Dystopia!

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.

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2 thoughts on “Dystopia!

  1. While I stand by my conversational comment that you’ve included in this piece, I think to state it in a vacuum, absent the rest of the discussion, misses the central point I was attempting to get at. It’s not just that it’s been done a million times, although it has, and that the format is becoming a little boring, although it is. My point was, if done artfully, and with the proper touch, I think a dystopian story without a plucky rebel who helpfully points out the failures of society for the reader could be a better, and more chilling, read.

    History has shown that agents of change need not compose a vast army. To steal, and modify, a tired phrase, a single spark still provides light within the darkness. In other words there is hope within the dystopias that contain dissenters. Even if that dissenter is a single person, and he is snuffed out by the vast opposing horde, the mere existence of that mutineer shows the possibility of another way, which may eventually garner favor with the world at large. But in a world where everything is amiss and no one notices, or indeed where this inherent wrongness is even celebrated, change seems impossible.

    To glimpse a dystopia is disturbing, to imagine it continuing in perpetually will leave many a reader hunting for a night light.

  2. I’ve already invested in several nightlights, which together keep Benito Mussolini from jumping out of my closet.

    Most of these novels depict a point of no redemption, where the human spirit can no longer rescue the humans. Chilling enough for me, personally. But I too wonder if an author could remove that spark of human spirit, which I agree is the optimism inherent in even the most pessimistic dystopian novels.

    Narrative problems aside, it still wouldn’t be as disturbing, I think, as the “plucky rebel’s” fall. You don’t get to witness the truly infernal power of an evil empire until you see what it does to its dissenters. It’s one thing to watch the dystopia as it merely keeps its mice caged. But when its cold hand reaches in for one of them…

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