1

After reading Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four I was looking for more dystopias that are similar to it. But the trouble is, most of them are becoming more sci-fi based rather than politically based.

Don't misunderstand: I recognise the sci-fi elements from Nineteen Eighty-Four such as the tele-screens, but the main story was based around Big Brother rather than these elements.

2

Based on recent studies on dystopian fiction, I don't have the impression that dystopian fiction has become less popular, but it is a bit harder to find out whether political dystopias have become less popular.

One recent collection of essay is Han, John J.; Triplett, C. Clark; Anthony, Ashley G. (editors): Worlds Gone Awry: Essays on Dystopian Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.

The introduction to this book starts with a section on "The Development and Popularity of Dystopian Fiction". It starts by pointing out that sales of dystopian literature rose dramatically after the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the USA, especially sales of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and of Orwell's Animal Farm and "1984*. So it appears that some classic (political) dystopias have become more popular. The book's introduction also cites Alexandra Alter's New York Times article Boom Times for the New Dystopians (30.03.2017), which reviews a number of post-apocalyptic novels. The "apocalypse" in these novels may be war, climate change, some other biological or ecological disaster or a combination of these. The editors of Worlds Gone Awry go on to say,

What is certain is that people who live in today's society are increasingly concerned about the future of the world. Literature reflects the concerns and anxieties of readers, and dystopian literature focuses particularly on the potential problems humans face, such as totalitarianism, political anarchy, technological oppression, environmental disasters, global war, resource shortage, and widespread disease, among others.

Due to the recent popularity of dystopian fiction for "young adult readers", the editors also ask what it is about dystopian fiction that appeals to this age group:

Not surprisingly, common elements found in most dystopian novels include the pressure to conform and a lack of individual freedom (Scholes and Ostenson). Young people tend to relate to the ongoing stress of fitting in with their peers; they harbor a constant anxiety and fear of being the one who stands out. On the other hand, young adults often feel that their individual freedom is being stifled by authority, most often by their parents.

The editors also point out that young adults also connect with the technological aspect in dystopian fiction:

Today's young adults were born into a digital age; specifically, young adults may identify with feelings of social isolation in these novels due to their largely disconnected social lives.

The editors then briefly (i.e. in three paragraphs) sketch the history of dystopian fiction, ending with the sentence:

Finally, two recent events, the post-9/11 War on terror and the rise of right-wing politics, have played a role in the dramatic increase of readers who turn to dystopian fiction-both classical and new-to better understand the possibly disastrous consequences of "utopian" societies.

This implies that readers are definitely interested in political dystopias, apparently more so than, say, 20 years ago, but does not say whether authors are focusing more on it than before.

However, the editors then discuss the themes of dystopian fiction:

There is a diversity of trends in dystopian fiction as is made evident in this collection. Regardless of whether the discussion is on recent young adult renditions, such as The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner (2009), or more classical novels such as Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is difficult to find a single thread that pulls together the broad range of concerns and interests addressed within the corpus of dystopian fiction. Many literary scholars would agree, however, that some aspect of critique is at least implicit within all types of dystopian works, whether aimed at political manipulation, cultural power, governmental control, or technological sufficiency.

Nothing in this paragraph suggests that political dystopian fiction has become less popular. However, some scholars see a difference between "classical" dystopian fiction and the more recent form aimed at young adult readers:

Critics argue that classical dystopian literature, however, provides underlying questions about specific social and political concerns that elicit critical discourse on these issues in contemporary culture. Young adults dystopian literature, on the other hand, tends to appeal to popular adolescent issues such as self-identity, thrill-seeking, and romantic angst.

So the main difference, according to some critics, is not so much the sci-fi aspect, but the issues raised by these novels: political and social issues are not the main focus in much of the utopian fiction for young adults. However, the essays in Worlds Gone Awry appear to question this distinction:

The series of essays in this volume, however, demonstrates that such distinctions are arbitrary and that the intent of both classical and popular young adult dystopian works have similar trajectories and elicit critical inquiry that is more complex that is evident prima facie.

