This is a guest post by Kurt McCrohan.
Execution by combat, globally spread degenerative disease, and a bleak, desolate landscape challenging human survival. Sounds familiar, and there’s a reason for that. These are but a few examples of the themes which have been dominating the most recent popular films and novels, and while they are both exciting and epic, why exactly are these dystopian arts on the rise now?
The last great surge in dystopian literature came in the 50’s and 60’s during what can be labeled as the peak of the Cold War. Before then was the World War II inspired wave, and we are beginning to see a pattern here, aren’t we? Strife in the real world, such as a war, reflects in the art of contemporaries. War is tragic, oppressive, and horrifying. And so, it comes as no wonder then that war, along with an array of other global and domestic tragedies, can cause a shift in the artistic output of cities, countries, and the entire world.
From the dreadful drone-like existence of humans in “1984”, reflecting fears of social collapse and the rise of the all-powerful military government to the social commentary of “A Clockwork Orange”, highlighting the conflict between human nature in its darkest form and the unnatural need to alter the direction of free will in the name of a manufactured morality, we see how both Orwell and Burgess took hold of their life’s circumstances and their fears for the future and turned them into powerful dystopian titans that would never fade out of popularity. The genre, however, did fade.
As war time waned, so did the need to express closeted fears of what would come. Now, I don’t mean to imply that all was well with the world by the late 70’s after the Vietnam war, but on a global scale the world had begun to settle, and its obsession with the dark arts followed suit. Though there were still dystopian masterpieces coming to surface, such as “Watchmen”, and the less masterful but equally memorable “Battle Royale”, the general culture of the world was not demanding a showcase of the worst possible scenario for mankind. Yet, as we entered the early and mid-2000’s, these titles resurfaced and many works that surfaced in the 80’s and 90’s were re-imagined for the new cultural artistic needs.
In the late 90’s, the economy was still stable, and neither the EU nor America had suffered the harsh and crippling recessions that were looming in the not-so-distant future. Add on to this developing financial insecurity the rise of fatal diseases, horrific war crimes, and the realization of technologies that would echo the promises of Ray Bradbury, and you’ve got the recipe for dystopian demand.
Our current social, economic, and environmental woes are changing the palettes of our artists to a darker shade, and shifting focus onto the possibility of complete and utter failure for mankind. Novels turned film like “The Road” and teen sensation “The Hunger Games”, are just to examples of how writers and filmmakers of all generations are communicating their fears. We have more power now through technological development than any generation before, which is obviously going to continue building as time passes, but what we also have now is an insecurity and a moral concern for our ability to utilize this new power responsibly. The global warming issue and widespread deforestation combined with what many view as the desensitization of our society to violence and sex are being voiced by characters, themes, and settings in these popular novels to simulate what a world would be like if it were truly embracing and engulfed in violence or devoid of a human-friendly environment.
Some may find this trend depressing and negative, but at some point, isn’t it no longer just art and more of a challenge brought about by our own labors? A challenge to our leaders and ourselves to ensure that these dystopian worlds do not come to fruition, and that the fears which we all share and delight in seeing displayed within a novel or film are sated by action and progression? Art is a direct product of the culture surrounding it and the popular trends for novels and films have continually highlighted this with every passing decade.
It takes a dark inspiration to produce a dark art, and as the times grow more and more weary with worry, that inspiration is becoming ever more prevalent in the modern day demand for dystopian fiction.
Kurt McCrohan is a horror and dystopian fiction writer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His first book, Human Nature: Fire Rises Within, is a science-fiction adventure story with strong dystopian themes. On Kurt’s behalf, I’d like to politely request that if you enjoyed this post, follow him on Twitter and get in touch with him!
This is an excellent post. I do think art should not only reflect our experience, but challenge us to confront and change it. I like to think the prevalence of dystopian fiction, particularly in the YA market, is indicative of a responsible, alert audience for whom reading is not simply escapism.
I find it interesting that, while dystopian fiction sort of came into its own during the paranoia of the Cold War, there was a good deal of optimism about the future at the same time–I guess I’m thinking particularly of Star Trek TOS. I don’t see an equivalent current trend; it seems to me that the treatment of the future is universally pretty bleak in current literature. I’m curious about that discrepancy.
I’ve thought about your second point quite a bit. I think in the post-War era people generally looked forward to the advances of science & thought that scientific progress held all the answers. The future was bright, even despite the nuclear fallout. Now, though, we knew that not all scientific advances are good, and many of the things that seem good initially turn out to be awful in the long run. So I think there’s a skepticism that science can solve our problems, which is why we’re sort of psychologically stymied in our search for a bright future.
That’s a good point; long-term perspective probably has a lot to do with it–it’s taken us this long to realize science isn’t the answer to all our societal woes, but often part of the problem. (Which makes Huxley’s “Brave New World” seem all the more prescient, really.)
Which I still haven’t read! It’s next on my list, though 🙂
It’s so good. I love Orwell, but “Brave New World” is much better than “1984” IMHO. 🙂