A reason for the popularity of dystopian works in English-speaking countries is culturally related and lies in their representation of unpleasant future worlds as a negative foil to Anglo-American values and ideas such as individual liberty.
Dystopian fiction sparks our interest. For quite some time, we have been fascinated, stirred and disturbed by the depiction of unpleasant imaginary future societies in novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four , Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and / or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. Film or TV series adaptations of these works and young adult (YA) dystopias like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy have also contributed to the genre’s popularity.
Broadly speaking, the term “dystopia” is the opposite of “utopia.” The latter comes from the early 16th century book Utopia, which was written in Latin by the famous English statesman, humanist writer and Roman Catholic saint Sir Thomas More.
Utopia vs Dystopia
As regards content, a traveller named Raphael Hythloday describes the island of Utopia, a city-state. Through his depiction the reader learns of its form of government, its people and its social, political and religious customs. What is remarkable is that, from our modern viewpoint, this fictional island city-state looks like a regimented, proto-communist society because there is, amongst other issues, no possession of private property.
Intriguingly, “utopia” is a pun on the Greek words for “good place” (i.e. “eutopia”) and for “no place” (i.e. “outopia”). Consequently, in connection to More’s book the term “utopia” implies a certain ambiguity.
On the one hand, the book, to a certain extent, portrays a “good place” or, to put it differently, an island society with lots of positive characteristics (, even though this city-state, apart from these features, has several negative aspects such as slavery and its practices of euthanasia and capital punishment). However, on the other hand, the island of Utopia does not exist in reality. It is just an imagined location.
Appropriately enough, the label or genre “utopian literature / fiction” is attributed to texts that are set in an imaginary ideal society, often in the future, whereas the genre “dystopian fiction / literature” includes works that present an unpleasant future world. Simply put, ‘dystopia’ (from Ancient Greek δυσ- or dus- and τόπος or tópos) means “bad place.”
Dystopias, by definition, depict, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, “a very bad or unfair society in which there is a lot of suffering, especially an imaginary society in the future, after something terrible has happened.” Moreover, in dystopian fiction present tendencies have deteriorated – from the recipient’s point of view – into terrible and oppressive conditions. Hence, the ills of the present reach their culmination.
Today, various people across the world – especially in the West – use dystopian texts, films and / or series as reference points to criticise alleged social problems and particular policies. Judging from public appearances and statements, we may think that, as far as political allegiance is concerned, both right- and left-leaning individuals refer to dystopian fiction.
Dystopian Works as Reference Points for (Almost) Everyone Regardless of Their Political Affiliation?
Female protesters in several countries, for example, have dressed as the brutally subjugated handmaidens in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaiden’s Tale (1985) and its successful TV adaptation. By wearing scarlet cloaks with oversize white bonnets, they appear to raise awareness of the oppression of women in a subversive way.
With respect to their appearance on these occasions, the protesters support issues that are generally labelled as feminist and socially liberal or progressive. Needless to say, people in favour of progressive positions frequently identify as left-wingers. Yet, references to dystopian fiction are also made by right-wingers, conservatives and liberals or libertarians.
First of all, we should point out that the below-mentioned groups differ from one another. While conservatives as well as other right-leaning people usually aim to preserve the traditional social structures with its order, laws, principles and customs, classical liberals or libertarians are more interested in individual and economic liberty.
Despite the differences between them, individuals or parts of these political groups seemingly resort to references to dystopian worlds in novels and films. This prompts the question whether dystopian fiction provides reference points for (almost) everyone notwithstanding their political affiliation.
From a historical perspective, it is worth taking into consideration the criticism of utopian thinking since the end of the 19th century as Hans Ulrich Seeber in his article about the functions of dystopia in Anglo-American literature expounds. In political debates and discussions the term utopia has been employed pejoratively from a liberal and conservative standpoint.
Such critical attitude towards utopian thinking emerged against the backdrop of the growing socialist movement. Ever since, this criticism of utopian constructions has been intended to warn of the dangers of an authoritarian and collectivist state-socialist order that has threatened the freedom of the individual. During the 1920s the political debate intensified, when the opponents of (pluralistic) democracy came up with the concept of the totalitarian state. Thus, utopian visions have been suspected of promoting totalitarianism.
