The 1962 publication of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess was a milestone in a literary genre defined by the dictionary of the Real Academia Española as the “fictitious portrayal of a future society with negative characteristics causing human alienation”. The attacks on the Twin Towers, George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq provided renewed inspiration for dystopian fiction.
Since then, it has continued to flourish, thanks to young adult fiction, as highlighted by the social network site for readers, Goodreads.
Ismael Contreras, who runs a Madrid outlet of Generación X, one of the longest-standing bookstore chains specialising in science fiction in Spain, underlines the upsurge of interest in this type of novel.
“Many more books of this kind are being published and they are even becoming bestsellers. There are the classics such as 1984, underpinned by deep social thought, written for adults. Then there are the young adult novels that, over the last 15 years, have turned towards ‘anti-utopian’ fiction such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner. We don’t know whether their success creates a dystopian view or whether this already exists and these books are succeeding because of it. But the fact that they are working implies something,” says Contreras.
“In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote about the triumph of Western liberal democracy and the ‘End of History’. For a decade, it seemed plausible. Then the events of 11 September 2001 took the world by surprise. We were not prepared for this new and dark future. Dystopian novels made sense, perhaps they even reassured us, which might explain their renewed popularity,” explains Guy Saville, a journalist and the author of the books The Afrika Reich and The Madagascar Plan, in an interview with Equal Times.
1984 continues to be the biggest bestseller of this genre. It is the only classic amongst the 50 best selling books in Spain for 2016 and is currently sold out.
“Uchronia [history rewritten based on hypothetical data], such as that offered by Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle – in which Germany wins the Second World War – is something we haven’t experienced and we know we never will. But other stories could come true, and that’s why 1984 is a reference novel,” explains the head of Generación X.
“Why is it more decisive than Brave New World, for example?” asks Contreras. “Because it covers a couple of issues we have already experienced, like the idea of Big Brother, of being watched around the clock. If the book was giving us these signs, it’s that we’ve already entered the dystopian phase,” he argues.
Trump, constitutional guarantees and the dystopian future
Sales of George Orwell’s book in the United States have soared since Donald J. Trump entered the White House. “He is unpredictable and doesn’t share the same reality as most sensible people. Perhaps his greatest danger is that he is already testing the limits of the guarantees designed to protect us, be it in terms of constitutional, judicial or media responsibility. If these are broken, the future is set to be very dystopian,” affirms Saville.
Communications and political consultant Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí shares this analysis: “There are three elements contributing to creating the climate of unpredictability and fear characterising the beginnings of the Trump administration. The objective, fact-based and measurable dimension is disappearing from decision-making. This leads to a loss of responsibility, ‘I can disregard the information that tells me not to do something, but once I do it, I have to think of what the consequences are’ and, finally, a loss of limits, ‘when you think that being the president of the most powerful country in the world gives you unlimited power and you are not conscious of the constitutional, legal or multilateral limits, it is even more dangerous,’” he says.
Newspeak and toxic political discourse
For Saville, leaders and language are the dystopian features of the current era. “Most dystopian novels have a leader who promises nothing but good things, even when reality tells a different story. And the language is always disguised, it’s meaning is distorted to the point that it becomes unrecognisable, as illustrated by Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ or Orwell’s ‘war is peace’.
Orwell, prompted by the messages of politicians and journalists in the 1940s, referred to this corruption of language as ‘Newspeak’ in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. The British writer saw a link between the imprecise use of language and an oppressive ideology, and argued that political discourse used language to “defend the indefensible” with “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”.
“Mixing fact with fiction is characteristic of totalitarian regimes, but not them alone,” says Gutiérrez-Rubí. “If there is a political culture in which smokescreens have proved particularly useful, it’s the American one.
“What is really new is the crudeness of the fabrication, the total disregard for a well-constructed lie, the impunity with which you allow yourself to say something that you know is going to be revealed as a false within a minute.
“The use of twisted and beguiling language is capable of convincing a political majority in 2016. The person who has most destroyed the word is now the president of the United States. And that should, I believe, prompt us to reflect deeply on democracy: a democracy can also be vulnerable, it can also be attacked and challenged by the use of language,” he warns.
“Politicians use toxic and dehumanising rhetoric, turning the world into a dangerous place where an idea is spread in the collective mind: ‘us against them’. In this sense, 2016 was a horrible year,” denounced Arancha Vicario, president of Amnesty International Spain during the presentation of the latest report on the state of human rights in the world.
“The shift from good judgement to prejudgment, I think, is a sign of the times that is unfolding in all areas and at all levels,” says Gutiérrez-Rubí. “In an uncertain world, prejudice proliferates because it is a shortcut. It is easy, it comforts you, it protects you. But it also misleads you, disconnects you, harms you,” he adds.
Two months after Trump’s victory, the extreme right from Germany, Italy and Holland met in Koblenz, Germany, under the leadership of Marine Le Pen. As an alternate history writer, Guy Saville believes that “history never repeats itself, or at least not exactly”, referring to the rise of the far right and the climate of the 1930s.
“But this time it is more insidious. It [the extreme right/fascism] has been packaged to appear more dazzling and attractive to those who do not consider themselves fascists. I’m afraid, however, that the final destination could be the same,” he concludes.
The sales of 1984 have soared, as have the sales of The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which Hannah Arendt explores the roots of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, and which Amazon confirmed it needed to restock.