At the end of the introduction, the editors mention an older important analysis of modern dystopian fiction: M. Keith Booker's The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism (Praeger, 1994):

Published more than two decades ago, Booker's work analyzes several twentieth-century dystopian novels as political critiques of totalitarianism, Stalinism, capitalism and fascism. The primary texts the author covers are Zamyatin's We (completed in 1921), Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the bourgeois dystopian after World War II, the contemporary Communist dystopia, and Western postmodernist dystopias.

Nothing in the description of Booker's book suggests that political dystopias have become less popular since Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Other studies and collections include the following:

  • Claeys, Gregory: Dystopia: A Natural History. Oxford University Press, 2016; paperback 2018; 576 pages. The main concern of this book is totalitarian political dystopia.
  • Voigts, Eckart; Boller, Alessandra (editors): Dystopia, Science Fiction, Post-Apocalypse: Classics - New Tendencies - Model Interpretations. WVT - Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2015. According to the publisher's description, "Dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives, often within the generic framework of science fiction, are currently enjoying a remarkable popularity. Two world wars that brought the nemesis of technology and rationality, large-scale industrialism, collectivism and mass culture – these are historical stepping stones towards the rise of the classic dystopian and apocalyptic imagination in the 20th century. Since then, narratives of a future societal collapse have responded to a set of urgent challenges that, if anything, have increased at the beginning of the 21st century, from climate change and other eco-disasters to the economic crises of globalisation, fundamentalist counter-reactions to modernity, the rise of Big Data, the scientific dynamics in biotechnology, wild urbanisation, migration and displacement, and more."
  • Basu, Balaka; Broad, Katherine R.; Hintz, Carrie (editors): Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults: Brave New Teenagers. Routledge, 2015.
  • Palardy, Diana Q.: The Dystopian Imagination in Contemporary Spanish Literature and Film. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. According to the publisher, "This study examines contemporary Spanish dystopian literature and films (in)directly related to the 2008 financial crisis from an urban cultural studies perspective. It explores culturally-charged landscapes that effectively convey the zeitgeist and reveal deep-rooted anxieties about issues such as globalization, consumerism, immigration, speculation, precarity, and political resistance (particularly by Indignados [Indignant Ones] from the 15-M Movement). (...)"
  • Hart, Heidi: Music and the Environment in Dystopian Narrative: Sounding the Disaster. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. According to the publisher, this book "investigates the active role of music in film and fiction portraying climate crisis." This does not sound primarily political. It discusses books such as Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2017 novel The Book of Joan but does not focus exclusively on literature.
  • Gottlieb, Erika: Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001. According to the publisher, Gottlieb "iscusses Western classics such as Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bradbury's Farenheit 451, Vonnegut's Player Piano, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Zamiatin's We, all fictions that project expanded versions of the flaws of current society onto a hypothetical monster state in the future." She also "introduces the works of Victor Serge, Vassily Grossmam, Alexander Zinoviev, Tibor Dery, Arthur Koestler, Vaclav Havel, and Istvan Klima, as well as a host of others (...)". The focus of this study is definitely on political dystopias, many of which were written after Nineteen Eighty-Four.
  • Hintz, Carrie; Ostry, Elaine (editors): Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults. Routledge, 2009.
2

There were a number of non-scifi dystopian novels pre-Orwell; Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908) and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon (1940) stand out.

Since Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949, dystopian novels with a political or social rather than sci-fi focus actually seem to have flourished, perhaps influenced by the horror of recent and contemporary totalitarian regimes (especially '50s to '80s), the social impact of drugs ('60s) and fears about technology or fundamentalism ('80s onwards). The following brief list is just a sample:

There's also a swag of post-apocalyptic novels that are dystopian by definition (e.g. Earth Abides, Day of the Triffids, The Road, etc) but with a focus on survival.

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