From the â€œeverything old is new againâ€ files:Â Bygone dystopian fiction is officially back in vogue. As reported last month, Penguin Random House has seenÂ a 9,500 percent sales increase for George Orwellâ€™sÂ 1984Â since Trumpâ€™s inauguration;Â that was enough to propel the book to the top spot on Amazonâ€™s bestseller list. The publisher alsoÂ saw enough demand for It Canâ€™t Happen Here,Â Sinclair Lewisâ€™ 1935 satirical novel about an authoritarian president, to reissue a paperback edition in Decemberâ€”and then double down with aÂ robustÂ second printÂ run in January.
Nor is this newfound popularity a reflection of blue-state tastes. At Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas, general manager Ben RybeckÂ says copies of 1984 and other titles areÂ â€œflyingâ€ off the shelves. Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho sold eight copies of 1984 in Januaryâ€”compared to one in January 2016. And at Book Loft in Columbus, Ohio, sales manager Glen WelchÂ has seen unprecedented demand. â€œAll of a sudden, these books started taking off,â€ says Welch, whoÂ describes the storeâ€™s customers as an even split between liberal and conservative. â€œI havenâ€™t seen this before, in my 10 years here.â€
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.Â But the thrill goes beyond the vicarious. A dystopian worldview,Â whetherÂ derived from fiction or real-world events, can have therapeutic valueâ€”no matter which side of the aisle your politics belong on.
â€œWeâ€™re Saturated With Dystopiaâ€
Dystopian literature has long given writersÂ a meansÂ ofÂ interrogating the world around them. Orwell conceived ofÂ 1984Â under the looming threat of the Soviet Union, and Margaret AtwoodÂ wroteÂ The Handmaidâ€™s TaleÂ after the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. â€œWe can work our way through problems by telling stories better, at times, than by writing philosophical treatises,â€ says Chris Robichaud, anÂ ethicist at Harvard who teaches a course on utopia and dystopia in fiction and philosophy. â€œYou look to fiction to see how people are wrestling with serious problems.â€ Thatâ€™s valuable for readers as well, especially in a politically divided climate like todayâ€™s. â€œWe canâ€™t look at dystopias as merely some bad slippery slope argument,â€ says Robichaud. â€œRather, they challenge us: What are the values in this dystopia, and what do they say about our values right now?â€
In fall 2016, Skidmore College professor Nicholas Junkerman taught a course on utopia and dystopia, with a reading list that includedÂ Octavia Butlerâ€™s Parable of the Sower and Kazuo Ishiguroâ€™s Never Let Me Goâ€”as well as Trumpâ€™s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. The English professor planned to include modern utopian narratives as well, but found that 20th-century textsâ€”and preoccupationsâ€”skewed pronouncedly pessimistic. â€œWeâ€™re saturated with dystopia,â€ Junkerman says. That outlook suffuses not justÂ Donald Trumpâ€™s rhetoric (â€œAmerican carnage,â€ anyone?), but his supportersâ€™ as well: â€œâ€˜Make America Great Againâ€™ is about finding our way back to utopia.â€
Some writers feelÂ the same way.Â Last year, Alexander Weinstein publishedÂ 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 scopeâ€”itâ€™s a fictional field guide to a lost continentâ€”gives him some agita. â€œLook at this society,â€ he says. â€œWhat am I doing writing about fantastical locations, when the world is going down in flames?â€ Weinstein has no plansÂ to change his current project, although even if he did, the results might not be what one would expect:Â â€œItâ€™s hard to write dark speculative fiction presently, because it all seems quaint in comparisonâ€ to whatâ€™s happening now, Weinstein says.
People naturally gravitate toward a narrative that validatesÂ their own worldview. For some, President Trumpâ€™s tweets aboutÂ a conniving elite and a corrupt media echo their feelings that the odds are against them. For others, George Orwellâ€™s chronicle of totalitarian doublethink provides comfort that weâ€™ve fought â€œalternative factsâ€ before, and weâ€™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 readerâ€™s imagination and push them to actionâ€”and a neat dystopia is often more satisfying than a complicated truth.