How Popular Dystopia Allows Us To Keep Real Horrors At Arm's Length

Dystopia isn't warning us about anything that isn't already happening. So why don't we take it seriously?
Mark Makela / Reuters

When I woke up last Wednesday and drifted, husk-like, into the office, the world felt warped.

The Brooklyn streets around me, which voted by roughly nine-to-one margins to elect Hillary Clinton, were emptier than usual. People I passed looked stricken, sick, puffy-eyed and mournful. At my desk, I told my editor, “It feels like we’re living in a dystopian novel. Actually, it specifically feels like we’re living in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.” (The book is an alternative history that imagines the unnerving potential fallout if Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh had run and defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.)

I thought of the flashback scene in Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction The Handmaid’s Tale when Offred, the heroine, first realizes that the rise of the Republic of Gilead will mean real, substantive changes to her life: Women are fired en masse from their jobs and their access to bank accounts frozen. One of Offred’s feminist buddies, Moira, is eerily jazzed about this, “as if this was what she’d been expecting for some time and now she’d been proven right.”

I kept thinking of dystopias I now inhabited, thanks to Trump’s election. But, of course, none of those dystopias were real. As outlets including Esquire and Slate have felt compelled to point out in the last week: Donald Trump is real. This is not a fantasy novel. Yet as an avid reader, a pop culture buff, and an advocate for the power of fiction, fantasy was the frame through which his candidacy made sense for me. As the reality should have been sinking in, instead I felt an unwilling suspension of disbelief. Having associated those twists of fate, those lurches toward state-institutionalized authoritarianism and bigotry, with fiction, I found it nearly impossible to associate them with our non-fictional reality.

In the run-up to the election, and to some degree in the days since, culture writers and authors have remarked on how neatly Trump’s candidacy and possible governance fit into dystopian paradigms. A Trump presidency would be like Westeros. Like The Plot Against America. Like The Man in the High Castle. Like Panem. Like “The Maddaddam” trilogy, or nearly any other Atwood dystopia. Like The Walking Dead” and other post-apocalyptic shows.

It felt shocking to many who wrote and read these dark speculative fictions that Americans could embrace a man whose approach to leadership seemed to embody the core traits of many dystopian antagonists. Sci-fi writer John Scalzi wrote in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 4, “Dystopias are fantastic in fiction. But do you really want to live in one?” He joked, “Jeez, haven’t any of [Trump’s] followers ever read a dystopian novel? Don’t they get what they’re signing up for?” On Election Day, The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert pointed out, “speculative fiction provides a framework for mapping out the future. And it resonates particularly in a moment when reality already seems to be pervaded with a sense of fear.” Fusion, BuzzFeed and the Boston Globe, Gilbert noted, had both turned to dystopian fictions ― a diary and short story of Trump’s imagined presidency and a fake front page, respectively ― to paint how grim America’s future could look.

The horrified urge to point out how Trump might lead us to a real version of the Hunger Games arises from a firm belief in the truth-telling power of science fiction, and a not-unjustified expectation that most people will pay more attention to “Trump = Voldemort” than to sober political analyses. But in the grim aftermath of the election, as I struggled to grasp that The Man in the High Castle could be happening in my lifetime, I began to doubt my own faith in dystopia ― a genre that both warned me of a terrifying future and often allowed me to rest in comfortable ignorance of a terrifying present.

This isn’t a finger-pointing. Dystopian fiction isn’t a monolith, nor is it why Trump got elected. Plenty of voters were galvanized by the fantastical nightmares they saw in speculative fiction and worried they might see in the real world as well. I still believe that literary thought experiments can help us all steer toward the realities we want ― as Scalzi suggested, Ayn Rand’s inverted dystopias have certainly provided inspiration to the libertarian right. What’s more, as some ― like feminist writer Laurie Penny ― have argued, speculative and fantasy fiction can offer necessary solace and inspiration in the face of a harsh reality.

Yet I see the disbelief and the morbidly humorous references to dystopian fiction becoming reality, and I wonder whether the mass popularity of such tales ― from The Hunger Games to Divergent, from Philip K. Dick to Margaret Atwood ― has blunted their sharp, frightening edges. We see elements of dystopia even in more standard fantasy and sci-fi, but this mixture only dulls the impact.

In Harry Potter, evidence suggests, children learn to practice empathy for those unlike themselves. But it’s also, ultimately, a comforting children’s saga. In the series, there’s a clear villain, Voldemort, and a small clutch of heroic figures battling against him. Voldemort doesn’t win in the end. If Trump, as some have rather glibly put it, is Voldemort, then it’s hard to imagine Trump winning in the end either.

