“There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes only once, while a book explodes a thousand times” – Yevgeny Zamyatin
In this second post on dystopian literature, I’m going to be introducing you to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential Russian novel, We.
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We, exemplifies the type of book that explodes a thousand times and continues to have repercussions. As one of the earliest and most influential examples of modern dystopian fiction, it is appropriate that we begin the semester with this novel. As you read other, more familiar dystopian novels and as you familiarize yourself with dystopian films, you will begin to see how Zamyatin’s novel has shaped the genre as a whole. I will briefly enumerate some of the places where Zamyatin’s influence on later dystopian fiction can be seen at the end of this post, but first I want to provide a very brief introduction Zamyatin himself.
Like his protagonist, D-503,Yevgeny Zamyatin was, by training, a naval engineer. More importantly, Zamyatin was a revolutionary and an author. As a fiercely independent author, who refused to compromise his artistic principles, Zamyatin faced censorship first from the Czarist government and then, after the Revolution, from the Bolsheviks.
In We, Zamyatin predicted the social repression of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Unlike D-503, who becomes a machine of the One State, Zamyatin was permitted to leave the Soviet Union. He died in exile in France. We, which was initially banned in the Soviet Union, was finally published there in 1988.
We, set in an unidentified future, describes life within the One State. The One State consists of a single city entirely enclosed by the Green Wall. Inside the city, citizens live and work in glass buildings, which makes possible constant surveillance. Instead of having a name, each citizen is identified by a letter followed by numbers. Alphanumeric codes beginning with consonants identify males, while alphanumeric codes beginning with vowels identify females.
Life in the One State is regulated right down to the number of chewing movements each citizen must make before swallowing food (Zamyatin 1972, 102). Citizens live their lives in accordance to the schedule established by the Table of Hours. The long term consequence of the absence of personal time is that citizens cease to see themselves as individuals and instead view themselves as cogs in the machinery of the One State. As the protagonist, D-503, explains:
Every morning, with six-wheeled precision, at the same hour and the same moment, we—millions of us—get up as one. At the same hour, in million-headed unison, we start work: and in million-headed unison we end it. And, fused into a single million-handed body, at the same second, designated by the Table, we lift our spoons to our mouths (Zamyatin 1972, 12).
Conformity in the One State is strengthened by the absence of goods that might help citizens personalize their lives. Everyone wears unifs, or uniforms, and everyone apparently has access to the same frugal material goods. Food is a synthetically produced petroleum product. (Note that the use of petroleum as the source of food suggests how very machinelike the citizens have become). Of course, the conformity of the citizens means that the State produces few artists or thinkers. A few poets, like R-13, are maintained to create propaganda for state occasions (which, ironically fits with the role assigned to poets in Plato’s Republic, and, with the limited role writers and artists were expected to play in the Soviet Union) but it is evident that very little creativity actually goes into the poetry they produce. Indeed, music in the One State is composed according to mathematical formulas and is produced by a machine called a musicometer (Zamyatin 1972, 16-17).
Along with giving up possession of material goods, the citizens of the One State have also, for the most part, given up any claim on each other. Families no longer exist. Indeed, the Lex Sexualis mandates that “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21). D-503 describes the organization of sexual activity as follows:
You are carefully examined in the laboratories of the Sexual Department; the exact content of sexual hormones in you blood is determined, and you are provided with an appropriate Table of sexual days. After that, you declare that on your sexual days you wish to use number so-and-so, and you receive your book of coupons (pink). And that is all. (Zamyatin 1972, 22).
Along with regulating sexual activity, the One State also determined who could have children through Maternal and Paternal Norms (Zamyatin 1972, 14). The purpose of these laws, of course, was to ensure that children met standards established by the state. Even when two numbers did meet the Maternal and Paternal Norms, the resulting child belonged, not to them, but to the state. The One State’s policy of separating children from their biologic parents and raising them ensured that each citizen would, from birth have the same experiences and upbringing. Obviously this would permit the state to inculcate shared values and perceptions. Beyond that, the state’s assumption of the role of parent assured that loyalty was primarily directed toward the state. The fact that D-503 sees himself in a familial relationship with R-13 and 0-90 suggests, however, that the state has been unsuccessful in eliminating vestigial ideas of family.
