Dystopias in Contemporary Literature
Dystopias in Contemporary Literature
Dystopian literature has been characterized as fiction that presents a negative view of the future of society and humankind. Utopian works typically sketch a future in which technology improves the everyday life of human beings and advances civilization, while dystopian works offer an opposite view. Some common themes found in dystopian fiction include mastery of nature—to the point that it becomes barren, or turns against humankind; technological advances that enslave humans or regiment their lives; the mandatory division of people in society into castes or groups with specialized functions; and a collective loss of memory and history making mankind easier to manipulate psychologically and ultimately leading to dehumanization. Critics have argued that several of the extreme historical circumstances that took place during the twentieth century have been conducive to the flourishing of dystopian fiction. Such critics have noted that some of the finest dystopian works were produced during the Nazi era in Germany, during the Stalin era in Russia, in response to various wars over the decades, and as a commentary upon various totalitarian regimes. Discussions regarding personal freedom, the role of free will, the value of individual resistance to dictatorships, and the power of technology to transform people's lives are also typical characteristics of dystopian fiction.
Scholars consider Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, H. G. Wells, and Yevgeny Zamyatin as four of the most important classic authors in the dystopian genre. Huxley's Brave New World (1932), Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Wells's A Modern Utopia (1904), and Zamyatin's We (1924) are regarded as some of the major canon works of twentieth-century dystopian literature. Critics have repeatedly noted the influence of these works on the writing of modern dystopian authors, including Margaret Atwood, Chinua Achebe, Anthony Burgess, Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ray Bradbury, among numerous others. Dystopian fiction has remained critically and commercially successful throughout the twentieth century, inspiring new generations of contemporary writers such as Suzette Haden Elgin, Zoë Fairbairns, and Vlady Kocinacich to continue and expand on the tradition. Many reviewers, including John Harrington and Theodore Dalrymple, have demonstrated an interest in comparing utopian with dystopian fiction, using the polar opposites to identify the major tenets of each genre. For example, Gorman Beauchamp, Donald Watt, and Donald Y. Hughes have analyzed the recurring theme of technology gone awry in dystopian works, asserting that a dependence on computers and electronics often leads to a surrender of individual freedoms. Additionally, Renata Galtseva and Irina Rodnyanskaya have examined the role of an individual's free will in dystopian futures. On a slightly more theoretical plane, such critics as Calin Andrei Mihailescu and James W. Bittner have written about the techniques various dystopian writers use to create a sense of reality in their works, balancing recognizable, everyday detail with elements of science fiction. In contemporary times, there has also been growth in the scholarship on extensions of the dystopian genre—for example, studies of adaptations made by authors writing in postcolonial societies or of the particular role of women in dystopias. Perhaps the strongest modern trend in dystopian criticism has been to explore dystopias from a feminist perspective, which has been discussed by a number of critics including Karen F. Stein, Jocelyn Harris, Kathryn M. Grossman, Peter Fitting, and Elizabeth Mahoney.
Anthills of the Savannah (novel) 1987
The End of Eternity (novel) 1955
The Handmaid's Tale (novel) 1985
Fahrenheit 451 (novel) 1953
A Clockwork Orange (novel) 1962
Suzette Haden Elgin
Native Tongue (novel) 1984
Benefits (novel) 1979
Brave New World (novel) 1932
Ape and Essence (novel) 1948
Das Schlosss [The Castle] (novel) 1926
The Last Days of William Shakespeare (novel) 1990
Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dispossessed (novel) 1974
Always Coming Home (novel) 1985
Animal Farm (novel) 1945
Nineteen Eighty-Four (novel) 1949
Ngugi was Thiong'o
Devil on the Cross (novel) 1982
Player Piano (novel) 1952
H. G. Wells
The Time Machine (novel) 1895
When the Sleeper Wakes (novel) 1899
A Modern Utopia (novel) 1904
In the Days of the Comet (novel) 1906
We (novel) 1924
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Huntington, John. “Utopian and Anti-Utopian Logic: H. G. Wells and His Successors.” Science Fiction Studies 9, no. 2 (July 1982): 122-46.
