This summer there has been a very definite progression of thought in the literary themes covered. June covered Utopian fiction. July Science Fiction. August is the month of dystopian fiction. This has been intentional.
Utopian fiction fantasizes about what life would be like in a perfect society. Science fiction plays upon our imagination by letting us dream of the possibilities when we leave behind embrace our own evolution. But dystopian fiction shows us “perfection” in society isn’t so perfect and makes us wonder what we are evolving into.
In the end, all three genres are about the importance not only of the individual but of the individual’s right to choose.
The dystopian novel’s historic origins
Dystopian fiction doesn’t “officially” appear until the 1920s. I put official in quotations because Jack London (The Iron Heel,1908) and Mary Shelley (The Last Man, 1826) both wrote dystopian novels. However, their dystopias do not deal with totalitarian forms of government as known in the 20th century.
The date here is also significant. The Russian Revolution of 1917, just as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, triggered a massive change in the world. Not because such things hadn’t happened before. They had. Charles I’s and Louis XVI’s beheadings shocked the world too and both lead to less tolerant societies.
But the press in both England or France at the time was limited. Journalism had come into its own by the time 1914 rolled around, and information could travel more quickly. And there were more forms of communication than ever: film, photograph, telegraph, telephone, in addition to the letter and the newspaper article.
So, when Leninism and Stalinism swept Russia, the fear of what would happen, should the movement spread, erupted in literature as the dystopia. The freedoms and basic rights Enlightenment thinkers tried to impress on everyone were swept away as undesirables were sent to the Gulags and no dissension was allowed except to denounce the West.
Hitler’s rise and atrocities in 1939 and onward didn’t help either.
To this day, the perception of the dystopian novel is the novel against totalitarianism. In particular, against the evils of Communist Russia. But those days are over. They were over in the 1980s.
Writers like Ayn Rand, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Suzanne Collins would change the narrative yet again. When they did, the government wasn’t the only potential enemy anymore. Every tool of society could be the enemy: economics, religion, and even the innocuous entertainment industry.
The relationship between and individual and society
The relationship of the individual to society at large is at the heart of all three of the genres in the graphic above. Notice dystopia happens when the other two fail. Or, more correctly, what happens when a utopia and science are used against the individual.
Utopias presume that some amount of free choice and autonomy cease to exist. Of course, private property is one of the favorite scapegoats in this genre (and still is in some political circles). But every society claiming perfection takes away some amount of autonomy and everyone should be happy or at least content because it’s for everyone’s good.
Science fiction builds off the utopia by showing how society, while still imperfect, can be made better and more tolerant through scientific discovery. As some of the even later science fiction works posit, greater possibilities exist on other planets that science will unlock for us. Consider, for instance, the food replicators in Star Trek.
Dystopic regimes of any kind bank on you not being an island. How better to control you than by manipulating your relationships? In the totalitarian dystopia novel—the classic dystopia novel—even the most natural and basic relationships no longer exist. No parents, aunts, uncles, children or cousins. Even long-term romantic relationships don’t exist.
Because it’s the dystopic society which should be your parent, lover, and partner. Not another human being. Again, for the greater good.
Look at the relationship between Winston and Julia in 1984. Their love for one another isn’t allowed to exist because it conflicts with the love they should have for Big Brother. Even love can’t survive in a dystopia because it replaces the individual love one person has for another and says all should always and only love the regime itself.
“No man is an island”–until he has to be
Whatever John Donne says about the subject, you have to risk being an island. You have to be able to divorce yourself from the rest of humanity, take a stand, and be counted. Because that, and that alone, is what make a dystopia ultimately fail. It’s the individual. Not the collective.
An individual who can lead and inspire others is always going to be more powerful than a committee. This is true of a dystopia society and it’s true of a free one as well. A committee cannot lead a nation. That is why you have presidents,prime Ministers, and yes, even royal families.
The Queen is easier to follow than a Parliament and more lasting than a Prime Minister. Well, and let’s face it, Elizabeth II is hard not to at least admire.
Free will and free choice are still the answer
Dystopic fiction, always without fail, rests upon the choice of the individual. Anthem, for example, ends with a single word: EGO. Which, translated, means “I am.” If you trace that idea back through the millennia, you will inevitably end up on Mt Sinai in front of a burning bush with a Hebrew-born, Egyptian-raised man asking the entity in the bush “who are you?”
“I AM” is the answer. And I think it is the most sacred, wonderful pronouncement ever to be made. Because it is the pronouncement of life and creation.
I AM is the ultimate pronouncement for another reason. It proclaims you are you. As opposed to someone else. You are your thoughts, your hopes, your dreams, your deeds, and your self. You will is yours to command. It isn’t Big Brother’s to command. It isn’t some nameless bureaucratic committee’s to command. It isn’t a ravening mob’s to command. It’s yours.
Your will and your choices are your own because I AM.
But you have to be careful what choices you make.
Which is where science fiction comes in.
The consequences of our choices
Frankenstein was the first to show us the consequences of choosing wantonly. Creating the monster may have seemed like a good idea at first, but the reality was something far different. Subsequent science fiction novels focused on the wonder of discovering the world and the possibilities when human beings learn how to utilize the natural world.
But it takes on something different later o—something closer to what Mary Shelley conceived back in 1818—what happens when science goes wrong?
And World War I showed us exactly what happens when science goes wrong. Flame-throwers, tanks, flying machines that could reign death upon everyone, cannons, poisonous air, and the fine art of breaking the human mind.
Then, in WWII, the atom bomb. The ability to vaporize life in an instance. And torture what remains for decades.
Science can indeed go very, very wrong. And the wrongness is partially what drives post-apocalyptic dystopias. What happens when a plague wipes out the world? What happens when machines take over? What happens if….
The list goes on. But you get my point? Science is a fantastic tool, but it can be used for good, as people like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells hoped it would. Or science can be used for evil, like our Boomer parents and grandparents feared.
But you have to be free to make that choice.
The month to come
The month to come is going to have pairs (hopefully) of dystopian works. This is a hugely ambitious project—much like what I did with my Dante series in April. But it’s one that’s worth attempting, particularly given the events in the world right now.
Next weekend, I hope to pair Mary Shelley’s The Last Man with Steven Vincent Benet’s By the Waters of Babylon. What connects the two? Can you guess?
I’ll give you a hint: the answer is in T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land. Look particularly at the beginning of “The Fire Sermon.”
One note, I will not be doing any George Orwell this month, although I will do Aldous Huxley. Huxley’s dystopia shows a slightly different side to the totalitarian state.
That, and I want to introduce you to the novel that inspired 1984…
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