Dystopias in Contemporary Literature Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.