[In the following essay, Huntington traces H. G. Wells's work within the dystopian genre, arguing that Wells had a profound influence on later dystopian authors such as Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Yevgeny Zamyatin.]
It is generally recognized that Wells's work before 1900 is less prophetic and utopian than his later work. The ironic, comic stories and the great “scientific romances” constitute a body of literature that, while intensely interested in the possibilities of civilization and issues of domination, is for the most part skeptical of resolutions and solutions. After 1900, beginning with Anticipations (1901), Wells embarks on a more resolved course, predicting things to come and building utopias. Though this later mode may sacrifice some of the complexity of vision that is so valuable in the earlier mode, it nevertheless generates more effective polemic. For Wells at this stage in his career, to remain balanced in the midst of contraries, while it is a position of energizing tension and of broad perspectives, is to render oneself powerless to change the world. Without claiming that it is impossible to do both, we can readily admit that Wells's particular imagination cannot. The two modes are...
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SOURCE: Beauchamp, Gorman. “Technology in the Dystopian Novel.” Modern Fiction Studies 32, no. 1 (spring 1986): 53-63.
[In the following essay, Beauchamp examines the role of technology in various utopian and dystopian works, noting that the fear of technology is a prominent characteristic of the dystopian genre.]
In 1903 the late Victorian novelist George Gissing wrote:
I hate and fear “science” because of my conviction that for a long time to come if not forever, it will be the remorseless enemy of mankind. I see it destroying all simplicity and gentleness of life, all beauty of the world; I see it restoring barbarism under the mask of civilization; I see it darkening men's minds and hardening their hearts. …
Although Gissing puts the case against “science”—by which he clearly seems to mean technology—in the most extreme form, still his is a view shared by many, perhaps even by most twentieth-century literary intellectuals, whom C. P. Snow characterized as natural Luddites. In particular, it is a view that informs the dystopian novel, a uniquely modern form of fiction whose emergence parallels, reflects, and warns against the growing potentialities of modern technology.
As I have argued elsewhere, the dystopian novel, in projecting an admonitory image of the future, fuses...
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SOURCE: Galtseva, Renata, and Irina Rodnyanskaya. “The Obstacle: The Human Being, or the Twentieth Century in the Mirror of Dystopia.” South Atlantic Quarterly 90, no. 2 (spring 1991): 293-322.
[In the following essay, Galtseva and Rodnyanskaya discuss the role of the human being in the works of several modern dystopian authors, arguing that the individual always retains inner freedom even in the most regimented futuristic societies.]
… one should not become so stupefied as to become used to everything.
—Franz Kafka, The Castle
The landscape after the battle. … When it finally arrives, the long-awaited has a tendency to disappoint. Already printed in our journals are Zamiatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, Kafka's The Castle, Orwell's Animal Farm, as well as his 1984, which has entered our cultural vernacular. These are books that were used as monsters to frighten children for an entire half century. But the children who grew up during this time—those among them who could not then manage to acquire the forbidden—quickly glanced over the undocumented fantasies and eagerly turned to the actual, documented historico-political sensations of the century. For the rest of world, having read them at their own proper moment, these books...
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SOURCE: Booker, M. Keith. “African Literature and the World System: Dystopian Fiction, Collective Experience, and the Postcolonial Condition.” Research in African Literatures 26, no. 4 (winter 1995): 58-75.
[In the following essay, Booker presents an overview of contemporary African dystopian fiction, focusing on the African writers's customization of the genre to reflect their native and postcolonial experiences.]
Postcolonial writers, actively engaged in the construction of cultural identities for their new societies, often include strong utopian elements in their work. On the other hand, actual experience in the postcolonial world has been anything but utopian. It thus may not be entirely surprising that recent postcolonial literature has taken a powerfully dystopian turn. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in African fiction, where works containing strong dystopian features have been produced by authors as diverse as Somalia's Nuruddin Farah (“Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship”), Kenya's Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Devil on the Cross), Senegal's Ousmane Sembène (The Last of the Empire), Ghana's Ayi Kwei Armah (The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born), the Congo's Henri Lopes (The Laughing Cry), Ethiopia's Hama Tuma (The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor), and Nigeria's Chinua Achebe (Anthills of the Savannah) and Wole Soyinka (Season...
