Oxford Dictionaries describes it as ‘an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. The opposite of utopia.’ Merriam-Webster similarly lists it as ‘an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives’. The Australian Macquarie Dictionary has ‘an imaginary world where everything is as bad as it can possibly be’.
What is it about imagining a dark future of mass poverty, squalor, suffering and oppression, or a society run amok with political, social and technological extremes, that makes us think: ‘Yeah, bring it on’?
The Divergent and Hunger Games series are just two examples of the uber-successful nature of this genre. And that great Australian cinematic juggernaut, Mad Max, hits our screens again in less than a week, with the release of the fourth episode, Mad Max: Fury Road.
Of course, there is a great literary tradition forged by Franz Kafka, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Raymond Bradbury, Anthony Burgess and Margaret Atwood, to name a few, with works that have tackled the dystopian themes of tyrannical political regimes, technology out of control, biological hazards, military dictatorships and the subjugation of women. It is a genre that evolves with our changing technological, political and cultural concerns: the most recently named sub-category is ‘cli-fi’, which focuses on a future with a severely degraded climate.
Herein lies the great attraction of dystopian fiction: it goes to the heart of the changes in our world about which we feel anxious, playing on our deepest concerns about the future and where we might fit into it. And, of course, most works in this genre have a hero that challenges the new status quo. The hero’s rejection of this brave new world inspires us to believe there is hope yet.
We publish some outstanding titles in this genre. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a scathing satire of Soviet communism that is as potent now as it was in 1945. In the cult classic The Quiet Earth, Craig Harrison’s protagonist wakes to a world where all the clocks are stopped at 6:12 and everyone—animal and human—is gone. Don Rearden’s The Raven’s Gift is a gripping post-apocalyptic nightmare in which an epidemic wipes out an isolated community, whose calls for help go unanswered by the rest of the world. In cli-fi thriller The Well there is only one place in the UK where rain is still falling; the country is under military rule and people are drawn, for better or worse, to that one source of hope that leads to the ultimate tragedy. Two collections of short stories—Arms Race and The Double—examine humanity’s future in diverse and compelling ways. And forthcoming novels by Jesse Ball and Trent Jamieson imagine bleak, post-traumatic worlds.
From our young-adult list, Jane Higgins’ Text Prize–winning The Bridge and its sequel, Havoc, depict a city divided by a war in which the young are indoctrinated through fear and military oppression. Another inventive Text Prize winner, This Is Shyness by Leanne Hall, is set in a suburb where the sun no longer rises and sugar-crazed Kidds prowl the streets. Winner of the French Prix Sorcières, Bernard Beckett’s gripping Genesis is set in 2075, where a totalitarian republic has emerged from a ruined world and humanity has lost its way.
Browse though this brilliant list and find something that challenges you.