We have always been drawn to the worst-case scenario in fiction, as evidenced by the resurgence of "The Handmaid’s Tale" and others. But why? Research sheds some light.By Jane HuApr 17, 2017 2:30 PM
While writing her hit novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood was living in West Berlin, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. “During my visits to several countries behind the Iron Curtain … I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information,” she recounts in the afterward of the new edition of the audiobook. “Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight … Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.”
This is an aesthetic she carries into her work. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the “established order” has given way to a world in which fertile women are conscripted to a life of servitude, bearing children to repair the declining population. More than 30 years after its initial publication, this dark narrative has found new appeal: sales have skyrocketed, Audible has just released a new edition of the audiobook featuring a new afterword and extended ending by Atwood, and Hulu is airing a series based on the novel.
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t the only novel making a comeback. Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 were reportedly up 9,500 percent; Penguin Books issued a 75,000 reprint order to fill the staggering demand. Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World have also shot up TheNew York Times’ bestseller list. There’s a common theme at work among these tales: dystopia. In each, the world as we know it has given way to a nightmarish future where the powerful rule over the everyman. Why would we want to spend our time pondering the worst possible futures? And why now?
“The themes we’re most drawn to in fiction are the themes that would have mattered for survival in the environment in which we evolved.”
Well, for one, it’s hard not to imagine terrifying outcomes — we’re wired to do that. “The themes we’re most drawn to in fiction are the themes that would have mattered for survival in the environment in which we evolved,” says Jennifer Barnes, an assistant professor of psychology and writing at the University of Oklahoma. “Survival, sex, death, hunger, competition, and hierarchy — those are all things that the human brain is wired to care a lot about. If you look at dystopian fiction, it’s actually all about those things.”
Fiction gives us a “safe space” to explore those things, Barnes says. The apocalypse would be terrifying to experience, but exploring it through fiction means you have the chance to think about what you would do in those situations from the safety of your couch. Scholars have compared reading fiction to daydreaming, says Barnes. While you spend a good amount of time daydreaming about the good things you wish would happen, you also spend time pondering darker things, like what you’d do if a loved one died, or how you’d escape from a burning building. Evolutionarily speaking, if you spend more time thinking about what could go wrong, you might have more of a plan for when it actually happens. If you read The Lorax as a kid, surely you asked yourself how to be the “someone” who “cares a great deal” and not the Truffula-destroying Once-ler.
Research on the recent popularity of young adult dystopias like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner series suggests that there are themes in those books that appeal to tweens and teens — but also explains why those books have also been major hits with adults. As a young adult, you’re navigating societal issues like wealth and power, and experimenting with your own agency. To a typical teen, these themes take the form of school popularity and glimpses of freedom, like learning to drive or being allowed to stay out with friends; in a series like The Hunger Games, the stakes are higher — Katniss is faced with standing up to wealthy, powerful bad guy President Snow and leading a resistance movement — but readers can see glimpses of their daily struggles and look to Katniss for inspiration about the virtues they should adopt to succeed in their own world. (Be honest; fight for justice; maybe learn archery?)
If you’re feeling apoplectic about a current event, reading dystopia may help keep you feel energized and motivated to take action.
We also turn to dystopian narratives to make ourselves feel something. What that something is depends on the person and what mood they’re already in. Psychologists studying people’s reading and film preferences have found that our motivations and preferences are predictably complex. To some, dystopia is appealing because they like to be sad. Those people report enjoying the feeling of sadness; they just like dark stories. These folks tend to be younger and show higher levels of empathy and a disposition towards sadness.
Others may read dystopia to keep their negative emotions coursing, especially in response to current events. In one study, researchers found that those who feel a negative emotion like anger want to stay angry. To investigate the link between people’s reading choices and mood, a researcher intentionally riled up participants by being unnecessarily rude. After, participants had the option of reading articles — some were positive, some negative. The researchers found that while some participants chose positive articles to calm themselves down, others sought out negative ones, presumably to stay amped up so that they were prepared to be ruthless if they had an opportunity to retaliate against the rude researcher. This attitude could translate to reading dystopian fiction: if you’re feeling apoplectic about a current event, reading dystopia may help keep you feel energized and motivated to take action.
Some readers may even turn to dystopia for a pick-me-up. Taking a fictional journey to the end of the world may not seem like an uplifting experience, but it might be comforting to remind yourself that things could be much, much worse. “Sometimes, if you’re fictionally exposed to a character [who’s] way worse off than you are, it makes you feel better about your life,” says Barnes. In psychology, this is an example of a classic effect called downward comparison. No matter what’s going on in your life or in current events, at least you’re not enslaved by machines, or made to fight other humans to the death. Reading about tragedy might help you feel more grateful for what you have.
The new Handmaid’s Tale ending draws parallels between cultural themes from Offred’s universe and modern-day issues.
Consider also the dystopian fiction that has been selling well: Many are classic dystopian novels, written decades ago. Most take place in a hypothetical future that coincides with the era in which we now live. In peering back at those authors’ cautionary tales, how Nostradamic were their predictions about the present? Do we recognize the world they’ve described as our own, and what should we be wary of to avoid the grim future these authors laid out?
“There are moments where I’m watching the news, and I get the sense that I’m watching history,” says Audible Editor Emily Cox, who was involved in the new production of The Handmaid’s Tale. “There’s something about what’s going on in the world today that makes people feel fearful or excited about the potential for great upheaval or transition.” Without giving away too much, the new Handmaid’s Tale ending draws parallels between cultural themes from main character Offred’s universe and modern-day issues like inequity, declining birthrates, and environmental destruction. “Those are moments when people start to fear for the end-of-the-world scenarios,” says Cox.
Perhaps we believe that if we can recognize these themes in our world, we’ll have more power to stop them. In many dystopias, the moral of the tale is complacency; society falls because no one stands up to injustice, or all fail to recognize disaster as it’s happening. “We thought we had such problems,” says Offred, recalling her old life in The Handmaid’s Tale. “How were we to know we were happy?” Let’s hope that the resurgence of dystopian fiction means we’re collectively more likely to steer society away from danger. Better to be prepared. After all, as Atwood said: Anything could happen anywhere.