I really expected that the popularity of dystopian adult fiction would wane by the 100th day of the Trump era. But fear and loathing do not fade that quickly. Or, possibly, at all.
The most recent re-discovery of the literature connects to dramatizations. A British production of 1984 is coming to Broadway and a serial based on The Handmaid’s Tale is streaming. Margaret Atwood’s vision of Gilead, an American theocracy that subjugates women, was lacking from the original lists, partly because it does not deal with political messaging like 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here. But there were many references to the book in the Women’s Marches around the World. Keep The Handmaid’s Tale Fiction and Don’t Make America Gilead showed up among the posters carried here in New York. One of the terrors for Atwood’s characters results from the Aunts’ insistence that the changes to America will become ordinary. This phrase linked to protesters’ insistence that we should not normalize the Trump presidency. Nasty women know their books and we’re not afraid to use them.
Atwood’s impetus for the establishment of Gilead is an epidemic of mutations and sterility. These themes also show up in two British novels. P. D. James’ best-selling thriller Children of Men was set in a civilization very close to her contemporary real-life. Children are not being born and the last new generation is self-destructing. In keeping with James’ prowess in detective fiction, the characters search for solutions to their immediate issue, maintaining the safety of a pregnant woman, balances solving the greater mystery.
A post-Apocalyptic society’s obsession with mutations is the theme of a lesser-known British novel, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. It was published in 1955, and is now available in a 2008 NY Review Books re-print. The society, Waknut, rejects and destroys all babies that are not perfect. Wyndham also dealt with this theme in his better-known novel The Midwich Cuckoos (aka Children of the Dammed), as the fate of many of the children outside England. In The Chrysalids, David, and his younger sister, are telepathic, but their invisible mutation has not been discovered. He befriends Sophie, whose extra toe has been hidden by her parents and discovers a secret community of people with mutations who hide in the forest. I find the novel disturbing since it doesn’t end with escape to a society that accepts all differences. It ends as David and his sister reach a society in which everyone is telepathic. It is presented as a happy ending. Suitable for England in 1955, but disturbing.
All three books are available at NYPL, which currently lists 2812 entries under End of the World — Fiction.