Welcome to Dystopia Week. Starting tomorrow, we’re going to run a series of stories and posts offering visions of how society might Go Wrong. Each author has a different lens through which that is understood.
Vikram Bath recently informed me that the word “dystopia” appears to have first been used in 1868, by John Stuart Mill, in a speech given to the British Parliament, with respect to land policy in Ireland. In contemporary scholarly usage, it usually refers to a form of social commentary by way of fiction illustrating a future which is undesirable, often to the point of being terrifying.
The most famous dystopia in literature is undoubtedly George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, written in 1948, which illustrated the reach of an overpowering totalitarian government waging global war and simultaneously concerning itself with controlling the internal psychology of its helpless protagonist Winston Smith. Nineteen Eighty Four was the first book I read that made me cry, in the scene where Winston offers up his lover Julia for torture, because it illustrated even love crushed under the wheels of oppression — something that all other fiction I’d read or viewed up until then had assured me was impossible.
For me, the most insidious and instructive literary dystopia was not Orwell’s, but Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The society in which the protagonist Guy Montag is employed as a “fireman,” only we quickly learn that Montag’s world perverts the job from one whose job it is to prevent property damage cause by fire to one whose job it is to burn and destroy caches of books, as books now represent a public danger. As we delve deeper into a world with chillingly accurate predictions of immersive entertainments serving as distractions from matters of importance, we also see sanitized and slanted news mindlessly consumed by uncritical viewers, and the elevation of sybaritic and consequence-free sensation over more meaningful interpersonal relationships of love, friendship, and mutual respect. Most frighteningly, we learn that the hostility of this society to books came not by way of governmental censorship, but rather from consumer preference: people chose to criminalize ownership of books and mandate their destruction, because they contained complex concepts that often “made people sad.”
More contemporary dystopias have become the subject of fiction that resembles adventure stories aimed at young adults and teenagers: The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and Divergent are the most prominent examples. I think there is good to be extracted from offering cautionary tales of this nature to young people, at least potentially. Having interacted with a number of teenagers who have joyously consumed–in many cases, inhaled–these books, I fear that many of them bypass the elements of the stories that illustrate precisely how the societies the young protagonists fight against went wrong and are wrong, favoring the zest of the adventures and triumphs of the heroes with whom they identify. It’s fun to cheer Katniss on as she fights the power, but it’s worth taking a moment to meditate on just how much the gladiatorial spectacle of the Hunger Games is used as a tool of political control, how Caesar Flickerman is perhaps the most effective agent of Panem’s oppression–and whether Panem’s blend of social stratification, military violence, and mass media are uncomfortably close to life in their own contemporary world.
Dystopian visions are valuable for us to embrace precisely so we don’t wind up like the people in Fahrenheit 451. Like all cautionary tales, they illustrate what the results of too many bad choices made now could be. They also serve a similar purpose as do horror stories: by confronting what we fear, we can feel a measure of control over them. Many people have had exactly those sorts of apprehensions recently as the political winds in the western world seem to have shifted. Some of what we have to offer may seem darkly humorous, and some of it just plain dark, but what is intended is a modicum of consideration. Let us take these illustrations not as totems to elicit fear or unrest, but rather as inspirations to remember what we find important, to do what is within our power to enhance that which is good in our society, whether you welcome, fear, or are indifferent to current events.
Image by haxney