Written by Christie Basson
Global warming. Women losing all reproductive rights. Technology encroaching on every aspect of our lives. A growing distaste for freedom of speech. Dystopia has never seemed more realistic.
So, what do we do when our day-to-day lives read like the prologue of a dystopian novel?
If the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, Black Mirror, or The Hunger Games is any indication, we flock to media that sheds light on the what-ifs: What if our government decided women were total property of the state? What if technology outpaced our morality? What if the state had complete control over our every move and thought?
Since its origin, the dystopian genre has been looking at the what-ifs of its time periods. The genre began as a mode for cultural and political commentary in the 19th century through political speeches and essays, though it wasn’t until 1921 with the publication of We that the dystopian novel took its more familiar form. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We, deals with citizens forced to live under a totalitarian government that suppressed any creativity or passion. These tropes later became markers of the genre, and influenced later authors like George Orwell and Ayn Rand.
Over time, the genre continued to build upon itself in every time period it was written in as new threats to society solidified and became rich subject matter. In our time, these fears seem to have solidified in new and terrifying ways, encouraged by a society that relies on speedy communication. Never before has information been so easily accessible and the nature of our sharing, posting, and tweeting, has changed not only our ways of discussing our fears, but the fears themselves. To fully understand the importance of this iteration of the genre in modern times, however, one must first look at its progression throughout the last century to properly understand the context. Here are some great dystopian works of the twentieth century.
In the 30s and 40s there was political unrest and revolution abundant — it’s no wonder this directly engendered the kind of atmosphere where authors often imagined the very worst of what could happen. With one world war barely ended and another looming on the horizon, dystopia of this period dealt mostly with government control, free will, and the power of the state.
In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, humans are genetically engineered to live within a certain class. The smarter you are, the higher you climb the social ladder. Just don’t ask too many questions or you might be exiled to Iceland.
Huxley says: “…[M]ost men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.”
In Anthem by Ayn Rand, individuality is no more — people aren’t named and refer to themselves in the collective. Technological advancement is a rationed activity, lives are decided by outside forces, and love can’t be expressed because there’s no “we” in “I love you”.
Rand says: “To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. This and nothing else.”
In the 50s and 60s, the rise of communism and the fear of the domino effect meant a mistrust of the general population as the world dealt with the a global threat that was hard to predict and harder to stop. As can be expected, the concerns of dystopian authors shifted accordingly. More interested in war and governments’ hidden motivations behind it, authors of this period focused on propaganda, censorship, and the importance of freedom of speech (and, rather disturbingly, thought).
In 1984 by George Orwell, the government knows what you’re thinking. In fact, the Thought Police and Big Brother are always watching through two-way telescreens so be careful not to commit any thought crime – a.k.a. controversial ideas that question or oppose the government. Those who do will be “cured” (read: tortured until they’re brainwashed like the rest of the population).
Orwell says: “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
In Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, it’s firemen as you’ve never known them. Books are banned and firemen are the ones tasked with incinerating them. An illiterate society, nuclear bombs, and an eight-legged robot dog: what else could a novel need?
Bradbury says: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”
With threats of war fading, society in the 70s and 80s turned its attention to newfangled issues. Human rights and essential freedoms, the rise of corporations, and the decline of economic prosperity meant dystopian authors had more than enough material to work with.
For those who have been living under a rock or have not seen the Hulu adaption, the world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is simple. Woman = child-maker. Those who are part of the rapidly shrinking fertile population are treated as property of the theonomic dictatorship. These women essentially become walking uteruses – something that seems less and less far-fetched every day.
Atwood says: “Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.”
The Earthsea Saga, written by Ursula K. Le Guin, was one of the first to break the mold of white main characters that dominated the genre. This unique coming of age story draws inspiration from Native American legends and Norse Mythology, features a dark-skinned hero, and includes dragons (!!!).
Le Guin says, “War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to “a war against” whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off.”
