Supermarket queues stretching down the street, deserted city centres, endless video calls, and a constantly rising death toll; humans are pessimistic by nature, and this year has given the doomsayers a lot of ammunition. ‘It’s like we’re living in a dystopia’, is a phrase I myself have used; one I’ve heard thrown around increasingly casually. In the words of Amy Atchnison, writing in her article ‘are we living in a dystopia’, the term dystopia has become, through overuse, ‘a synonym for a bad time’, however its true meaning is much deeper, and to evaluate whether our society is falling, or could fall, into the realms of dystopian fiction, we must first understand the meaning of the word dystopian.
As pointed out by Gregory Claeys in ‘Malice in Wonderland: The Origins of Dystopia from Wells to Orwell’ The first fictional ‘dystopian turn’ appeared in the form of satires, such as Swift and Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society (1756) mocking the enlightenment ideals of the age. Indeed, the word dystopia itself, is derived from the word ‘dys’, meaning bad, and the word ‘utopia’, so is in its very essence, a ‘bad utopia’, the disastrous outcome of a ‘perfect’ world. Utopian fiction itself literally means ‘not place’, a perfect world that doesn’t exist, humanities pipe dreams of perfection.
If utopian literature is humanity dreaming of perfection, then dystopian literature is humanity exercising its cynic, our morbid curiosity in the possibility of disaster. It is, at its most primal, simply negative predictions of the future.
In most cases however, it is a lot more than that. M Keith Booker, in his essay ‘The dystopian impulse in Modern Literature: Fictions as social Criticism’, described dystopian fiction as ‘inherently recognising the mutual involvement of literature and society’, it is, in other words, social commentary on our world and what it could become. In that sense it is also a warning, a guide of ‘what not to do’.
Dystopian fiction is humanity, for whatever reason, imagining the worst position humanity could be in. So I guess the next question is this, what is a dystopian society; what does humanity’s worst nightmare look like?
Dystopian societies, as seen in literature, can be sorted roughly into four main categories; biological dystopias, feminist dystopias, technological dystopias, and governmental dystopias. (Note that some dystopias have occasionally been termed ‘environmental’ but I have chosen to leave this out; environmental occurrences are often the trigger of dystopian societies but not often the defining feature.)
Lars Schmeinks book, Biopunk Dystopias: Genetic Engineering, Society and Science Fiction, opens with the words of famed genetics professor JBS Haldane, writing in 1923. ‘The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention… which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion…indecent and unnatural’. This speech claims what our fascination with biological dystopias proves; humans are scared of science, of its advancement, of it turning us into something not quite human. This fear has birthed many fictional biological dystopias, like Jurassic world, Dawn and Brave New World, media that explores the consequences of playing with nature. Brave New World paints a lab coat clad stark image of the future, where humans are ‘mass-produced’, created in ‘yellow barrels’ and ‘labelled test tubes’. Humanity is split into a biological class system with ‘alphas’ and ‘betas’ being the elites, allowed to be individuals, and the ‘gammas, deltas and epsilons’ being created from split embryos, ‘Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before.’, making, essentially, a slave race. In the book this technology is presented as positive, ‘progress’, ‘major instruments of social stability!’. This uniformity is a predominant feature of other biological, and non biological dystopias, and shows our very human fear of losing what is both an asset to our species and to individuals freedoms; our individual uniqueness.
That fear is still very much present in our collective psyche. When biology makes the headlines, they are littered with predictions of Huxley’s Brave New World coming true; ‘Cry round the brave new world’, and ‘The brave new world of three-parent IVF’ are headlines written almost 30 years apart, and show that the scar Brave New World left on our world is still very predominant. In reality though, we are very far from vats of test-tube babies. In the article ‘Designer babies: an ethical horror waiting to happen?’, Phillip Ball explains that currently, the closest we have got to ‘editing’ babies is the gene editing technology ‘Crispr-Cas9, which uses natural enzymes to target and snip genes with pinpoint accuracy’. Crispr-Cas9 has only been used to modify non-viable human embryos, but already gene editing in reproduction doesn’t seem to have a market, ‘there seems little need for gene editing in reproduction as its expensive, difficult and uncertain way to achieve what can mostly be achieve already in other ways’. This is somewhat reassuring, but the ‘other ways’ are eerily reminiscent of Huxley’s world; ‘embryo selection’. However despite the fact it is possible, embryo selection, PGD, is neither popular nor easy, and it will take decades to develop to a point where ‘designing babies’ could be possible. Even if ‘designer babies’ were ever a real possibility I hope humanity’s general distrust of biological engineering would discourage scientists; I personally believe we are a long way off from rejecting our morals and playing god.
