Why dystopian fiction is ‘an instruction manual for now’

How can dystopian fiction help us understand the world today? In a clip from BBC Culture’s Stories that Shaped the World programme from the Hay Festival, leading authors discuss the power of novels with nightmarish visions.

“It becomes a kind of instruction manual – you do start to see what is happening now because this is a lesson for the future, from the past” is how writer and professor of the Public Understanding of Humanities, Sarah Churchwell, describes the power of dystopian fiction in a clip from BBC Culture’s Stories that Shaped the World programme from the Hay Festival.

How imagination works across borders

She talks with authors Colm Tóibín and Kamila Shamsie about how novels like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale can give us insight into the world today. “Those books are frightening because of how distant they seem – until they come close,” says Tóibín. “With The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood actually said ‘no image in this book is an image that has not actually occurred – I’m not dreaming, I am looking closely and then making shape out of that’.”

Earlier this week, Atwood tweeted in response to the forced separation of children from parents on the US border: “That is why I did not put anything into The Handmaid’s Tale that had not happened somewhere... including the snatching of children from their parents. Believable? Alas yes.”

Yet Shamsie sees hope in dystopian fiction. “In some ways you think: ‘if I understand it I can begin to unpick what has gone into it – and maybe I can try and imagine something turning in the other way’.”

Watch the video above to find out more.

BBC Culture’s Stories that shaped the world programme was filmed at the 2018 Hay Festival, and will be broadcast on BBC World News on Sat 23 June at 18.30 and 23.30 and on Sun 24 June at 05.30, 11.30 and on Thu 28 Jun at 10.30 – all times GMT.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.