From demagoguery to designer babies, readers are turning to the dystopian novels of the twentieth century for a different slant on 2017.
Classics including George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World have all risen to the top 10 on Amazon’s list of best-sellers this year. Although these books are consistently popular, they appear to have benefited from today’s backdrop.
There is clearly a limit on the comparisons you can make between current affairs and speculative fiction written in specific historical contexts. But the big concerns of the past - on totalitarianism, freedom, language and what it means to be human in an age of technology - are luring readers anew. Below are four works that have picked up traction this year.
1. 1984 by George Orwell, first published in 1949. The book rose to the top of Amazon.com’s best-seller list in January, with its publisher, Penguin, reporting that sales are up by a fifth compared with the same period last year.
The story in a nutshell. A man tries to rebel against a totalitarian state that rewrites history, distorts the truth, wages constant war and monitors its citizens’ every move.
Why it resonates today. While the issues of privacy and surveillance have been topical for some time, 1984 also imagined a form of “fake news”, with an authoritarian regime quashing facts using the technique of “doublethink”. After a White House official used the term “alternative facts,” 1984 drew a flurry of attention on Twitter.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, first published in 1985, claimed the top spot on Amazon in February, helped by interest in a new TV adaptation.
The story in a nutshell. An extreme, totalitarian Christian movement seizes control of the United States, creating a society where women are forbidden from reading and forced to bear children for the ruling class.
Why it resonates today. According to the author, we are seeing a resurgence in misogyny. “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of new England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy,” she said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.
3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, first published in 1932, reaching the top 10 on Amazon in February, according to the BBC.
The story in a nutshell. It’s the year 2540 and life is comfortable - if deadening and dehumanized. Babies are grown in jars to fit niches in the class system, while adults are kept quietly content by a mix of drugs, technology, entertainment and pornography.
Why it resonates today. “Test tube babies” have been with us for nearly three decades, while the latest gene-editing techniques pose ethical questions that Huxley pushed to chilling conclusions. The novel also paints a picture of distracted complacency that chimes with a dramatic decline in voter turnout in the “free world”.
4. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, first published in 1935. The book sold out in retailers including Amazon following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US election.
The story in a nutshell. A charismatic, populist Democrat sweeps to power with a promise to restore America’s greatness and prosperity. He then dismantles democratic institutions and brings in totalitarian rule.
Why it resonates today. Although it was written to reflect the rise of fascism in Europe, critics of President Trump were quick to spot parallels, including his appeal to nativism and popularity with working-class voters who feel they have been left behind.