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SOURCE: Dalrymple, Theodore. “The Dystopian Imagination.” Current, no. 439 (January 2002): 29-33.
[In the following essay, Dalrymple discusses some of the reasons for the popularity and proliferation of dystopian writings in the twentieth century.]
Why did the twentieth century produce so many—and such vivid—dystopias, works of fiction depicting not an ideal future but a future as terrible as could be imagined? After all, never had material progress been greater; never should man have felt himself freer of the anxieties that, with good reason, had beset him in the past. Famine had all but disappeared, except in civil wars or where regimes deliberately engineered it; and for the first time in history, the biblical span—or longer—was a reasonable hope for many. Medicine had conquered the dread infectious diseases that once cut swathes through entire populations. Not to enjoy luxuries that Louis XIV couldn't have imagined now was evidence of intolerable poverty.
Yet even as technology liberated us from want (though not, of course, from desire), political schemes of secular salvation—communism and Nazism—unleashed a barbarism that, if not unique in its ferocity, was certainly so in the determination, efficiency, and thoroughness with which it was practiced. The attempts to put utopian ideals into practice invariably resulted in the effort to eliminate whole classes or races...
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Criticism: Dystopian Views In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
SOURCE: Stein, Karen F. “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Scheherazade in Dystopia.” University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 2 (winter 1991-1992): 269-79.
[In the following essay, Stein suggests that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale can be interpreted as a cautionary but hopeful dystopian vision of women's struggle to reclaim language from the patriarchy.]
Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale is narrated by a Scheherazade of the future, telling her story to save her life. But whereas the Sultan of the Arabian Nights asks for Scheherazade's stories, Atwood's handmaid is locked into silence; to tell her tale is to risk her life. Her narrative itself is a criminal act, performed in secret and lost for many years. By narrating the story of the repressive republic of Gilead, the handmaid inscribes both her victimization and her resistance. Built on a woman's desire to tell her story, the novel is a provocative inquiry into the origins and meanings of narrative. Among the issues it explores are, first, the narrator's relation to her tale: the simultaneous fear and desire to narrate one's story, and the attempt to create a self through language; second, the nature of narrative itself: the ambiguity of language, and the multiplicity of interpretation.
In the novel Atwood brilliantly juxtaposes the feminist project—the desire to ‘steal the...
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SOURCE: Feuer, Lois. “The Calculus of Love and Nightmare: The Handmaid's Tale and the Dystopian Tradition.” Critique 38, no. 2 (winter 1997): 83-95.
[In the following essay, Feuer discusses ways in which Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale both partakes of and extends the dystopian genre, focusing on Atwood's questioning of certainty and truths in the novel.]
Reviewers of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale invariably hailed it as a “feminist 1984,”1 and, like many handy tags, this one conceals a partial truth. A closer look, however, reveals not only the similarities between the two novels' totalitarian societies, but the ways in which Atwood's work goes beyond Orwell's, in matters of style that become matters of substance as well as in the feminist debate over “essentialism” that Atwood brings to the dystopian tradition. The novel transforms that tradition stylistically as well as thematically as Atwood, aware of her predecessors (a persistent Atwood trait: consider the parody of the Gothic in Lady Oracle, for example), both participates in and extends the dystopian genre.2
That tradition is a significant one in twentieth-century literature, replacing earlier utopian visions of paradise regained with the nightmare realization that, by the time industrial technology had made the controlled, ordered society possible,...
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SOURCE: Harris, Jocelyn. “The Handmaid's Tale as a Re-Visioning of 1984.” In Transformations of Utopia: Changing Views of the Perfect Society, edited by George Slusser, Paul Alkon, Roger Gaillard, and Danièle Chatelain, pp. 267-79. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1999.
[In the following essay, Harris examines parallels between Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, asserting that Atwood's novel is a critique of George Orwell's treatment of women in his works.]