I want to digress here to note that control of the family, or even the elimination of the family, is a major concern in many dystopian narratives. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for example, takes the abolition of the family one step further than Zamyatin’s We. In Brave New World, children are not even biologically conceived. Instead, infants are “constructed” in enormous factories, and, instead of being born, they are decanted. So far removed has the society of Brave New World become from reproduction and family that the words “mother” and “father” are considered vulgar and obscene. Sex, in Brave New World, has been reduced to a merely recreational activity, and, in order to discourage attachments that might pose a threat to the state, monogamy is treated like an aberrant behavior. Similarly, in George Orwell’s 1984, family structures have been significantly reduced. Instead, in both 1984 and in the movie Equilibrium, the state becomes the titular family member: in 1984, Big Brother and in Equilibrium, father. Significantly, female familial titles are frequently absent in dystopian fiction. This absence signals that dystopian fiction is frequently (although not always) patriarchal in nature. The patriarchal fantasy is realized as a male society in which females are marginalized. Often times, however, as in the cases of 1984’s Winston Smith, Brave New World’s John Savage and We’s D-503, the lack of family becomes an obsession for the main character. Thus, when D-503 realizes that he may have been tricked both by the One State and the rebels, he thinks to himself,
If I had a mother, like the ancients: mine—yes, precisely—my mother. To Whom I would be—not the Builder of the Integral, and not number D-503, and not a molecule of the One State, but a simple human being—a piece of herself, trampled, crushed, discarded… (Zamyatin 1972, 216)
This wistful statement indicates D-503’s desire to be more than a pawn. Instead, he longs to be unconditionally loved for himself. In most dystopian societies, however, individuals are not viewed as inherently valuable. Any value assigned to them stems from their function within the State.
In light of the degree of enforced conformity, it is unsurprising that the citizens of the One State view freedom as evil. As D-503 explains,
Freedom and crime are as linked as indivisibly as… well, as the motion of the aero and its speed: when its speed equals zero, it does not move; when man’s freedom equals zero, he commits no crimes. That is clear. The only means of ridding man of his crime is ridding him of freedom. (Zamyatin 1972, 35)
The only possible way, of course, of removing freedom is to transform humans into machines. To accomplish this, humans must lose their souls. For many citizens of the One State, the dehumanizing effects of constant surveillance combined with the required collectivism prevent a soul, or individual identity from ever developing. D-503, however, is apparently naturally resistant to this form of dehumanization. His subconscious resistance is marked in the very first lines of We, where he promises to tell his readers what he thinks, and then, embarrassed by this reference to himself, corrects himself to say that he writes what the society in its entirety thinks. As the narrative progresses, D-503’s sense of his individuality grows. Eventually, seeking help for what he assumes is an illness, he is informed by a doctor that he, in fact, has an incurable soul. The doctor’s claim that possession of a soul is incurable is in fact only partially true. Initially the only means of removing a soul is by killing the patient. Later, the doctors of the One State discover that by surgically removing imagination, citizens can be perfected to the status of machines (Zamyatin 1972, 180). D-503 describes those who undergo the operation, noting that “These are not people—they are humanoid tractors” (Zamyatin 1972, 189). Significantly, while D-503 acknowledges that these “humanoid tractors” have achieved machinelike perfection, he and the other citizens of the One State are unwilling to undergo the surgery. As he explains, “I saw it clearly: everyone was saved but there was no salvation for me. I did not want salvation….” (Zamyatin 1972, 186). In the end though, D-503 is forcibly “saved” by the state. The language in his final entry is an appropriate reflection of an individual devoid of imagination and emotion.
In my next post I will be discussing the methods, particularly that of surveillance, used by the One State to end freedom. I will also be focusing on the use of religious imagery in We.
It should be obvious from what I’ve written that subsequent dystopian fiction and cinema is heavily indebted to We. I’m going to enumerate just a few of the things that subsequent authors and movie producers have borrowed from Zamyatin’s work:
1984’s Big Brother is modeled on The Benefactor.
Zamyatin’s conception of a walled-in society is mimicked in the movies Logan’s Run and The Truman Show.
The concept that the State, not parents, own children is also evident in the novels Brave New World and Walden Two, and, to a lesser extent, in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Social engineering, or the conditioning of humans, is the major theme of Walden Two and Brave New World.
Eugenics plays a role in the novel, Brave New World, and in the movie, Gattaca.
The use of numbers in place of personal names is evident in George Lucas’s movie THX 1138.
Margaret Atwood’s use of journals in The Handmaid’s Tale to narrate her protagonist’s story, and George Orwell’s use of journals in 1984 mirror Zamyatin’s use of journals in We.
George Orwell copies the love affair between D-503 and I-330 in 1984.
Surveillance is one of the major themes in many dystopian movies and novels including 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Truman Show and Equilibrium.
