How Dystopian Fiction Became The Go-To Genre Of Our Times
From 'Blade Runner' To 'The Handmaid's Tale': are gloomy predictions of the future becoming our present?
BY Olivia Ovenden | Oct 5, 2017 | Culture
If the success of The Handmaid's Tale at the Emmy's and the ecstatic reviews for this week's big cinema release Blade Runner 2049 are anything to go by, we are in the midst of a rich period for dystopian dramas. The former struck gold last month winning five of the 13 Emmy Awards it was nominated for.
As any A-level English Literature student will tell you, the series is based on Margaret Atwood's novel of the same name in which America is in the grips of a totalitarian theocracy. In the Republic of Gilead, women are turned into breeding machines through institutionalised rape by the male leaders of a brutal, systemic patriarchy.
Its success has been embraced as a commentary on the ongoing threat to reproductive rights in America where President Trump has repeatedly made moves to defund the abortion service Planned Parenthood. Just this week a Republican bill banning abortion after 20 weeks, the latest in a line of regressive right-wing policy attempts, was passed by the House of Representatives.
The eerie prescience of the novel - it was first published in 1985, while the Hulu TV adaptation was announced in April 2016 - has been much remarked on. As Mark Harris wrote of Atwood in a Vulture article on Trump-era pop culture: "It feels more irresistible to venerate her for seeing around a corner than for looking through a window."
There has also been marked rise in interest in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, nearly 70 years since publication - after all, the hallmarks of the totalitarian state of Oceania don't feel too far-fetched now either, whether it is the super-surveillance we experience through big data companies like Google and Facebook, the rising tide of propaganda through fake news and repeated attempts to stifle the free press. After White House aide Kellyanne Conway refuted the crowd size at Trump's inauguration speech and claimed they were providing "alternative facts", Orwell's novel became a bestseller again with a 9,500 percent increase in sales.
The 1956 version of '1984'
All of which begs the question: are we marvelling at fictionalised depictions of bleak, far-off futures because it's easier than admitting they're already here?
Yale English professor Joe Cleary believes we find these narratives increasingly relevant because "nuclear conflict, global warming, and environmental destruction have lent additional impetus to the dystopian imagination in our times."
He added: "This has served to eclipse the Utopian imagination in the late 20th and early 21 centuries and exponentially to increase the popular grip of the Dystopian genre."
In other words, rather than marvelling morbidly at these stories - as we would, say, something in the horror genre - we are now finding we can be related to them.
The importance of how we interact with these fictional portrayals shouldn't be undermined, says Chris Robichaud, a Harvard professor who teaches a course on utopia and dystopia in fiction and philosophy.
He told WIRED earlier this year: "You look to fiction to see how people are wrestling with serious problems. We can't look at dystopias as merely some bad slippery slope argument.
"Rather, they challenge us: What are the values in this dystopia, and what do they say about our values right now?"
Elsewhere, dystopian fiction is having a good stab at predicting the consequences of our ever-expanding reliance on technology. The original Blade Runner envisaged Los Angeles in 2019 where genetically engineered replicants indistinguishable from humans are manufactured to work in 'off-world colonies'. The timing for its sequel could barely feel more perfect. And though the man vs machine debate has been an endless source of film inspiration, from Metropolis and The Matrix right up to Ex Machina and Her, the quickening advancement of AI technology is now bringing these issues into a serious discussion rather than a 'what if' scenario.
Blade Runner 2049
SpaceX's Elon Musk has claimed that the unemployment caused by robots taking jobs will push us to adopt a universal basic income and called AI "our greatest existential threat" with Steven Hawking agreeing it could end mankind.
You needn't even look that far ahead. The technology we've already normalised has resulted in the sort of ambivalent ethics to science and technology that is common in a dystopian fiction. Facebook's Live feature intended to keep you on the social media platform even longer has resulted in broadcasts of murder, suicide and rape.
In an effort to tackle the horrifying stream of footage Facebook have pledged an addition 3,000 people to their 'community operations team' who will be tasked with trawling through traumatic content - something that feels like a perfect premise for that other great dystopian success story of recent times, Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror.
Black Mirror itself has proved one of the most on the nose depictions of the moral implications of technology and social media. As show creator Charlie Brooker told Esquire: "It's all stuff we'll be grappling with in the future."
Episodes have explored themes as varied as social media addiction to online bullying in worryingly near-futures. The show has not only been adored by audiences and critics, but sparked incalculable conversations on these issues - perhaps the purest aim of any work of dystopian fiction.
Interestingly, Brooker too scooped an Emmy win last month, for Black Mirror season 3 episode 'San Junipero', which was noticeably less disturbing than the rest of the series. The episode explored the idea of 'nostalgia therapy' and looked to the future with a flicker of hope, offering an optimistic idea of how technology could be used to combat ageing and loneliness.
The Black Mirror episode 'San Junipero'
Though Atwood, writing in the nineteen-eighties, noted that that "it's a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias," perhaps now we need to hear some positive stories about the future more than ever.
From: Esquire UK