“What If’ scenarios are fascinating in their attempts to predict the future as well as to show us alternative histories. Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard University, in The New Yorker, surveyed utopias and dystopias in popular novels of the past and contemporary times. With worries about climate change, the decline of democracies, cyber-fascism and totalitarianism, this is a golden age for radical pessimism or dystopian fiction, she writes.
The current popularity of “The Hunger Games” reflects worries about economic inequality, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” reflects worries about religious fundamentalists seeking to control and repress women.
“Pick your present-day dilemma; there’s a new dystopian novel to match it. Worried about political polarization? In “American War” (Knopf), Omar El Akkad traces the United States’ descent from gridlock to barbarism as the states of the former Confederacy (or, at least, the parts that aren’t underwater) refuse to abide by the Sustainable Future Act, and secede in 2074.
“Troubled by the new Jim Crow? Ben H. Winters’s “Underground Airlines” (Little, Brown) is set in an early-twenty-first-century United States in which slavery abides, made crueler, and more inescapable, by the giant, unregulated slave-owning corporations that deploy the surveillance powers of modern technology, so that even escaping to the North (on underground airlines) hardly offers much hope, since free blacks in cities like Chicago live in segregated neighborhoods with no decent housing or schooling or work and it’s the very poverty in which they live that defeats arguments for abolition by hardening ideas about race….”
People choose their dystopias by political ideology. Since Donald Trump became president, “1984” has surged in popularity. In the first year of the Obama administration, Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” was very popular.
Lapore quotes Margaret Atwood, author of “Handmaid’s Tale,” from the 1980s: ““It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias. Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we’ve already had.”
- “Golden Age of Dystopia” in The New Yorker.