Why dystopian fiction is just history repeating itself
As demand grows for dystopian fiction, from 1984 to The Handmaid’s Tale, more writers are predicting a dark future by mining the past. Cli-fi novel, too, both dystopian and utopian and even ustopian.
Ryan Porter opines in the Toronto Star:
In the summer of 2015, Omar El Akkad finished writing his debut novel American War, about a second American Civil War between the Reds and the Blues. Shortly thereafter, Donald Trump announced he was running for president.
Though set in the late 21st century, the novel about how scrappy Southerner Saraht Chestnut becomes a radicalized participant in the war has been hailed for its timely theme of an America crippled by political division. But no one is as surprised as El Akkad by how eerily the book is mirroring daily trending topics.
“There is a terrorist recruiter in the novel who talks about essentially inventing fake massacres,” he says. “A few weeks ago I saw that whole ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ non-event show up and I was reminded of that. I have had moments like that off and on for months now and it’s always a strange experience.”
The irony is that El Akkad’s inspiration for American War wasn’t the future or even the present. It was the past, including wars he covered as a reporter for the Globe and Mail and those he learned about as a young boy growing up in Cairo and Doha.
His experience echoes what Margaret Atwood recently said about The Handmaid’s Tale. “It wasn’t my deep, dark, twisted imagination,” she said at Havana’s International Book Fair in February. “It was history.”
Today, history is repeating, not just in the political arena, but on the bestseller charts, where dystopian classics have experienced a resurgence. The week after Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway coined the doublespeak phrase “alternative facts,” sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four spiked internationally, including in Canada, where the Penguin paperback edition surged an on-the-nose 666 per cent, according to BookNet.
The Handmaid’s Tale has been a consistent presence in Amazon’s Top 20 bestsellers chart in Canada as the 1985 classic has enjoyed renewed cultural relevance. A group of women silently protested the Texas legislature’s hearing on banning second-trimester abortions by dressing in the handmaids’
hooded gowns, and a March 23 trailer for the 10-part miniseries adaptation, premiering on Bravo on April 30, has been viewed six million times. Meanwhile, totalitarian-tinged titles such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince are once again bestsellers on Amazon.ca.
Before the resurgence of these classic titles, literary agent Rachel Letofsky says the publishing industry was experiencing some dystopian fatigue in the wake of a golden era for the genre in the young adult sphere, led by The Hunger Games. Now, Letofsky’s seeing writers champion the genre again in the unsolicited manuscripts she receives in her role at The Cooke Agency.
“You will see people stating in their query letters, ‘I think the time is right for my book because of the current political climate,’” she says. “There has been a swelling of people who are using fiction to analyze current world events.”
Letofsky often cautions authors against this type of reactive writing — by the time the title is released two years later, the subject is often less than timely. But Douglas Richmond, an editor at House of Anansi, finds authors often pull inspiration from current events regardless. “Writers are very in tune with what is going on around them and there is a desire to reflect that in their work,” he says.
He has also found more writers submitting work with postapocalyptic settings. “It is definitely something that we’ve seen a lot in the last couple of months,” he says. “It is a way for writers to critique what is happening in the world and reimagining what things could be like if we could start over.”
This September, Anansi is publishing South African crime writer Deon Meyer’s Fever, about the rebuilding of society in postapocalyptic South Africa. The novel grapples with the country’s own complicated racial politics.
“Dystopian and postapocalyptic stories allow the author to explore the issues that are going on in their own time but play them out on a very different scale,” Richmond says, citing contemporary examples such as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as new additions to the canon. “I would love to think that (readers) want to read new stuff as well because we are certainly seeing a lot of it and I’d like to publish it.”
That appetite will be tested when American War is released on Tuesday. Despite the novel’s political resonance, El Akkad himself doesn’t believe his novel is cresting atop a new dystopian wave. For him, American War is real life.
“I never set out to write a book about the future,” he says. “Part of the resurgence of the so-called dystopian novel has less to do with these books becoming any more prescient and more to do with reality becoming so absurd as to start to infringe on the realm of the fictional.”
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