The replacement of human emotion with cold rationality is a theme in Equilibrium (where the state medicates everyone to prevent them from feeling anything) and in Alphaville, where illogical behavior is punishable by death.
D-503’s equation of freedom with crime resonates with the ideas of other characters in science fiction. The Judge Dredd comic strip, for example, focuses on a futurist society where armed “judges” are authorized to act as police, judges, juries and executioners. One of the judges, Judge Death, studies criminals to identify what they all share in common. He eventually realizes that the only commonality among criminals is that they are all alive. From this he concludes that total justice can only be achieved by completely exterminating all life everywhere.
Judge Death as depicted in Judge Dredd Megazine #207
Because of this renewed interest, we Spoilers thought it would be valuable to start blogging about dystopian narratives and about how these narratives intersect with current political and social trends. As part of that project, I’ve decided to make available lectures that I wrote for an online course on dystopian narratives for the University of Maine in Presque Isle. What follows is an adaptation of what I wrote to introduce students to the dystopian genre.
In this post I’m going to be establishing the theoretical foundations for later posts by providing you with some definitions of our genre, dystopian fiction, and describing how dystopian narratives function, and why they are such a major genre in the 20th century.
Before we can properly understand the term “dystopia”, however, we first need to understand its older, antithetical twin, “utopia”. The English diplomat, scholar and Catholic martyr, Thomas More, invented the word “utopia” as the name for a fictional ideal society. More’s book, Utopia, published in 1516 in Latin, purports to narrate the experiences of a European traveler in the hitherto unknown country of Utopia. Utopia is depicted as a well structured society where efficient laws and customs have done away with the problems that More perceives in Europe. Thomas More appears to have invented the word “utopia” to convey the meaning of two Greek words: eutopos, meaning “a good place”, and outopos, meaning “no place”. Thus More’s Utopia is a good place that does not exist anywhere. Since 1516 the word “utopia” has entered common parlance and refers to a perfect society. The term also has certain negative connotations in that utopias are generally viewed as unachievable. Thus dreaming of a utopian society may suggest idealism on the part of the dreamer, but may also imply a certain naiveté.
The utopian ideal existed, of course, long before More invented the word. Plato, for instance, created a blueprint for what he envisioned as a perfect society in his Republic. Following the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, utopian schemes and utopian fiction became fairly commonplace in the 16th and 17th century (Thomas 1987, 20-46). Keith Thomas, in his essay on “The Utopian Impulse in Seventeenth-Century England” provides the following examples of early utopian works: Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602; published 1623), Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619), Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis(1624; published 1627), Gabriel Plattes’s A Description of the famous Kingdome of Macaria(1641); Samuel Gott’s Nova Solyma (1648) and Jame Harrington’s Oceana (1656), to name but a few (Thomas 23-25).
From these various Utopian narratives Keith Thomas has derived the following description of Utopian narratives:
Characteristically, the literary utopia describes an imaginary society which is, at least by implication, better than the one in which the author lives. This society is portrayed as actually in existence, usually in some remote location. Its workings are evoked in detail, with special attention to the political structure, the laws and religion, the system of education, the economy and the working habits and living conditions of the population. The activities of the citizens are regulated in meticulous detail; and the society exists in a timeless state of unchanging equilibrium. (23-24)
We’ll want to keep this definition in mind later when we’re describing the characteristics
of utopian and dystopian narratives in greater detail. For now, however, lets move on to discuss the term “dystopia”. John Stuart Mill, the 19th century political philosopher and writer, coined the term “dystopia”. Essentially, by dystopia Mill meant the exact opposite of utopia, in other words a completely undesirable state or society. A synonym for dystopia, which you may come across in your secondary reading, is anti-utopia.
Early examples of literature depicting dystopian societies would include parts of Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels published in 1726, some of the science-fiction of H. G. Wells, and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited published in 1872 and 1901 respectively. Notice that Butler has borrowed from More’s term “Utopia”, meaning no place, and that the name of his society is “No Where” spelled backwards. In the 20th century, a great deal of science-fiction is in fact also dystopian fiction.
But lets return to our definitions: utopia is an ideal society or state, and dystopia is an undesirable society or state. How are these ideal and un-ideal societies represented in literature? I’m going to begin by delineating some of the characteristics of utopian literature. My reasons for doing this are simply to provide you with a contrast by which to compare dystopian literature. So after we’ve examined some of the characteristics of utopian literature we’re going to look at some of the characteristics of dystopian literature. Hopefully you’ll start to see some patterns emerging.
First, according to Alan Swingewood, “Utopian novels tended towards an uncritical portrayal of a world made perfect for man through science and education”. In other words, utopian narratives are optimistic that human knowledge is growing, and that problems within societies can be resolved through human means.
