War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength

I love dystopian literature. I always have and I have little doubt about whether I always will. In my opinion there is something so wonderfully profound about it because the very nature of the literature is in such a contrast to the Westernised, generally organised, society that I live in.

The key, I find, to a good dystopian work is that the fallen world being created is still believable. No matter how far-fetched some of the ideas may be or however much it relies on future technology that we have no power over predicting whether it will exist or not, fundamentally there must be something to relate to. Something that is clearly ‘human’ and so transcends the years.

Now, why am I talking about dystopia in terms of time?
Fear not, it wasn’t a deliberate ploy to confuse you! Dystopian literature is often set in the future as a general observation because there is greater scope for a new world to be created which is both altered and similar to the current one.

Dystopian literature can be considered a sub-genre of science fiction because of the strong links it has to advanced technology and the future but, during the 20th century it became more recognised as a genre in itself. The 1900s saw a sheer mass of work being written that all had similar themes in them and so dystopia was recognised independently.

Of course, there are many examples before this period where dystopian elements can be seen (even in some of Shakespeare’s work- see The Tragedy of King Lear) but a combination of industrial advances and Modernist freedom led to the proliferation of this type of writing.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Some that I like:
I call myself a ‘fan’ of dystopian literature but really, I should read a large number of classics from the genre in order to qualify for ‘fan’ status. A better description of my admiration for the genre could be ‘a fan of the dystopian literature that I have read. And for the ones found below, my level of admiration has been particularly high:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale- Margaret Atwood
    The USA has fallen (a seemingly recurring pattern in more modern dystopian literature) and has become Gilead, a Christian theocratic state where the natural ability of childbearing is heralded above all else. As a result, fertile women are considered objects that should carefully be looked after and nothing more. The story follows one woman Offred (of-Fred) and how she tries to escape her subjugation in any small way possible.
  • 1984- George Orwell
    Written in 1948 when communism was seen to be a threat to the Western world, Orwell imagines what life would be like in the middle of an atomic war if a totalitarian socialist government were to rule the world. The protagonist Winston lives in a world where history is rewritten to the government’s needs, where independent thinking is considered a ‘thought-crime’ and nowhere is safe from the ever-watching eyes of Big Brother.
    (This is possibly my favourite book ever. Possibly).
  • The Wasteland- TS Eliot
    Perhaps the most challenging of the four examples, you can tell that this long poem by Eliot captures the essence of Modernism- even if you can’t really follow what is going on. And there are certainly dystopian undertones. The poem envisages a world after the Great War that is merely a collection of broken images and is a metaphorical wasteland- hence the title and presents with a number of these bleak snapshots.
  • Rossum’s Universal Robots- Karel Čapek
    Written in 1920 but set in the 1950s or 60s, RUR is set in a world where robots are essentially identical to humans and they are used as slaves by their creators. This subjugation leads Helena, a human, to visit the robot factory to see if the robots are being unfairly treated but it is explained to her by Domin, general manager of the factory, that the robots have no needs or wants and so cannot be inhumanely treated. However, this harmonious façade does not last long as the robots rise up against the humans, leading to the destruction of the world as we know it.

In my previous post I talked of the criteria needing to be fulfilled for literature to be considered classic and 1984 is a perfect example of a classic in this sense. It is technically sound, has an engaging plot and certainly has become part of popular culture- even today. Big Brother, Room 101, 2+2=5 sound familiar?

Fun Fact: The word ‘robot’ was used for the first time in this book and was introduced to the English Language when RUR was first translated in 1921. 


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4 responses to “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”

  1. John Westcott says :

    Remember, whenever reading a dystopian book, “Soylent Green is people!”
    Very good, loved 1984 and R.U.R

  2. Snodgrass O'Toole says :

    Why a preference for dystopia rather than utopia ? More existential angst ? Surely imagining a world of happy, smiley people in lycra zipping around on jetpacks and waving sonic screwdrivers would be preferable to the endless rain of Bladerunner (based on Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep ? by Philip K Dick) and who would wish to live in the world of The Hunger Games ? Admittedly people frolicking in the sunshine and having a generally nice time would not make for a very exciting read – although Milly-Molly-Mandy still has her fans (admittedly set in a utopian 1920s than in the future)

    • criticaldan4th says :

      In general, I have a preference for modernist literature and as a result of WWI in particular, there is a vast amount of dystopian literature that was written in and after this period which I am naturally susceptible to choose. My exposure to utopian literature has been limited.

      I agree with your point that it might make for less entertaining reading but I also think that the way we receive information through the media has a part to play. In news reports we hear very rarely about good things that have happened; it is more likely that we are informed about the bad events. And I think this relates to why so many people enjoy dystopian literature. We’ve come to expect finding out about the big bad world around us and so it is more believable when we read it in dystopian works. I would argue many people don’t really believe a utopian society is possible, whereas falling into civil chaos: the threat is perhaps more conceivable, thus their and my preference.

      Superheroes with their lycra and sonic screwdrivers offer entertainment and an escape, but can hardly be called very believable at the end of the day.

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