of style. 

If it seems that the popularity of this genre rises in politically wrought times, that’s because it does. The sales of classic dystopian novels such as “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” skyrocketed in 2016 – when President Donald J. Trump was elected to office. This isn’t surprising in the least, since many dystopian novels explore how corrupt and oppressive governments control society and the disastrous effects of certain political ideologies. They are meant to be commentaries on society, and the path it’s heading toward. Those who share the sentiments of the author are drawn to such cautionary tales, and use them to try and convince others of the superiority of their political ideologies. 

What were George Orwell’s “1984” and Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” if not weapons against the spread of communism? What was Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” if not a warning about authoritarianism? Dystopian novels are tools, tools carefully deployed by their authors to try and sway public opinion. 

Why dystopias? Why do authors choose to disparage other political structures instead of presenting an idealized version of their own? Well, first of all, it’s much simpler. Coming up with ideas as to why someone else’s system won’t work is much easier than actually creating a perfect society which appeals to every single reader. Furthermore, nobody would want to read about a utopia. It makes for a story that is boring, hollow and terrifying in a way that isn’t thrilling.

Utopias are far more disturbing than dystopias will ever be. If humanity is truly defined by overcoming obstacles, if people are actually forged in the fires of adversity, who then, can live in a perfect world? Who would we become without fighting for survival, for success? 

That sort of emptiness, that aimless existence, is, simply put, pathetic and boring. A life without purpose can barely be considered a life. Dystopias, for all the horror and pessimism they portray, provide both their characters and readers with a purpose — a reason to live and be human. People want their lives to matter, they want challenges to overcome, they want to fight for something greater than themselves, even if they ultimately fail. 

That sort of devotion and perseverance is a core aspect of humanity, and there is no better place to explore humanity than in a dystopia. People are defined by how they exist in precarious conditions, by what choices they make and what values they deem important enough to hold on to. It’s difficult to determine just how important ideals like freedom and equality are to people until they are placed in a society where those no longer exist. Then it becomes a question of how fervently the hero fights for that ideal, or if they fight for it at all. 

Be it a young adult novel where the protagonists fight for some cheesy version of love, or a pessimistic political text shaming one form of government or another, a dystopian setting allows characters to fight for an aspect of their humanity — to risk everything for what we, as readers, take for granted. 

It’s addictive, this lust for life. Stories of rebellion stir something deep inside of us, a fiery passion that is incredibly difficult to let go. We want to believe that we, too, are like those heroes, holding onto our morals even as the world tries to strip them away, prevailing in the face of a world that seems to hate us. That's why we keep coming back. That’s why this genre will never die. 

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