Secondly, utopian fiction stresses the collective nature of the perfect society, often with the result that individuality is either suppressed or ignored.
Thirdly, given what I have just said about individuality being ignored, it is no surprise to learn, as Swingewood states, that “utopias have no problematic hero, their structures are not dominated by a deep sense of conflict between individual and society”. I would take Swingewood’s observation a step further and suggest that while utopian fictions have protagonists, they cannot have “heroes” insofar that heroes implicitly are involved in conflict, and a perfect society cannot have a conflict.
Fourthly, as Swingewood points out, “The question of how these societies evolved to such perfection is never raised.” Swingewood goes on to state that these fictions ignore the problem of social change. Perhaps authors of utopian narratives ignore the problem of social change because it is impossible to conceive of the social change, short of a miracle, which would be necessary for creating a utopian society. Besides, alterations in society inevitably spark off chain reactions. These chain reactions seem to be antithetical to the static idea of a utopian society.
Fifthly, utopias are frequently didactic in nature. Although, as I indicated in point number four, utopian literature does not typically discuss how their utopian societies came into existence, now that they are in existence they are vehicles for suggesting ways of improving our own society. As such these novels implicitly offer implicit, and sometimes explicit, criticism of the societies in which their authors live. Typically the authors introduce strangers into their fictional societies who, being impressed by the perfect societies they have encountered, but ignorant about how these societies operate, end up with guides who explain everything to them. For example, in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, the protagonist, Julian West, is put into a hypnotic trance in 1887, and is not awakened until the year 2000. The doctor who awakens Julian in the 21st century serves as his guide to this new order. As is the case in most Utopian novels, Julian, as the outsider spends a lot of time asking questions, while Doctor Leete, his guide, provides lengthy explanations. This small passage on economics should illustrate the pedagogic nature of the novel:
“How is this distribution managed?” I asked.
“On the simplest possible plan,” replied Dr. Leete. “A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen on the public books at the beginning of each year, and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it. This arrangement, you will see, totally obviates the necessity for business transactions of any sort between individuals and consumers. Perhaps you would like to see what our credit cards are like.
“You observe,” he pursued as I was curiously examining the piece of pasteboard he gave me, “that this card is issued for a certain number of dollars. We have kept the old word, but not the substance. The term, as we use it, answers to no real thing, but merely serves as an algebraical symbol for comparing the values of products with one another. For this purpose they are all priced in dollars and cents, just as in your day. The value of what I procure on this card is checked off by the clerk, who pricks out of these tiers of squares the price of what I order.”
“If you wanted to buy something of your neighbor, could you transfer part of your credit to him as consideration?” I inquired.
“In the first place,” replied Dr. Leete, “our neighbors have nothing to sell us, but in any event our credit would not be transferable, being strictly personal. Before the nation could even think of honoring any such transfer as you speak of, it would be bound to inquire into all the circumstances of the transaction, so as to be able to guarantee its absolute equity. It would have been reason enough, had there been no other, for abolishing money, that its possession was no indication of rightful title to it. In the hands of the man who had stolen it or murdered for it, it was as good as in those which had earned it by industry. People nowadays interchange gifts and favors out of friendship, but buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence and disinterestedness which should prevail between citizens and the sense of community of interest which supports our social system. According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization.”
“What if you have to spend more than your card in any one year?” I asked.
“The provision is so ample that we are more likely not to spend it all,” replied Dr. Leete. “But if extraordinary expenses should exhaust it, we can obtain a limited advance on the next year’s credit, though this practice is not encouraged, and a heavy discount is charged to check it. Of course if a man showed himself a reckless spendthrift he would receive his allowance monthly or weekly instead of yearly, or if necessary not be permitted to handle it all.”
“If you don’t spend your allowance, I suppose it accumulates?”
“That is also permitted to a certain extent when a special outlay is anticipated. But unless notice to the contrary is given, it is presumed that the citizen who does not fully expend his credit did not have occasion to do so, and the balance is turned into the general surplus.”
“Such a system does not encourage saving habits on the part of citizens,” I said.
“It is not intended to,” was the reply. “The nation is rich, and does not wish the people to deprive themselves of any good thing. In your day, men were bound to lay up goods and money against coming failure of the means of support and for their children. This necessity made parsimony a virtue. But now it would have no such laudable object, and, having lost its utility, it has ceased to be regarded as a virtue. No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.”
As the above passage might suggest, one criticism of Utopian fiction is that it can be rather dull and pedantic.
