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How does dystopian fiction relate to real-life events?

Much like true crime, dystopian fiction is a genre with a loyal and enthusiastic fan base. The early oughts and 2010s saw a dystopian fiction boom, with titles like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner dominating pop culture.

So, what is it about these books (and their big screen adaptations) that keep us hooked? Do we read and watch them as a form of escapist entertainment? Or do we feel that they tell us something about the world we live in?

Geoff Boucher, Associate Professor of Writing and Literature at Deakin University, says dystopian fiction often reflects our own realities back at us — and this is what keeps us reading and watching.

Dystopian fiction matches a mood of alienation

Boucher notes that the rise of dystopian fiction has come at a time of growing alienation and disagreement. It is a highly political kind of literature that is strongly polarised to the Left and Right. Three trends stand out:

  1. Distrust in the government.
  2. Uncertainty about people’s basic trustworthiness. 
  3. Anxiety about oligarchies using technology to control society.  

Boucher believes that real world issues to do with economic precariousness, cultural change and the loss of legitimacy of governments stand behind these trends.

Dystopian fictions can dramatize all of these things in a way that satisfies readers’ hopes for a solution of such problems. That can roll towards emancipation or repression, depending on whether the resolution is democratic or authoritarian.

Suzanne Collins does the democratic side of things well, Assoc. Prof. Boucher notes.

‘Think about The Hunger Games, where a working class revolts against an unjust system that is kept in place by violence and tribalism,’ he says. ‘While the characters rebel against a repressive government, they have to work out how to organise their resistance in ways that do not just repeat the authoritarianism that that have suffered from.’

When society is not worth saving…

According to Boucher, the shift to dystopian scenarios is not the only change in mood that has happened in speculative fiction. Once, the heroine would defeat the sinister government or expose the secretive group who had taken control. By bringing the wrongdoers to justice the society would be saved from the corrupting influence of powerful individuals.

But in current iterations of these genres, the heroine asks herself a different question: should she save society, or is society no longer worth saving?

Collins is a good example of this, too. Her fiction is revolutionary and not just rebellious, because there is nothing that can be kept in the corrupt order that her characters confront.

That deeply alienated feeling and its pessimism about society drives a dystopian literature that is very radical. But some kinds of radicalism are not about social justice. They are about demonising immigrants, or striking out against minority groups.

Imagination combined with prediction can be a dangerous thing

Suzanne Collins presents her dystopian fiction as something entirely imaginative. But rightwing dystopian fictions often adopt the opposite approach. It is not about imaginative play—it’s about active preparations.

When dystopian fictions to claim to predict reality, readers sit up and pay attention. People are more likely to act on imaginative scenarios that they have read when they think that these help them to prepare for real events that are coming soon. If that is combined with resentment of minorities and grievances about lost privilege, that can be an explosive mix.

The 2021 Capital Building riots were a prime example of this phenomenon, Assoc. Prof. Boucher says.

‘When the Proud Boys were storming the capital building on the 6th of January 2021, reporters asked them “what do you think you’re doing?”. The Proud Boys answered, “read The Turner Diaries, and you will find out.’

Assoc. Prof. Boucher says it is important to take any reference to The Turner Diaries seriously.

This is the same book that inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. That terrorist act killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured 680 more.

The reason that the book inspired terrorism is that it presents a dystopian scenario that it claims is going to become reality tomorrow. And it advocates terrorism as the way that racists can advance their white supremacist agenda.

‘When somebody says, “read The Turner Diaries and you will find out,” this is not a throw away comment. This is not something to be taken lightly. The connection to violence is probably the big thing we’re seeing emerging in dystopian literature on the Far Right.’

‘A lot of rightwing extremists have gone from the bomb to the book recently,’ Boucher says, ‘because the book lets them script terrorism from the safe distance of the pretence that this is just fiction. But when dystopian fictions claim to predict reality, you can go back from the book to the bomb without a whole lot of warning.’

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Geoff Boucher
Geoff Boucher

Associate Professor of Writing and Literature,

Faculty of Arts and Education,

Deakin University

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