How to Live in a Dystopian Fiction


Arts & Culture

Albert Robida, Le vingtième siècle, ca. 1880.


A curious feature of most dystopian fiction is that it begins in medias res. It’s a stylistic convention of the genre, and it applies to most dystopian lit that comes to mind, from Nineteen Eighty-Four to Brave New World to Never Let Me Go. As pure narrative strategy, it makes sense. After all, novels in general must hook a reader quickly, and there are few things hookier than unfolding disaster. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, for example, begins with twenty utterly gripping pages of the first hours of a superplague wiping out Toronto (and the world). There is something compelling about this type of introduction—it carves narrative down to a brutal logic in which the only two options are survival and death.

The TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which will wrap up its second season in July, is the most recent popular example of this phenomenon. The viewer is dropped, from the first episode, into the fresh hell of Gilead, alongside Elisabeth’s Moss’s Offred. We are given the broad strokes of how Gilead came to power (ecological disaster, plummeting birth rates, a coup in Congress) but only the occasional flashback to normal life before the coup, when the show’s world much resembled ours. The first season was released in April 2017, and Offred’s disoriented struggle felt topical, consonant with an American body politic waking up to the reality of the Trump era. My wife and I watched it, as I know so many people did, with rapt, grim fascination. It showed our worst fears about the new government dramatized.

As time—and the show—has gone on, however, I find myself increasingly drawn to the scanty scenes of America before Gilead, the tender, doomed moments of Offred’s previous life. The glimpses of that hazy, vanishing world are the most painful and perhaps the most resonant with our own unfolding dystopia. This is what all dystopias—fictional and real—specialize in: erasure of what came before. 

Too often, I think, we want our fictional dystopias to protect us against the real thing. As Alyssa Rosenberg says in this Washington Post article, “dystopian fiction—and any fiction, really—shouldn’t be judged by the extent to which it serves as a bulwark against actual, radical changes to American society. It is enough to ask that a story be entertaining and well-executed, and that its characters be rich and memorable.”

But while asking a piece of entertainment to be more than entertaining may be asking too much, baked into most dystopian narratives is an implicit claim to edification. After all, dystopias, like Utopias, succeed or fail based on how convincingly and relevantly they correspond to the real world. Both dystopia and Utopia share the root topos, “place” in Greek, and purport to tell us about the possibilities of our own place through fictional exaggeration. It therefore seems reasonable to expect they might tell us not only about the mess we’re in but how we got into it—and how to escape.

This instinct was shared by the droves of people who bought George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four during the 2016 election, increasing its sales by 9,500 percent and sending a book published in 1949 to the top of Amazon’s best seller list. These readers turned to a fictional account of life under a brutal mendocracy not only because it was politically relevant but presumably because they were looking for something—answers, of a sort; context, at least.

They may have been disappointed. Nineteen Eighty-Four, for all its terrifying prescience, features the same basic structural lacuna as The Handmaid’s Tale—the world before Oceania. We begin in the midst of things, following Winston Smith through his dire days in Airstrip One and at the Ministry of Truth. And yet as with Gilead, despite the Party’s ubiquity, we are never given too much information about how it came to power. A nuclear conflict in the fifties seems to have set the stage for the merging of the U.S. and Britain into Oceania, and its subsequent usurpation by Ingsoc. But the book spends no significant time on life before the war.

The same is true of It Can’t Happen Here, another older yet newly best-selling political dystopia name checked heavily during the 2016 election due to the novel’s Trumpian thug, Buzz Windrip. Like Trump, Windrip wins the presidency, but again, we aren’t privy to the historical context leading up to his win and ensuing reign of terror. Likewise, BrazilOryx and CrakeThe Hunger Games, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? all begin after the worst has already happened. The recent past is already a distant memory. John Gardner describes good fiction as an unbroken, continuous dream; good dystopian fiction is an unbroken, continuous nightmare.

Like nightmares, dystopias have a certain hermetically sealed quality. By their nature, they are inescapable—a dystopia you can escape from is not a dystopia; it is the third hour of Love Actually. The circumstances that create any brave new world simultaneously cauterize its edges and destroy memories of the world before. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, as near as Winston can recall, “he had first heard mention of Big Brother … at some time in the sixties, but it was impossible to be certain. In the Party histories, Big Brother figured as the leader and guardian of the Revolution since its very earliest days. His exploits had been gradually pushed backwards in time until already they extended into the fabulous world of the forties and the thirties, when the capitalists in their strange cylindrical hats still rode through the streets of London.”  To an extent, this is also how history works, as unlikely ephemera like Donald Trump fluke their way into awful existence and, in doing so, retroactively annihilate our former lingering sense of other possibilities. For instance: Remember when it seemed inevitable we’d have our first female president? Remember when public racism resulted in an exile from public life? Remember when we still had a functioning EPA? Disasters are amnesiac in nature.

Dictatorships, real and fictional, use this psychological fact to their advantage. When a human being’s nervous system is in a state of constant bombardment, constant anxiety, it loses the ability to form narratives that link coherently with the past. This trauma is not incidental to political aims—to destroy memory is an aim in and of itself. As in most dystopian fictions, the sudden brutality of the new order throws people into a visceral and panicky “now,” with only the very occasional reprieve allowing a fractured memory of “then.”

From a tyrant’s point of view, memory—both personal and cultural—must be wiped as cleanly and as quickly as possible. If it is not, it remains possible for the populace to tell an ongoing story in which the present moment is an aberration, something to be written out in future revisions. Both Mao and Stalin understood this—arbitrary, brutal violence (or the threat thereof) was useful not only for silencing dissenters and political opponents but for birthing a new society, snipping the umbilical cord of memory from the old mother of national history.

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America presents both a counterfactual in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and a counterexample of the typical dystopian structure. The book not only begins with fifty pages prefatory to Charles Lindbergh’s inauguration but also takes its time with the aftermath. The true locus of its dystopian dread is what Lindbergh’s presidency enables: the normalization of American anti-Semitism. The Roth family endures a series of mounting indignities in their Newark neighborhood, until the novel’s midpoint, when the father receives a letter informing him of the government’s plan to “homestead” urban Jews to the Midwest. This is approximately the place where most dystopian fiction would begin, and it’s telling that a Jewish writer with living memory of the Holocaust would be so keenly interested in a fine-grain portrayal of existence during the liminal period in which everything has fundamentally changed, yet life, with all its vital rituals and ceremonies, goes on much as it had before. “Life goes on” is one of the book’s central, implicit claims, one taken from the lessons of the Holocaust—life must go on, and it must go on in connection with the past.

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses, in refutation to Mr. Deasy’s sense of history as a grand inevitable unfolding. Whether dystopian or Utopian, the course of history—time itself—has a tyrannical aspect. It moves in one direction, and what has happened is unchangeable.

The desire to “awake” from this onslaught—to maintain a consciousness of what was and what might have been, and an awareness of the present moment’s contingency and unlikeliness—is, I think, the psychological basis of this era’s progressive call to arms: This is not normal. Yes, the phrase aptly captures the craziness of Donald Trump and Trumpism and, in doing so, asserts the need to resist. But in a deeper sense, it implies that the best, maybe only, way of resisting dystopias is to keep in mind that it was not always thus. What has happened is an aberration, and the world worked a different way for a very long time. Dystopias—fictional and real—are perhaps unavoidable but not irreversible. The cliché goes that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Maybe it would be truer simply to say that those who forget the past are doomed.


Adam O’Fallon Price is a writer and teacher living in Carrboro, North Carolina. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Vice, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His new novel, The Hotel Neversink, will be published in 2019 by Tin House Books.