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It’s been a fairly grim month of reading here in Litro’s Ivory Towers. But in a good way! We’ve toured cash-strapped theocracies and corporate caliphates, corrupt monarchies and primitive anarchies—and a galaxy of other dark worlds besides. But all have one thing in common—they’re not futures we’re look forward to. So what is it about dystopian fiction that fascinates us so much? What prompts our imaginations to gawk at the wreckage of speculative futures?
Naturally, it’s entirely possible that dystopian fiction reflect the fears of the times—and given today’s world of state-sponsored surveillance, religious fundamentalism, economic disparity, and overpopulation (I’m just flicking through the headlines, here), perhaps it’s not surprising this was a popular theme.
So in some ways, dystopias aren’t too much of an imaginative stretch. If you’re trying to predict the future, your best bet would have to be on things going wrong. You could even argue we’re living in a dystopia right now. Maybe we’re always living in a dystopia, or at least degrees of dystopia—the failure of a past’s promising, even utopian, vision—which is why they seem endlessly relevant, in all their scope and variety. We’re simply steeling ourselves for the shape of things to come.
This month’s stories deal with a number of different future societies—and in different stages of deterioration. Some, like David Simpson’s deliberately endless Eternal Vigilance, are set in a world in which the characters are immersed in a system they accept, though as readers, we can see the darkness that lies ahead. Other worlds, like the very familiar setting of The Beasts Below by Jade Moulds, show characters entirely at the mercy of the changes going on around them—at odds with a society they can no longer understand. In Katie Lumsden’s A Survivor, we meet a character whose world is reduced to the most essential truth in the wake of nuclear disaster, enduring a very personal dystopia.
By the time we reach Staircase by Reece Choules, we are witness to a lost society—one in which memories have become currency. This world has long since failed—it has become a black hole of a society, gradually consuming itself.
But a dystopia does not necessarily imply an end. In some worlds, we find characters fighting back—Enter the Hacienda by Guy Lucas offers us a character struggling to understand his environment, trying to engage with it, and acting according to his beliefs. And perhaps most optimistically, Xenia Taiga’s wonderfully imaginative vision of Dress World hints at a brighter future, a ray of hope cutting through the dystopian clouds.
And perhaps that’s ultimately why dystopias are so popular in the creative imagination. The grim view of the road ahead is as much a warning sign as a forecast. Every dystopia is effectively a call to action—not because we think this is the way the world is headed, but because we want to make sure it isn’t.
On a personal note, after a year in the post I’ll be stepping aside as Magazine Fiction Editor to concentrate on my own writing—but I’ll be continuing as Contributing Editor of Litro, developing some exciting plans we have here in the USA. It’s been a blast—thanks, guys!