After Donald Trump won the American presidential election last year, books that depict dystopian worlds flew to the top of the Amazon bestsellers list, including literary classics such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and George Orwell’s 1984.
All of these books aim to depict a world that is simultaneously different yet similar to our own. Exploring the question of ‘what if?’ has obvious appeal in fiction, and depicting different worlds can be both genuinely unsettling and intriguing to consumers. This question has been explored not only in literature, but also in television and even video games.
People have always turned to fiction as a means of coping and for guidance in their lives, and we can see this happening with Trump’s administration. Trump made false claims about the turnout on the day of his inauguration. His press secretary at the time, Sean Spicer, described the crowd as “the largest audience to ever witness the inauguration,” an obvious lie. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager in the general election, was besieged with criticism for defending Spicer, using her now infamous phrase ‘alternative facts.’ The administration’s habit of playing loose with facts echoes the manipulations of truth by the totalitarian party depicted in 1984.
Similarly, It Can’t Happen Here is a satire of America in the 1930s if President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had lost to a candidate similar to Trump, named Buzz Windrip. Windrip is believed to have been based on Huey Long, a governor of Louisiana who was assassinated in 1935 and was often criticized for his perceived dictatorial tendencies.
Recently in television and film, darker narratives like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards have resonated with consumers. Several of the highest grossing films of the past few years have been gritty and violent; compared to past adaptations, the latest Superman films coming out of the DC Extended Universe have been exceedingly cynical. Last year, Deadpool, a raunchy and violent superhero film, also became the highest grossing R-rated film of all time.
Dystopian narratives also fit into this category. Perhaps that is why alternative history is having a renaissance in fiction, as the oppressive worlds depicted have increasing similarities to our own.
This phenomenon began in 2015 with Amazon’s post-World War II series The Man In The High Castle, adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel, which depicts how America might have been affected had the Allied powers lost and imperial Japan and Nazi Germany occupied the US. Dick’s bibliography has been mined by Hollywood before: films like Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, and A Scanner Darkly are adaptations of his work.
The Handmaid’s Tale, which depicts a dystopian future in which women are valued only for their reproductive abilities, has not only gained popularity as a novel, but as a 10-episode television adaptation premiered by Hulu this past year. The critical hit won five Emmy Awards and was the first series on a streaming service to win best series. With the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards still to come, The Handmaid’s Tale looks set to sweep even more awards, continuing the paradigm shift of streaming services challenging established networks for the attention of viewers.
In July, HBO announced it had ordered a television program by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss titled Confederate, a drama that takes place in an alternate timeline where the southern states successfully seceded and slavery remained legal. The announcement was highly controversial.
Another relevant example of alternate history’s resurging popularity in mainstream culture is Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, an alternative history sci-fi video game developed by Machine Games and published by Bethesda Softworks. Some took the game’s marketing campaign as a response to the events at Charlottesville this past summer, especially its use of hashtags like #NoMoreNazis.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Pete Hines, the vice president of marketing at Bethesda Softworks, addressed the matter in clear terms. “We did use references to recent events in our social media to highlight parallels between what’s taking place in the game and what’s happening in our country,” said Hines. “Ultimately the marketing and the game are about the same, simple message: Nazis are bad, and in Wolf II you get to kick their asses and it’s fun.”