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2020 National Book Festival Highlights: Dystopian Worlds

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Welcome to our ongoing celebration of the 2020 Library of Congress National Book Festival! If you love storytelling or are simply curious about the world, you’ve landed in the right place. As a way into this vast — and vastly fascinating — festival celebrating “American Ingenuity,” we offer here a string of highlights that truly illustrate the resilience, intelligence and wit of this year’s authors. Please enjoy, and make sure to explore our full National Book Festival video collection and special limited-time content on the Virtual Festival Platform.

Why is it that some of us love dystopian novels, the kind of fiction that takes a dim, bleak view of the future? Is it because writers of this genre show us how bad things can become if we aren’t careful? Or that we can feel better about the current state of affairs because they aren’t nearly as bad as the book’s scenario?

The “Dystopian Worlds” conversation at the 2020 National Book Festival featured Dark Star trilogy novelist Marlon James, who spoke with sci-fi/fantasy writer Jeff VanderMeer. James’s most recent novel is “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” (Riverhead), and VanderMeer’s is “A Peculiar Peril” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Everdeen Mason, senior audience editor of The Washington Post, moderated and, in her words, is an “occasional book critic.”

The conversation at one point turns to inspiration for a novel, and James describes the topsy-turvy way the idea for his current book came to fruition:

“I’ve been researching this [book] for years, even before the previous novel … and it was going along the way which a lot of fantasy novels go … which is really a sort of imagined novel of a royal house. Fantasy novels invariably tend to be about kings and knights and queens. … I realized I was writing a certain kind of story that had already been told and I really wasn’t interested in it. … I remember I had a notebook and I was scribbling things down, and one day I just turned the book upside down. [The story] started out with this royal house and then it filters down until [you get to] the person in the street. … [I thought,] What if I just start with the person in the street?

James and VanderMeer also participated in a Q&A session with their readers during the festival. You can hear that session (and Q&As with select other authors) on the Virtual Festival Platform (Go to “Stages” tab and select “Fiction.” Click on “Sessions” and select “Dystopian Worlds”).

Videos from more than 120 fascinating authors are available on the platform’s various stages. Some of our greatest storytellers appeared on the virtual Fiction stage: Emily St. John Mandel, James McBride, Salman Rushdie and Kali Fajardo-Anstine, among others. You can explore additional fiction titles on the Genre Fiction and Poetry & Prose stages, also accessible from the Virtual Festival Platform. The art of extraordinary writing is evident in these books from some of our greatest novelists and short-story writers. These books will make you laugh and cry, as well as offer new ways of looking at — and thinking about — our world.

The 2020 Library of Congress National Book Festival celebrates its 20th birthday this year. You can get up-to-the-minute festival news, highlights, and other important information by subscribing to this blog. The festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You can support the festival, too, by making a gift now.