So, a quick review of what I’ve just said. Utopian literature is 1) optimistic about progress and society, 2) stresses collectivism over individuality, 3) does not have a problematic hero and is not dominated by a sense of conflict between the individual and society, 4) does not explain how the perfect society has come into existence, and 5) is didactic in nature and critical of real society.
Now lets examine the characteristics of dystopian literature.
Firstly, dystopian fiction is extremely critical of society, and in dystopian fiction science, society, and typically the government, all conspire to destroy individuality. Individuals are typically treated as cogs in a machine. For example, in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, people no longer have names, and, instead, are identified by an alpha-numeric sequence. The protagonist, D-503, lives, as do all of the citizens of the One State, in a glass apartment so that he is under constant surveillance. Similarly, the handmaids in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale have been reduced, to use the protagonist, Offred’s phrase, to “ambulatory wombs.”
Secondly, dystopias are usually narrated from the perspective of a socially marginalized or disempowered character, who is resisting oppression. In other words, dissidents, like Winston Smith from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and disenfranchised members of society, like Offred from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, describe the society to the reader.
Thirdly, a major element then of the narrative is the conflict between the individual and society. Clearly, dystopian fiction frequently does have problematic heroes.
Fourthly, dystopian fictions warn about the excesses of social power. They are also explicitly critical of society and humanity.
Fifthly, strangely enough, while dystopian fiction is critical of society and humanity, it can be argued that dystopian fiction is also optimistic about humanity. Dystopian narratives are meant as warnings, so implicitly their creators must believe that their dystopian visions are preventable. Society has not yet crossed the point of no return.
So again, in summary, dystopian fiction: 1) is extremely critical of society and pessimistic about society, government, technology and science, 2) is, as M. Keith Booker points out, usually narrated through the voice of an alienated individual, who is struggling to assert his or her individuality against the oppressive power of a dehumanizing social system, 3) focuses on the conflict between the individual and society, 4) is didactic in nature, and warns of the excesses of social power, and 5) is marginally optimistic about the possibility of preventing the dystopian vision.
In short, where utopian fiction is optimistic about society, dystopian fiction is pessimistic. Where utopian fiction focuses on the possible advantages created for society by science, technology and good governance, dystopian fiction describes the potential dangers of science, technology and governance. Where utopian fiction concentrates on the collective nature of society, dystopian fiction deals with the alienated individual’s resistance to society and conformity. Utopian and dystopian fiction do, however, share some common features. Both are ultimately optimistic in nature given that they are premised on the possibility that society can change. They are also both didactic in nature, although utopian fiction exhorts the audience on how to build a better society, while dystopian fiction provides a warning about the dangers of society.
A final point needs to be made about depictions of utopian and dystopian societies: they are by necessity relative. Not everybody will agree on what constitutes a perfect or imperfect society, and a society that seems utopian to one individual may be dystopian for another. Historically Nazi Germany exemplifies this point. On the one hand, Hitler’s regime appealed to many Germans because it created jobs, promoted a sense of national pride, stabilized the economy and provided law and order. From this perspective it is easy to see why many Germans, following the humiliation caused by the First World War and the suffering caused by the depression, saw Nazism as utopian. On the other hand, as we all know today, under Nazism, freedom of expression was suppressed, Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and other groups were tortured and exterminated, and Germany was led into a devastating war. So, from another perspective Nazism was an example of a dystopian system. One more point needs to be made – no society can achieve an absolute level of perfection or imperfection, nor would we ever be in a position to determine if society had achieved such an absolute level. Dystopias and utopias thus exist on a continuum, an ever-expanding scale that measures the status of the society being examined against its relative position to other societies.
Having said all this, what is the relationship between dystopian and utopian fiction? John Griffith’s statement seems to sum it up: “The writers of the Utopias of earlier days were teaching Man how to build heaven; today they are content to teach him how to survive in hell”. Griffith’s metaphorical comparison of utopia to heaven and dystopia to hell raises some interesting questions. Certainly in many respects one could argue that heaven is utopian and hell is dystopian. For the purposes of these blogs, however, we are going to divide utopias and dystopias into two categories: supernatural utopias and dystopias, and natural utopias and dystopias. Supernatural utopias and dystopias would include heaven and hell, and the good and evil lands described by fantasy authors. Examples of those would include Tolkien’s Undying Lands and Mordor. The major characteristic of supernatural utopias and dystopias is that they are inexplicable in natural, human terms. By contrast natural utopias and dystopias, which is what we’ll be discussing, are explicable in human terms. Because I think that the difference between natural and supernatural utopias and dystopias is important, I’m going to describe those differences in terms of the heaven/hell versus utopia/dystopia dichotomy.
