Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and
speculative fiction enthusiast.
A dystopia, very simply, is
the antithesis of a utopia, or the ideal, perfect state. In saying so, it’s
obvious the two are dependent on each other. In fact dystopian visions are
almost always in response to a person or movement’s vision of utopia. As soon
as an “ism” is formed, as soon as the precepts for a future great society have
been codified, there will be another view that details the myriad ways this
future vision will go wrong.
The past five or 10 years in
SF literature have offered a plethora of titles detailing the ways our current
society might spiral into a dystopian future. The Hunger Games and Suzanne Collins’s follow-upnovels are obvious
examples of a materialist, fame-obsessed culture gone awry. And no examination
of dystopias is complete without some mention of Margaret Atwood, whose Handmaid’s Tale responds to a number of
societal mores and political extremes. There is an argument to be made that her
current novel MaddAddam, as well as the preceding novels in that
trilogy, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, represent a future world more fully realized
and chilling for its extrapolation of corporate hegemony and scientific hubris than
any on record. But that might be slightly hyperbolic; the canon of dystopian
fiction is so rich and varied, it’s impossible to make such a statement.
HARMby Brian W. Aldiss is on one end of the
spectrum, an end that is colored by a deep concern over the extremes of
societal and governmental control in the wake of large-scale terrorism.
Mr. Aldiss, a true and venerable science fiction master, details a near
future that is wracked by paranoia and intolerance—a secret police state in which writing satire
about the assassination of the Prime Minister is grounds for arrest,
interrogation, and clandestine detention. As Jonathan Carroll says on the dust
jacket blurb, the book is “disturbing as hell,” which for the protagonist, Paul
Fadhil Abbas Ali—a British citizen who
authored the above satire—it certainly is.
But this disquieting nature
is also what is important about the book, for as terrifyingly gripping as it
is, it tells us about our own culture. Dystopias, when done best, reflect the
extremes of contemporary society and project what current trends in thought a
political practice might mean for a future civilization that too closely hews
to a particular set of values.
Take, for example, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Written in 1920, We might be the first science fiction
dystopia. Here we are given a brutal vision of what a Russian Futurist utopia
might become in practice—a future modern industrial Bolshevik state built on the ruins of White Russian and the rubble of WWI. Set hundreds of years in
the future of 1920, humans have become automatons. They are workers and
engineers, given numbers rather than names, all working for the good of the One
As Bruce Sterling points
out in his foreword to the Modern Library edition, We is “(almost) entirely devoid of literary referents.” Many of the
science fictional themes we’ve come to view as clichés—synthetic food, androgynous jumpsuits, surgical
mind control—are presented in We as if cut from whole cloth, totally
fresh and new for the time.
It was certainly
groundbreaking from a science fiction perspective. Both George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World are thought to have been influenced by We. Ursula K. Le Guin, author of her own
quasi-dystopian vision, The Lathe of Heaven, called it “the best single work of science
fiction yet written.” No faint praise, to be sure.
But to digress, or perhaps
regress, some might say that Jack London’s The Iron Heel, written some 12 years earlier than We, lays claim to the first dystopian
novel, and that well may be true, but London’s novel is not strictly
science fiction. In We, the main
character (named D-503) helps to hijack a spaceship that was to have been used
to go forth and covert lesser civilizations to the orthodoxy of the One State.
London’s novel details turn-of-the-century socialist thought in contrast to an
authoritarian American oligarchy, and does not extrapolate on any of the
technological possibilities we’ve come to expect from hard science fiction.
But London’s work is none the less important in
the development of dystopian fiction, and may have even influenced Zamyatin,
who oversaw the translations of many writers, London among them, while involved
with the House of Arts established by Maxim Gorky.
Even as the ideological inspiration (dyspiration?) for these
novels differs greatly—the war on terror for Aldiss, Bolshevik Futurism for
Zamyatin, and American capitalism for London—the vision they offer is very
similar, as the central themes of dystopia are ever-present in each work. Authoritarian
control of the majority by a minority, a stifling societal framework, and the dehumanization
of the individual are defining features of the subgenre. In trash as in science
fiction, one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.