Dystopian fiction tells the story of a world gone bad. Exactly how and why it’s gone bad can vary: there’s usually a totalitarian government of some form, but whether they caused the bad or rose to power because of the bad isn’t always clear. What is clear is that now, everything sucks. In this post I’ll be looking at a few of the most famous works of classic dystopian fiction.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1931) The year 2540 is a world of sex, drugs, and violence. Humans are genetically engineered, grown in vats to fill one of five social classes, and brainwashed from birth to accept uncritically the world in which they live. There is no such thing as a family: ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are obscenities, and even the hint of a monogamous attachment is viewed with suspicion (‘everyone belongs to everyone else’). But there are still a few ‘Savage Reservations’ where people reproduce the old-fashioned way and grow up surrounded by a culture rather than brainwashing. Of course, your ‘culture’ is going to be pretty limited when you’re isolated, impoverished prisoners… And then boy-from-the-Reservation meets girl-from-the-big-city. Long story short, what should be a love story (references to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ abound if you’re read it) all ends in dystopian tears.
Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945) The Red Menace was a big deal back in the 1940s, and Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ explores the danger of a Communist revolution through the lens of a group of farm animals who band together to drive out the cruel farmer who exploits them. At first things go well as the animals successfully isolate themselves from all humans and co-operate to make decisions about their future, but it isn’t long before the pigs, led by the greedy Napoleon, begin to take over. From there, a series of ‘compromises’ are made with the human world, and in a grim final scene the surviving animals realise that they can no longer distinguish the pigs from the humans.
1984, by George Orwell (1949) Orwell apparently had a thing for writing dystopian fiction. Possibly one of the most disturbing aspects of ‘1984’ is that the oppressors explicitly acknowledge that they are creating a world of fear, oppression, and brutality. That, apparently, is the point: the future the government of 1984 actively desires is ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ This is a world where ‘Big Brother is watching’. And listening. And ready to stamp down hard on any trace of happiness or love, which does not, it appears, conquer all, as the protagonists ultimately discover.
Orwellian (adjective): characteristic of the writings of George Orwell, especially with reference to his dystopian account of a future totalitarian state in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953) A world where all books are banned, and any which are discovered are set on fire, is enough to chill the heart of any book-lover. The rationale, apparently, is that books are vehicles of free thought, which is bad. Instead people are encouraged to watch television more or less constantly. When a ‘fireman’ (as in ‘sets fire to books’), Guy Montag, starts wondering what’s so great about books he quickly discovers just how awesome they are, and joins an underground network of intellectuals determined to preserve the legacy of intellectual freedom.
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (1954) A comparatively rare example of a dystopia without a totalitarian government, or indeed any form of government at all, this is the story of a group of British schoolboys who find themselves stranded on a deserted island after their plane crashes. While at first they listen to the sensible Ralph, who encourages them to build a signal fire and learn to hunt, in the absence of adult guidance and leadership the situation soon degenerates into chaos, violence, and murder. The underlying message is simple: while external factors may set the stage for a dystopic societal collapse the ultimate cause is human nature.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1985) A feminist take on dystopia from the heyday of second wave feminism, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has recently been given a contemporary boost by online streaming service Hulu (or so I’ve heard. I’m not an online streaming service kind of girl). Environmental collapse, including loss of food production and mass infertility, has been the driving factor in the rise of the totalitarian theocracy of Gilead, which has replaced the United States with a state based on a twisted form of Judeo-Christian mythology – it’s pretty much impossible to apply the term ‘values’ here. All women have been reduced to chattels, with the fertile ones used as breeding stock. Life isn’t so great for the menfolk either. The story is narrated by Offred (literally ‘Of Fred’, because she ‘belongs’ to a high-ranking man called Fred), who still remembers her life before Gilead, when she was free to live, work, love… and be a mother to her now-missing daughter.
Are you a fan of dystopian fiction? What’s your favourite dystopian novel?