Why read dystopian novels

On the other hand, I’d argue that the Human Instrumentality Project is about as dystopian as it gets.

Nineteen Eighty Four.

Not even that one. Winston loves Big Brother.

I’m a sucker for dystopian stories (and video games). The ones that I like generally have hope in the end or have a protagonist who somehow wins (like Fury Road). The one exception that I can think of is Nineteen Eighty-Four; wow does that one end on a crushing note but it’s still a great book–it’s the only book I ever had to put down and walk away from.

Because they’re not OUR dystopia.

You’ve all made a lot of valid points. I may have to give dystopia another try.

I’m currently re-reading Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Set in a post-Reagan ruined America which has broken up into “franchises” of micro-states.

People are doing good and bad things in an interesting context. Reading about how people can prevail, sometimes, in such conditions is uplifting. There is no “What a complete downer.”-type thing going on at all.

This is a common setup for Science Fiction and such. You create a world with certain “rules” to it. Put some characters in it. Assign some goals. Write a bunch of pages on how that all goes down.

And a lot of genres are like that. The Godfather for example is set in a dystopian sub-world.

There has to be some challenges to overcome. Sometimes it’s other characters (or even themselves), sometimes it’s the world at large. Quite often both.

Questioning why one reads books with dystopian settings is like questioning why one reads books with bad people.

Plot and character. Dystopian settings give the characters something to push against, to display their various talents and points of view and sometimes to grow or surprise themselves. Fiction needs conflict of some kind.

They’re an interesting look into previous mindsets and eras. For example, Nineteen Eighty-Four is Orwell reliving Blitz-era London and his experiences with Revolutionary Spain and who knows what else, all transposed into Airstrip One which is, of course, a London under a constant Blitz where the least sympathetic elements of Spain won and took over. But Orwell’s fiction is often autobiography in light makeup, more than most other authors’ seems to be. Taking a different tack, Animal Farm is a retelling of the Soviet Union up to Stalin’s rise, told by someone who was politically active and interested in the Leftist world at the time, and who saw Stalin as being a Bad Thing, which didn’t make him any friends in the UK Left before or during the Second World War.

More abstractly, Brave New World is a reaction to the early 1930s, both in the West and the Soviet Union; as far as the West goes, it’s a reaction against the very beginnings of consumer culture, but more focused on people buying distractions instead of material goods, which is odd because, now, consumer culture is almost synonymous with accumulation of material goods. It’s also a reaction against liberated sexuality, taken to the extreme of the Soviets being opposed to inheritance and the patriarchal family. In short, if Brave New World were a person, it would be ranting about those damn SJWs and how the world is overrun with illegitimate bastards and all of the good girls are going with Chads instead of nice guys, like John the Savage.

I’m nearly halfway through The Stand, and I think it was a mistake. My mood has been very negative since starting the book. I’ll be lucky if I make it through without killing a neighbor and appropriating their stores.

I’ve been thinking about giving that one a re-read, kayaker, but yeah…I’m not sure the timing is right.

Yeah, I feel like I’m reading nonfiction.

Funny you should say that: https://mastodon.starrevolution.org/@Codeawayhaley/103106245016291388

I disagree. Winston wanted more and was hoping for more. He lost, but he showed the human desire to rise above circumstances.

Seems to me that there are different kinds of dystopias; and for me they have different types of attractions.

— There’s the Warning Story: if we keep doing this we’ll wind up there! so (implied by the author) we need to stop doing this!

Those can be fun to read if they more or less align with my own opinions, in a reinforcing-feeling-right kind of way. They also often have characters Overcoming the Wrong Things, which can be encouraging to read, and let the reader imagine being one of those Good People.

They can be interestingly unnerving if they’re about things that more or less did happen, and we Did Go There, and now we kind of just take for granted what the story was warning about. I remember people noting in the actual year 1984 that Orwell had posited a society in which the TV watched people and told them what to do, and what we actually had at the time was a society in which people watched the TV and it told them what to do, and maybe there was less difference there than we were congratulating ourselves on. By now, of course, the TV is also watching us . . .

We haven’t wound up in Orwell’s actual 1984, of course. But other problems do obtain.

Sometimes it can also be fun to read an old Warning Story thinking ‘hah! that happened and it’s great!’ or ‘hah! that happened and the result wasn’t x, it was y, and why didn’t the author even think of z?’
– There’s the Disaster Has Occured (the disaster may or may not have been the fault of humans) and now Survivors Are Trying to Rebuild Civilization.

These can be fun to read partly because of Characters Overcoming as above, and partly because I like building societies in my head, and reading about societies that other people have so built, and thinking about what would or wouldn’t work.
– There’s the Disaster Has Occured and Never Mind Rebuilding Civilization, A Handful of People Are Just Trying to Stay Alive.

Again there’s Characters Overcoming; plus which, however much trouble they’re having in overcoming, they generally don’t have to deal with whatever mess is bothering me that week. They don’t have to fill out their tax forms, nobody cares whether they met some distant agency’s certification standards, nobody’s POTUS.

– There’s the Disaster Has Occured/Is Occuring And We’re All Screwed, There’s No Hope.

Some of these are also Warning Stories. They don’t have Characters Overcoming, except in the sense that some seem to be partly about Meeting Death Bravely (why should you have to, though? In a situation like that, it wouldn’t help; one person’s bravery can’t save anybody else.) There’s possibly some element of ‘at least I wouldn’t have to fill out the taxes’ and/or of ‘it really wouldn’t matter how badly I’ve screwed x up’; but I think the element of enjoyment of these – as opposed to the motivation, in the case of warning stories, to try to get everybody else to read them while shouting We Mustn’t Go There – may be at least partly Thank Dog That’s Not Happening Now. But I also find them less satisfying than the other types; though if well written I can still find them worth reading.

One of my favorite books is Earth Abides, about a world where the majority of people succumb to some sort of virulent disease. But the tone of the book isn’t all that bleak, it is about the new people the protagonist meets and decides to live with in a neighborhood of their choosing, how civilization crumbles little by little (first the power, then the water weeks later), and how they deal with all that is going on.

I appreciate your detailed analysis.

However, I would classify at least some of your “Disaster Has Occurred” works, not as dystopian, but as post-apocalyptic or some other category.

To my mind, if the characters are trying to rebuild civilization, or trying to survive now that civilization has collapsed, it’s post-apocalyptic. In a dystopia, there is a civilization—it’s just a bad one. Though the members of the society may not all think their civilization is a bad one; they just accept it as The Way Things Are.

Good point. I think the categories do tend to blend into each other in common parlance, though.

There are a variety of reasons people might enjoy dystopian novels - it lets them feel better about their own not-so-great existence, they identify with characters in desperate circumstances, or maybe the novel itself is so good that the depressing subject matter isn’t important.

Sometimes I just groove on seeing people flailing around in dystopian settings, like the guy who cackles during sad movies.

I’m extremely embarrassed to admit this, but what the hell.

It’s been obvious to me we’ve been heading towards some kind of Stephen King / Margaret Atwood / Octavia Butler / [insert author here]- level dystopia for some time. I think I’ve been reading these books for years as instruction manuals – to learn what life will be like, and how I’ll get by in the future.

Somewhere in my head I’ve been imagining myself as one of the few survivors, learning how to cook over a fire, build shelter out of branches, trek hundreds of miles, shoot the bad guys, and perform emergency surgery on myself.

And now –


It’s been such a waste; I’ve been so foolish. I want to burn all those books (and learn, belatedly, how to cook over the resultant fire.)