Future Tense

Why We Need Dystopian Fiction Now More Than Ever

A man in a helmet, mask, and mirrored sunglasses wearing a mask that
A New York City Police Department officer during a protest against police violence, July 15, 2020 Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

On Tuesday, July 21, at 4 p.m. Eastern, P.W. Singer, co-author of the new book Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, and Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series and Chosen Ones, will join June Thomas, senior managing producer for Slate podcasts, to discuss the role of speculative fiction in the real world. RSVP here.

It hits you every so often.

When you tug on a face mask to go pick up food for your family.

When you witness the powerless suffer casual violence by a man with a sneer.

When you see riot police surround the Lincoln Memorial and protesters snatched off the streets by masked soldiers in unmarked cars.

And when you realize that it is all being watched by an unblinking eye of A.I. surveillance.

At times, it feels like we are living in a real-world version of dystopia. The strange outcome, though, is that it means we need dystopian fiction now more than ever, to help us sort and even make it through it.

You’d think with everything going on, now would be the last time to escape to a world of darkness. And yet books, including those of awful imagined worlds, are in deep demand.
Some of it has been a return to old classics. In a period of disease and lockdowns lasting for weeks, booksellers report the seeming irony that Albert Camus’ The Plague and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude have seen renewed demand. And some of it has been escaping into new worlds, as with Divergent author Veronica Roth taking readers into another post-apocalypse with her new novel Chosen Ones. People have even been willing to enter imagined worlds that seem not too far away, such as Lawrence Wright’s best-selling pandemic thriller The End of October.

Yet the value of the genre is as much in education as entertainment. It can elucidate dangers, serving the role of warning and even preparation. Think of the recent resonance of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 Handmaid’s Tale and its 2020 sequel The Testaments or the revival of interest in It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis in 1935. These are finely written works, not as indulgences, but as a pure expression of the idea that to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Even Susan Collins’ Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, might be interpreted in that light, showing how authoritarian rule can originate through the manipulations of an ambitious striver.

Our personal corner of this dark market is the meld of imagination with research. For our book Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, we chose the setting of not a far-off imagined world like Panem or Gilead, but Washington, D.C., just around the corner. What happens as Silicon Valley’s visions of utopia hits our real, and very divided, country? What plays out in politics, business, and even family life as our economy is rewired by AI and automation? Yet to make our scenario more haunting, we back up everything that happens in it with 27 pages of endnotes.

When the scarier elements from an imagined world come to life in the real one, however, there is no gleeful “I told you so.” When the novel coronavirus accelerated the more widespread roll out of the robots, remote work, job automation, and AI surveillance projected in our book, we certainly weren’t happy. All it meant was that all the tough dilemmas that our characters face would come quicker for all of us. What was perhaps most disturbing of the last few weeks, though, were when some of the most dystopian scenes we had painted of a future Washington, D.C., also came true, from our book’s scene of riot police deployed around the Lincoln Memorial to the militarized fence thrown up around the White House being put exactly where we had it in Burn-In.

Yet what makes dystopian fiction different is that its creators are oddly optimists at heart, as we are. These works are not about prediction, but prevention. The stories warn of just how far things can go if action isn’t taken, wrapped in a package that is far more impactful than a white paper or PowerPoint. Indeed, research shows that narrative, the oldest communication technology of all, holds more sway over both the public and policymakers than even the “most canonical academic sources.” Our minds can’t help but connect to the “synthetic environment” that our fictional heroes and villains experience, living part of our lives through theirs, even if imagined.

Most importantly, though, the dark worlds are only the setting. The stories are really about the agency of the people in them. And that is perhaps the true value of the dystopian fiction. These stories are not about what those characters experience so much as how they act. At the heart of every story of darkness is a story of perseverance.

As we face our own difficult journeys through the reality of 2020, it is perhaps that lesson which is most important of all.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.