Roughly speaking, totalitarianism can be defined as a form of government which seeks to exert total power and control over its citizens. Undeniably, this notion contrasts with the constitutionally-based principles and rights in most of the Western world and particularly in English-speaking countries. Here we may ask the question whether the popularity of dystopian works in English-speaking countries lies in their representation of unpleasant future scenarios because these dystopian “visions” can function as a warning by challenging Anglo-American ideas.
The Dystopian World as a Negative Foil to Anglo-American Concepts and Individual Liberty
There is no denying the fact that dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four  (1949) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) are literary classics. Nowadays, young adult (YA) dystopian fiction has gained in popularity across the English-speaking world as the reception of novels such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993) or Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series (2008-2010), their film adaptations and the aforementioned series The Handmaiden’s Tale (2017-present) show.
Several commentators have identified some reasons for why these works are so popular among young people. For instance, these novels or films mostly focus on adolescent characters and present breakout roles, which allow young readers or viewers in the uncertain times of today’s world to experience an alternate universe and to relate themselves to the protagonists.
Besides, these texts and films commonly end on a positive note. Accordingly, they point to signs of hope as opposed to the endings of dystopian classics like 1984. But why are these classics also still popular and why do people keep referring to these novels, when they comment on current problems?
Arguably, another reason for the general popularity of dystopian fiction – including the wildly discussed classics – in the West and, in particular, the English-speaking world is culturally related. In this context, it is useful to quote from the introduction of James C. Bennett’s “An Anglosphere Primer”:
“Over the past several years, a new term, Anglosphere, has crept into political and social discussion in the English-speaking world. This term, which can be defined briefly as the set of English-speaking, Common Law nations, implies far more than merely the sum of all persons who employ English as a first or second language. To be part of the Anglosphere requires adherence to the fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures. These include individualism, rule of law, honoring contracts and covenants, and the elevation of freedom to the first rank of political and cultural values.”
To this we should add the idea of democratic or representative government.
Although most of these “customs and values”, up to a certain degree, can be seen as “Western values”, distinctive features of the Anglosphere need to be emphasized at this point. One of them is the importance of individual liberty. Correspondingly, the continuous evocation of liberty seems to constitute a kind of founding myth of the U.S.A. Furthermore, the concept of liberty is a cornerstone of American civil religion.
Nonetheless, dystopian fiction serves as a negative foil to Anglo-American ideas, values or concepts. More precisely, the recently published and released American dystopian stories as well as the above mentioned classics of English/American dystopian literature usually represent worlds in the future with powerful governments, technologically equipped police states and/or planned societies where personal liberty is confined. Instead, collectivism (or sameness) is promoted.
By contrast, an individual character, the protagonist and/or groups create, in the words of Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, “counter-narrative[s] of resistance” (5) by trying to rebel against their conditions or distancing themselves from the society and its order. Interestingly enough, Ewan Morrison states as follows in The Guardian:
“These books [i.e. The Giver, Divergent and The Hunger Games trilogy] propose a laissez-faire existence, with heroic individuals who are guided by the innate forces of human nature against evil social planners.”
All in all, the represented societies in the dystopian classics in addition to the modern versions of dystopian fiction challenge Anglo-American ideas and the concept of personal/individual freedom, which is embodied by the protagonists.
Sources (alongside the Linked Ones)
Baccolini, Raffaella, and Tom Moylan. “Introduction: Dystopia and Histories.” Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. Eds. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan. New York: Routledge, 2003. 1-12.
Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 8th ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999.
Rüb, Matthias. “Freedom Isn’t Free: Amerikas quicklebendiger Gründungsmythos: Freiheit.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ulrike Ackermann. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2007. 287-302.
Seeber, Hans Ulrich. “Präventives statt konstruktives Handeln: Zu den Funktionen der Dystopie in der anglo-amerikanischen Literatur.” Möglichkeitsdenken: Utopie und Dystopie in der Gegenwart. Eds. Wilhelm Voßkamp, Günter Blamberger, and Martin Roussel. München: Fink, 2013. 185-205.