By publishing The Handmaid's Tale in 1985, Margaret Atwood openly invited comparison between her own dystopian novel and George Orwell's 1984. She herself draws the parallel when in an interview of 1986 she compares her epilogue to his:
In fact, Orwell is much more optimistic than people give him credit for. He did the same thing. He has a text at the end of 1984. Most people think the book ends when Winston comes to love Big Brother. But it doesn't. It ends with a note on Newspeak, which is written in the past tense, in standard English—which means that, at the time of writing the note, Newspeak is a thing of the past.1
Indeed, if his Winston Smith had imagined “little knots of resistance … leaving a few records behind, so that the next generation can carry on where we leave...
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Criticism: Feminist Readings Of Dystopias
SOURCE: Grossman, Kathryn M. “Woman as Temptress: The Way to (Br)Otherhood in Science Fiction Dystopias.” Women's Studies 14, no. 2 (1987): 135-45.
[In the following essay, Grossman explores depiction of women as the “other” in several dystopian novels—including Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451—noting that it is often the character of the female temptress who reveals the world as it really is.]
All fiction is metaphor. … Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness
The temptress figure is one negative female stereotype that has pervaded western consciousness ever since Eden was lost to a beguiled Adam.1 But in such classic science fiction dystopias as Eugene Zamiatin's We (1924), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955), the temptress enjoys a more privileged status. Instead of merely seducing the male protagonist out of his earthly paradise, she charms him into seeing it in a new manner. In other words, she does not just enchant him; she also disenchants him, for it is...
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SOURCE: Fitting, Peter. “The Turn from Utopia in Recent Feminist Fiction.” In Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative, edited by Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin, pp. 141-58. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Fitting discusses the role of women in several dystopian novels written by women, arguing that the works offer a response to the earlier utopian tradition in which the place of women in society was often limited and marginalized.]
I'm the type of person that puts women on a pedestal. But in my opinion, which I base on the Bible, I believe God's perspective is that women should not be in certain occupations. I'm not saying she's going to hell because she chose to be an umpire. She has free will, just as you and I do. If God is unhappy with her, some day she will have to talk to God about it.
Houston Astro pitcher Bob Knepper, on the possibility of Pam Postema becoming the first female umpire in major-league baseball, Toronto Globe & Mail, 16 March, 1988
This paper was prompted by a letter to a Toronto newspaper complaining about the pessimism of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Not only did that letter sum up my own first reactions to the novel, but it has led me to think about recent feminist science fiction and what appears to be a retreat from the...
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SOURCE: Mahoney, Elizabeth. “Writing So to Speak: The Feminist Dystopia.” In Image and Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sarah Sceats and Gail Cunningham, pp. 29-40. London: Longman, 1996.
[In the following essay, Mahoney examines how women challenge male authority and inherited gender stereotypes in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Vlady Kociancich's The Last Days of William Shakespeare.]
Why … not add a supplement to history? calling it, of course, by some inconspicuous name so that women might figure there without impropriety?
We must always keep open a supplementary space for the articulation of cultural knowledges that are adjacent and adjunct but not necessarily accumulative, teleological, or dialectical.
Homi K. Bhabha2
A ‘supplementary space’ where ‘women might figure’: the space delineated in an ironic fashion by Woolf and positively by Bhabha aptly describes the feminist dystopia, the future fiction set in a ‘bad place’ for women. In this chapter I will argue that the dystopia offers a potentially radical fictional space in which women can unravel and re-imagine existing power relations. My interest here is in one particular sphere of authority—that gained...
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Baggesen, Søren. “Utopian and Dystopian Pessimism: Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest and Tiptree's ‘We Who Stole the Dream.’” Science Fiction Studies 14, no. 1 (1987): 34-43.
Baggesen discusses the two works by Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, respectively, in terms of their perception of evil, concluding that, while both are pessimistic in tone, Le Guin's tale is essentially utopian, while Tiptree's is dystopian.
Bittner, James W. “Chronosophy, Aesthetics, and Ethics in Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia.” In No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, edited by Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph Olander, pp. 244-70. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
Bittner examines Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed in terms of her treatment of the past and future as influences on a realistic present society.
Booker, M. Keith. The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994, 197 p.
Booker presents a collection of critical essays that treat the works of Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell, as well as a number of themes related to dystopian literature.
Cavalcanti, Ildney. “Utopias...
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