North America has recently seen a boom in dark and apocalyptic films and novels, particularly dystopian stories that feature totalitarian governments, mass surveillance and sinister technology.
The Hunger Games and Divergent, for example, are both hugely popular dystopian novels. A new addition to the genre is Black Mirror, a television show with an international audience that acts as a kind of internet-age Twilight Zone and recently had its third season picked up by Netflix.
This increased interest in dystopian stories is apparent here at Western. There’s now an English course on girlhood in young adult dystopian fiction and both a film course and a history course on zombie apocalypse narratives.
Perhaps this popularity is because dystopias comment on where we are as a society.
Miranda Green-Barteet, professor of English and women’s studies at Western, teaches the class on young adult dystopian fiction and says she “kind of wonders if we’re not living in a dystopian world right now."
Dystopias show a “general fear that things are out of control for most people” says MIT professor Tim Blackmore, whose research on war and capitalism tie into elements of dystopia. He says they present a world to us which is very dangerous and sadistic, brutal and apparently without meaning.
The popularity of the genre could be evidence that this is indeed an anxiety in our society. After all, 2016 has been a year of unexpected events and political turmoil.
Black Mirror is often remarked upon for the uncanny way in which it predicts the future. A relevant example is an episode that portrays a cartoon character being elected as prime minister based on his crude insults which were seen as a rejection of the establishment. It’s easy to compare this to the shocking results of the U.S. election.
Dystopian narratives feature an “awakening, or epiphany... that society is imperfect," says Green-Barteet. Are more readers identifying with this ‘awakening’ in our current cultural and political moment?
In our media and technology saturated culture, this image of the world and our anxieties also manifests itself in what Blackmore sees as “the incredible amount of data that pours through social networks on a daily basis," adding that this is likely what people are afraid of.
While they often focus on the fear surrounding current technology, dystopias, for all their popularity right now, are part of an older literary tradition — dark, scary tales meant to spook readers. And, in the end, says Blackmore, those stories teach us that “the world will punish you and it won’t make any sense particularly. You’ll just be eaten by a wolf.”
If this is the world that the stories we enjoy reflect back at us, then our world is a dark one. But despite the fear that dystopian stories create, they also reassure us.
“We see a lot of issues that are going on in our own world in these books and it might be maybe a bit comforting to think it isn’t that bad yet,” says Green-Barteet.
Blackmore summarizes the appeal of dystopian narratives, despite the darkness and bleakness that surrounds them. “The function of dystopia is ultimately reassuring, as odd as that sounds… no matter how bad it gets, people do survive.”
With files from Ameena Abid.