Dystopias in Contemporary Literature

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John Huntington (essay date July 1982)

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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 for him antithetical, and he is unable to yoke them successfully.

If we are to take the aesthetic and intellectual issues of this dichotomy seriously, we need to do more than merely chart the various ways Wells handled them. We need to question the possibilities and failures of the forms themselves. Here I want to evaluate Wells's accomplishment in terms of the development of a particular genus of literature with a special set of structural characteristics. My purpose here is to understand the intellectual possibilities of certain structures and to sketch how the two forms Wells works in suggest a larger intellectual field of utopian and anti-utopian structures. When, later on, I compare Wells's structures to those of other writers, I am interested, not in establishing the debts others owe him, but in tracing a few of the possibilities beyond Wells himself as a way of sketching the larger field.

The frustrations of the situation one can observe in “A Story of the Days to Come” (“Days to Come”; 1897) force Wells to try new forms. By the first decade of this century, he is more often applying his main imaginative energy to developing a fiction that addresses contemporary realistic social issues.1 During this period, when he does attempt the “scientific romance,” he repeatedly returns to a very special form of it in which he depicts a strange and magical transformation from a corrupt and conflict-ridden world to a purged, sane, and entirely harmonious one. In the Days of the Comet (1906) is the first of these, but the form recurs again in The World Set Free (1914), Men Like Gods (1923), and The Dream (1924). These novels have not stood up well; it would be merely diligent to study all of them. But we need to understand the aesthetic issues Wells's imagination is confronting as he pushes his logic towards solution, and for that purpose a glance at the form of In the Days of the Comet (IDC) is in order.

The major alteration in the structure of Wells's logic that has occurred in IDC is camouflaged by his use of what looks like the “two-world system” of The Time Machine or The Wonderful Visit (from which the phrase comes).2 The novel juxtaposes two...

(This entire section contains 14679 words.)

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worlds that share personalities and geographies but which are radically different. The old world is ours, an “insane” world of war, class hatred, and murderous jealousy; the new world is that which a rational treatment of society and of human relations might supposedly create, an organized utopia in which all humans are free to realize their whole potential. The agent of juxtaposition is the comet through whose tail Earth passes. Our atmosphere is so modified that humanity, while remaining biologically the same as it was, suddenly acts sanely. One sees the possibility for ironic inquiry, as in Wells's 1890s' fiction, but the similarity to the structure of his earlier works is superficial; the before-after balance conceals a deep imaginative imbalance. The opposition we see so clearly inIDC is not a puzzle at all; the two worlds do not exist in any cognitive tension with each other. Instead the new world, nearly faultless, a model of uncomplicated rationality, simply displaces the old. We have no problem; we reject the first. Thus, in its large structure, this novel asks us not to balance ironically, but to choose, to eliminate, to simplify.

It is because of the comet that IDC is thrown in with Wells's earlier SF, whereas in fact neither part of the novel employs the kind of ironic thought we find in his early fiction. The realistic part of the novel, while it has attractions, lacks the element of logical fantasy, of organized landscape and plot that distinguishes the authentic “scientific romance.” I do not intend this as a complaint, only as a distinction. The first part of IDC seems to me immensely successful in the tradition of Wells's realism. On the other hand, the utopian solution presents us with a world without conflict. The scientific romance falls in a range between these two broad generic types: it is neither realistic nor utopian. It is what I will call, with careful attention to its precise, stipulated meaning, anti-utopian.

The split in Wells's thought expresses itself in a dichotomy of genera, two forms of imaginative procedure, utopia and anti-utopia. By these terms I refer not to optimism or pessimism, but to the imaginative attempt to put together, to compose and endorse a world, and the opposite attempt to see through, to dismember a world. The familiar terminology here distinguishes, not political attitudes, but opposed structural principles of thought.3

Darko Suvin defines utopia as “a verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author's community.”4 Suvin is especially concerned with seeing utopia as a literary form. Accepting that, I want here also to stress the importance of organization,community, and principle in this definition. The utopia is an exercise in thinking through a way things might fit together, might work; it strives for consistency and reconciles conflict. Utopia is, therefore, in the sense I am using the term, a verbal artifact with a distinctive imaginative imperative: it seeks coherence. At its purest utopia is like a mathematical equation: it achieves imaginative order; it accounts for all doubts; it solves.

