Dystopian fiction has been with us for at least a century and a half — that is, for as long as the acceleration of modernity has made us simultaneously desire and fear for the future. We’ve tended to know dystopia when we’ve seen it: the inversion of utopia (the good place) into “a bad place,” as John Stuart Mill defined it in British Parliament in 1868. (Though Lewis Henry Younge coined it as an “unhappy country” 121 years earlier.) In the 20th century, this inverted utopia often took the from of large-scale mechanization run amok, as in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; or as social engineering taken too far, as in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange; or as the horrific collision of ideology and human nature, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
In this century, dystopian fiction is more popular than ever, with authors ranging from Haruki Murakami to Kazuo Ishiguro to Gary Shteyngart feeling the need to try it at least once. (Generally, they’re praised for it.) And yet, in the last couple of years, dystopian fiction has both exploded and fundamentally changed as a genre. Most of it — especially the large number of books written by women — doesn’t quite qualify for the label. Rather, today’s “dystopia” hews closer to reality than ever before. Novels like Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Ling Ma’s Severance, Christina Dalcher’s Vox, and the best of the bunch, Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure (out today from Doubleday), lead us to wonder at what point the so-called “dystopian novel” will become simply a reflection of the world in which we live.
Zumas acknowledged as much in an interview a year ago when she called her work “paratopian.” “Dystopia feels so solidly separate from us,” she said, whereas a paratopia “is actually happening, maybe next week.” And Mackintosh spoke of both its urgency and its ubiquity with the Guardianlast year: “There are so many things happening at the moment, such as #MeToo and the abortion referendum. It shows that women’s bodies are still very much up for debate. I read an article that said that dystopian feminism was ‘a big trend,’ and I thought, ‘It might be a trend, but it’s also our lives.’”
In the dawning days of 2019, this idea of dystopia as reality makes some sense. We live in a world of wildly shifting norms, proliferating dangers, unstable systems and leaders — a world, in other words, in which the future’s menace feels more or less imminent. The question these novels are posing is therefore not so much whether the world will end, but how, and how soon? The challenge of such fiction is to strike a balance between reality and fantasy, becoming neither too sociopolitically on the nose nor unmoored from urgent concerns. And whereas classic dystopian fiction trafficked in the faceless villainy of Big Brother, the best of its modern descendants are able to implicate us in the future so nearly at hand — humanizing antagonists as people making selfish choices in the face of dilemmas at one fantastical and painfully realistic.
In Ma’s Severance, for instance, there are infected zombie people and a standard, we-need-to-make-it-to-“the Facility” plot device, but the novel’s end-of-world scenario is the culmination of individual decisions. Labor exploitation at an Asian book-making factory leads to the spread of a disease called Shen Fever, and Candace, the protagonist, survives, bearing witness not just to evil corporations but also to the complicity of people like herself. (Her company’s Bibles are made in under-regulated sweatshops.) Candace, who lives in Brooklyn, is externally weary of her capitalist habits (“we indulge in Frappuccinos and overpriced packaged vegetables at Whole Foods”), while doing little to change her behavior.
The zombies seem at first to be a genre cliché, but morph into a metonymic symbol for capitalism: they adhere to menial, quotidian tasks, working, tidying, and shopping themselves to death. Likewise, Zumas’s Red Clocksfollows a standard dystopian plot, but its premise — political leaders outlaw abortion in the United States — is based on real people following through on real beliefs. “What you do every day matters,” Candace says. “If we don’t listen, we might just get what we deserve.”
This kind of individual-level agency has long been the most frightening aspect of dystopian fiction, but it has tended to slip under the radar in past iterations of the genre. Orwell’s 1984 is most disturbing not so much for the totalitarian government as for when Winston gives in to O’Brien and betrays Julia. The scariest thing about Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is not the horrifying ritual of human sacrifice but the community’s complete acceptance of it. This current style of dystopia rightly brings that human agency to the fore. In doing so, these novels more accurately portray individuals as controlling institutions rather than the other way around; they also show how individuals often use these institutions for ill: to exploit laborers, as in Severance, to enforce anti-abortion laws, as in Red Clocks, or to (more ridiculously) curtail speech to 100 words, as in Vox.
Vox, incidentally, is a sort of dystopian version of the current dystopia boom — a warning of the worst that can happen to the genre, given the tendency of publishers to drive successful trends into the ground. In the wake of Dalcher’s success, one can almost imagine publishers convening to wonder, what if there was a novel in which women only had 50 words, or 25? Perhaps worse (that, or it’s a genius comedic move), someone allowed the socialite sisters Kendall and Kylie Jenner to co-write (or have ghostwritten — Kylie couldn’t recall much of the plot during an interview) a novel called Rebels: City of Indra, the Story of Lex and Livia. People living in Indra, “a self-sustaining biosphere,” are only allowed to have one child. The characters have “ice-cold eyes” and “curling smile[s].” (You get the point.) And while Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps the Ur-female-dystopia novel, her decision to publish a sequel, The Testaments, later this year feels like an almost too-perfect capstone on the trend: the genre coming full-circle from vital originality to cynical recycling.
Perhaps The Testaments will be genius, and I will gladly eat my words; perhaps we owe Atwood the chance at a sequel given that she was one of the first to marry feminism to dystopia — a union built to last. Indeed, it’s in the realm of gender that the best of modern dystopian fiction does its hardest work — and, unlike in Vox, achieves a level of nuance that subverts black-and-white gender narratives.