What’s With This Dystopia Thing?

Once upon a time, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter put the fantasy genre on the mainstream publishing map as it had never been before. Thanks in part to Rowling, speculative fiction has grown in both variety and in numbers of copies sold worldwide and across all age ranges. While Harry Potter was a boon for traditional fantasy, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight grew the urban and paranormal subgenres as well as the young adult market in general with its incredible sales to teens and adults alike. And then came Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, which has dominated the subgenre of dystopian literature for the past few years. All three are New York Times Bestsellers, and all have successfully made the jump to Hollywood blockbuster. However, where Harry Potter and Twilight are in relatively young speculative fiction subgenres, The Hunger Games is point for point traditional dystopian speculative fiction. What is it about dystopian literature that has caused it to remain fundamentally unchanged for a hundred years?

Before there were dystopias, there were utopias. Utopian literature is often said to have started with Plato’s Republic, and was popular through the 16th and 17th centuries. At the turn of the 20th century, when the speculative fiction genre as we know it was starting to be formulated, utopian literature saw another boom, including A Modern Utopia by H.G. Wells. This literary movement in many ways echoes the philosophical optimism of the 19th century, where we see the abolition of slavery in many Western countries, growing women’s suffrage movements, and the Temperance movement in the United States. The philosophy of the age was about improving yourself and the world around you. With the technological advances of the industrial revolution, it was thought that there was nothing that mankind could not do. Many people of the time believed we could, and in fact should, make the world a better place for those to come. Utopian literature was a way for authors and readers to explore ideas on how to do that.

In that same period of time, there was growing social unrest that ultimately took the form of early socialism. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a period of marked financial inequality through most of Western society. Many upper and middle class individuals such as Karl Marx and Emma Goldman saw revolutionizing the existing governmental and economic systems as a means to create a more utopian world with social and economic equality. Their messages gained traction with working class individuals who had little to lose and much to gain from these changes. Most importantly, these lower class individuals could read and write about these revolutionary ideas themselves thanks to the successful public school movement. Two of the earliest dystopian novels, The Iron Heel by Jack London (1908) and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921), both deal with socialism, its promises, and its ultimate problems.

In 1914, the optimistic world of the educated social elite fell apart with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the explosion of World War I. The continent of Europe was utterly devastated by modern warfare, and Allied countries not on the continent were stunned by the loss of working-age men to death and to disabling injuries that would not have been survivable without the advances of modern medicine. The economic hardship that followed WWI culminated in the Great Depression for most of Western society. In Russia, Marxist-Leninist communism was achieved only through an incredibly brutal civil war that was followed by one of the largest famines in modern history. In the United States, huge advancements in technology for the everyday person such as the radio, the vacuum cleaner, and widespread electricity led to dramatic changes in day to day living that troubled many. For some, these events lessened the utopian resolve and gave way to a more cynical view of the future. This can be seen with titles such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) and Anthem by Ayn Rand (1938).

The dichotomy of utopian ideals versus dystopian results is perfectly encapsulated in the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany during the 1930s and the following World War II. Much of the ideology and rhetoric of the Nazi Party was about creating a better world, a utopia, for the German people. They pushed for socialist economic policies and even had a health and wellness program that was decades ahead of its time. The ugly side of this was that anyone who didn’t fit the Nazi German ideal could and would be tortured and killed (to put it mildly) for that “crime.” This was enforced by an extremely powerful and intolerant totalitarian government armed with a masterful propaganda machine. The pursuit of the utopian ideal had created a dystopia, and these atrocities informed the literature that followed. Pure utopian literature almost disappears, while dystopian literature develops further with It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935), 1984 by George Orwell (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953).

McCarthyism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War in the decades following WWII began deep splits in American culture. Freedom of expression was under attack as a reaction against the socialist events of the previous decade. The bombing of Hiroshima and the dawning of the Nuclear Age terrified many, and the ensuing nuclear standoff with Russia left deep scars on the American psyche. The Civil Rights movement lead America to seriously re-examine the role of race in society for the first time in a hundred years. The youth counterculture of the Vietnam era and its embracing of things like recreational drugs and birth control shocked many older members of society, leading in part to a rise in conservative religious movements. You can see the results of some of these pressures in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962), Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein (1964), The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick (1964), and A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985).

At the turn of the 21st century, September 11th and the following War on Terror reminded many that the world can be a terrifying place. Increasing political, religious, and economic stresses have fueled a dystopian literature boom over the last twenty years. Many of the issues present at the turn of the 19th century are present now, with the addition of even larger advancements in technology and the ethical questions raised by those advances. Jennifer Government by Max Berry (2003) examines the role of corporations in government; Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (2005) scrutinizes the role cosmetic surgery and other body modifications play in society; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008) explores the use of television as a way to control populations; Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (2012) ponders what happens when information isn’t free.

Ultimately, dystopian literature lets us explore what our societies might look like should one issue or another be taken to extremes. What happens when reality television that features the death of its contestants is viewed as acceptable? What happens when hyper-conservative religious doctrine dictates laws? What happens when technology advances so far that there is no escaping government surveillance? What happens when artificial intelligence is integrated into society? Dystopian novels ask these questions. The fact that their answers are often dark and troubled reveals our unease about the changes happening in our society and our fears about what our future holds.

At the same time, dystopian literature still shows its roots in utopian literature. Dystopian novels are about changing a society. They tend to follow a protagonist (or group of protagonists) as they assess the society they live in. What do they disagree with? Why? Can they change the world around them? How? While dystopian literature predicts dark and unappealing futures, they also predict that things will get better. They may get worse before they get better, but they do improve. This improvement is often propelled by an otherwise ordinary person. There is no magic here, no super genius, no rich and privileged child of power. Even though we fear what the future might hold, we believe that the actions of ordinary people matter in the course of those events, and that it is the actions of ordinary people that matter more than the actions of those in power. Perhaps it is this message that has led to dystopian literature’s long and growing popularity.

Over the last two months, The Ranting Dragon has been taking an extended look at dystopian novels, culminating in a Top Twenty of Must Read Dystopian Novels: An Introduction to the Genre soon to be published. We hope you’ve enjoyed our look at some old favorites as well as some new releases, and share your love of the genre with us.

About Janea Schimmel

Janea Schimmel
Janea is an avid fantasy reader who after college inexplicably found herself working in a library. She was the only one surprised by this strange turn of events. When not surrounded by books, she enjoys working on her own fantastical fiction (thereby restoring order to her universe by having a book nearby), as well as making music (clarinet, vocals, renaissance recorder), cooking, and honing various skills made obsolete by the industrial revolution.

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