As we’ve already noted, utopias and dystopias are socially produced, while heaven and hell are supernaturally produced. Because utopian and dystopian societies are products of socially constructed they are also limited in time. They have a beginning and probably will have an end. Heaven and hell, by contrast are eternal. Because utopian and dystopian societies are social constructs, they are also mutable – they can be changed. Heaven and hell by contrast are unchangeable. Heaven can never be made less perfect, nor hell be improved. Finally, living in a utopian or dystopian society is a result of random chance. One does not choose to live in a utopian or dystopian society, and living in a utopian or dystopian society does not reflect on the morality or immorality of the individual, and is neither a punishment nor a reward. By contrast, heaven is a reward for good behavior, while hell is the punishment for bad behavior.
Having compared and contrasted utopian fiction and dystopian fiction, and compared and contrasted supernatural and natural utopias and dystopias, I think we can safely start focusing on dystopian literature, keeping in mind that dystopian literature is always in a referential relationship with both utopian literature and reality as we live it.
In the final part of this post, I’m going to examine the rise of dystopian narratives in the 20th century.
In the 20th century utopian fiction has all but disappeared, and has instead been replaced by dystopian fiction. Indeed, when I first began planning this course I went to a science-fiction bookshop and asked the proprietor what he had in the way of dystopian literature. He stated that nearly all science-fiction is dystopian. While he may have been trying to flog as many of his wares as possible onto a naïve academic, his point about science-fiction being dominated by the concept of dystopia has merit. Not all science-fiction is dystopic according to the more rigid definitions I provided earlier in the lecture, but much of it is responding to the idea of an imperfect society.
This raises an interesting question: “Why is dystopian literature more common than utopian literature?” There are undoubtedly many plausible explanations for this phenomenon. The reasons I’m going to suggest naturally do not include all of these hypotheses, and indeed, my explanations for the sheer quantity of dystopian literature may in fact be wrong. You will eventually need to evaluate the evidence and come to your own conclusions. Basically I’m going to divide the catalysts of modern dystopian literature into two groups: 1) Narrative or Structural Causes and 2) Social / Historical Causes. By the term “narrative causes” I mean the elements or building blocks of a story that are necessary for it to be successful, particularly for 20th century audiences. Perhaps the most important ingredient for modern stories is conflict. Any of you hooked by the Harry Potter series will recognize that each book revolves around a conflict. Conflict is important not only in driving forward plots and maintaining audience participation; it is also inextricably linked to our sense of history and reality. We measure history according to when conflicts occurred, whether those conflicts are conflicts between individuals, societies, or nature. Thus we refer to how many of the Irish left Ireland following the potato famine (a conflict between nature and society), about what happened after Al Gore was “defeated” by George Bush in the 2000 presidential election (a conflict between individuals and political parties), or what happened following September 11th (a conflict between societies, cultures and ideologies). Imperfection and conflict seem necessary for us to relate to reality. As Keith Thomas notes about 17th century utopias, “When peace, harmony and perfect knowledge had been secured, history would by implication stop. No one considered the possibility that if people were freed from pain and worry they would become bored, living a life of indifference or finding some new source of unhappiness” (45). A more recent dystopia, The Matrix Reloaded illustrates this point by having Neo informed that a perfect Matrix was made for humans but that they didn’t do well in it.
The problem posed by utopian fiction is that in a perfect world, conflicts simply do not arise. Without conflict the narrative or fictional history quickly grinds to a halt. Presumably in an absolutely perfect world, even differences in opinion don’t arise. The early writers of utopian fictions, like Thomas More, resolved this problem by introducing a stranger, a traveler, into these otherwise static societies. The conflict, or point of tension that produced the narrative and helped it flow was the difference between the stranger’s preconceptions about humanity and society and the “reality” of this newly discovered perfect society. Such utopian literature, however, is didactic, and to modern audiences comes across as preachy and unrealistic. In any event modern audience distinctly prefer more overtly conflict driven narratives. For this reason, Dante’s Inferno remains more popular than his Paradiso and Milton’s Paradise Lost remains more popular than Paradise Regained.
For authors, perfection also seems harder to envision than imperfection. Again, descriptions of heaven and hell illustrate the point I’m making. Descriptions of heaven from the Middle Ages on to the present are much scarcer than descriptions of hell. This seems to be due to the fact that, as Saint Paul stated, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). These constraints on describing heaven are equally applicable to describing the perfect society.
