Dystopia

1984 by gwen boul

A dystopia [dis-toh-pee-uh] is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian, as characterized in books like ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’

Dystopian societies feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, various forms of active and passive coercion. Ideas and works about dystopian societies often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and humans individually and collectively coping, or not being able to properly cope with technology that has progressed far more rapidly than humanity’s spiritual evolution. Dystopian societies are often imagined as police states, with unlimited power over the citizens.

The word dystopia represents a counterpart of utopia, a term originally coined by Thomas More in his book of the same title completed in 1516. Many dystopias found in fictional and artistic works present a utopian society with at least one fatal flaw, whereas a utopian society is founded on the good life, a dystopian society’s dreams of improvement are overshadowed by stimulating fears of the ‘ugly consequences of present-day behavior.’ People are alienated and individualism is restricted by the government. An early example of a dystopian novel is ‘Rasselas’ (1759), by Samuel Johnson, set in Ethiopia.

In the novel ‘Brave New World,’ by Aldous Huxley, the class system is prenatally designated in terms of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. In ‘We,’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin, people are permitted to live out of public view for only an hour a day. They are not only referred to by numbers instead of names, but are neither ‘citizens’ nor ‘people,’ but ‘ciphers.’ In the lower castes, in ‘Brave New World,’ single embryos are ‘bokanovskified,’ so that they produce between eight and ninety-six identical siblings, making the underclass citizens as fungible as possible.

Some dystopian works emphasize the pressure to conform in terms of a requirement not to excel. In these works, the society is ruthlessly egalitarian, in which ability and accomplishment, or even competence, are suppressed or stigmatized as forms of inequality, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron.’ Similarly, in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ the dystopia represses the intellectuals with particular force, because most people are willing to accept it, and the resistance to it consists mostly of intellectuals.

Concepts and symbols of religion may come under attack in a dystopia. In ‘Brave New World,’ for example, the establishment of the state included lopping off the tops of all crosses (as symbols of Christianity) to make them ‘T’s’, (as symbols of Henry Ford’s Model T). But compare Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ wherein a Christianity-based theocratic regime rules the future United States.

In some of the fictional dystopias, such as ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ the family has been eradicated and continuing efforts are deployed to keep it from reestablishing itself as a social institution. In ‘Brave New World,’ where children are reproduced artificially, the concepts ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are considered obscene. In some novels, the State is hostile to motherhood: for example, in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ children are organized to spy on their parents; and in ‘We,’ the escape of a pregnant woman from OneState is a revolt.

Fictional dystopias are commonly urban and frequently isolate their characters from all contact with the natural world. Sometimes they require their characters to avoid nature, as when walks are regarded as dangerously anti-social in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451.’ In ‘Brave New World,’ the lower classes of society are conditioned to be afraid of nature, but also to visit the countryside and consume transportation and games to stabilize society. A few ‘green’ fictional dystopias do exist, such as in Michael Carson’s short story ‘The Punishment of Luxury,’ and Russell Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker.’ The latter is set in the aftermath of nuclear war, ‘a post-nuclear holocaust Kent, where technology has reduced to the level of the Iron Age.’

In ‘When the Sleeper Wakes,’ H. G. Wells depicted the governing class as hedonistic and shallow. George Orwell contrasted Wells’s world to that depicted in Jack London’s ‘The Iron Heel,’ where the dystopian rulers are brutal and dedicated to the point of fanaticism, which Orwell considered more plausible.

Whereas the political principles at the root of fictional utopias (or ‘perfect worlds’) are idealistic in principle, intending positive consequences for their inhabitants, the political principles on which fictional dystopias are based are flawed and result in negative consequences for the inhabitants of the dystopian world, which is portrayed as oppressive.

Dystopias are often filled with pessimistic views of the ruling class or government that is brutal or uncaring ruling with an ‘iron fist.’ These dystopian government establishments often have protagonists or groups that lead a ‘resistance’ to enact change within their government.

The economic structures of dystopian societies in literature and other media have many variations, as the economy often relates directly to the elements that the writer is depicting as the source of the oppression. However, there are several archetypes that such societies tend to follow. A commonly occurring theme is that the state plans the economy, as shown in such works as Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem’ and Henry Kuttner’s short story ‘The Iron Standard.’ Some dystopias, such as ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ feature black markets with goods that are dangerous and difficult to obtain, or the characters may be totally at the mercy of the state-controlled economy. Such systems usually have a lack of efficiency, as seen in stories like Philip Jose Farmer’s ‘Riders of the Purple Wage,’ featuring a bloated welfare system in which total freedom from responsibility has encouraged an underclass prone to any form of antisocial behavior. Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Player Piano’ depicts a dystopia in which the centrally controlled economic system has indeed made material abundance plentiful, but deprived the mass of humanity of meaningful labor; virtually all work is menial and unsatisfying, and only a small number of the small group that achieves education is admitted to the elite and its work.

Even in dystopias where the economic system is not the source of the society’s flaws, as in ‘Brave New World,’ the state often controls the economy. In ‘Brave New World,’ a character, reacting with horror to the suggestion of not being part of the social body, cites as a reason that everyone works for everyone else.

