American Nightmares

Dystopia in Twenty-First-Century US Fiction

by Valentina Romanzi (Author)
©2022 Monographs XIV, 290 Pages
Series: Ralahine Utopian Studies, Volume 25


«Valentina Romanzi’s study is a welcome addition to the body of scholarship on dystopia, utopia science fiction, and speculative fiction. It provides a comprehensive and updated review of the complex and rich debate on the question of genres and subgenres, while at the same time offering a fresh perspective. Eloquent and very well written, this volume reveals America’s fascination with catastrophic future scenarios, including the post-apocalyptic, delving into the issues that surround critical dystopia, progress, hope and fear. The close readings offer lucid, insightful interpretations of texts that range from SF literary ancestor, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Margaret Atwood’s award winning The Testaments, sequel to the acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale.»
(Eleonora Rao, Università degli Studi di Salerno)
This volume investigates dystopia in twenty-first-century US fiction. Using a methodological framework based on sociology, it theorizes a correlation between the crisis of the Frontier myth and of American exceptionalism and a renewed interest in dystopian worlds.
Part One illustrates the methodological framework, exploring the concept of dystopia, offering an overview of the American myths and of their current status and spotlighting some relevant sociological theories.
Part Two applies the proposed methodological framework to four texts, investigating the sub-genres of political, technological and environmental dystopia. The primary works, chosen to show both the relevance of the abovementioned American myths to dystopian narratives and the pervasiveness of the genre across the media, are Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019), Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013), David Cage’s video game Detroit: Become Human (2018), and the Hughes Brothers’ 2010 movie The Book of Eli.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Series
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I Framing Dystopia
  • Chapter 1 On Defining Dystopia
  • Chapter 2 Dystopia, SF and Genre Blurring
  • Chapter 3 Confronting the American Myth
  • Chapter 4 Is This Dystopia?
  • Part II Analysing Dystopia
  • Chapter 5 From Big Brother to Big Data: Surveillance in Political Dystopias
  • Chapter 6 Human Machines, Mechanical Humans: Posthuman Subjectivities in Technological Dystopias
  • Chapter 7 Wandering the Wasteland: Disasters, Trauma and Repetition in Post-apocalyptic Dystopias
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

←x | xi→


Figure 6.1. Screenshot of the Century magazine article ‘The Mysterious Mister Kamski’ (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 6.2. Century article ‘President Warren: A Woman in Trouble’ (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 6.3. Century article ‘An Android for President?’ (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 6.4. A flowchart mapping all the ramifications of the first chapter, with the path chosen by the player marked in blue (here in dark grey) (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 6.5. Global statistics highlighted next to each decision (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 6.6. Androids on the segregated bus (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 6.7. Markus as he sheds his human look (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 6.8. Alice and Kara at the concentration camp. Behind them, rows of androids stripped of their identity (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 6.9. Markus and North touch without the human skin layer (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 6.10. Interacting with the environment (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

←xi | xii→Figure 6.11. Making decisions (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 6.12. An article about practices of life extension currently studied by transhumanists (Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018).

Figure 7.1. Above, Eli walks across a barren field (The Book of Eli. Directed by the Hughes Brothers. Warner Bros., 2010). Below, Marlon Brando’s character in One-Eyed Jacks sits in an equally deserted landscape (One-Eyed Jacks. Directed by Marlon Brandon. Paramount Pictures, 1961).

Figure 7.2. Above, a wide shot of the town from The Book of Eli (The Book of Eli. Directed by the Hughes Brothers. Warner Bros., 2010). Below, a similar shot of a frontier town in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Directed by Sergio Leone. PEA and UA, 1966).

Figure 7.3. Above, an over-the-shoulder shot portraying the few instants before a duel in The Book of Eli (The Book of Eli. Directed by the Hughes Brothers. Warner Bros., 2010). Below, the same shot in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (For a Few Dollars More. Directed by Sergio Leone. PEA and UA, 1965).

