I came across an infographic on Goodreads the other day that sparked my rather eclectic interest in human nature, history, and dystopian fiction. I’ll give you a moment to look at the graph below to see if your can tell me what stories like George Orwell’s 1984 and Susanne Collin’s Hunger Games have in common.
What is Dystopian Fiction?
While you’re still mulling over what trends you see in the graphic, here’s a quick primer on what that unsettling word, dystopian, means. I could dredge forth bygone years of Greek and Latin training to attempt to impress but don’t worry. After all, we all have Google right at our fingertips (or voice command) so why bother. Instead, a good working definition of dystopia is, a very bad supposedly good place.
Why “supposedly”? Because, as every generation has learned, there is no such thing as utopia. No matter how hopeful Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek was, it will always be followed by a Deep Space Nine. For you Science Fiction haters out there, that means for every silver lining, there’s a dark cloud.
Three Waves of Dystopian Fiction
Patrick Brown’s infographic illustrates three distinct phases during the last century when dystopian stories spiked in public awareness. Each phase is marked by a unifying common theme.
1930s – 1960s
- Inspiration: World War II, communism, fascism
- Traits: Controlling governments, loss of personal freedom
- Novels: Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, A Clockwork Orange
- Gender Preference: Men rate these stories higher
Late 1980s – 2000
- Theme: Personal anxiety about the body
- Inspiration: Environmentalism, the Cold War
- Traits: Continued distrust of government, anxiety about the human body
- Novels: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Children of Men, V for Vendetta
- Gender Preference: Both women and men
- Theme: Young Adult Romance
- Inspiration: Pop-culture, 9/11, the War on Terror
- Traits: Romance, strong lead heroines, anti-conformist
- Novels: Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched
- Gender Preference: Women more than men
I you’re like me, you’ve forgotten the question by now so here it is again: What do all these well-known stories have in common? They are a reflection of the times we have passed through, headed into, or currently enduring.
Each phase of popularity with dystopian fiction came during and just after the myth of utopia had once again been shattered, The 1920’s were called ‘roaring’ for a reason. Everything was great – an apparent utopia. After that came the Great Depression and the madness of yet another war to end all wars. The 1980s saw the end to the Cold War and a President many said would get us into some major conflict who did just the opposite. Sure things weren’t as good as they appeared. New wars of a more personal nature ensued. Then came the dot.com boom and the times they were a roaring again. Like all the other supposed utopian times, that too evaporated as two planes crashed into the the American symbol of prosperity and yet another into its symbol of military superority.
Will the current trend of dystopian fervor abate? Sooner or later the last Walker will get tired of the whole thing and quit insisting on coming back and those folks trapped Under the Dome are bound to realize those butterflies have migrated and aren’t coming back, Then again, Hugh Howie’s world of Wool has been optioned for the big screen by Ridley Scott, Wayward Pines is headed for FX next year, and Michael Bunker has invented a whole new genre with Amish time-travel/space opera/historical allegory with his Pennsylvania.
Stories of dystopian fiction will never go away for long. History and human nature guarantee it.