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Why Dystopian Literature is More Concerned about the Present than the Future

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Writers of dystopian literature focus mainly on the present and future. Both Orwell and Atwood turn their attention to the ways in which the present plays a pivotal role in helping to shape the future. Although both novelists focus on both tenses, dystopian literature often makes readers question if these events reflect the present or events that have not yet happened.

Dystopian literature is often reflective of the times in which the author has written them. Both dystopias are mirrors of what has already happened in the past or what is currently happening. For example, Orwell’s dystopia ‘1984’ was published in 1949 which was the bleak post-war period of the 1940s during the context of the cold war and the rise of Stalinist terrorism. Some say that Orwell’s dystopia is built upon the context of Hitler and Stalinism; this is most reflective in Orwellian terminologies such as “Big Brother”. This is a deliberate reference to Stalin and Hitler; Stalin liked to name himself ‘Uncle Joe’ a term usually used for endearment, Orwell may be critiquing the rise in powerful dictators of the 20th century and is therefore focussing his attentions on the present rather than the future. Orwell in his essay ‘Why I Write’ claimed that before writing he likes to think with a “sense of injustice” and aspires to tell the truth by turning politics into a work of art. This could demonstrate how Orwell’s dystopia is mostly focussed on his present and the “sense of injustice” that occurred during the 1940s when writing ‘1984’ rather than focussing on the future. In contrast to this Atwood claimed how her dystopia is a “speculative fiction” and that dystopias are “more like dire warnings, dark shadows cast by the present into the future” and they are what will happen to us if we don’t change our present now. Atwood’s dystopia is therefore more of a speculation of what could happen if our present conditions become extreme. Nevertheless, Atwood’s comments are still reflective of her present, so we might ask ourselves is her dystopia really a speculation? Atwood’s comment resembles both American societies in the 17th century and also the 21st century we currently live in – much of what has happened in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is already happening. For example, ethnic cleansing is still present and is happening in North Korea. Both dystopias are based upon the present, but both novelists still demonstrate how the future is also being inflicted by the extremes of the present.

Both texts emphasise how the present and future are interlinked, although written during a different time both novelists demonstrate how the present becomes the starting point for the future. Atwood defined science fiction as “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”, dystopias not only concern the present day, but they become a possibility of what could happen in the future – they are events waiting to happen. Speculative fiction enables readers to imagine and explore contemporary themes and ideas by pushing them to extremes in a strange but imaginable future context to warn us about the consequences of how we choose to live. Dystopian literature therefore not only focusses on the present but helps readers to craft ideas and think about the future. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was written while Atwood herself was living very close to a totalitarian regime and in an interview with New York Times Atwood confessed that during visits to several countries she “experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on” and these “had an influence on what (she) was writing” this links in with Orwell’s dystopia – surveillance is a key theme in dystopias and often writers of dystopian literature have experienced some sort of wariness. Atwood being born in 1939 was aware of how “established orders could vanish overnight” and this links in with Orwell’s ‘1984’ as laws and orders are being rectified continuously to manipulate minds. Both authors have focussed mostly on their present but have considered the future too – Atwood’s theory of speculative fiction allows ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to not only reflect Atwood’s present but provides a warning for future contemporary readers.

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One might argue that whilst dystopian literature is built upon the writer’s present it still provides information on how the future is affected. Both dystopias portray surveillance which was present in both of their lives whilst writing their novels, surveillance is still ongoing and is still happening in 2019. Many countries such as China and North Korea are still under restriction and so dystopian literature is not just a reflection of the writer’s current state but also a rear view of the future. Spying is still occurring in 2019, CCTV cameras have been normalised and this links in with Orwell’s ‘1984’ as ‘Telescreens’ become a way to spy on someone. Whilst Orwell’s use of telescreens may be reflective of his present – Nazi’s actively spying on Jews in concentration camps, it’s also a frightening picture of the future. This links in with Atwood’s own comment on how science fiction is fiction that is yet to happen and is not yet possible, but one day will be due to “various technologies we have not yet developed”. Spying and surveillance is a common dystopian trope found in many other dystopias such as Dave Eggers ‘The Circle’ where cameras are everywhere and “knowing is good but knowing everything is better”. Moreover, dystopias are portrayals of the author’s present but are still relevant to the future – spying happens everywhere, and Atwood and Orwell have used their present to indicate the dangers of it.

Although both dystopias are largely built around the present and future, both novelists also focus on the past affecting the future and provide warnings of how history may repeat itself. Orwell’s dystopia concerns the rewriting of history and links in with his own present life, during the post-war period many rules and regulations were being rewritten to create a revisionist version of history. Orwell’s own life is reflected through the Party’s attempts to rewrite history in order to “vaporise” memories from people and this also links in with the burning of Jewish books under the early Nazi regime during Orwell’s lifetime. Similarly, Atwood’s dystopia also considers mind control, and this is reminiscent of Atwood’s own life of Puritan New England. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ religious verses are often rewritten and replaced by a new meaning, Gilead redefines religion and uses it to justify their actions. Both dystopias may act as a warning of the past altering the present which then alters the future. Both Orwell and Atwood may be trying to show through their dystopias how information is changing continuously in order to control minds, history cannot change but it can be repeated. So although dystopian fiction stems from the writer’s present it still demonstrates how the future can be involved and writers like Orwell and Atwood have used their present lives as a template for what could occur in the future.

Ultimately, both writers have focussed on both the present and the future and have not just used their present to form the basis of their dystopias. Coral Anne Howell pointed out that “the primary function of a dystopia is to send out danger signals to its readers” this indicates how dystopian literature doesn’t just focus on the present, but writers of dystopian fiction will often use their present as a way to speculate the future – will history repeat itself?

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Why Dystopian Literature is More Concerned about the Present than the Future. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
“Why Dystopian Literature is More Concerned about the Present than the Future.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Why Dystopian Literature is More Concerned about the Present than the Future. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Nov. 2022].
Why Dystopian Literature is More Concerned about the Present than the Future [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2022 Nov 27]. Available from:
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