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Philip Finkelstein is a freelance journalist and writer based in NYC. Originally from Vermont, he has traveled the world reporting on a variety of topics. His work has been published at Salon, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, VTDigger, and many other great places. He is currently in the process of publishing his debut novel — a dystopian thriller about American cultural polarization and geopolitical tensions with Russia and China.


Trigger Warning

The dystopian genre has produced some of history’s most iconic books, like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World – titles that became popular not for their escapist appeal, as might be the case with many sci-fi and fantasy novels, but for their eerie similarities to the real world. It is the inescapability of these tales that readers find so captivating, if not horrifying. All good fiction leaves the reader pondering real-world implications, but the dystopian genre offers a unique venue to tell readers, plainly, what the future has in store, without being held to account by the rigors of journalism.

Written in 1948, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four predicted a future defined by totalitarianism, where groupthink has replaced independent thinking and state interests supersede freedom of speech. These themes have become so consequential in today’s reality that the term “Orwellian” is frequently used to describe the tribal and dogmatic qualities of our increasingly polarized culture and politics. Orwell’s predictions were not imagined fantasies based loosely on abstract trends of the moment, but were built upon his substantive knowledge of the world, born from his experience as a soldier and journalist during wartime in Europe.

In 2024, a “Twenty Forty-Two” novel, as it were, is no less attractive. Multiple wars rage on. Climate change continues to tighten its grip. And democracy faces the reckoning of a U.S. presidential election involving a would-be dictator. These topics are reported on incessantly, but to audiences trapped within their own echo chambers, thus precipitating little change on matters of dire consequence. Perhaps there is no clearer example of this dilemma than the COVID-19 pandemic – an issue that was initially politicized and has now evolved into an endemic situation, which, despite posing a long-term threat, is largely dismissed by the public.

As a freelance journalist investigating long COVID – having documented insufficient government attention and media coverage – the appeal of turning toward dystopian writing has never been stronger, stemming from the belief that the power of narrative can evoke deeper insights about pressing global issues. Dystopian fiction acts as a mirror, reflecting our society’s gravest fears and challenges in a more accessible and engaging way. It might exaggerate certain elements of present day for the sake of entertainment and prophecy, but this only amplifies the sense of urgency a reader feels, almost tricking them into thinking more deeply about very real problems.

Dystopian worlds resonate because they are grounded in a reality we are familiar with, while creating a safe space for readers to confront the most uncomfortable truths and ethical dilemmas that we prefer to otherwise ignore in our daily lives. This sparks a reflective process that might not be so readily achieved through journalism and non-fiction.

Some might contend that an imaginary framing detracts from a given subject by making it less plausible. Campaigners against disease or climate change or nuclear weapons might argue their causes should be made more immediate, as opposed to shrouding them in conditions of fantasy that make them easier to dismiss as unreal. But this would be a foolish outlook. Rather, dystopian fiction provides a new lens through which these problems can be viewed and understood. By presenting an issue like long COVID in a fictional context, it becomes more digestible and less overwhelming. We in society do not want to think about the long-term risk that looms every time we get sick; it is a concern we force from our minds so as to lead joyful lives. The slow creep and far-off threat of climate change, too, has been an issue seemingly incompatible with the human psyche. But a dystopian story has the power to humanize large-scale problems, making them more tangible and emotionally impactful, thereby influencing a wider audience – in a sense serving as journalism in disguise, breaking down tribal affiliations and reaching those who have turned away from the never-ending news cycles of despair.

The goal of journalism has always been to inform and engage the public on important issues. Through dystopian fiction, a writer might extend this objective into new realms, using the power of storytelling to illuminate and challenge the status quo, and inspire action among greater numbers. Transcending the boundary between truth and fiction, a transition from journalist to dystopian novelist would serve to elevate, not depart from, that core mission, and could be done hand in hand in an effort to effect more meaningful and widespread change.

One thought on “A freelance journalist’s take on transitioning to dystopian fiction writing

  1. Insightful piece on a literary genre I haven’t spent much time with (but that will change soon!). Looking forward to what you write next.

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