In the era of Trump, dystopian literature makes a comeback

trump_gage_skidmore_cc
Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

After President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, sales of famous dystopian novels skyrocketedBooks in the vein of “Brave New World” and “Fahrenheit 451,” which previously rested in the bottom tier of the bestseller list, rapidly climbed to top slots.

The election of a highly controversial presidential candidate has reignited a new fervor for dystopian literature and the political and societal questions it explores.

Dystopian literature has the license to freely explore new modes of thinking about government, individual rights, oppression, liberty and language.

But dystopian literature can be thought of beyond its fictional trappings. This genre can serve as a collection of political thought experiments that often pose critical questions about the function of government and personal agency — topics that are especially relevant in today’s turbulent political climate.   

Possibly the most captivating example of this resurgent trend is George Orwell’s “1984,” which spiked from the 89th most sold book to the No. 1 best-selling book on Amazon within a week of Trump’s inauguration.

Published in 1949, the novel imagines a state in which a totalitarian political organization, ominously called “The Party,” controls the lives of its people by monitoring them through telescreens, distorting language, suppressing individual thought and rewriting current events.

While “1984” could simply be dismissed as a wild futuristic conception of the world, certain elements of the novel carry eerie resemblances to prevailing political trends.

The telescreens described in “1984,” for example, find reflections in the National Security Agency’s far-reaching surveillance program. And government surveillance tactics in China are even more extreme, with facial recognition technology being used to track Chinese citizens’ every move in an effort to prevent crime.

The book’s depiction of The Party rewriting current events to fit its political agenda is comparable to the way “alternative facts” are now regularly presented in real world media — blatant misinformation to advance a political agenda.

More jarring is the idea of newspeak in “1984” — the government’s way of sterilizing and streamlining language so that it can be less inflammatory, to thwart political dissent. The concept of newspeak has manifested itself in Trump’s softening of language in health and science. “Doublethink” — the novel’s term for the idea of holding two contradictory beliefs at once — can be observed in Trump’s simultaneous pro-life position and anti-gun control policies.

In an age where truth is often politicized, a work of literature that conceptualizes what the future might look like if the flippant reconstruction of truth and history continue could serve as a valuable tool in confronting these new problematic developments. Being denied the truth — or lied to — about current events is dangerous: If major political events are being wiped out from our history, how can we learn from them?

So it makes sense then that “1984” continues to resonate with the public. What “1984” warns against is tyranny over language, suppression and control — it illustrates what happens when authority and power go unchecked.

Books published more recently, such as Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” bridge the gap between dystopian literature and reality in even more haunting ways.

“What ‘1984’ warns against is tyranny over language, suppression and control — it illustrates what happens when authority and power go unchecked.”

The novel centers around a second revolution in America’s future that attempts to bring social order by forbidding women from reading, regulating women’s bodies and organizing a class of women whose sole purpose is to reproduce.

Although it was published in 1985, many of the stifling restrictions placed on women in the novel possess striking similarities to the recent changes implemented by the Trump administration and various states to curtail reproductive rights. “The Handmaid’s Tale” encourages readers to think about the influence of government involvement in reproductive healthcare and consider the potential social problems arising from the way that politicians frame reproductive rights.

Possibly the most disturbing implication presented in the novel is that our society could revert to a time in which equality and women’s rights were almost non-existent. While it is often easy to passively assume that American society has made great strides towards equality, it is essential to recognize the possibility of a dangerous reversal of social progress.

Still, one issue with dystopian literature is that, despite the values and ideas expressed in dystopian literature, it can be reduced simply to a form of entertainment. Perhaps dystopian literature has become more palatable as it has become more integrated into pop culture.

This has become something interesting to consider more recently, particularly with novels like “The Hunger Games” series and even “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which have gone on to be adapted to film and television. The popular franchise developed around “The Hunger Games” series specifically suggests that the genre has lost an element of subversiveness that it once carried.

However, despite becoming large franchises, they still offer something of value. Modern novels, such as “The Hunger Games,” embrace the irony of speaking about the passive processing of media and entertainment within the space of an art form. In “The Hunger Games,” children are selected to enter a fight to the death — critically, as entertainment for the wealthy members of the Capitol, which speaks to the desensitization that can arise out of TV and excessive media consumption.  

But as a major blockbuster hit and popular book series, “The Hunger Games” could be seen as perpetuating the very same desensitization it warns against. The movie adaptations in particular are graphic, depicting teenagers brutally murdering and sabotaging each other out of self-interest in a blockbuster seen by millions.

But the unfiltered style of films like “The Hunger Games” also calls attention to the shocking realities of violence in our own society. The recent uprising of student activists against gun violence, for example, recalls Katniss’ rebellion against President Snow in reaction to his oppressive regime. Dystopian literature often portrays young people protesting against immoral systems of government and kickstarting social movements. Although President Snow’s regime seems a lot more outlandish than Trump’s, there are shocking similarities between the rhetoric of the two figures.  

What makes dystopian literature so valuable in our society, then, is more than its capacity to identify dismal circumstances that we feel will inevitably come to fruition. Dystopian literature can be a starting point for conversations about our current political state, providing important insight into politics and motivating us to investigate the conflicts presented in these novels in an effort to improve our own society. It’s a conversation that, perhaps mirroring the genre’s prevalence in young adult fiction, is increasingly starting with the nation’s youth.

Despite the daunting and disturbing nature of much of dystopian literature, the genre nevertheless offers an element of inspiration. It can illuminate progressive possibilities that may not be immediately apparent. As we become aware of the growing parallels between our society and those of dystopian realms, we are provided with a renewed sense of political awareness and critical attention to current events.

These novels, beyond telling stories of corruptive political regimes, foster and frame political conversations. The broader themes they introduce challenge our understanding of reality, and motivate us to think critically about our world.

In a society fraught with political tension, literature is the perfect medium for discussing complicated and sensitive political issues. Dystopian novels can be springboards for change, warnings against governmental control or potential solutions to our problems.

In a way, dystopian literature itself is a rebellion, sanctioning creative expression and thought to ensure that we always have access to those freedoms.

Contact Elizabeth Neoman at [email protected]