For the longest time, humanity has looked up at the stars and dreamt of the great beyond, questioned the secrets of creation and the inner workings of science, and wandered beyond the borders of the end of the world in search of fame and fortune. The questions “What if? Why is it? How can it be?” have plagued our ancestors since the beginning of time. Stories are an expression of that imagination, ever-changing in the voids of our mind, penned down to be immortalized for eternity.
Dystopian fiction, in particular, captures a certain part of our minds that intrigues us, yet also frightens us. Some may say that the high-tension circumstances, the fast-paced action, or the gripping storylines are what hooks us to this genre, but I believe that dystopian literature has always remained an integral part of human fascination. The ability to imagine a corrupt society that may one day become a reality plays on the deepest, darkest fears of the human race.
The world of dystopian fiction has drawn controversy and criticism for its exaggeration of contemporary social trends and the depiction of society at its worst. But in the world built within these stories, lies the undeniable possibilities of the future that we are building today. What is the fine line between a dystopia and utopia? Can humanity do any better? As we unveil the different pros and cons of a few dystopian worlds, we will begin to analyse the aspects of classical dystopian fiction hidden within our current society and the feasibility of contemporary dystopian fiction hereafter.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the writer exaggerates the effects of censorship and divisions of society, raising concerns over the intentions of governments during that period. 1984 was regarded as a political voice intended to address the issues of bipolarity and the division of political spheres of influence. Orwell is said to have written the book to convey his disapproval of the Tehran and Potsdam conferences (1945), which split Europe into 2 halves, one under Western capitalist influence and the other under Russian Communist influence. The novel was well-received by readers. V.S. Pritchett, who reviewed the book for the New Statesman said, “I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down.” Due to its ability to showcase the devastating realism of society in a unique manner, presenting a narrative relevant to that era that was not so far fetched from what the world was seeing from its international neighbours, the book received much attention. The book 1984 was published in 1949, and in 1952 its effectiveness in conveying and instructing Orwell’s readers on the political geography of that time was proven when the USSR government deemed the book dangerous because of its themes on censorship and attempted to ban the book in the USSR. Strangely, the British Labour party had also found it necessary to censor the book despite it being critical of communism. The fact that the governments acted to prevent the public from reading the book only served to further prove how greatly people were being influenced and convinced by Orwell’s ideology. By incorporating into his story the policies of Communism and putting them under a bad light, Orwell encouraged his readers to support capitalism. This message was well conveyed. In fact, following 1984’s publication, between the years 1950 – 1980 there was an increase in the disapproval towards totalitarianism, albeit it being in the form of extreme anti-communism (McCarthyism). However, History never lies, Capitalism won the cold war. While we cannot come to the conclusion that the release of 1984 was the sole factor of the resultant victory, we can infer that Orwell was a critical voice in influencing people to support capitalism. Dystopian novels effectively influence the political ideologies of readers and even governments. Here, tragedy functions as an extrapolation of our future to move readers’ mentality and beliefs.
We see a similar trend with Fahrenheit 451, where the author, Ray Bradbury, brings up the threat of “book burning” and censorship of information. Ray wrote the book in response to the Nazi book burning during World War Two, as well as the burning of anti-democracy books under Truman’s administration (which promoted the communist hysteria better known as the “red scare”). The Chicago Sunday Tribune, described the book as “a savage and shockingly prophetic view of one possible future way of life”, calling it “compelling” and praising Bradbury for his “brilliant imagination”. Perhaps it is this shock and savagery that created the aura of fascination that ultimately became the climacteric factor contributing to the book’s success. In the years that followed, the book gained traction amongst readers, and its popularity skyrocketed as amendments to US policies allowed for greater dissemination of information and decreased media censorship. Once again, dystopian literature showcases its capacity to influence socio-cultural norms and advocate change.
Thus, dystopian novels are effective in carrying a political voice and opinion that educate and enable individuals to have a political conscience, making them more mindful and critical of the political climate. People are influenced by dystopian novels because they convey their messages realistically, through creating a potential final outcome. This outcome instructs people to act based on the opinions shared by the novelist. The different types of dystopia used in dystopian novels relate to real-world events and situations, allowing people to identify well with the novel, calling more people to action. People then act to prevent these forms of dystopia from branching from today’s circumstance, making a visible change to their society.
