What If: A Closer Look at Dystopian Speculative Fiction

Collage of a skyline with the '1984' eye in the background.

By Bryony Wright

Dystopian fiction is becoming more and more relevant. We’re living in an age of ‘doom and gloom’: turn on the TV, and you’ll see apocalyptic scenes caused by global warming. Walk down the street, and Orwellian public surveillance systems watch your every move. It’s no wonder, then, that writers increasingly choose to take to dystopian fiction to voice their concerns about the state of the world – and what better way to do this than speculating about what might happen?

Speculative fiction has been around for ages. First coined by American sci-fi author Robert Heinlein in 1947, the genre encompasses literature that deals with circumstances outside of reality, often involving imagined, supernatural, and/or futuristic elements. Although it wasn’t recognised as a genre until the 20th century, elements of speculative fiction have been identified dating as far back as the Ancient Greek era, and were prevalent in Shakespearian literature. 

It’s easy to blur the lines between the speculative genre and its literary siblings, science fiction and fantasy in particular. American author Ursula. K. Le Guin separates these terms by describing speculative fiction as writing which concerns itself with things that could really happen, classifying anything that falls outside of this definition as fantasy. By this logic, we can define some sci-fi as speculative fiction, depending on whether or not it’s likely to happen in real life. Dystopic fiction, referring to literature which revolves around suffering and injustice in society, can be speculative, but often encompasses works that are fantastical and difficult to relate to situations that exist, or have existed, in the real world. 

Dystopian speculative fiction, as a blend of these two genres, is especially captivating. It’s engaging and perceptive, creating societies that are problematic and dangerous, and placing them in a context that makes them seem just realistic enough to startle their audiences. They’re often allegorical, and say a lot about the societies in which they were written or inspired by. 

Margaret Atwood does a great job of exemplifying the dystopic speculative genre. Her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of modern speculative fiction out there. Atwood defines speculative fiction as literature that deals with plausible situations that have not yet happened. Written in the midst of the backlash against the rights that women had fought for in the 60s and 70s, Atwood’s novel is situated in the theocratic regime of Gilead, and is centered around the persecution of women’s political freedoms and bodily autonomy. It also touches on the dangers of ecocide, reflecting 80s fears about environmental destruction and its impact on humanity. When put into a historical context, it’s clear to see Atwood’s intentions with the book – she was warning her audience, letting them know what could happen. 

Another fantastic example of speculative fiction is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published in 1949, the novella was written in the aftermath of the Second World War. Accordingly, the book is crammed full of references to real-life totalitarianism- Orwell himself wrote that the book was ‘aimed directly against some of the most powerful movements of our time.’ Take the Thought Police, for example – a secret police system organised by the government, who use terror to keep citizens in line with the Party’s rules. Or the Junior Spies network, in which children are indoctrinated into snitching on their parents to the State. Terrifying examples of power such as these are woven throughout the book and cannot fail to remind the reader of entities such as Hitler’s Nazi Youth and Gestapo – a deliberate move on Orwell’s part.

The scary thing is, these dystopian realities aren’t so distant from life as we know it today. Worldwide, rates of assisted reproductive technology are rising by 5% each year, with studies linking infertility rates to an increased body load of environmental toxins. Recent movements such as #MeToo highlight the misogyny and violence against women that exist in our current society. In 2019, Wikipedia  joined other information sources such as Google on the list of websites banned in China, exemplifying the censorship and restrictions on people’s freedoms that are propelling one of the world’s leading nations towards totalitarianism. Even more shockingly, in 2018, Reporters Without Borders ranked the UK 40th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index, implying that it’s one of the most censored countries in Western Europe. This is startling news when you consider how the world looks to countries such as the UK as pillars of democracy and freedom.

All in all, it’s clear that speculative fiction often turns out to be not so fictitious after all. Time and time again, the books that muse on our futures turn out to be more like prophecies than hypotheses.  Considering this, perhaps it’s time we all paid more attention to the likes of Atwood and Orwell, so as to avoid replicating the worlds that they so astutely create in their novels.