The Appeal of Dystopian Literature

Everyone struggles with feelings of powerlessness, feeling as if the responsibilities, tasks, burdens, and restrictions that we shoulder are too much.

How often does someone cut you off in traffic, or “get away” with something, and you feel the injustice of it? It’s not just a matter of “skipped ahead” or “created more work for you”, it’s the fact that they were allowed to do so, while you “feel” that you could never get away with that. It’s easy to feel like these small “wrongs” are much “larger” than they really are.

Consider how often people feel like a politician, boss, or other authority figure is “unfair”.

Dystopian literature provides a relatable “affirmation” of these feelings. In Dystopian literature the problems/wrongs are larger than life, and that helps audiences feel validated in their own intense feelings.

Consider childhood. Everyone is born into a life and a world that they did not choose; one where they have little to no control over their circumstances. No one chooses who their parents are, or where or when they are born. They are simply thrust into a system where parents and other adults have authority over them, and the child has no control or power beyond what others choose to grant them.

That relationship is echoed and exaggerated in the overpowered antagonists of dystopian stories. The “underdog” rebels, trying to overcome the powerful enemy, who harshly demands that the rebels obey and submit to “their authority”; it is a perfect exaggeration of childhood for many. Granted, most of us start out as immature individuals who lack the perspective to realize that many of our wishes & desires are in fact bad ideas. But what child doesn’t secretly dream of somehow overcoming or escaping the system, of “changing the world” and “breaking the cycle”.

I think this is why dystopian literature has such a strong appeal to teenagers, and why we are seeing a surge in dystopian literature. As cultures and political groups become more polarizing, it’s easy for anyone to feel like there are too many in power who do not represent their views, and in fact work against those views.

I think it’s very interesting to look at what is popular in entertainment, and consider how those products in turn demonstrate what many feel is lacking in their daily/professional lives. The rise in popularity of both dystopian literature and the “achievements” systems in games imply a strong desire to “break free”, to “accomplish something”, suggesting that many feel a lack of agency and accomplishment in their daily lives, just as the popularity of the irreverent humor that dominates Marvel’s superhero movies highlight a strong need to laugh, even in the midst of very troubling situations.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “The Appeal of Dystopian Literature

  1. Great post! There seems to be this universal appeal for rooting for the underdog and overcoming insurmountable obstacles which is what most people want to see happening in their own lives. Never really realized that before. thanks.

    • Thank you. And I agree. I think it’s very interesting to approach art from the perspective of “potentially” craving what is under represented in real life.

  2. I’m glad you wrote about this trend, and I agree. The Dystopian fiction genre is a great metaphor for many of our current struggles and the abuse of power that we see at all levels of society. I just wish that there were more writers who took these real-life parallels to heart. Many of these books seem more geared towards appealing to teens through romance and stereotypical character arcs. A great read. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you. I’m glad you enjoy it. As a writer I’m often struck by how we don’t consciously realize what our subconscious is saying.

      For example, many of my flash fiction stories feature characters struggling to understand, to be understood, or to accept that some things are best left alone, appreciated from afar, without intruding for the sake of understanding. And I think that’s an interesting realization to make.

      Whether it’s what we create or what we seek out, there’s a lot that can best be learned indirectly.

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