←xii | xiii→


Isaac Newton once wrote: ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants’ (Letter to Robert Hooke, 1675). I am indebted to those who have worked to make utopia, dystopia and science fiction topics worthy of academic perusal and have laid the foundations on which my research rests. On a more personal note, my most heartfelt thanks go to Professor Roberto Cagliero, who was the first to encourage me to pursue an academic career and who has never failed to support me through good and bad times alike. I would also like to thank Professor Stefano Rosso for advising me on earlier drafts of this work, which derives from my PhD dissertation, and Professor Carlo Pagetti for guiding me with his immense knowledge of all things science fiction. Many thanks to Dr Elisabetta Di Minico, with whom I have shared many conversations on dystopia, to Dr Federico Bonetti, my go-to expert on videogames (among many other things), and to my family, colleagues and friends in Bergamo, Verona, Valdagno and Colchester, always ready to lend an ear to my blabbering. Last, but most definitely not least, my sincere thanks to Professor Sean Seeger, whose constant presence, rigorous research and insightful comments have accompanied me through the many drafts of these pages, making this writing process one of continuous learning.

To all these people, and to the ones I have not mentioned but were there in the past four years, my sincere thanks.

←0 | 1→


Dystopia, at the End of an Era

We are inhabiting a dystopian cultural milieu, observes Tom Moylan in one of his most recent essays (2020: 190). We are enveloped in a dystopian mood that has exceeded the boundaries of fiction and has seeped into the daily news and the collective perception of reality. We have even adopted elements of well-known dystopian narratives as symbols of social protests.1 We seem, most importantly, to have stopped looking at the future with optimism, replacing it with resignation and despair.

Few other times in history has dystopian fiction been more relevant: we are living through its ‘Golden Age’, as Jill Lepore called it in a 2017 article for The New Yorker. Indeed, dystopias are rather ubiquitous of late: they have invaded the literary market, the film and video game industries and even the theatre.2 It suffices to mention famous franchises like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008), The Maze Runner by James Dashner (2009) and Divergent by Veronica Roth (2011), which have all been adapted for the big screen. In 2018, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (based on Ernest Cline’s 2012 novel) was one of the highest-grossing films of the year, and the 2017 TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, won a flurry of international awards, including a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. A similar trend can be registered in video games, with titles such as Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn (2017), Quantic Dream’s ←1 | 2→Detroit: Become Human (2018), Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding (2019) and the latest instalments of Interplay Entertainment’s Fallout series (1997–) making their way to the top of the charts.

It has always been clear that dystopias, despite their future setting, are a direct critique of the present (Atwood 2011; Moylan 2014; Pagetti 2012; Wegner 2014). Hence, they acquire particular relevance in times of crisis: the link between the current society and those portrayed in dystopian fiction becomes more evident, more explicit.

This volume aims at investigating such a bond, focusing on American dystopias of the twenty-first century. It asks what commentaries and critiques these fictional works are currently providing, what themes are most relevant and common. In doing so, it attempts to expose their above-mentioned link to reality by deploying sociological theories to analyse fictional dystopian societies – for sociology and literature, it has been argued, share a similar subject of enquiry (Bauman and Mazzeo 2016; Kaplan 2016).

It will become apparent that dystopian fiction expresses both a warning for our real society and one of its fundamental features: in depicting worst-case scenarios, it alerts us to the consequences of our present choices and actions, while articulating the intrinsic (and, perhaps, unavoidable) human yearning for change, fostered by hope. This, as we will see, is especially true of so-called critical dystopias.

A few words, then, on the self-imposed boundaries of this work. As mentioned earlier, the focus of this volume is American dystopian fiction of the twenty-first century. This allows us to limit the sociological theories to the national level, introducing a commentary on the status of the American collective identity, and fixes a timeframe coinciding with the beginning of a rather noticeable shift towards pessimistic outlooks for the future (marked, most evidently, by the 9/11 terrorist attacks).