Nor do we have to worry much about our part in preventing it, if we can instead deify all-too-human leaders like Hillary Clinton as real-world analogues to Hermione Granger. After all, she’s got this. Katniss Everdeen can explode the crushing inevitability of the Hunger Games and lead the underdogs of Panem to victory. Tris Prior, marked out from her fellow residents of a post-apocalyptic ruin by her “Divergent” status, can use her unique gifts to lead a revolt and puncture the government’s false narratives. Even alternative histories ring hollow when we know that FDR continued to shepherd our country through World War II; everything turned out OK.

These narratives dramatize the consequences of our actions in order to make clear that the road down which we’re slip-sliding is a muddy path to hell. But, ironically, this added drama can make the dangers we face seem cartoonish, impossible, and, at the very least, simplistic: Good versus evil; the chosen heroes versus the villainous regime; inevitable victory versus corrupt collapse.

In the real world, the road to dystopia is paved with equivocation, denial, unacknowledged bigotry and defensiveness. In the most popular dystopian-tinged fantasy works today, villains are often comfortable in their villainy. The Panem leaders, snug in the Capitol, have little occasion to worry about the perception of their regime. Death Eaters embrace their bigotry with the relish of the Ku Klux Klan. In Divergent, supporters of the status quo are either kept in ignorance or self-righteously assured of their reasons for playing with the lives of citizens. When instead we see real, white working-class people pleading their own senses of exclusion and loss, it seems to have no place in the clear-cut morality plays we read about. These aren’t Death Eaters or American Nazis or theocratic Gileadans. They’re good, well-meaning people who bridle at the implication that they might be holding fast to their own hegemonic privilege.

Meanwhile, horrible things are, in fact, happening around the country, travesties that also often appear in dystopian fiction. Some black writers have taken issue with the fantastical terms in which authoritarianism, police brutality, dehumanization and deprivation have been framed in the genre. Casting these realities as props in a world meant to warn us of the future can, intentionally or not, suggest that they don’t exist in the present. In a blog post, Hugo Award-winning sci-fi author N.K. Jemisin called attention to an apparent trend in dystopian sci-fi ― an apocalyptic, often off-screen race war. “In these post-Charleston days, it’s become clear that plenty of people out there really do want a race war to happen,” she argued, adding that, as a result, fictional depictions of race wars “become hard to wave off as simple carelessness.”⁠⁠⁠

Early last year, Jenika McCrayer wrote of her unease with the Hunger Games film “Mockingjay - Part 1”: “With dystopian movies, we can watch at a safe distance and sigh with relief at the end knowing that we do not live in such a society.” But many readers from marginalized groups will recognize those horrors as part of their current reality ― even pre-Trump. As sci-fi writer Madeline Ashby told The Huffington Post, “Dystopia is [...] a really stylized, formalized way of talking about things that are already happening in practice.”

In the same interview, Ashby pointed to how many in the sci-fi community reject social responsibility, asking “Why do we have to think about social issues in our science fiction? Why do we have to think about other genders, or sexualities, or economic circumstances? Why can’t it just be fun like it used to be? Well, yeah,” she commented, “I’m sure it was really fun when you weren’t thinking about it.”

Dystopian tales have become one of our favorite cultural forms of escapist entertainment ― of seeing a world worse than our own, a world we can still avoid, a world where a single heroic figure has to navigate a series of thrilling obstacles to restore justice. On Monday, Jacob Silverman argued compellingly in The Baffler that “corporate-branded fantasy entertainment” franchises shouldn’t be considered “models for political thinking, nor are they any kind of map for the present crisis. By their very design,” he pointed out, “blockbuster fictions excite cultural anxieties only to soothe them, leaving consumers spent and satisfied.” This election should serve as a reminder that using dystopia purely as escapism or entertainment can mean living in denial.

Even literary dystopia, though subject to less pressure to offer neat conclusions to a good vs. evil battle, can enable us to compartmentalize our anxieties about oppression and violence into a neat fictional package. All the Handmaid’s Tale and Hunger Games in the world will only nudge us further into complacency if we stop there, failing to educate ourselves on the current and near-future realities they capture ― the police brutality and systematic disenfranchisement faced by black Americans, the sexual and reproductive violence imposed on women (especially women of color), the blowing past of the global warming tipping point. Atwood has discussed how deeply her speculative works, including The Handmaid’s Tale, are rooted in real systems of oppression ― past, present, or possible; as readers, we should care to know as much about those real human rights violations as we do about the stylized fantasy versions in our favorite books.