However, we realize that dystopian novels more often than not, seem to predict rather than prevent. In 1984, mass surveillance entity Big Brother maintained complete control over the people via brainwashing and scrutinising surveillance. We see similar characteristics in today’s world, for example in China, where there are more than 600 million CCTVs and where people’s very livelihoods are determined by their “social credit”, their value as a citizen judged by conformation to the government. But this is not merely limited to one country. In lieu of the world’s rapid modernisation In the last few decades, technological innovation has skyrocketed, enabling governments to extend their power by invading people’s privacy and taking liberties with individuals under the guise of security. Another controversial but no less discreet example is the facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, where peoples’ personal information was being sold. In this information age, it is increasingly easy to gain access to data via the Internet, which has gradually evolved from a simple information and communication tool into a metaphysical reflection of what society is becoming. Should society ever take a turn for the worse, the online universe that we so casually make use of nowadays could very well become a dangerous weapon — a double-edged sword. While recognising that the technological danger is still a far cry from that of a dystopian world, there are certain red flags that we cannot turn a blind eye too.
Another significant milestone in the world’s demise that dystopian world’s foreboding prophecy has included, is environmental degradation. One of the many things that make a utopian world a near-impossible dream is the surroundings and atmosphere of a utopian world. To maintain a state of technological, cultural, and social enlightenment, beyond just the people’s cohesiveness, an unattainable amount of resources is required. This is why despite the sound and noble ideology of society, dystopian worlds often fall into corruption and depravity. In terms of real-life examples, we see this in the fall of communism in the USSR. More than seventy years of a failed utopian idealism that was coercively placed upon its citizens brought about the fall of the Communist rule. Promises to the people from the government to supply all their need for comfortable lives did not materialise. This is becoming especially true with today’s “ground-breaking” technology, resources are being used up so rapidly that supply edges dangerously close to depletion. In the movie “Soylent Green”, the resource exhaustion from an industrial revolution forces the world into a caste system with a cannibalistic twist. With humanity expending earth’s resources rapidly, a resultant dystopian world is not far off. We have begun to see glimpses of the visible human taint on the planet: tsunamis, earthquakes and rising global temperature. In the decades to come, the situation will only worsen. The few and inconsequential measures that have been put in place are too little to reverse or even slow the planet’s steady rate of decay. The events in “Soylent Green” may seem far-fetched, but could be a not so distant reality.
Dystopian literature is a compelling and convincing means of reaching the general public and in recent times, has had a substantially big impact on society. We cannot deny that its ideas and concerns have been conveyed well and have opened up our eyes to different world views. However, the interest that it has consistently garnered over the years does not just make sense from a political standpoint in our current circumstances, but as a probable imagined future. Dystopian worlds are without a doubt plausible, conceivable ends to our world, but they are far from desirable ones. Morals and ethics will be compromised and such extremist ideas will eventually lead to a self-destructive collapse, in which there will be no coming back from. As much as we dismiss the extreme portrayals in these dystopian novels, we must not, because of complacency and ignorance, follow in their footsteps. Instead, we must seek to discover a new and improved vision. Dystopian novels exist to give us insight on the flaws that may lead us down the same path and then present us with a thought process on its solutions. At the end of the day, dystopian fiction is merely the means of expression for a single man, his voice to the world, but society as a collective people, will make its decision. For better or for worse, only the future can tell.
Jonathan Lim 20A14
- Introduction to Nineteen Eighty-Four (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), Crick Bernard
- The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature (2005), Cambridge University Press, Laura Marcus; Peter Nicholls
- List of Dystopian Literature – Dystopian Novels. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2020, from http://www.utopiaanddystopia.com/dystopian-fiction/dystopian-literature-list/
- ReadWriteThink. (2006). Dystopias: Definition and Characteristics. Retrieved from http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson926/DefinitionCharacteristics.pdf
- Schmidt, C. (2014). Why are Dystopian Films on the rise? Retrieved from http://daily.jstor.org/why-are-dystopian-films-on-the-rise-again/
- The Artifice. (2015). The Rising Popularity of Dystopian Literature. Retrieved May 30, 2020, from http://the-artifice.com/popularity-of-dystopian-literature
- The Collected Essays: Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4, p. 54
- Knipfel, J. (2018). Why Soylent Green is More Relevant Now Than Ever. Retrieved from https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/why-soylent-green-is-more-relevant-now-than-ever/
Media credits (in order of appearance):