Dreaming of Dystopia
Near Vespucci’s America lay an island, discovered by a peripatetic named Raphael Hythloday. Bearing a Greek name meaning ‘an expert in nonsense’, he was perhaps an ideal choice of narrator to describe the land he surveyed, Utopia. In the 1516 eponymous work of fiction, Thomas More fabricated a correspondence between him and the fictional Hythloday, where the latter described what was perceived at the time to be the closest ethical ideal that humanity could aspire to. Ironically, the word ‘utopia’ means ‘no place’, rather than ‘good place’, which has become its colloquial meaning. A classless, stateless society erected on the principles of common ownership, it was remarkably Marxist in retrospect, and was reported to have no heinous crime or capitalistic greed. Based on this novel, the word ’utopia’ found its way into common parlance, meaning a good, or perfect place or community; an epitome of social development. That in turn spawned its opposite, ‘dystopia’. A land too bad to be true.
More interesting than the book itself is the perception of utopia as it then existed. Utopia may have tried to describe a perfect world, but by today’s moral compass, it falls rather short. Despite its economic advantages for citizens, the land condoned slavery, despised atheists, and required women to confess their sins to their husbands once a month. It did however, cement the exploration of utopia and its negation in popular imagination.
Three centuries later came the The Time Machine (1895), legendary not just as dystopian fiction, but also as science fiction. Credited with introducing the concept of time travel, H. G. Wells avoided a rather common trap in this novel – that of being proved wrong – by fast forwarding his story to the year 802,701 A.D.
Fuelled by his own political and social opinions, he postulated that the strained relations between the aristocrats and working class would over the millennia, cause the parallel evolution of two human species, the Eloi and the Morlocks.
Wells’ path was distinct from that of subsequent dystopian authors, describing the devolution of our species, living completely ungoverned existences.
But by zooming out if you will, a pattern becomes visible. According to multiple psychologists and anthropologists, the dystopian genre owes its remarkable popularity to its ability to draw out the public’s fears. It stands to reason, then, that changing sociopolitical climates impacted novels, and vice versa. So how did the genre cement itself in public imagination? What is it the public has been most afraid of? How has it changed?
It is the 1931 Brave New World that is most commonly attributed to having popularised dystopian fiction, written in an era of burgeoning fascism. Aldous Huxley treaded, and indeed created ground more familiar to the dystopia enthusiast, which contains concepts we’ve seen replicated in the genre numerous times. The World State, which the protagonist inhabited, had strict divisions of people into castes, and abhorred individuality of any sort.
The autocratic structure underlying this book was adapted by writers for decades afterward. The fear of fascism across the Western world from the 1930s to the 60s is said to have prompted the use of these common themes: namely those of totalitarianism, patriotic zealotry and an individual’s attempts at subverting them.
In 1984, Orwell, who was inspired by Huxley’s work, tapped into the same perception of dystopia. His phrases in Newspeak, the abbreviated version of English adopted by the government, have found their way into popular culture.
The omnipresent tension of society is mirrored from predecessors like Brave New World and We, but secret surveillance (Big Brother, of course), deception, and blatant violence are Orwell’s additions, with the Spies and Youth League bearing a striking similarity to the Gestapo and Hitler Youth.
The urgency and despair of his tone quickly became par for the course of dystopian fiction, seen often in sentences like, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
The horror of a desensitised society seen in 1984, was also extensively described in Fahrenheit 451, with children shooting people for fun, and footage of ships of being bombed served up as amusement. Written during the Cold War, both books warned against governments trying to mould the lives of their citizens, expressing the authors’ frustration at the suppression of individuality, and independent thinking. In a break from the pattern, Guy Montag, Bradbury’s protagonist, got to have a happy ending of sorts, where he escaped the confines of his previous life to join a community of forward thinking rebels.
Violence as a strong component of what dystopia constituted was taken more than a few steps forward in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Inspired by stilyagi, gangs of teenagers Burgess encountered in Leningrad in 1961, he crafted a fictional world where adolescent hooligans ran amok, speaking nadsat, an invented slang, heavily inspired by Russian. In the context of A Clockwork Orange, people’s deeply entrenched Catholic notions of free will and original sin stood shoulder to shoulder with the strong fear of that time’s USSR, which was ahead of all other nations in the space race, and seemed genuinely capable of pursuing world dominion.
The next decade marked the election of Thatcher in 1979, closely followed by that of Reagan in 1980, where the Western world saw a sudden shift in thought process, to the revival of a more conservative ideology. Religious conservatives stood in arms against the perceived ‘sexual liberation’ of the 1960s, making feminists fear that the rights they’d worked towards (widespread access to contraception, the legalization of abortion, and the increasing political influence of female voters) would be suddenly revoked. The angst caused by it was fertile ground for the birth of The Handmaid’s Tale, a staunchly feminist work of dystopia that has never been out of print till today. Margaret Atwood leveraged public fears like those of the newly-discovered AIDS and nuclear power plant explosions to make the novel uncomfortably plausible. Dehumanising restrictions were heaped on women far more than men, and they were relegated into sharply demarcated roles – those of housewives, labourers or handmaids (birth givers) – without the rights to vote, read or write.
Despite the political, cultural and human rights tensions of each of these decades, a few common threads are apparent in the dystopian tapestry. The obliteration of individual choice, the disregard of fact and the dissemination of propaganda seem to have remained genuine fears in the public’s imagination throughout. Perhaps these are even more genuine features today in what is dubbed as the ‘post-truth era’, bursting with alternative facts and strongly growing fundamentalism. Based on the last year alone, one can hope that the course of the genre takes an interesting turn.
– Written by Dharini Prasad