Postwar Literary Dystopias
When Fahrenheit 451 was first published in 1953, the novel was part of a wave of dystopian literary fiction that swelled in the aftermath of World Wars I and II, and which has continued to grow unabated well into the twenty-first century. Dystopian fiction depicts the opposite of an ideal society (or “utopia”), usually to draw attention to current social and political problems that, if left unattended, could assume truly terrifying forms in the future. One of the earliest dystopian texts appeared in the eighteenth century, with the publication of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift. The protagonist of Swift’s book visits a series of problematic fictional societies, each of which reflects problems that Swift saw in his own society. Several other key forebears of modern dystopian fiction appeared throughout the nineteenth century, the most notable of which is Samuel Butler’s novel Erewhon (1872). Butler spends a great deal of time in his novel describing the place known as Erewhon, an apparent utopia that eventually proves deeply dysfunctional, and hence a dystopia.
Although dystopian fiction initially appeared in the eighteenth century, it did not emerge as a genre until the twentieth century, when the horrors of World Wars I and II jumpstarted the dystopian imagination. If early dystopian fiction always had an inherent political orientation, the dystopian fiction of the twentieth century takes this orientation to a new extreme, often specifically warning against the dangers of fascism. Several examples of anti-fascist dystopian fiction appeared after World War I. For example, Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935) imagines what would happen if the United States had a dictator, and Katharine Burdekin’s novel Swastika Night (1937) envisions an alternative future in which Hitler’s idea of a “thousand-year Reich” comes to fruition. Even Aldous Huxley’s famous dystopian novel Brave New World (1932) warns against the pseudo-fascism of genetic modification and technological domination. The decades following World War II witnessed the further expansion of the dystopian canon, most notably with George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), as well as Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. These and other dystopian novels continued to emphasize the dangers of fascistic police states like those that had recently driven the world into harrowing violence.
The ongoing interest in literary dystopias has continued into the first decades of the twenty-first century, where it has strongly influenced young adult literature. Some of the most famous and influential young adult dystopias include Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, James Dashner’s Maze Runner trilogy, and Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. These and many other examples of young adult dystopian fiction depict deeply troubled future societies in which children and young people bear the brunt of political violence and repression, and hence must revolt against the corruption of adults. Such novels reimagine dystopian fiction for a new era. No longer primarily focused on the kind of fascism that defined many of the conflicts in the twentieth century, the dystopian fiction of the twenty-first century reflects the fear that today’s youngest generation is poised to inherit a deeply troubled world characterized by climate catastrophe as well as increased conflict over resources and basic human rights.