Sunday Reading: Dystopian Fiction
Fifty years ago this week, Kurt Vonnegut published the dystopian classic “Slaughterhouse-Five.” With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s easy to feel as though we’re living in a dystopia from which there’s no escape. This weekend, we’re bringing you pieces about the scary, strange, magnetic appeal of dystopian fiction. Rebecca Mead profiles Margaret Atwood, whose novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been adapted into a popular television series; Anthony Burgess reflects on how he came to write “A Clockwork Orange.” Richard Brody explores the themes of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism in Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” and Ginger Strand describes Jane Vonnegut’s significant influence on the work of Jane’s husband, Kurt. Jill Lepore surveys the history of dystopian novels and examines the origins of postwar pessimism. Finally, Laura Miller contemplates the boom in dystopian fiction published for younger readers. (The surveillance states portrayed in many Y.A. novels, she writes, echo the real-life experiences of adolescents “growing up under nearly continuous adult supervision.”) Dystopian novels can be a form of lurid escapism. But they can help us perceive our own world more clearly, too.
“Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness.”
“Jane Vonnegut was in some sense a character invented by Kurt. But only in the sense that Kurt Vonnegut was, and equally, a character invented by Jane.”
“Margaret Atwood is a buoyant doomsayer. Like a skilled doctor, she takes evident satisfaction in providing an accurate diagnosis, even when the cultural prognosis is bleak.”
“What I was trying to say in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was that it is better to be bad of one’s own free will than to be good through scientific brainwashing.”
“The novel dramatizes the American character as vast, manifold, and inchoate; it can use its prodigious and uninhibited energy for good or for evil, and it shifts under the sudden force of unforeseeable events.”
“Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.”