Australian writer of books for younger readers, young adults, verse novels and poetry.

Dystopian fiction in 5 bites

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At the beginning of the year, I was a little obsessed with dystopian fiction. I’d read Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel’s post-pandemic book,  published in 2014 in either 2022 or 2023, but hadn’t read either Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (although I thought I had!) or Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. – although, bizarrely, I thought I’d read that, too. These excursions into dystopian fiction made me wonder why we read this genre – and why so many are written any given decade, because you can find fine examples dating from 1890s and every decade since.  This question particularly interested me when I emerged out the other side in dire need of P G Wodehouse. So, here’s what I came up with:

1. Dystopian fiction helps us interrogate what is happening to and in the world right now. It makes us pay attention. Sit up. It offers  versions of our future that will not make us happy but which might make us take action.

2. It often challenges us to consider how we would act in a dystopian world. Would we stop for the wounded and vulnerable? The children? Are we personally  capable of being our best possible selves under the worst possible circumstances?

3. It makes us consider what skills we could take into a world that was nothing like the world we had previously inhabited. Intense reading of dystopian fiction may lead to new hobbies – archery, anyone?

4. It can draw our attention to everything we have learnt to take for granted.

5. But in a strange way, it is also optimistic. You can’t have a narrative without characters. So some of us have to survive to create stories in the new world.  I don’t want this theory tested.

All of these books are worth reading – I loved the humour in Canticle, the writing in all of them and the poetry in Station Eleven. But now I’m off to recuperate. If you want to read P. G. Wodehouse as respite from it all (fill in with what ever ‘it all’ means to you) may I recommend Jeeves and Wooster, of course, but also Leave it to Psmith – such a joy. Or, if you are hooked on Emily St John Mandel, I loved The Glass Hotel.


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