Whereas I have tried to rein in the geographical and temporal focus of this study, I have not set similar boundaries on my choice of fictional works. In a nod to the increasingly hybrid and transmedia nature of the entertainment industry, I have decided to analyse literary, cinematic and videoludic works, selecting them mainly for their retrieval of the sociological reflections featuring in the next chapters, rather than for their artistry. Dystopia, as a branch of science fiction, has often been classified as ←2 | 3→mere entertainment without presumptions of artistic quality. Although I strongly reject this reductive view of the genre, I do not take it upon myself to prove that dystopias can belong to ‘highbrow’ fiction in this volume. Rather, I prefer to focus on the social message they convey, which in itself makes them worthy of attention.

This work is divided into two parts. Part I, ‘Framing Dystopia’, lays the foundations for the textual analyses of Part II. The first two chapters investigate the definition of dystopia and its relationship with other fictional genres, retracing its evolution from utopian fiction and its strong link to science fiction. Together, they should offer a bird’s-eye view of the available scholarship on dystopia. In striving to include as many takes on the genre as possible, I have listed diverging opinions and, at times, taken a side. I have nevertheless tried to collate most, if not all, of them into a cohesive narrative of the birth and growth of dystopia.

Chapters 3 and 4 move away from the literary perusal of dystopia to focus on the status of the American society. In ‘Confronting the American Myth’, I explore the crisis of the Frontier and of American exceptionalism, two of the most durable foundational narratives of the United States, and I trace the repercussions of such a crisis on society and on the national collective identity. In ‘Is This Dystopia?’, I expand my reflection on contemporaneity through the identification of some of the most pervasive features of American society recurring in dystopian fiction – most notably its questioning of progress led by technological and scientific advances, its loss of hope for the future and its reliance on the individual dimension, rather than the collective. I also articulate the reasons that make sociology a fitting framework to analyse dystopian fiction.

Part II, ‘Analysing Dystopia’, consists of three chapters coinciding with the political, technological and environmental sub-categories of dystopian fiction. Chapter 5, ‘From Big Brother to Big Data: Surveillance in Political Dystopias’, focuses on the relationship between political dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s 2019 The Testaments and Dave Eggers’s 2013 The Circle and surveillance studies. Chapter 6, ‘Human Machines, Mechanical Humans: Posthuman Subjectivities in Technological Dystopias’, explores the posthuman features of the 2018 video game Detroit: Become Human, a technological dystopia, and Chapter 7, ‘Wandering the Wasteland: Disasters, ←3 | 4→Trauma and Repetition in Post-apocalyptic Dystopias’, closes this volume with an analysis of post-apocalyptic dystopias such as the Hughes Brothers’ 2010 movie The Book of Eli through the lens of disaster and trauma studies.

Without further ado, then, we might begin our journey into what Mathias Thaler has aptly called bleak dreams (2019). For dystopia, ever attuned to the ills of society, is now alerting us that we are producing a ‘literature of (social) exhaustion’, to displace and adjust Barth’s expression. At the end of an era, when social issues have acquired a global dimension and seem increasingly unsolvable, these tales narrate of despair and resignation, of the desire to relinquish any futile attempt to avoid social collapse. Yet, they do not limit themselves to the blunt reproduction of thwarted hopes. Most dystopias of the twenty-first century are combative; their open endings, placed on the cusp of radical change, show that a way forward is possible, that radical change may come.

Thus, I stand with Thaler: most contemporary dystopias are bleak dreams, not nightmares – and it makes all the difference.


XIV, 290
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (July)
Dystopian fiction sociology and literature American exceptionalism American Nightmares Valentina Romanzi
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XIV, 290 pp., 15 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Valentina Romanzi (Author)

Valentina Romanzi is Adjunct Professor of English literature and culture at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and of English at the University of Verona, Italy. She holds a PhD in Transcultural Studies in the Humanities from the University of Bergamo. She specializes in contemporary popular culture, with a particular focus on utopias, dystopias and (post-)apocalyptic fiction. In 2021, she published Contaminazioni. Un approccio interdisciplinare, a collection of essays co-edited with Alessandro Secomandi and Danilo Serra. She is an editor at Iperstoria. Journal of American and English Studies.


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