As we are scared of to progress of biology we are scared too of technology; as technology has advanced, so with it has advanced bleak prophecies of a technological world; in the media you don’t need to look far to find movies about rampant technology, the matrix, the minority report, even in children’s films, like Wall-e, can humanities fear of technology be seen. The first technological dystopian novel dates back from 1928, E.M Forster’s immortal short story The Machine Stops. Since then literature has been riddled with dystopian tales of rogue robots and dependent humans; but they all seem to have shadows of Forster’s first world in them. In The Machine Stops humanity has regressed into an infantile, dependant state; one of the main characters, Vashti, is described as ‘a swaddled lump of flesh’ and she, along with the rest of humanity live alone in underground rooms ike ‘the cells in a bee-hive’, communicating only through speaking tubes and depending on ‘the Machine’ for everything; food, clothes, entertainment, communication. In the book Vashi see’s the machine as a god-like being, he son Kuno reprimands her in the first few pages, ‘You talk as if a god had made the machine…men made it, and do not forget that’. As the story progresses most of humanity starts to see the machine as a god, to worship it, to pray to it. This role reversal, humanity becoming dependent on, and then worshiping, the technology it created, can be seen in many technological dystopias like the recent YA novel Scythe, where humanity is governed by the all knowing ‘thunderhead’.
In my house we have six google homes that connect to the TV, the lights, and the heating. I can stand in any room and shout a command that will be obeyed. I can turn off the heating or the lights or change the TV channel without lifting a finger. This all seems eerily dystopian, and if Forster was to see the world we live in now he may very well think we are well on the way to those bee-hive cells in the ground, yet I feel like the way we view technology is still primally un-dystopian; We still see ourselves as the creators, the masters of these creations; they are at our service, not the other way round; we don’t hold them with mindless reverence like technological dystopian societies are apt to do; we still remember that men made these machines, and it doesn’t look like we will forget that anytime soon.
Feminist dystopias are intresting, because they are not concerned with advancment, but with a dramatic, warped return to the past. Feminist dystopias imagine the polar opposite of the progressive, equal world, most of us strive for; they paint a dark future where society has returned to belittling and abusing women, often now with the addition of torturous technology, biological control, or constant surveillance. The most famous feminist dystopian novel is Margret Attwoods, The Handmaidens Tale, and its recent sequal the testaments. The Handmaidens Tale has become a blueprint for femnist dystopian literature, a genre that has risen in popularity in recent years. In Atwood’s The Handmaidens Tale, an unspecified disaster has led to a society where only some women are fertile, and these women become ‘handmaidens’, slaves of the state, stripped of names and rights and forced to bear the children of whatever man they are assigned to. These women have no names, referred to as the names of their current masters, ‘Offred…Offglen’ and their real names are ‘forbidden’. In fact women are forbidden from having any personal freedoms, walking alone, reading, talking, doing anything they’re not ordered to do. Dissenters are executed.
Sarah Gilbert, writing in an article for The Atlantic, says she believes that feminist dystopias are becoming increasingly resonant with women today because to them ‘the world feels like it’s running backward’; that progress is being undone, that a feminist dystopia, though not reconisable, does feel possible. The article describes how in recent years there are ‘moments when life seemed to be doing its utmost to imitate Atwood’. She is referring of course to Trumps presidency, and events such as the rise in anti-abortion bills, (11 states passing anti-abortion bills in 2019), and discarded rape cases, (this year rape convction have fallen to a record low in the UK). These are awful statistics and it does seem like there are some in positions of power who are trying to undo everything we have worked towards. The continued denial too, by many in power, that there is anything wrong with the way we are heading is concerning. Despite these worrying signs I still feel as if we are far away from the nightmare world of gilead; the scales doesn’t seem to have yet tipped dangerously towards the direction of worlds described by Atwood and others. Women are still speaking out, being listened to, supporting each other, playing an active part in our world; it is when people stop speaking, and when no one is listening, when a nightmarish dystopian world could emerge. For now all we can do is make sure we keep shouting and listening, and take the influx of feminist dystopian literature as a warning of what we must avoid.
