What can we learn from dystopian fiction?

Cait Findlay 1 May 2017

The most popular adjective in recent book blurbs and review snippets must be ‘prescient’. Whether referring to dystopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or more contemporary fiction in the vein of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, there seems to exist a yearning for literary clairvoyance. We are often so intuitively drawn to these world-gone-wrong tales that it can be easy to forget to ask what – aside from gazing at the spectacle of imagined disaster – kindles our fascination with their seemingly measurable accuracy?

There undoubtedly lies a perverse pleasure in recognising our own reality in a writer’s invented future, as though we were allowed to stealthily observe fictionalised versions of ourselves. When this happens, it can act as a confirmation of political beliefs – a ‘told-you-so’ attitude. There are, after all, few things as convincing as well-written fiction that seems to speak to developments it never could have known.

It’s no coincidence that, after Donald Trump’s election win, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here saw a massive sales spike. For readers who found themselves somewhere between disbelief and a desire to explain the result, the quite unabashedly polemical book promised to offer a coherent, contained account of how ‘it happened here’ on that dreary night of November 2016. Both the Guardian and the New York Times published pieces that declared the novel had “predicted Trump”.

But there is also a danger in giving in to the temptation of placing real, contemporary figures such as politicians inside the parameters of fictional blueprints Lego-man style. Buzz Windrip, the anti-Semitic demagogue who, in Lewis’s book, defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 election, is not Donald Trump (though there certainly are troubling parallels). It would be all too neat and simple to say that we live in a dystopia written eight decades ago in which the United States is allied to Nazism.

Make no mistake, books that strike a chord with circumstances of their relative future do fulfil a function of the cautionary tale. Read critically, It Can’t Happen Here leads us to fruitfully question ideological and historical certainties – about both ‘then’ and ‘now’. If we realise that dystopian fiction is not the product of successful fortune-telling, but rather an exercise in thinking beyond empirical fact, we can gain valuable insights into human nature. Setting our own lives comparatively beside those confined to the page, then, becomes a matter not of par-for-par translation but indirect self-study. We are, to put it abstractly, made to see how we are wired.

More recently, for instance, Dave Eggers’s internet nightmare The Circle has managed to hold up a mirror before our generation’s smartphone-dazed eyes, reflecting back a likeness both urgent and pragmatic. The 2013 novel is named after a powerful California-based tech company – made-up but virtually screaming Google and Facebook – which is moving fast towards a dehumanising monopoly of user data. We might not be quite so far gone as Eggers’s characters, but whenever readers find versions of themselves in fiction, that literary mechanism has worked that continually drives us to consider, and recoil at, possibilities closer to home than is comfortable. Then again, Eggers might not be exaggerating.

Be that as it may, it is thoughts like this that imbue dystopic works with the potential to alter our discourse for the better. Fiction is fiction, but our imaginations hold a pervasive power over our actual future; such worrisome visions as those penned by Eggers, Lewis, or Orwell are first dreamed up and then, as time passes and readers in turn imagine, influence the ways in which we decide to shape our lives. As Huxley writes: “Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”