The looming reality of Donald Trump in the White House has made dystopian fiction feel a lot less fictional all of a sudden. Authoritarian rhetoric? Criticisms of free press? Protests in the streets? Fake news discussed alongside real news? We’re about 50 pages away from the Hunger Games and a few chapters from Fahrenheit 451 — only, this is real life.
A Trump presidency has made much of America feel far less safe, and as a result, these next four years will be the roughest period in many of our lifetimes. At times like this, we need fiction more than ever — both as escapism and as a way to make sense of a world in which reason and sense have seemingly flown out the window. Here are some novels to begin with.
1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Many have uneasily joked about Trump’s America as a dystopia, based on his authoritarian rhetoric and disregard for free press and civil liberties, which are hallmarks of the genre. Trump’s disregard for women’s rights and free press bring to mind Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale.
In the story, America has become a theocratic military dictatorship in which all women’s rights are removed. There’s a sub-plot involving an underground resistance but — spoiler alert — we don’t find out what becomes of it. The plot isn’t the point, it’s more of a slice-of-life situational case study. While it’s unlikely that women’s rights will be impacted to this extent, a heightened fictional account can be the best way to articulate emotional truths.
2. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
In times of social unrest, the arts are more important than ever. Comedians, writers, and creative thinkers evoke laughs when we have none of our own and help us make sense of a senseless world. It can be hard to remember that fact when economists, politicians, and policemen seem like the most important members of society. But Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a rare dystopian novel that emphasizes the importance of the arts alongside food, water, and shelter as an essential to survival. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it presents a heightened reality that draws the eye to truths about our own.
3. The Unwind series by Neil Shusterman
The Unwind series, which consists of four novels, is by far the best to emerge from the YA dystopia trend. Even if you don’t think you like YA books, this story is different. The basic concept is a future America has a second Civil War between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice factions. The end result is a mandate banning all abortions, but a parent or the state can “unwind” their kid — aka use them for organ donation — during their teenage years.
The plight of the teens in the book and their flight from the authorities particularly resonates with all the ethnic groups today who feel targeted, and it’s full of deliciously clever details like shady propaganda groups called “Proactive Citizenry.” Not to spoil the ending, but the good guys ultimately triumph through a mixture of information gathering, social media mobilizing, and non-violent protests.
4. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
When a world-altering event changes your perception of reality, often both life and fiction focus solely on the disaster itself. It can be easy to forget that the quiet aftermath is just as important, even if it isn’t as rife with drama. Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers is entirely focused on the “What now?” question we all face. Because it’s a bit too open-ended, it’s not for everyone — though its television adaptation of the same name should be. But Perrotta beautifully captures quiet despair and the lost, disassociating feeling of trying to make sense of a world that suddenly seems senseless.
5. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
America is doing a lot of soul-searching about itself right now, and the rest of the world is looking askance with a big old “WTF?” Although the countless articles on the subject are worth a read, it can gets overwhelming or depressing to try to catch them all. Enter Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a fictional story that combines American soul-searching and philosophy with tongue-and-cheek irreverence. Through it all, Gaiman never loses sight of the weird, multicultural tapestry that comprises this enormously flawed land. As a bonus, it’s coming to television soon too.
The real world does not look pretty right now, but don’t lose hope. If you’re tired of searching for meaning in the real world, fiction might just be a better choice right now.