From the “everything old is new again” files: Bygone dystopian fiction is officially back in vogue. As reported last month, Penguin Random House has seen a 9,500 percent sales increase for George Orwell’s 1984 since Trump’s inauguration; that was enough to propel the book to the top spot on Amazon’s bestseller list. The publisher also saw enough demand for It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satirical novel about an authoritarian president, to reissue a paperback edition in December—and then double down with a robust second print run in January.
Nor is this newfound popularity a reflection of blue-state tastes. At Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas, general manager Ben Rybeck says copies of 1984 and other titles are “flying” off the shelves. Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho sold eight copies of 1984 in January—compared to one in January 2016. And at Book Loft in Columbus, Ohio, sales manager Glen Welch has seen unprecedented demand. “All of a sudden, these books started taking off,” says Welch, who describes the store’s customers as an even split between liberal and conservative. “I haven’t seen this before, in my 10 years here.”
Part of the appeal of these classics, of course, is a morbid strain of escapism: Dystopian fiction enables readers to taste a darker timeline, albeit one that a protagonist invariably triumphs over. The world could be a lot worse, you think while reading. But the thrill goes beyond the vicarious. A dystopian worldview, whether derived from fiction or real-world events, can have therapeutic value—no matter which side of the aisle your politics belong on.
“We’re Saturated With Dystopia”
Dystopian literature has long given writers a means of interrogating the world around them. Orwell conceived of 1984 under the looming threat of the Soviet Union, and Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale after the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “We can work our way through problems by telling stories better, at times, than by writing philosophical treatises,” says Chris Robichaud, an ethicist at Harvard who teaches a course on utopia and dystopia in fiction and philosophy. “You look to fiction to see how people are wrestling with serious problems.” That’s valuable for readers as well, especially in a politically divided climate like today’s. “We can’t look at dystopias as merely some bad slippery slope argument,” says Robichaud. “Rather, they challenge us: What are the values in this dystopia, and what do they say about our values right now?”
In fall 2016, Skidmore College professor Nicholas Junkerman taught a course on utopia and dystopia, with a reading list that included Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go—as well as Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. The English professor planned to include modern utopian narratives as well, but found that 20th-century texts—and preoccupations—skewed pronouncedly pessimistic. “We’re saturated with dystopia,” Junkerman says. That outlook suffuses not just Donald Trump’s rhetoric (“American carnage,” anyone?), but his supporters’ as well: “‘Make America Great Again’ is about finding our way back to utopia.”
Some writers feel the same way. Last year, Alexander Weinstein published Children of the New World, a dystopian short-story collection about our reliance on technology, as a way to warn readers about a possible future. Now, Weinstein is working on his next book, but its scope—it’s a fictional field guide to a lost continent—gives him some agita. “Look at this society,” he says. “What am I doing writing about fantastical locations, when the world is going down in flames?” Weinstein has no plans to change his current project, although even if he did, the results might not be what one would expect: “It’s hard to write dark speculative fiction presently, because it all seems quaint in comparison” to what’s happening now, Weinstein says.
People naturally gravitate toward a narrative that validates their own worldview. For some, President Trump’s tweets about a conniving elite and a corrupt media echo their feelings that the odds are against them. For others, George Orwell’s chronicle of totalitarian doublethink provides comfort that we’ve fought “alternative facts” before, and we’re still standing. Either way, people are reaching out to dark visions to make sense of an increasingly unrecognizable country. A well-told narrative, truthful or not, can awaken a reader’s imagination and push them to action—and a neat dystopia is often more satisfying than a complicated truth.