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The Free Market in Dystopian Literature

Author Ewan Morrison sent shockwaves through sci-fi fandom when he wrote in The Guardian that “[young adult] dystopias teach children to submit to the free market, not fight authority.” His argument is that popular books/movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” deviate from their dystopian predecessors because they vilify the government rather than capitalism. In his words:

What marks these dystopias out from previous ones is that, almost without exception, the bad guys are not the corporations but the state and those well-meaning liberal leftists who want to make the world a better place. Books such as The Giver, Divergent and The Hunger Games trilogy are, whether intentionally or not, substantial attacks on many of the foundational projects and aims of the left: big government, the welfare state, progress, social planning and equality.

With a critical and sarcastic tone he says “these books propose a laissez-faire existence, with heroic individuals who are guided by the innate forces of human nature against evil social planners.”

The books he holds up as the old guard of dystopian literature are Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (what became Blade Runner on the big screen), Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the entire gambit of H.G. Wells. While these authors and their works are certainly classics of the genre, they are hardly enough to support the argument that “previous” dystopian fiction is “the free-market-will-bring-hell-on-earth period of speculative fiction” as Morrison calls it.

H.G. Wells was active from the end of the 19th century through the early decades of the 20th century. Philip K. Dick was writing until his death in 1982, and “Do Androids Dream” was published in 1968. Margret Atwood is still alive, and her award-winning “Handmaid” was published in 1986. So as best as I can deduce, Morrison is claiming that his anti-free-market period of speculative fiction is more than 100 years from the late 19th century through basically the entire 20th century.

The astute reader will probably notice that there was, in fact, a wide variety of authors who wrote throughout the 20th century. The anti-statism triumvirate of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” were published in 1949, 1932, and 1953 respectively. Granted, these works may not whole-heartedly endorse the free market, but they surely vilify the “state and those well-meaning liberal leftists” more convincingly than today’s young adult fiction does.

Not only are there plenty of works that pit the individual against the state, there are plenty of works that actually do promote the free market. In my next post, I’ll showcase a few of these for recommended reading.

Speaking of the modern works, Morrison concludes that “it’s a huge indictment of the history of the left and a promotion of the right.” I would say that these modern books are instead building on a rich pro-freedom literary heritage of the 20th century, the age when freedom triumphed over communism.