What is the Purpose of Dystopian Literature?
A dystopia is an unpleasant state – to put it more simply ‘not-good place’ is the translation from ancient Greek, the polar opposite of a utopia. The traditional interpretation of dystopian literature is that it is a bleak warning to its readers of the dangers of totalitarianism. Of course, such political ideas did drive authors such as George Orwell who was inspired after experiencing the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War first hand. However, there is so much more to the genre than the purpose of acting as a warning of certain political ideologies, although this does still remain a fundamental part of many of dystopian novels. The endurance of dystopian classics such as Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, along with the genre’s growing popularity in young-adult fiction suggests there is something beyond the warning feature of a dystopian novel.
In a less religious society, it is interesting to interpret dystopian fiction as a twisted source of morality. In most dystopian novels, one is presented with aspects of brutality, or at least what we consider immoral. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange for example, contains aspects of “ultra-violence” and rape and was so shocking that the film version, directed by Stanley Kubrick was actually withdrawn from the UK by Kubrick himself in 1973, following debates in Parliament regarding the film’s nature and religious protests. However, beyond the brutality, one is presented with the “philosophical novel” as Time describes it, which questions what exactly makes a person good. Stanley Kubrick eloquently stated that “The essential moral question is whether or not a man can be good without having the option to be evil and whether such a creature is still human.” This is seen when the main character, Alex, begins as a man of savagery, with his reasoning being “What I do I do because I like to do” which raises questions not only on free will, but what is natural. Is it simply that he has been born in such a way that he enjoys violence? Or, is it a statement acknowledging that he has the choice to act in any way he wishes? Finally, Alex is arrested, and eventually he is given correctional therapy in which he then becomes ill anytime he even thinks about violence. This highlights Kubrick’s essential moral question – if we are forced to be good, does that necessarily make us good?
A lesser question that lies in the background of both the film and novel of A Clockwork Orange is within its music. What makes Alex different from his friends is his enjoyment of classical music such as Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. There are a number of occasions both in the film and novel whereby Alex beats or rapes someone to such music. Author, Blake Morrison says how “Burgess uses music to address the question of whether high art is civilising.” This very idea Burgess openly recognises when Alex says how he read an article about “how Modern Youth would be better off if A Lively Appreciation Of The Arts could be like encouraged”, however it is clear this is certainly not the case. Therefore, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange addresses moral questions and doubts about how society may perceive music by using a dystopian background in which violence is more common.
Philip K. Dick raises other philosophical questions in his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the film, Blade Runner). In this futuristic science-fiction novel, Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter is ordered to “retire” (kill) six Nexus-6 model androids who have escaped. During this pursuit, there is an evident exploration of what it is to be human, such as what traits define us as human? Empathy, in particular, is one aspect that is considered. For example, one can assume androids have no empathy. Deckard originally recognises this, saying “An android doesn’t care what happens to another android. That’s one of the indications we look for.” However, there is an irony to his words, for example, when Rachael (an android) displays hints of empathy for other androids in actions whereby she seduces Deckard in an attempt to prevent him from killing them. Philip K. Dick’s novel is one that questions what it is to be human since empathy can not always be associated with it since Deckard is living in a world in which some androids have more empathy than humans themselves. Science-fiction is a brilliant gateway into such ideas since the author can create a world in which our own ideas are tested through the prism of such advanced technology.
Atwood’s speculative fiction
Indeed, science-fiction is closely linked to dystopian literature. However, Margaret Atwood is one who is breaking this mould. Atwood refused to class her novels as science-fiction, commenting that “Science-fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” What divides speculative fiction from science-fiction is that science-fiction contains things that don’t exist. This idea was later explored when Atwood added that speculative fiction “means a work that employs the means already to hand” – it is for this reason Atwood’s dystopian novels, such as A Handmaid’s Tale, are that more real and that more worrying. The fact there is no new technology in the Republic of Gilead (where A Handmaid’s Tale is set) that doesn’t already exist in today makes it that more unnerving; the society isn’t one based in the future, but one in the present and shows that such worlds are indeed, very possible. Atwood herself acknowledges this situation as a sad reality, saying “It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias.” Perhaps this is speculative fiction’s effect, it makes these dystopian worlds more relatable and real, therefore making a society more aware of what is going on around them. By the end of such a realistic depiction of a dystopia, it can often leave readers wondering if we are living in a dystopia.
Atwood also believed her novel, Oryx and Crake classifies as speculative fiction, however others have additionally dubbed it an ‘eco-dystopia’, another example being Harry Harrison’s, Make Room! Make Room! Harrison’s novel describes the consequences of population increase within the overpopulated city of New York. It describes how “mankind gobbled in a century all the world’s resources that had taken millions of years to store up, and no one at the top gave a damn or listened to all the voices that were trying to warn them, they just let us overproduce and over-consume until now the oil is gone, the topsoil depleted and washed away, the trees chopped down, the animals extinct, the earth poisoned, and all we have to show for this is seven billion people fighting over the scraps that are left, living a miserable existence – and still breeding without control.” This overly elongated sentence depicts a world with an endless amount of consequences as a result of overpopulation, and what’s worse is that it’s not being confronted properly. With the world’s population already over seven billion and issues such as global warming and sea level rise now a very real issue, aspects of Make Room! Make Room! ring very true today. So perhaps dystopian literature not only expresses political fears, but also environmental fears – fears that will become ever more relevant as time continues.
