A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction | Jill Lepore

A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction; Jill Lepore; In The New Yorker; 2017-06-02.
Teaser: What to make of our new literature of radical pessimism.

Jill Lepore
  • staff, New Yorker
  • David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and Harvard College Professor, Harvard, Opera.
  • The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a book, in promotion now.

Gregory Claeys, Dystopia: A Natural History; Oxford University Press; 2017-02-01; 576 pages; Amazon:0198785682: Kindle: no, paper: $110+SHT.

tl;dr → she’s not up for the dystopia genre, not for long. See her summation.


  • dystopian
  • apocalyptic
Eras of Popularity
  • Atlas Shrugged → 2008 of Obama.
  • 1984 → 2016 of Trump.

The Young Adult Genre

  • <quote>But the genre only really took off in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, when distrust of adult institutions and adult authority flourished, and the publishing industry began producing fiction packaged for “young adults,” ages twelve to eighteen.</quote>
  • <quote>All of them are characterized by a withering contempt for adults and by an unshakable suspicion of authority.</quote>
  • <quote>it’s also addressed to readers who feel betrayed by a world that looked so much better to them when they were just a bit younger.</quote>
  • <quote>Lately, even dystopian fiction marketed to adults has an adolescent sensibility, pouty and hostile</quote>


In archaeological order

  • Lidia Yuknavitch, The Book of Joan, Harper, 2017.
  • Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines, Little, Brown, 2017.
    tl;dr → <quote>early-twenty-first-century United States in which slavery abides, made crueller, and more inescapable, by the giant, unregulated slave-owning corporations that deploy the surveillance powers of modern technology, so that even escaping to the North (on underground airlines) hardly offers much hope, since free blacks in cities like Chicago live in segregated neighborhoods with no decent housing or schooling or work and it’s the very poverty in which they live that defeats arguments for abolition by hardening ideas about race.</quote>
  • Omar El Akkad, American War, Knopf, 2017.
  • Cory Doctorow, Walkaway, 2016?
    endorsed by Edward Snowden, from exile in Russia.
    “My father spies on me,” the novel’s young heroie complains.
    tl;dr → <quote>Doctorow pounds the same nails with the same bludgeon <snip/> his walkaways are trying to turn a dystopia into a utopia by writing better computer code than their enemies.</quote>
  • Cory Doctorow, Little Brother, WHEN? (earlier than Walkaway)?
    tl;dr → four teen-agers and their fight for Internet privacy rights.
  • Ernest Cline, Ready Player One, 2011.
    <quote>“I grew up a little, and I gradually began to figure out that pretty much everyone had been lying to me about pretty much everything,” the high-school-age narrator opines</quote>
  • WHO?, The Hunger Games, a trilogy, 2008.
  • M. T. Anderson, Feed, 2002.
    tl;dr → <quote>a smart and fierce answer to the “Don’t Be Evil” utopianism of Google, founded in 1996</quote>
  • Black Mirror, 2011; a serialized drama, for television
  • Barack Obama, some speech, 2008-01.
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale,, WHEN?
    patterned after Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • The Moral Majority, a movement & organization, founded in 1979
  • WHO? The Camp of the Saints, 1973; French.
    favorited by Steve Bannon.
  • Chad Walsh, opined in 1962.
  • Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957
  • WHO?, The Lord of the Flies, 1954.
  • Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1953.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, 1952.
  • John Updike, opined in 1954.
  • George Orwell, 1984, 1949, themed: (anti-)fascist.
  • Ayn Rand, Anthem, 1937, themed: (anti-)fascist.
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 1935; themed: eugenicists
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, 1924; themed communist.
  • Michael Tolkin, Some Novel, Atlantic, WHEN?
  • H. G. Wells, When the Sleeper Awakes, 1899.
  • H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895.
  • Anna Bowman Dodd, The Republic of the Future, 1887.
  • Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 1888.
  • Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861.
    tl;dr → same plot as The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 1826.
  • Thomas Paine, Rights of Man circa 1792.
  • Thomas Moore, Trip to the Island of Equality, 1792.
  • Christine de Pisan, The Song of Joan of Arc, 1429.
  • Christine de Pisan, Book of the City of Ladies, 1405.


  • <quote>Dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning.</quote>
  • <quote>Pick your present-day dilemma; there’s a new dystopian novel to match it.</quote>
  • <quote>Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. <snip/> Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.<quote>, opined by Jill Lepore, she as herself, in summation.


meta-theoretically about dystopian literature

  • <quote>It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias,” Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we’ve already had <quote>, attributed to Margaret Atwood “in the nineteen-eighties.”

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