Dystopia, in the structural configuration I am here defining, is similar to utopia. Dystopia (the bad place) is for our purposes utopia in which the positive (“more perfect principle”) has been replaced by a negative. Though opposites on the surface, utopia and dystopia share a common structure: both are exercises in imagining coherent wholes, in making an idea work, either to lure the reader towards an ideal or to drive the reader back from a nightmare. Both are the expression of a synthetic imagination, a comprehension and expression of the deep principles of happiness or unhappiness.5

By anti-utopia I propose to refer to a type of skeptical imagining that is opposed to the consistencies of utopia-dystopia. If the utopian-dystopian form tends to construct single, fool-proof structures which solve social dilemmas, the anti-utopian form discovers problems, raises questions, and doubts. Both utopian and anti-utopian modes partake in some way of the “what if?” premise so valued by utopian and SF commentators, and both work by contrast of sorts, by what Suvin calls “cognitive estrangement.” And since every utopia is a criticism of the world as it is, all utopian thought has a satiric dimension.6 But anti-utopia, as I am here defining it, is not simply satiric; it is a mode of relentless inquisition, of restless skeptical exploration of the very articles of faith on which utopias themselves are built. Thus, while there is much anti-utopian satire, it is not an attack on reality but an exploration of conflicts in human desire and expectation. While the utopia attempts a vision of a coherent preferable world and draws our attention to the way it improves on the world we have, the anti-utopia questions utopian solutions even as it proposes them.7 It enjoys the construction of imaginary community, but does not succumb to the satisfactions of solutions. By the same mechanism the anti-utopia can acknowledge virtues in oppressive situations even while denouncing them.

At the core of the anti-utopia is not simply an ideal or a nightmare, but an awareness of conflict, of deeply opposed values that pure utopia and dystopia tend to override. If utopia seeks imaginative solutions, anti-utopia goes beyond to return to the powerful and disturbing ambivalences that come from perceiving simultaneous yet conflicting goods. Thus, the Selenites in The First Men in the Moon (1901) represent an ideal that twists into horror, and a horror that takes on shadings of the ideal. In the passage on physically shaping infants to prepare them for their adult tasks, Wells forces the reader to consider whether it is better to “use” or to “waste” a person. Philosophically this may be a false dichotomy; there are of course other ways than these two of dealing with human beings; but rhetorically the passage makes us approve and condemn both our own world and the Selenite solution. By ingeniously posing the issue in terms of a narrow and irresolvable conflict, the passage generates yearning and skepticism, and that conjunction is the essence of anti-utopian thought.

We can explore further the various ways the structural principle based on conflict functions at a level beneath that of explicit theme by beginning with Wells. In tracing his progress from anti-utopian imaginings to utopian prophetic ones, we can see how he changes the way he negotiates contradictions. His earliest period is one of rigorous thought and exploration which, though it flirts with deep pessimism, never falls into simple dystopia. The Time Machine (1895) is a guide which leads us away from a delusive utopian vision of pastoral simplicity towards a much more complex vision of antithetical balances: guilt and innocence, labor and ease, decline and triumph, change and stasis. This first major work represents anti-utopianism at its purest. It does not condemn utopian imaginings, nor does it despair about the possibility of a planned future—one of the strong messages of The Time Machine is that the predatory world of 802,701 is avoidable. By the same token, the fiction gives aesthetic form to the contradictions existing within our own civilization and its values; and together with his other SF of the 1890s, it thus constitutes a large anti-utopian project.


In an investigation of the difference between anti-utopia and utopia-dystopia, When the Sleeper Wakes (WSW; 1899) assumes a remarkably important position, for it marks the point of intersection of the two genera. As a transitional work, WSW serves Wells in ways that are evident to us only after we understand the contradictions between the two ways of thought that he espoused. “Days to Come,” while it has signs of frustration, remains anti-utopian; at the end Denton and Elizabeth balance at the edge of the monstrous city and try to “find their place.” WSW, though it shares the same city and the same technological imagery, cannot remain content with such meditative perspectives. It reaches towards, though it does not grasp, the sort of utopian solution we see at the end of IDC. Embedded in the horror of dystopian servitude are gestures of utopian liberation, and while the novel ends on an ambiguous note, it is also clear that it has by the end broken clear of the static conflicts of anti-utopia. If “Days to Come” is a novella that seems to have begun with hopes of becoming a utopia, slid into dystopia, and finally retreated back to anti-utopia, WSW has started from anti-utopia and thrashed its way towards utopia-dystopia. Wells himself was unhappy with the “solutions” the novel offers, but whatever its failures as an individual work, it marks an important point of possibility that has attracted many imitators. It is an artistic and intellectual failure, but it is an extraordinary historical success.

WSW shares with “Days to Come” a deep ambivalence about the liberating possibilities of technology. We have already seen how in “Days to Come” the imagery of the future, while it seems to promise alternatives and mediation, circles on itself and closes off escape. In WSW, by beginning to explore the political-economic structure that governs that technology, Wells would seem to be pushing the issue further. In this novel he turns to revolution for his promise of alternative, but then, after setting up what might be fruitful antitheses between the few and the many, capital and labor, he abandons the conflict.