Dystopian literature is also easier to write because at a basic level the author merely takes the problems she sees in her own society exaggerates them and projects them into a fictitious future. Since virtually everybody can find fault with their society, identifying problems for dystopian literature is not a problem. By contrast writers of utopian fiction have to create, out of the fabric of their imagination, an entirely believable perfect society. Given that their fictitious perfect society implicitly criticizes the society they live in, they are less able to draw on their society for the inspiration of their dystopias.
So in summary, the narrative causes for the supremacy of dystopian fiction over utopian fiction is that:
narratives need conflict to propel them
perfection is difficult to imagine or describe
The social/historical causes of dystopian literature may be summed up in what I term the crisis of modernity. Firstly, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen an unprecedented amount of technologically and structurally advanced warfare and violence. The First World War, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and subsequent wars differed from earlier wars and violence not merely in the quantity of suffering they caused, but in the way that this violence was made more efficient and more impersonal. The concentration camps of the Holocaust were managed as factories of death, with serious consideration given to the “rate of production” of people killed. The First World War, the Second World War and the Holocaust in particular shattered the West’s myth of progress. These conflicts had a great deal of influence on literature and the arts because technology had also made it possible for civilians to intimately observe the wars and violence via newspapers, cinemas and televisions, and thus become familiar with wars and violence in a way that previous generations of non-combatants had not. The horrors of warfare, and the effect that warfare and violence have on societies has been depicted in Orwell’s 1984 and the film version of Starship Troopers.
Secondly, while war has always been a part of human history, it is only in the twentieth century, with the development of nuclear weapons that humans have posed a serious threat to the continued existence of not only their own species, but of the entire planet. A number of dystopian fictions like A Canticle for Leibowitz,Planet of the Apes, and The Mad Max series are set in post-nuclear holocausts.
Thirdly, the twentieth century has seen the rise of powerful national governments that have threatened individuality. These governments are certainly evidenced by fascist and totalitarian regimes, which have transformed the media into an instrument of propaganda and misinformation, and have used other technologies to maintain control over their people. Even in democratic nations such as the United States and Britain there is a tendency by governments to exert control through the media and other technologies. These governments can be further dehumanised by the their own bureaucracy, a tendency we find depicted in the Kafka’s dystopian style fiction. Dystopian narratives that deal with authoritarian governments also frequently reveal a concern with the degree of surveillance exercised by the government. The danger of a technologically advanced government spying on its citizens is depicted in the novels 1984 and We. These concerns seem timely given the amount of information that Western governments are able to collect about their citizens by checking computer usage, credit card transactions, satellite images and even CCTV.
Fourthly, humans seem to be having difficulty coping with the rapid pace of technology. Technologies such as genetic modification, cloning and cyber technology offer great potential for the improvement of society, but also raise unique moral issues and pose a threat to society. A serious concern is that we are unleashing technology that we cannot entirely control without fully knowing what all the results and ramifications might be. It may be impossible, for example, for us now to rid the world of genetically modified foods, should they prove dangerous to humans. We are very like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia, who has called up spirits to help him clean the house, only to find that he cannot control those spirits. The Matrix series, The Terminator series, Gattaca and Brave New World are all dystopian fictions based on the premise that technology poses a threat to the individual.
Fifthly, there is an increasing awareness of the hegemony or control of certain social groups at the expense of others. Our awareness of marginalized groups is to a great degree due to the influence of movements such as the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and Marxism. The emergence of these movements, and the way they have demanded a re-evaluation of history, combined with post-modern scholarly skepticism about authority, has made it possible for authors of dystopian literature to depict and scrutinize hierarchies, ideologies and authority. This scepticism of authority and concern for the disempowered is picked up in Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia, The Hand Maid’s Tale, and Fritz Lang’s black and white film classic about the plight of workers, Metropolis.
The different social and historical elements I’ve just listed all contributed to the dominance of dystopian fiction in the 20th century. The list I have provided, however, is by no means exhaustive, as you will see next week when we begin looking at specific examples of dystopian literature.
Suggested Readings and Movies as well as Works Cited in this Blog
Anderson, M. T., 2002. Feed. Candlewick Press.
Atwood, Margaret. 1998. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books.
El Sadaawi, Nawal. 1991. The Fall of the Imam. Heinemann.
Foster, E. M. 1970. “The Machine Stops,” The Eternal Moment and Other Stories.
Harcourt., pp. 3-38.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. 1998. Herland. Dover.
Golding, William. 1959. Lord of the Flies. Perigee.
Huxley, Aldous. 1989. Brave New World. HarperCollins.
King, Stephen. 1982. The Running Man. London: New English Library.