The turn of the twentieth century brought a turn in the genre. What was feverishly speculated about in previous decades could now be disproved — the robots didn’t rise up, the world didn’t succumb to nuclear war, and instead of making us super-humanly smart, technology has made us complacent. The kind of pessimism seen in modern dystopia revolves around how we have grappled with certain what-ifs and the directions we have allowed technology, government, or the state of the environment to go; instead of far-off imagined futures that might happen, these kinds of dystopian novels feel more current in that they deal with problems we’re creating right now and the aftermaths we will have to face in the not-so-far future.
It’s a difficult time to distinguish between the issues that can be remedied with effort and those that are past the point of no return. Pick a current issue that keeps you up at night and you could probably find a dystopian novel to match. In our modern times, you could even find those classic dystopian novels enjoying a renaissance in a new medium, such as the upcoming Bladerunner 2049 and Fahrenheit 451 movies, and The Handmaid’s Tale television show. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the classics – the film rights of new dystopian novels are rapidly being bought by film and television studios (think The Maze Runner, The Darkest Minds, or The 100). With the rise of the young adult dystopia sub-genre and numerous dystopian adaptions for the big screen, many of these classic (or wholly modern) tales become accessible to new fans who wouldn’t necessarily read the books – be that for lack of enthusiasm for the genre or even books in general.
Who knew — your Netflix binging was actually a master class in survival for the end of the world as we know it.
An expansion of the dystopian genre means that these narratives reach a wider audience, though the changes created in bringing the narratives to this new medium cannot be ignored. In reimagining the classics, it is impossible not to have our current societal environment influence how these adaptations are produced and creatively executed. On one other hand, modern adaptations mean that producers can add to or gloss over that which was lacking in the original novels. For example, the Hulu version of The Handmaid’s Tale has a relatively diverse cast, but in the original book, that inclusivity is rather… lacking. As Angelica Jade Bastién writes, black people in Atwood’s novel are “mentioned in only a few sentences to alert readers that they’ve been rounded up and sent to some colony in the Midwest.” To Bastién, this move “resembles South Africa’s apartheid” and “feels like the mark of a writer unable to reckon with how race would compound the horrors of a hyper-Evangelical-ruled culture.” While the show faced criticism for its representation of racial issues, remaking the story in 2018 means that producers can aspire to a more inclusive reality than its source material and will be held to this new expectation.
Of course, this 21st century awareness expands to recently written novels as well. Authors like Maggie Shen King and Tahereh Mafiare are writing acclaimed dystopian novels with diverse protagonists about issues that haven’t been explored previously, expanding not only the subject matter, but the audience as well. Diverse dystopian novels written by authors who experience these issues more acutely means that we have material where the dystopian future is a little more realistic, reflecting the times and the globality of these issues.
In a world where freedom of the press is dubious, women have to fight for the rights to their own bodies, and refugees are treated as criminals instead of victims, it is no wonder we grasp onto all things fictitious. Dystopian novels had always been an exemplary part of imagination on the author’s part — half-fantastic worldbuilding, half-cautionary tale. However, some of the age-old trends we see and love in our favourite dystopia have started to feel more like fact and less like fiction. Things that seemed unlikely, ridiculous even, have one by one happened in the United States and other nations, which raises a new question: Do we still enjoy dystopia when it’s no longer far-away and unlikely?
Although there are those who will scoff at the modern dystopian novel (and the genre’s tendency towards a YA audience) it is impossible to ignore its merit, especially in light of the current state of things. For close to a century we have used these books to measure the likelihood of some narratives playing out; we can follow the events that landed this imaginary world in their predicament and appreciate the fact that we would never fall for the same plot. Not only can it serve as a cautionary tale or a fantasy of what-ifs, it serves as a way for us to process and dissect our current culture. Not to mention, it’s a coping mechanism. If it happens every Tuesday on HBO, what are the odds of our worst fear actually being realized?
So what changes when the fictitious gets a little too close for comfort? Is dystopia now even scarier than it was before? One thing we can say if this is in fact the prequel to a dystopia: we’ll be prepared. Things that previously seemed possible only between the pages of a novel are now played out on the news — and that can be terrifying. What was once fiction is now fact, and our society — and the genre — must adapt. Who knew — your Netflix binging was actually a master class in survival for the end of the world as we know it.
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo