Dystopian Fiction: Something’s Not Right with the World

indexby John Pecoraro, Assistant Director

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” With these seemingly innocuous words George Orwell began his view of the near future in 1984. Orwell’s vision, published in 1949, was one of pervasive government surveillance by Big Brother, perpetual war, and continuous public mind control.

While Orwell’s novel is a classic in the genre of dystopian fiction, John Stuart Mill actually coined the word dystopia in 1868 by adding the Greek prefix for bad, abnormal, or difficult (dys), to utopia. Sir Thomas More had originated the word “utopia” in 1516, from the imaginary island he described in his book by the same name. More’s Utopia was an ideal place, a place of political and social perfection (utopia comes from the Greek for “not a place”). Dystopia describes the opposite.

The worlds described in dystopian fiction are deeply flawed. While the societies they picture may seem utopian on the face of things, the perfection of the utopian dream is often repressed by government or societal control over behaviors, thoughts, and even dreams.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is a classic example of late nineteenth-century dystopian fiction. Its time-traveling hero journeys to the far future where humankind has evolved into two species. In this ultimate example of the haves and the have-nots, the Eloi live on the surface of Earth, living an idyllic life of leisure without fear of hunger. The Morlocks, condemned to life underground, are monsters who feed on the Eloi whom they raise as cattle.

While dystopian fiction usually takes place in the future, the authors’ visions are often fueled by present events. In We, author Yevgeny Zamyatin described the One State with its ranks of “ciphers” all marching in step, living in rooms made of glass, with every moment planned by “The Table.” Zamyatin, writing his novel during the early 1920s in the fledgling Soviet Union, characterized the rising totalitarianism of his time.

Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis did much the same thing in It Can’t Happen Here. In this story of a populist politician who becomes a dictator after his election, Lewis mirrored events in 1930s Nazi Germany.

Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World portrayed the ultimate in planned society. In Huxley’s world new members are incubated in factories, where their intelligence, ability, and occupation are predetermined. There are no individual parents; society is the parent of all, and everyone has a specific place in the scheme of things.

Kurt Vonnegut painted a picture of a future run by engineers and scientists in Player Piano. In this author’s future, machines do much of the work once performed by men and women, making most of the population superfluous. Vonnegut offered a dystopian version of the great wealth and prosperity promised in the aftermath of the Second World War.

What is harmless and even helpful in the present day is taken to its furthest, most absurd extreme in dystopian fiction. In Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, for example, firemen burn books as a means to protect society from the harmful influences of ideas. Bradbury also predicted both the ubiquity of television and reality shows in his portrayal of a future where multiple large screen televisions are the rage, and the audience participates in the programs.

The popularity of dystopian fiction continues today. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, tell the tale of Panem (post-apocalyptic North America), and its capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. As punishment for an earlier rebellion, each year the districts are forced to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the Hunger Games, a brutal and terrifying fight to the death – televised for all of Panem to see.

An extensive list of titles in the dystopian genre written between1835-2011 is available at wikipedia. Many titles in this genre from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are available as free e-books from sites such as Project Gutenberg, and Many Books. Many of the titles discussed in this article are available at Manhattan Public Library in print or electronic format. You can learn about the possibilities of your e-reader or tablet computer and the library’s e-book collection at free workshops on May 12. For more information, go to http://host5.evanced.info/manhattanks/evanced/eventcalendar.asp.

Posted in: For Adults, Mercury Column

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