Can One Write Dystopian Fiction in a Dystopian World?


My name is Seb Doubinsky and I am a writer of dystopian fiction. My stories are all located within a “parallel” world, which is constituted of city-states in lieu of our traditional and familiar countries. You find New Babylon, which is a concentrate of American East-Coast politics and urbanity, New Petersburg, which is the West Coast competing pendent of New Babylon, Viborg City, which symbolizes Scandinavia and the general European cultures, and New Samarqand, which is a mixture of Arab and Persian culture and Central Asia. It is a world that experiences the same problems than our own: economic crisis, social injustice, racism, xenophobia and class prejudice. All my characters are looking for either a way out or a way in, dreaming of a better life or renewed possibilities. Some of my novels are tragic, other comical, and most of them open-ended. I am inspired by all the bad craziness I read about in the papers, watch on TV see on the Internet. 

Yet, every day, if you have been following the news, the world seems to become a little crazier. Everyday, catastrophes we thought only happened in faraway lands come knocking down our doors, bringing havoc. Everyday, our wildest nightmares are overdone by reality. And every day, as a writer of dystopian fiction, I am wondering if I am not becoming irrelevant.

If the point of fiction is to mirror reality, as the French Romantic writer Stendhal expressed, then what happens when everything seems to be moving too fast and your mirror is shattered? This is particularly true when working with what should be a “future”, “exaggerated” portrait of our surrounding world. Fiction appears suddenly to be lagging behind what it is supposed to anticipate and the writer is left stirring ashes instead of kindling a bonfire. 

Fortunately, dystopian fiction, contrary to what many believe, is not about the future: it is about the present. When George Orwell wrote 1984, when Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World and Yevgeny Zamyatin We, they were not foreseeing what was going to happen in a totalitarian state, they were commenting on the world they were already living in. Stalinism already existed in 1949, capitalism had already left its mark in 1932, and totalitarian states were nothing new in 1924. What these writers described, like Philip K. Dick or William Gibson later, was what their contemporaries actually did not want to see. And this is a crucial point I tell myself when doubting about my fiction: what a dystopian writer is doing is actually pointing at the lag in History, noticing what has already happened but hasn’t been caught on yet. We are the observers, the spotters who painstakingly decipher the contemporary chaos in order to give it its real shape, monstrous and all. We are the writers of the Edge, who are, like Burroughs or Ballard, suspicious of everything and catching the frauds in the act.

As I said in a status on Twitter, “the good thing being a writer of dystopian fiction is that you never feel any cognitive dissonance with reality.” I stand by these words. My job is to make that dissonance obvious to you. And it is a very important job.  


Seb Doubinsky is a bilingual writer born in Paris in 1963. His novels, all set in a dystopian universe revolving around competing cities-states, have been published in the UK and in the USA. He currently lives with his family in Aarhus, Denmark, where he teaches at the university.

His new novel, The Invisible, is out now via Meerkat Press. Meerkat Press is also sponsoring a book giveaway, which you can enter here.

Image source: Sydney Rae/Unsplash

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.