Indeed, one must still acknowledge the political issues that so many dystopian works address. They tend to offer an exaggeration of our fears, acting as an extension of society’s socio-political issues. Orwell’s classic, 1984 raises concerns over totalitarianism, surveillance and censorship. It depicts a bleak outlook of life describing that “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” It offers a possible indication of the future if totalitarian states continue to exist. Orwell is also a worryingly relevant voice today. When Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts” regarding the inauguration’s audience size in an interview in January 2017, 1984 sales soared and became the sixth best-selling book on Amazon, and Penguin publishing struggled to print more copies for the increasing demand. People began to compare Conway’s phrase with Orwell’s “Newspeak”, a language that limits free thought. Real world events heavily influenced his work, he witnessed atrocities of fascist totalitarian regimes in the Spanish Civil War, as well as the rise of Hitler and Stalin; his experiences and surroundings also inspired his politically driven novel, Animal Farm which expressed his concerns about communism. One can also relate 1984‘s extreme surveillance with the present day whereby in 2013, following Edward Snowden’s story regarding the NSA’s mass surveillance, the novel saw a huge rise in sales of over 5,000%. In this case, one could argue that in light of recent political events, dystopian literature can be used as an object to draw comparisons with society’s problems today. The rise in sales for such dystopian fiction is also a reflection of our fears whether that is surveillance or lies being given by the government. How do audiences perceive such novels? Perhaps these novels offer an unusual sense of comfort to their readers that despite all society’s faults, it is not that bad as the world depicted in the novel; or perhaps it is to raise awareness to the possible future if we leave these issues unresolved.
It is also important to recognise that beyond the recent rises in sales for dystopian fiction, there has been a significant amount of young-adult fiction being published in this genre. This includes series such as The Hunger Games, and although much more action-packed, socio-political matters are still being raised. Dystopian literature can be seen as a tool to educate the younger generations and therefore make them more responsive to political issues, and with the huge access to information from social media for example, this may be likely. The Hunger Games, for example has twelve districts, all differing in wealth. The higher districts such as one and two are extremely wealthy; the lower districts like twelve and eleven are very poor and are exploited by the Capitol. It is evident there is a clear line of inequality within the story. It is no surprise that the first book of the series was published in 2008, in the middle of the financial crisis. There is great importance, one can argue, for the rise of dystopian literature in the young-adult world since these stories are a source of political ethics. A young student cannot be engaged by a textbook, however a dystopian story such as The Hunger Games, which is more exciting, can be a gateway to introduce societal issues to teenagers. George Orwell could have written an essay on the dangers of communism, but instead wrote an allegory of it, Animal Farm, which became much more popular than an essay could ever have been. Hence, dystopian literature is a better way of putting across a point than for example an essay since the story is what grips the reader, therefore making them more able to learn from it and the questions it raises.
Actions as a whole
Dystopian literature tends to end very bleakly with very little being achieved, although this isn’t always the case. Nevertheless, either way, the actions by a society as a whole, rather than the actions of the few are fundamental to change, or lack of it. The Hunger Games is an example of a successful rebellion in which people unite to overthrow the Capitol. However, not all dystopian novels tend to demonstrate a successful revolution. John “the savage” in Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, fails to start an uprising, or at least some sort of reaction to the soma-reliant society (a drug the whole society takes to escape reality) by disrupting its distribution to the lower classes, the “Deltas”, saying “I come to bring you freedom”, but fails to do so. The fact he has no one to help him in this rebellious act highlights how important a unity of purpose is against such controlling states as depicted in Brave New World.
A similar example is found in A Handmaid’s Tale, when the Constitution was suspended, “There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put a finger on.” In this case, it is the apathy of the nation, this lack of action, even by a single person, which leads to the religious control in the novel; nobody asked for answers in this chaotic situation and the society pad for it. A Handmaid’s Tale shows how vital initial action could be to prevent somebody from exploiting the fear of the situation.
However, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We, a classic dystopian that inspired both Orwell and Huxley in particular, there is a sense of optimism surrounding rebellion at least: “There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.” Although, later the OneState may have survived, the novel ends with a doubt that it perhaps may not, with parts of the Green Wall surrounding the city having been broken for example, as if the cracks are beginning to show in this totalitarian society.
What has been established is that there are far more purposes to dystopian literature than it being a mere warning. All one can conclude is that this genre is becoming worryingly relevant and therefore needs more attention. At the Women’s March in Washington, a protestor held up a sign that said: “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again”, showing the real relevance of dystopian fiction. With a climate change-denier as President and nationalist political parties on the rise in Europe, one can view such a political landscape as indeed a very susceptible one to the depictions of dystopias. However, one must note dystopian fiction is a very new form of literature and has many forms, and so it might be a while before many academic journals are made about this genre.
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