Other works feature extensive privatization and corporatism, where privately owned and unaccountable large corporations have effectively replaced the government in setting policy and making decisions. They manipulate, infiltrate, control, bribe, are contracted by, or otherwise function as government. This is seen in the novel ‘Jennifer Government’ and the movies ‘Alien,’ ‘Robocop,’ ‘Max Headroom,’ ‘Soylent Green,’ ‘THX 1138’ and ‘WALL-E.’ Rule-by-corporation is common in the cyberpunk genre, as in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (made into the movie ‘Blade Runner’) and ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson.

In dystopian literature the advanced technology is controlled exclusively by the group in power, while the oppressed population is limited to technology comparable to or more primitive than what we have today. In order to emphasize the degeneration of society, the standard of living among the lower and middle classes is generally poorer than that of their equivalents in contemporary industrialized society.

In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ for example, the Inner Party, the upper class of society, also has a standard of living that at least appears lower than the upper classes of today. By contrast, in ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Equilibrium,’ people enjoy much higher material living standards in exchange for the loss of other qualities in their lives, such as independent thought and emotional depth. In ‘Brave New World,’ people are divided into castes ranging from Alpha-Plus to Epsilon, with the lower classes having reduced brain function and conditioning to make them satisfied with their position in life.

As fictional dystopias are often set in a future projected virtual time and/or space involving technological innovations not accessible in actual present reality, it is often classified generically as science fiction, a subgenre of speculative fiction. Because a fictional universe has to be constructed, a selectively told backstory of a war, revolution, uprising, critical overpopulation, or other disaster is often introduced early in the narrative. This results in a shift in emphasis of control, from previous systems of government to a government run by corporations, totalitarian dictatorships or bureaucracies; or from previous social norms to a changed society and new (and often disturbing) social norms.

Unlike utopian fiction, which often features an outsider to have the world shown to him, dystopias seldom feature an outsider as the protagonist. While such a character would more clearly understand the nature of the society, based on comparison to his society, the knowledge of the outside culture subverts the power of the dystopia. When such outsiders are major characters—such as John the Savage in ‘Brave New World’—their societies cannot assist them against the dystopia.

The story usually centers on a protagonist who questions the society, often feeling intuitively that something is terribly wrong, such as Guy Montag in Ray Bradbury’s novella ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Winston Smith in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ or V in Alan Moore’s ‘V for Vendetta.’ The hero comes to believe that escape or even overturning the social order is possible and decides to act at the risk of life and limb; this may appear as irrational even to him or her, but he or she still acts. The hero’s point of view usually clashes with the others’ perception, most notably in ‘Brave New World,’ revealing that concepts of utopia and dystopia are tied to each other and the only difference between them lies on a matter of opinion.

Another popular archetype of hero in the more modern dystopian literature is the Vonnegut hero, a hero who is in high-standing within the social system, but sees how wrong everything is, and attempts to either change the system or bring it down, such as Paul Proteus of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel ‘Player Piano’ or Winston Niles Rumfoord in ‘The Sirens of Titan.’

In many cases, the hero’s conflict brings him or her to a representative of the dystopia who articulates its principles, from Mustapha Mond in ‘Brave New World’ to O’Brien in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’

There is usually a group of people somewhere in the society who are not under the complete control of the state, and in whom the hero of the novel usually puts his or her hope, although often he or she still fails to change anything. In Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ they are the ‘proles,’ in Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ they are the savages of the reservation, and in ‘We’ by Zamyatin they are the people outside the walls of the One State. In ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury, they are the ‘book people’ past the river and outside the city.

The story is often unresolved even if the hero manages to escape or destroy the dystopia. That is, the narrative may deal with individuals in a dystopian society who are unsatisfied, and may rebel, but ultimately fail to change anything. Sometimes they themselves end up changed to conform to the society’s norms, such as in ‘With Folded Hands,’ by Jack Williamson. This narrative arc to a sense of hopelessness can be found in such classic dystopian works as ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ It contrasts with much fiction of the future, in which a hero succeeds in resolving conflicts or otherwise changes things for the better.

The destruction of dystopia is frequently a very different sort of work than one in which it is preserved. Indeed, the subversion of a dystopian society, with its potential for conflict and adventure, is a staple of science fiction stories. Poul Anderson’s short story ‘Sam Hall’ depicts the subversion of a dystopia heavily dependent on surveillance. Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘If This Goes On—’ liberates the United States from a fundamentalist theocracy, where the underground rebellion is organized by the Freemasons. Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Rediscovery of Man’ series depicts a society recovering from its dystopian period, with the discovery that its utopia was impossible to maintain. Although these and other societies are typical of dystopias in many ways, they all have not only flaws but exploitable flaws. The ability of the protagonists to subvert the society also subverts the monolithic power typical of a dystopia. In some cases the hero manages to overthrow the dystopia by motivating the (previously apathetic) populace.

Destruction of the fictional dystopia may not be possible, but—if it does not completely control its world—escaping from it may be an alternative. In Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ the main character succeeds in fleeing and finding tramps who have dedicated themselves to memorizing books to preserve them. But ironically, the dystopian society is destroyed in the end — by nuclear missiles. In the book ‘Logan’s Run,’ the main characters make their way to an escape from the otherwise inevitable euthanasia on their 21st birthday (30th in the later film version). Because such dystopias must necessarily control less of the world than the protagonist can reach, and the protagonist can elude capture, this motif also subverts the dystopia’s power. In Lois Lowry’s ‘The Giver’ the main character Jonas is able to run away from ‘The Community” and escapes to ‘Elsewhere’ where people have memories.

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