Dystopia Week

Dystopian Round Table: The Appeal of Dystopian Fiction

I cover the topic of the appeal of dystopian fiction in my post Dystopian Fiction: An Introduction, so I won’t repeat it here. But I asked the contributors to my recent anthology Brave New Worlds, to speculate on the appeal of dystopian fiction—both for writers and readers. Here’s what they had to say.

Tobias S. Buckell, Author of “Resistance”

I think dystopia allows writers to hold up a mirror to our world and say “if this goes on…” That’s one of the classic reasons for writing it: to warn about trajectories within society. But I think the reason readers can enjoy even the grimmest dystopia is that it does, even when being a piece of social criticism, embed a certain amount of escapism in it. Both the sort of “things are still okay now” sort of comparisons that we can make as readers, and sometimes a sort of “if everything fell to pieces, what sort of crazy adventures would transpire” type of narrative.

I personally enjoy the “what if” game of playing out a scenario and trying to dig a little deeper into it. If “such and such” continues, what happens next?

S.L. Gilbow, Author of “Red Card”

For me, the power of dystopian literature is in its ability to make the ludicrous and bizarre seem familiar and possible.

As strange as a dystopian society might appear, we are always looking at some aspect of ourselves. Dystopian literature holds up a mirror to our world and says:

That’s us if we’re not careful.

That’s us, even if we are careful.

That’s us, like it or not.

In a meeting once, I heard one of my fellow teachers say, “My God, it’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ all over again.” I knew exactly what she was talking about. Read the story and you will too.

Joseph Paul Haines, Author of “Ten With a Flag”

We read dystopian fiction as a panacea for our fears, which strikes me as both healthy and perverse at the same time. We comfort ourselves that such an oppressive place could never exist, while our fears are the very genesis of all such governments. Sometimes the fears are irrational, such as the fear of foreigners or the proverbial, “others,” and sometimes they make perfect sense: “I don’t want to go hungry, but I can’t find a job.” We fear and distrust government when our lives are good, but when fortune turns we look to the government to help us to our feet. There’s nothing wrong with that. Distrust of something more powerful than you is a survival mechanism and expecting help when needed is appropriate. But again, that paving crew working on the road to hell can be a bitch. We empower others in the hopes that they’ll resolve the issues that frighten us. Dystopia at its heart is cautionary, but the caution itself shouldn’t be reserved to what others may do to you, but also to what you may end up doing to yourself.

As to why I write it? I write dystopian fiction to find the balance between my hopes and fears. You can’t have one without the other, but you should never have too much of either.

Alex Irvine, “Peter Skilling”

Because we’re not there yet. Dystopias work like a lot of horror, I think, giving us a cathartic experience without subjecting us to the actual horrors. But dystopia is also a cultural warning flag, I think. Collectively a culture’s dystopias tell you all you need to know about what that culture feared. And the truth is that no dystopia is as bad as the conditions under which some people on Earth are living right now.

Sarah Langan, “Independence Day”

Dystopias represent the most exaggerated versions of the world be currently inhabit. They make us see the obvious more clearly. Sometimes they’re not even exaggerations. I mean, ever try to get a service from Verizon? You could spend the rest of your life on the phone with those fools, and still get no satisfaction. Or how about the air surrounding ground zero after 9-11? They reopened Wall Street and told everybody who worked down there that it was safe, because the nation couldn’t survive without the stock market. At my office, I got a crappy, Duane Reade mask to breathe through six days after I’d returned—two weeks after the towers fell. The fires were still burning, and my desk was covered with dust. We’re living in a dystopia.

Heather Lindsley, “Just Do It”

Well, it’s easier than writing about utopias, which are practically impossible. If just one person in a utopia is discontent, it’s not a utopia. But there are usually a few lucky and/or twisted people sitting at the top of dystopia for whom it’s the best of all possible worlds, and that doesn’t make it any less a dystopia. And If drama is about conflict, then dystopias are little drama farms. You can pluck drama out of the details; you can even use the entire culture as an antagonist.

Joe Mastroianni, “Jordan’s Waterhammer”

Life is a series of intertwined trials. Some result in effects we like, but desire taints our vision, and we perceive undesirable effects occur more often. Thus we often feel we’re living in a dystopian reality. Fortunately, the beauty of life, probably the secret to life itself is in its underlying chaos. Dystopia is crystalline, static, and almost perfect in its gray stasis. Love and life are amorphous, dynamic, and messy. We want to believe that spark of chaos introduced by our free will can defy the laws of physics that drive us and our entire universe to some cold, future, death.

James Morrow, “Auspicious Eggs”

When a dystopianist is on his or her game, the resulting fiction gives us a vocabulary with which to grab hold of an otherwise elusive problem – terms like “Kafkaesque,” “Doctor Moreau’s Island,” “Newspeak,” and “Catch-22.” Kafka, Wells, Orwell, and Heller hit upon new and vital ways to talk about ideological savagery and sacralized insanity.

M. Rickert, “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment”

I do not feel qualified to speak to the broad appeal of dystopian fiction, as I have never been good at measuring the common quality, but I can speak to its personal appeal for me as a literature of the ultimate fear of what the worst aspect of being human can wrought if not balanced by the best aspect. The big struggle with good and evil, as it turns out, is not with a force outside ourselves, but a force within, which I think makes for frightening material, worthy of consideration within fiction, too often forgotten as a force in itself.

Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Lunatics”

I suppose part of the appeal is the feeling “things in my world may be bad but they’re not this bad.” So there is a reverse comfort going on. Often writers write it as a warning, at other times because they haven’t the nerve to try to write a utopian story, so do it backwards. I’ve only tried it a few times in my career.

Jeremiah Tolbert, “Arties Aren’t Stupid”

We write about it and read about it for the same reason we enjoy tragedies. We love stories about people whose lives are worse off than our own. It makes us feel better about our own problems. I mean, hey, I might not have a job, but at least I’m not a star crossed lover who drinks poison or the face being stomped on by a boot forever. There’s just something cathartic about it.

The difference between dystopians and tragedies is that dystopian stories often end on an upbeat note, with a hope of change (but not always).

Genevieve Valentine, “Is This Your Day to Join the Revolution?”

I think the main reason people write dystopian fiction is because it allows a writer to apply the sparkly mantle of fiction to often-pointed critique that might be written off as conspiracy theory or slammed as attack on the government if presented as nonfiction. (“You Guys, We Will Be Completely Screwed by Invasive Government in the Near Future– I am Guessing 1984-ish” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

It also has the advantage of being a world in which your character can face any number of governmental perils, which always makes for a good yarn.

Carrie Vaughn, “Amaryllis”

I think dystopian fiction appeals to people for a lot of reasons. Many of the stories have a “hero against the system” plot that’s just basic good storytelling. There’s a kind of wish fulfillment—our lives in the modern western world may not look as bad as the average dystopian system, but who hasn’t dreamed of rising up and leading a rebellion against everything that’s wrong with the world?

Dystopian fiction has so many elements: the science fictional world-building. The horror of the thought experiment that projects just how bad things can get. The element of satire—a good satire is difficult to pull of but beautiful to behold when done well, and I’m not sure you can have dystopian fiction without satire, from Thomas More on up to the present.

John Joseph Adams is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), By Blood We Live, Federations, and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Barnes & Noble.com named him “the reigning king of the anthology world,” and his books have been named to numerous best of the year lists. His latest books are Brave New Worlds, The Living Dead 2 and The Way of the Wizard. He is also the editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine, and is the co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Find him on Twitter @johnjosephadams.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.