When Dystopia Is Too Close For Comfort

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, book lovers have sought answers in dystopian and sci-fi narratives like never before.

When Dystopia Is Too Close For Comfort   Illustration by Leah Mandel

One of the most unforgettable and unforgivable moments of the year was determined when, in late January during an episode of Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway, who serves as a counselor to President Donald Trump, told host Chuck Todd that Trump and Sean Spicer had presented “alternative facts” about Trump’s inaugural crowds being larger than Barack Obama’s. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary — gave alternative facts,” Conway said. In the weeks since, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, about a totalitarian regime that keeps its citizens in check through thought control carried out by Big Brother, increased by nearly 10,000 percent.

In times of political and social upheaval, we often return to a familiar refrain — It could be worse — to help us manage our uncertainty. To offset the discomfort of our present reality, we compare it to something far worse. Historically, dystopian narratives have exaggerated our fears and assuaged them. Increasingly, though, we are turning to such novels not as objects of dark fantasy and relief, but for guidance and knowledge.

1984 isn’t the only dystopian novel experiencing a resurgence of popularity since Trump took office. Other books that have seen an increase in sales include Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, about what the world would look like if Hitler hadn’t been defeated, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, which follows an authoritarian leader named Buzz Windrip, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. A television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, about a violent theocratic regime, has also garnered more attention. In a recent essay for the New York Times, Atwood wrote that, even in the early ‘80s, the premise of her novel seemed outrageous. Now, she said, it reads “way too much like way too much history.”

Likewise, readers have drawn parallels between the dictator in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents and Trump. In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, the aviator Charles Lindbergh becomes America’s xenophobic fascist president. In real life, Lindbergh was a member of the America First Committee. Earlier this year, Trump drew a frighteningly eerie allusion to the Lindbergh of Roth’s imagination during his inaugural address. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” he said. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

“Dystopian and science fiction has always been a way for writers to play with reality, stretching some truths into extreme form —worldwide pandemics, space travel — while creating new ones — aliens — all the while highlighting basic truths about humans and society,” Anna deVries told me. deVries is the executive editor at the book imprint Picador, which recently published Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World (in its starred review, Publishers Weekly christened the book a “collection of digital-age sci-fi stories” that is at once “scary, recognizable, heartbreaking, witty, and absolutely human”).

When Dystopia Is Too Close For Comfort 1984 by George Orwell, originally published in 1949.  
When Dystopia Is Too Close For Comfort The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, originally published in 1985.  

“Ever since the election,” deVries continued, “we have gone down a rabbit hole, into a world where mothers are handcuffed and led away from their children by immigration officials protecting us against ‘illegals’; laws are proposed that would allow husbands to sue their wife’s doctor after an abortion; and a general atmosphere of hostility and fear has settled over the country. So when readers are buying 1984 and making it a bestseller again, it is clear they are not looking for escapist entertainment, but for information.”

Today, deVries believes, people are turning to Orwell and Atwood to show them what to do when reality has become so warped and terrifying that it is indistinguishable from science fiction. Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949, when, after the end of World War II, he had become preoccupied with the dangers of nationalist fervor. “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them,” he wrote in a 1945 essay on the subject. The book was a success in its time in part because readers recognized themselves in it — Time magazine gave it a glowing review the year it came out — but only insofar as the world it described represented a future in which the war had been lost and Europe had failed to appeal to its better angels. In truth, more and more people are realizing that these narratives are far more prescient than many want to believe.

“A true dystopian novel would have to take into account that maybe half the country thinks they are living in a utopia at the same time the other half are being crushed under the boots of a militarized state,” the novelist Victor LaValle told me. “Lots of ‘ordinary Americans’ are happy in a dystopia but I don’t see that kind of thing depicted with nuance. ‘We’re all in this together’ seems to be an underlying idea of many dystopian novels but that’s rarely the truth. I fear that whatever dystopian novels we see under Trump will gloss over this reality. A dystopian novel about one family split in two — some who do well under the regime and others who are destroyed. Would this be commercially viable?”

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On April 4, theaters across America will screen the film version of 1984 to commemorate the day when the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, begins keeping a journal, an act forbidden by the state. Organizers, United State of Cinema, say they hope the event will remind viewers of what is at stake. “The endeavor encourages theaters,” they write on their site, “to take a stand for our most basic values: freedom of speech, respect for our fellow human beings, and the simple truth that there are no such things as ‘alternative facts.’”

Have we reached the point when the content of science fiction and dystopian novels are simply too close for comfort? “I don’t know whether we will lose our taste for dystopian and sci-fi as America becomes even stranger than what a writer could possibly invent,” deVries added. “I do think there is going to be a more concerted effort to publish and promote and read the voices of those who are most often victimized — whether it’s through novels or nonfiction, memoir, essay, and histories. What is literature if not a way for readers to gain access to the lives and experiences of others?”

When Dystopia Is Too Close For Comfort