In The Children of Men humanity’s infertility leads to the rise of an autocratic “Warden” of England. In The Handmaid’s Tale, it leads to a new theocratic state that takes over part of the United States.
Both of these books describe a singular event that leads to dystopia. Like the best fiction, they start in the midst of the action, and they don’t waste time on the exhaustive detail of exactly how things happened. We just know that a severe drop in births leads to panic.
1984, arguably the most famous dystopian novel, is a cautionary tale about how revolutions can degrade into to excess and betrayal of the principles that lead to them. Here again, we have a single event pushing society to dystopia. Of course, Orwell had two real-life examples to draw from; Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
But is that always how it has to be?
As a writer, tying the rise of a dystopia to a single event is a hell of a lot easier than trying to describe how one might slowly subsume a society. Huxley pulled it off in Brave New World, which I consider one of the most terrifying dystopian novels ever written.
Neil Postman compares 1984 and Brave New World in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death:
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
If that doesn’t give you chills in 2017, then I don’t know what to tell you.