The “Dystopian Fiction: Future Present Tense” panel at the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival occurred on April 19 at Dowtown Art in New York City and featured Leni Zumas, Omar El Akkad, and Basma Abdel Aziz in conversation with Ram Devineni.
When we learned in November of 2016 that Donald Trump would be our next president, sales of novels like Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale skyrocketed almost overnight. People seemed eager to read the sort of novel that shows us what our world might become if the worst, or some version of it, were to actually happen. What drives us to seek out these types of stories in times of real-world turmoil? Why does dystopian fiction endure and expand in increasingly difficult times?
Thursday’s PEN World Voices panel on dystopian fiction addressed these questions and more by digging into the varied and deeply personal worlds of three prominent authors whose works relate to the genre. Basma Abdel Aziz—an Egyptian author, psychiatrist, and human rights activist—discussed her novel, The Queue, a tale of a gate that never opens and the people who stand before it in confusion and uncertainty. In American War, Omar El Akkad imagines an alternate course for the United States, one in which a second civil war has broken out over fossil fuels. Leni Zumas places a cast of characters in a nation that has stripped women of their reproductive rights in Red Clocks. Each of these authors had a deeply intimate story to tell and, in that telling, constructed worlds that are different from but also eerily like our own; worlds that grapple with what might be were things to go in a different, and direr, direction.
Critics compared Basma Abdel Aziz’s novel The Queue to works by Orwell and Kafka, and the author herself cited each of these authors as influences. The novel’s style borders on fable or parable, but the challenges her characters face while standing in their fruitless line have roots in the human rights work she has done in her home country. In particular, a scene of psychological torture was inspired by the work she has done with torture survivors. As she put it, her novel is meant to illuminate the “chronic events of our daily lives.” The Queue presents the hard truth that often “we are so scared of facing what we ignore that we would rather stand in place than take a step forward.”
Red Clocks was, according to its author, never supposed to be a dystopian novel. Leni Zumas was simply attempting to tell a personal story about the effects of policies that restrict the most basic human rights. In her research she came across something called the Personhood Amendment, a proposed policy in Colorado that challenges the decision of Roe v. Wade and seeks to ban abortion. Every piece of legislation in her novel has, according to Zumas, already been proposed. This makes her work less of a far-fetched idea than a plausible outcome.
Under the guidance of moderator and documentarian Ram Devineni, the conversation turned to the question of whether or not the term dystopian really encapsulates the work these authors have created. Dystopian fiction often exhibits a clear departure from our reality, a point of delineation that makes the world of the story unquestionably other (think about the plague in Stephen King’s The Stand or the eve of artificial intelligence in the works of Philip K. Dick). These novels, apart from Akkad’s American War, do not possess these clear points of separation but rather reflect and extend the world we know, needing no bridge to get where they are going. Akkad described the America of his novel as a table over which the tablecloth of his narrative is placed. He suggested that, to an American audience, this might seem jarring, but it would appear less so in other parts of the world. It is all too common, he explained, to see typical Western heroic characters enacting their stories in other nations (picture James Bond traipsing around a jungle in a Tom Ford tuxedo). Akkad’s dystopian America is merely a canvas with more similarities to contemporary America than those closest to the country might perceive. As wildly different as the world might seem in dystopian literature, Akkad explained, everything is analogous—it is simply a “grotesque exaggeration.”
Perhaps the term dystopian has grown thin. Zumas shared that, for her own novel, she would prefer “paratopia,” a world not apart from but next to ours, in which the perils her characters face are “shared perils”—shared not only by the characters who inhabit the world but also by the reader. Maybe names like speculative fiction or Zumas’s paratopia are more accurate for novels like The Queue, American War, and Red Clocks. Regardless of what you call them, there seems to be no shortage of minds chasing down an answer to the question of what we become if the darkest parts of ourselves are given the space to run free. Dystopia is what occurs when we don’t pay attention. To pay close attention is to acknowledge the past, assess the present, and not only speculate on but anticipate a future. If we allow ourselves to learn along the way, we may prove better equipped to handle whatever future comes.