Le Guin, Ursula. 1978. “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omalas.” In The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. London: Victor Gollancz, pp. 275-284.
________. 1999. The Dispossessed. Originally published 1974. London: Millenium.
Lewis, Sinclair. 2005. It Can’t Happen Here. Signet Classics.
London, Jack. 1981. The Iron Heel. Lawrence Hill Books.
More, Thomas. 1965. Utopia. trans. Paul Turner. Viking Press.
Moore, Alan and David Lloyd. 2005. V for Vendetta. Vertigo.
Orwell, George. 1981. 1984: a novel. New American Library.
________. 1996. Animal Farm. Signet Classic
Skinner, B. F. 2005. Walden Two. Hackett Publishing.
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. 1987. We. Avon Books.
Hobbs, Thomas. Leviathan.
Huxley, Aldous. 1966. Brave New World Revisited. London: Chatto & Windus.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. 1984. The Prince. trans. George Bull. Bantam Classics.
Marx, Karl. 2002. The Communist Manifesto. Penguin.
Packard, Vance. 1958. The Hidden Persuaders: An Introduction to the techniques of mass-persuasion through the unconscious. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
Plato. 1955. The Republic. trans. Desmond Lee. Penguin Classics.
Postman, Neil. 1986. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. London: Heinemann
Animal Farm. 1952. Dirs. Joy Batchelor and John Halas.
Animal Farm. 1999. Dir. John Stephenson.
Equilibrium. 2002. Dir. Kurt Wimmer.
Fahrenheit 451. 1966. Dir. François Truffaut.
Gattaca. 1997. Dir. Andrew Niccol.
The Handmaid’s Tale. 1990. Dir. Volker Schlöndorff.
Harrison Bergeron. 1995. Dir. Bruce Pittman.
Logan’s Run. 1976. Dir. Michael Anderson.
Lord of the Flies. 1963. Dir. Peter Brook.
Lord of the Flies. 1990. Dir. Harry Hook.
The Matrix. 1999. Dirs. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Metropolis. 1927. Dir. Fritz Lang.
The Minority Report. 2001. Dir. Steven Spielberg.
Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1984. Dir. Michael Radford.
The Running Man. 1987. Dir. Thomas Del Ruth.
The Stepford Wives. 1975. Dir. Bryan Forbes
THX 1138. 1971. Dir. George Lucas.
V for Vendetta. 2006. Dir. James McTeigue
Baker-Smith, Dominic. 1987. The Escape from the Cave: Thomas More and the Vision of Utopia. In Between Dream and nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia. Ed. Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot. Amsterdam: Editions Rudopi, pp. 5-19.
Beauchamp, Gorman. 1983. Zamiatin’s We. In No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 56-77.
Bergonzi, Bernard. 1987. Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Literary Imagination. In Between Dream and nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia. Ed. Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot. Amsterdam: Editions Rudopi, pp. 211-228.
Bittner, James W. 1983. Chronosophy, Aesthetics, and Ethics in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. In No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 244-270.
Bucknall, Barbara J. 1981. Utopia and Dystopia. In Ursula k. Le Guin. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., pp. 102-128.
Booker, M. Keith. 1994. The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature. London: Greenwood Press.
Firchow, Peter Edgerly. 1984. The End of Utopia: A study of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.
Griffiths, John. 1980. Utopia and Dystopia. In Three Tomorrows: American, British and Soviet Science Fiction. London, MacMillan Press, pp. 98-118.
Matter, William. 1983. On Brave New World. In No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 94-109.
Roemer, Kenneth M. 1983. Mixing Behaviourism and Utopia: The Transformations of Walden Two. In No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 110-124.
Rudnik-Smalbraak, Marijke. 1987. Women and Utopia: Some Reflections and Explorations. In Between Dream and nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia. Ed. Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot. Amsterdam: Editions Rudopi, pp. 172-187.
Steinhoff, William. 1983. Utopia Reconsidered: Comments on 1984. In No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 147-161.
Swingewood, Alan. 1975. Anti-Utopia and Revolution. In The Novel and Revolution. London, MacMillan Press, pp. 142-168.
Thomas, Keith. 1987. The Utopian Impulse in Seventeenth-Century England. In Between Dream and nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia. Ed. Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot. Amsterdam: Editions Rudopi, pp. 20-46.
Woodward, Kathleen. 1983. On Aggression: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 199-224.
Zipes, Jack. 1983. Mass Degradation of Humanity and Massive Contradictions in Bradbury’s Vision of America in Fahrenheit 451. In No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 182-198.