Dystopias in Contemporary Literature Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

Chinua Achebe
Anthills of the Savannah (novel) 1987

Isaac Asimov
The End of Eternity (novel) 1955

Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale (novel) 1985

Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 (novel) 1953

Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange (novel) 1962

Suzette Haden Elgin
Native Tongue (novel) 1984

Zoë Fairbairns
Benefits (novel) 1979

Aldous Huxley
Brave New World (novel) 1932
Ape and Essence (novel) 1948

Franz Kafka
Das Schlosss [The Castle] (novel) 1926

Vlady Kociancich
The Last Days of William Shakespeare (novel) 1990

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dispossessed (novel) 1974
Always Coming Home (novel) 1985

George Orwell
Animal Farm (novel) 1945
Nineteen Eighty-Four (novel) 1949

Ngugi was Thiong'o
Devil on the Cross (novel) 1982

Kurt Vonnegut
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

Yevgeny Zamyatin
We (novel) 1924

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

John Huntington (essay date July 1982)

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...

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Gorman Beauchamp (essay date spring 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 4725 words.)

Renata Galtseva and Irina Rodnyanskaya (essay date spring 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 11308 words.)

M. Keith Booker (essay date winter 1995)

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....

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Theodore Dalrymple (essay date January 2002)

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...

(The entire section is 4305 words.)

Criticism: Dystopian Views In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

Karen F. Stein (essay date winter 1991-1992)

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...

(The entire section is 4673 words.)

Lois Feuer (essay date winter 1997)

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 entire section is 6468 words.)

Jocelyn Harris (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 4816 words.)

Criticism: Feminist Readings Of Dystopias

Kathryn M. Grossman (essay date 1987)

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.


(The entire section is 4349 words.)

Peter Fitting (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 6171 words.)

Elizabeth Mahoney (essay date 1996)

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?

Virginia Woolf1


(The entire section is 6275 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 695 words.)