Welcome to the New Age? A Note on Dystopia

As a keen reader of dystopian fiction, I’m always looking at the different ways in which authors like Aldous Huxley, Margaret Atwood and George Orwell tap into and play on underlying human fears and weaknesses, as well as the characteristic conflict between conformist society and the individual. Not only that, but the many different designs that dystopian authors have given us over the years of futures gone dangerously and dramatically wrong merit some reverent consideration: in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, for instance, firemen start fires rather than fighting them, using books – a great taboo in the novel's highly digitalised society – as kindling; in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, women are reduced to red-cloaked, red-veiled breeding tools, slaves to the Commanders and the grudging Wives whose children they must bear; and in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, censorship, surveillance and propaganda reign supreme. War is Peace. Slavery is Freedom. Ignorance is Strength. Even now, just seven years away from the supposed population explosion dystopia of the 1973 film Soylent Green, dystopias continue to appeal to readers of many ages; just look at the success of the Hunger Games series if you are in any doubt about this.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Credit: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar.

So what is it about the whole dystopian genre that so grips and intrigues us? Surely escapism isn’t the answer. Fairy tales and stories with more uplifting endings help us to escape from reality and give us the hope that there could be something better out there, but dystopia takes the flaws of human society and amplifies them to a scale designed to shock and frighten the reader. What, then, is the appeal?

Before I offer my own answer, it’s worth exploring the ideas presented in academic publications and media. In her article, ‘“Belonging” in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: New Communities Created by Children’, Patricia Kennon argues that certain works of young adult-oriented dystopian fiction depicts adolescent protagonists – whose female numbers have grown in recent years - challenging established socio-political hierarchies, demonstrating individual thinking and questioning traditional roles in terms of gender and age. Additionally, it could be reasoned that the popularity of dystopian fiction among younger readers nowadays has been aided by the transition from older protagonists such as Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty Four and Bernard Marx in Brave New World to younger, presumably more relatable heroes and heroines. With such themes in mind, it becomes easy to understand how, in an era where young people so often face high student debts, poor employment prospects and a cruel hybrid of gender and age discrimination, young adult dystopian novels such as the Hunger Games and Divergent series have acquired such a vast and dedicated following.

Another plausible explanation for the collective obsession with dystopia is the speculative glimpses that novels of this genre give us of the future. Our future. Take the dystopian ideas of medical advancement, for example: in Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, the first instalment of the Maddaddam series, great quantities of human organs are grown and harvested for transplant using pig-human hybrids called Pigoons; in Huxley’s Brave New World, all worries can be instantly forgotten by talking a “half-gram holiday” – that is to say, by consuming a powerful hallucinogenic drug known as soma – and children are engineered, manufactured and brainwashed into specific socio-intellectual classes (from the advanced Alphas and Betas, to the middle-ground Gammas and the unintelligent, labouring-class Deltas and Epsilons), keeping society running like a well-oiled machine, wiping out any inclination towards rebellion among the Epsilons and eradicating the natural, procreative aspect from sex. While the notion of being able to escape from your stress by simply swallowing a pill may seem appealing on some escapist level, the social reliance on soma in Brave New World highlights a significant human flaw: in this dystopian future, taking the easy way out of facing up to problems and challenges by turning to drugs rather than searching for a practical, permanent solution presents a damning reflection of inherent human cowardice. Worse still, in a society where procreation and sexuality are completely forced apart, to the extent where procreative sex is rendered a scandalous taboo, children are encouraged from infancy to engage in “erotic play”, while adults participate in orgies as a regular leisure activity. Considering the increasing levels of sexual awareness and activity among young people in some Western countries today, it seems possible to detect a sinister echo of Huxley’s dystopian vision in the modern world.

Credit: Teacherspress.

From a personal perspective, dystopian literature serves as an effective source of catharsis: a character, usually the protagonist, finds him or herself faced with a personal or moral dilemma that must be overcome by the end of the story. This literary characteristic holds its origins in Ancient Greek theatre, and was popular among many seventeenth-century playwrights such as Racine and Corneille. On seeing the struggles of the characters, the audience members are able to identify their own struggles, to realise how to avoid falling into the same misfortune as the characters they are watching, and so purge themselves emotionally. When reading dystopian novels or watching dystopian films, this same principle of catharsis can be applied: by looking at what our future could become by allowing corruptive influences and immoral behaviour to govern our existence, we are more able to identify them in real life and find solutions to avoid our own progression towards a neo-Airstrip One or Republic of Gilead.

For me, the two most frightening dystopian novels I’ve ever read are Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, due to the criminalisation and destruction of all literature, one of the most fundamental symbols of knowledge and civilisation, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for its startling depiction of an extreme patriarchal theocracy in which women are treated like livestock; property kept for breeding and enslaved by Old Testament values of feminine modesty and submission. More remarkable still, the hypocrisy of the Handmaids’ sexual enslavement is underlined firstly by their being forced to dress completely in red, a colour typically associated with passion and sexuality, used here as a marker of modesty, and secondly by the clear disdain and envy shown by Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, to Handmaid protagonist Offred, for her fertility and the consequent “ritual” of sexual intercourse she must take part in with the Commander. While we still have a long way to go to achieve total gender equality in our own society, I can’t help but count quite a few blessings when reading this particular novel.

Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall in The Handmaid's Tale, 1990. Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

In a similar way that works of horror can thrill readers and viewers, it’s fairly reasonable to conclude that dystopian fiction appeals to its followers on an emotional and psychological level, whether for the use of relatable, against-the-grain protagonists who stand for individuality, hope and liberation, or for the strange, inventive presentations of scientific, technological and cultural evolution (or de-evolution in the case of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine). Moreover, within these imagined dictatorships with their propaganda gospels and shadowy enforcers of conformity, the great dystopian authors touch on the darker aspects of our own realities, build on them and draw them into the literary limelight, giving us what could one day be a valuable moral compass with which to navigate safely through the ruins of our own Dystopia.

References and Further Reading

Astor, David, Why Do We Like Dystopian Novels?
Atwood, Oryx and Crake (Virago, 2013).
Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (Vintage, 1996).
Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (Harper Voyager, 2008).
Collins, The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2009).
Fleischer, Soylent Green (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1973).
Huxley, Brave New World (Vintage Classics, 2007).
Kennon, Patricia, "Belonging" in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: New Communities Created by Children.
Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four (Penguin Classics, 2013).

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Emma McMullan

Writer, blogger, book hoarder, mug collector and language enthusiast.