Governmental dystopias are the most common and arguably the most affecting dystopias, because they are the most human. In governmental dystopias, like 1984 or the YA novel Breathe by Sarah Crosson, it is not science, or technology, hurting humanity, though those may be factors, but humanity hurting itself. In 1984 we are introduced to a world eerily similar to our own, the warped familiarity of fallen london. In the novel the main character, Winston, lives in a world where the government controls everything, including what their people believe to be true. There is constant surveillance from ‘tele-screens’ and those who think dissenting thoughts are kidnapped by the ‘thought police’ and tortured, as Winston eventually is. The world of 1984 is haunting in the way everything is desensitised and presented as normal, and the slave population are unaware of their slavery.
It is this unawareness that frightens us, makes us question our own world. Could we be, unwittingly, slaves to the government? Of course, in a very less drastic way, we are slaves to our government, working to pay taxes to support our country, and obeying laws, but this, as pointed out in ‘are we living in a dystopia?’, can be termed as ‘legitimate coercion’, control to keep us all safe in the long run. The British government, and others, also have ‘a strong core of democratic values’ and ‘constitutional and judicial measures to check the power of the majority’, which are attributes of what the article calls ‘good governments’.
Literary dystopian societies, as we’ve seen, have overlapping themes that help us define dystopian society, and, in turn, our own society.
One overarching similarity seems to me, to be this; humanity falls when it tries to stop being human, in other words, humanity falls when we try to be perfect, try to achieve utopia. Indeed a ‘utopia’ was never meant to be achievable, the word itself means both ‘good place’ and ‘no place’; a good place that cannot exist. It seems that many literary dystopian societies emerge when humanity tries to reach the unreachable ‘heaven on earth’. In every type of dystopia humanity seems to strive for some perfection, ultimate comfort, immortality, complete control… every dystopian society seems to have been formed by humanity playing at gods, and creating hell. That thought comforts me somewhat, as I look at our world. We all wish for change, and exact change sometimes, but in small, human, ways. Humanity as a whole still accepts our flaws, accepts our imperfections as something that can be dealt with, but not destroyed. We have no desire as a species to play god; we still have our own gods.
Another main characteristic that has cropped up in every literary world I’ve explored is that element of control. The control of humanity as a species, the control of humans as individuals, the control of a population. Dystopian fiction revolves around the idea of being controlled, and breaking out of that control. Our world is a patchwork of different governments, but arguably in the democratic world, everyday citizens have control over their lives and some control over the fate of the country. However I also feel that our world may be slipping into a more subtle, more terrifying type of control. Control by the society in which we are born in and in some ways trapped in. In our society there are a number of accepted paths, and those who stray are ostracized. This in a way is a type of control, the limit of our negative freedoms, the shaping of our lives into a shape society has a use for. This seems dystopian, and the fact that we are unaware makes it seem even more dystopian. Despite this, I think, for now, we are fairly content in our society, and if it does control us it is probably passive control, for non malicious reasons; not many people are willing to break out of the safety of society.
The natural partner of control is the third theme that seems prevalent in every dystopia. The control and constraint, if not the death of, the individual. Outwardly the western world seems far from the dystopian nightmare of uniformity; America is built on the idea of the individual, social media celebrates the individual, university and job applications encourage individuality. Yet at the same time there is something uniform about individuality in our world. There are a set of characters that are socially acceptable. Anyone who is not individualistic in the right way is shunned. So while our society baulks at the death of individuality, which is comforting, it also doesn’t fully embrace it, and one day we may reject it entirely.
Humanity is like that, not fully embracing something but not rejecting it either. This simple fact answers the question for us, are we heading towards a dystopian society? I believe, no, not at the moment. But we haven’t fully rejected those ideas that could push us over the edge. So there is still a chance, and will always be a chance, that humanity tumbles into the abyss of a dystopian society.
Unless, of course, we are already there. After all, a feature of dystopian society is that its inhabitants are mostly blissfully unaware of their predicament.
Atchison, A. and Shane, S., 2020. Are We Living In A Dystopia?. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/are-we-living-in-a-dystopia-136908> [Accessed 11 December 2020].
Claeys, G 2010, “Preface” and “Malice in Wonderland: The Origins of Dystopia from Wells to Orwell”. in G Claeys (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature . Cambridge University Press, pp. xi-xv, 107–34.
Booker, M., n.d. The Dystopian Impulse In Modern Literature. pp.173–177.
Schmeink, L., 2017. Biopunk Dystopias : Genetic Engineering, Society And Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Ball, P., 2020. Designer Babies: An Ethical Horror Waiting To Happen?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/08/designer-babies-ethical-horror-waiting-to-happen> [Accessed 11 December 2020].
Gilbert, S., 2020. The Remarkable Rise Of The Feminist Dystopia. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/10/feminist-speculative-fiction-2018/571822/> [Accessed 11 December 2020].