Non-fiction is necessary. Fact is necessary. Even realist fiction, often dismissed by genre buffs as insufficient to grappling with the worst capabilities of humanity, is necessary. In an LA Review of Books interview published after his realist novel Dissident Gardens, literary fantasist Jonathan Lethem probed at the weaknesses of both forms of fiction: “Realism enforces a normative sense of what constitutes reality,” he told LARB’s Brian Gresko. “In the context of that argument, realism [...] fails to interrogate things that various un-realisms might have a better chance of interrogating.” (Atwood and Ursula K. LeGuin both recently and famously made similar arguments for the modern need for speculative fiction.) On the other hand, Lethem adds: “Not that un-realisms are guaranteed to accomplish it either!”

While realism posits and reifies a norm, speculative fiction has the freedom to abandon the presumptive norm, to imagine what else might be possible. But there are cracks in both that allow us to elide aspects of what constitutes “normal” or even “reality” ― realism by enforcing a norm that ignores threatening possibilities, un-realism by casting actual aspects of modern reality as elements of a fantasy world. Dystopian fiction matters, but so too does realist fiction that works to honestly relay the experiences of a wide array of people, to make readers more aware of what the “real world” includes.

Dystopia can also, as McCrayer pointed out, convey a white-washed, distanced, and fantastical version of oppressions that have been experienced viscerally, in enormous numbers, by black people and other people of color. For black sci-fi and fantasy writers, fictionalization is hardly necessary to conjure a dystopian experience ― which can lead to the most powerful, haunting dystopian narratives.

Afrofuturism, an aesthetic movement that centers black history and experience in sci-fi, fantasy, and alternative history or historical fiction, has produced powerful stories that critique black oppression using the tools of dystopian fiction. Take Octavia Butler’s Kindred, a time-travel tale the horrors of which arise not from an imagined worst-case scenario but from the real suffering of the protagonist’s enslaved ancestor and from the portrayal of how the legacy of slavery has echoed through the lives of black Americans.

Jemisin told The Atlantic in September that Butler was “the first and foremost who came in and looked at the alien colonization story and said, ‘Oh, hey, it’s a lot like what happened to [black people]! Why don’t we just make all that stuff explicit?’” She also noted that her sci-fi work is rooted deeply in her own experience as an African-American woman, but also in global history: “As I read about the different sets of people who have been oppressed and the different systemic oppressions that have existed throughout history, you start to see the patterns in them,” she said, citing the Holocaust and atrocities of the Khmer Rouge as among her referents.

Or take Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award–shortlisted The Underground Railroad, which transforms the history of black enslavement and state-sponsored violence into a wildly stylized fantasy world, featuring an actual, physical Underground Railroad, without flinching away from the well-documented atrocities of that history. While The Underground Railroad may be a sort of steampunk alternative history, it doesn’t invite us to view its subject at a comfortable remove. It’s the historically accurate horrors depicted by the novel that strike home and linger.

Reading and writing fantasy and dystopia isn’t sufficient to address the darkest possibilities of human nature. Audiences need to demand more from themselves than comfortable consumption of ominous un-reality in the face of real-world threats. But as Butler and Whitehead demonstrate, layering fictional doom with historically undeniable doom can make it more difficult for audiences to use worst-case scenario fiction as pure entertainment.

Penny, a thoughtful critic of fantasy fiction herself, champions escapist stories as more necessary than ever in dark times, but of course entertainment and inspiration aren’t enough, either. Writers need to continue to not only comfort us, but discomfort us, and for our part, readers need to take on the responsibility of looking squarely at the darkness of the world and working to deal with it as it really exists. Dystopian fiction can offer genuine insight and necessary solace, but we should take care not to fall back on it as a substitute for engagement with real-world threats or to disappear into soothing fictions when work needs to be done.

A couple years ago, I read a hefty genre-bender by David Mitchell, a literary sci-fi author I love. The book, The Bone Clocks, is largely fanciful, a tale of a secret cabal of men and women who destroy others’ souls in order to attain immortality. It’s a thrill-ride, delicious escapism rooted in visceral depictions of the present and recent past. The end, however, haunted me for weeks. Set just a couple decades in the future, it shows a character we’ve watched since her young adulthood in the 20th century growing old in a world ravaged by climate change. At the mercy of pillagers, reduced to eking out a subsistence living in a small Irish town, the character lives in a hell of scarce resources, little communication, less travel, and haunting hopelessness.

It’s not difficult at all to imagine this dystopia becoming a reality. It’s harder to imagine that we might somehow avoid it. It’s a near-future horror that could arise slowly and naturally from our collective lack of will to action. I didn’t put the book down feeling reassured that this vision was unlikely, unrealistic, or easily stopped by a heroic figure. Nor should I have. That hero isn’t coming. It’ll have to be all of us.

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