Ah, Dystopian Literature! That special kind of novel that is often only revered 50 years after its author has passed on to glory… and we see that he/she has gotten a creepy number of things right. It’s the kind of book whose main value is in its warning: Stalinism, fascism, nihilism, fanaticism, anarchism, and all the other -ism’s that populate an author’s nightmare vision of future society.
Some people expect to find dystopian fiction comforting, as in, “Wow, things could be so much shittier than they are now!”
A good work of dystopian literature should never, ever comfort you. Your response should be, “Wow, things could be so much shittier, and in a matter of decades, they will!”
Most Sci-Fi novels imagine some future society that is markedly favorable or unfavorable, but here I’m talking about the books that make such a society the focus — and the novel’s central antagonist. I’ll be looking at three of these over the next few days:
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Anthem by Ayn Rand
1984 by George Orwell
(Note: “Hey, Doug… Ayn Rand… but Anthem? Not Atlas Shrugged? Or even The Fountainhead? What, are those books too big for your hummingbird-like attention span?”
Yes. When Rand’s writing them, yes. More on that in a post to come.)
Each of these novels centers around a protagonist who is “The Seer”, or the nonconformist struggling for independence within that society.
“They’re all like that,” said my friend, Jaeson. “For once I’d like to read a book where the hero isn’t trying to rise up.”
“But then you have no story,” I said. “That’s where the conflict comes from. Someone has to rock the boat.”
“Yes, but that story’s been published hundreds of times already.”
Also true. If there are dystopian novels as I defined above that follow a hero who thinks life’s just ducky in his Oceania, I’d be curious to know which they are and if they’re any good. But the tried-and-true formula still works for me. In fact, only so many of these books stand out in our collective memory; there’s only one Fahrenheit 451, among many other imitators, and the same goes for the other giants in the subgenre. We can keep writing and reading this same story, but only a few stand the test of time, where we learn who the true prophets were.