The crucial figure for understanding the dilemma the novel faces is Ostrog. Early in the novel he opposes the Council, and as long as he stands for labor against the capitalist Council the opposition seems meaningful. But, like the transition from Morris to Mwres in “Days to Come,” the change from Council rule to Ostrog turns out to be a change which makes no difference. Graham, the hero, soon learns that Ostrog, the Boss, stands, not for change, but merely for an alternative tyranny, and that the revolution still has to be made. So Graham challenges Ostrog, and we approach again what looks like the same opposition. But an important change has taken place that deprives this new opposition of real content: the Council stood for an idea of economic structure, privilege, and control, but Ostrog stands for no economic, social, or political idea. He is merely the egoism of the powerful personality.8 We never know who benefits from his rule or why others follow and obey him. The revolt against Ostrog partakes in part of the economic ideals of the initial revolt against the Council, but now it has become mainly a matter of personalities, of the good man, Graham, against the bad man, Ostrog.9

If Ostrog lacks an economic basis, he might nevertheless be seen to represent an oligarchic idea of the necessity of an elite to maintain social order and thus appeal to a theme to which Wells frequently returns. Against this elite stand the rights of “the people,” for which Graham vaguely argues. But the novel, just as it gets rid of the economic motive of the Council, never sees the people as much more than a source of explosive energy. Graham, their defender and advocate, comes to the realization that to save the world he must rule. The difference between him and Ostrog lies not in any explicit political ideas about structure and priority, but simply, to use the phrase that Wells later insists on, “good will.” Graham, like the Samurai, serves as he rules. He proves he is not like Ostrog by sacrificing himself at the end.

Graham himself works well as a mediating figure of the sort we come upon frequently in the early Wells, but whereas in the more general conflicts of the earlier work such a symbol allows for imaginative movement between opposed truths and goods, in this potentially more specific world such a symbol becomes simply ambiguous. Graham, “the Sleeper,” is an outsider in the age, but he is at the center; he is a common man of no special distinction who is also “the Master”; he is economically most powerful, but also most moral; he rules, but he is powerless; he despairs at the beginning and he ends up an optimistic idealist. Graham combines in a single figure the double ideal represented at the end of IDC by Leadford and Melmount, the Prime Minister. These combinations involve familiar issues, but now a more concrete question has been posed: how can we change the social structure so as to prevent the nightmare of the future? In this context the symbolic mediation, while an important element in the preliminary thought on the issue, is obfuscating.

Similarly, the puzzle of the future is nicely figured in the statue of Atlas supporting the world: Atlas is the Sleeper who as arch-capitalist supports the world, and he is also suffering labor. He is a figure of entrapped power and of the potentiality for change. But just as Graham's symbolic function heightens our sense of the problem but obscures the political solution, the Atlas statue, while its ambiguity helps us focus on the contradictions of this civilization, frustrates resolution. Wells himself seems impatient with it; he destroys it along with the council hall.

The clearest sign of the emptiness of the political-economic content of the novel is the fact that Graham, much as he objects to Ostrog's policies, is unable to justify revolution on economic grounds. Only when Ostrog employs Negro mercenaries is Graham roused to revolutionary action. A sense of racial outrage displaces and obscures the problem of economic oppression. The racial theme is not entirely a false issue; it has an ethical dimension, for at one point Wells links the black invasion with the idea of justice as he explores it in The War of the Worlds (1898): the Negroes “have been under the rule of the whites for two hundred years. Is it not a race quarrel? The race sinned—the race pays” (23: 235-36).10 There is an important element of imperialist guilt here. But this theme is completely at odds with Graham's heroic resistance, and in any case has little to do with the issues of Ostrog's rule. When the mercenaries attack, the conflict between capital and labor is forgotten. As in other racist literature, the racial issue is used as a way of avoiding real political analysis.11

In “Days to Come” the circular insufficiency of love and suicide defines the closed system Wells's futuristic imagination has generated. Here in WSW Wells uses these same two motifs to try to break the deadlock. In doing so, however, he has to deprive the gestures of the precision that they had in “Days to Come,” and he falls back on sentimental romance and heroic martyrdom as solutions.

Thematically, the romantic element is a gesture with powerful hopes behind it but with little thought. It stands in general for a violation of old structures and a revolutionary reinvigoration. Helen is Ostrog's niece, and a number of times it is remarked how extraordinary it is for her to aid the common people when her family connections lead all to expect her to serve her uncle's interests. Her empathy with human suffering becomes a revolutionary re-aligner which overrides tradition, whether genealogical or economic. Graham's love for her solves a problem posed at the very beginning of the novel when Graham, still living in the 19th century, confesses to Isbister: “I am a lone wolf, a solitary man, wandering through a world in which I have no part. I am wifeless—childless—who is it speaks of the childless as the dead twigs on the tree of life? I am wifeless, childless—I could find no duty to do. No desire even in my heart” (1: 6). Graham's love for Helen gives him energy and, by inspiring him to initiate ethical reform, a sense of duty. While we may approve the gesture, we have to admit that it is unexamined; next to the bitter ironies of the fourth chapter of “Days to Come,” in which the facts of poverty undermine Denton's and Elizabeth's love, and next to the realistic difficulties of Mr Lewisham's choice of Ethel in Love and Mr Lewisham (1900), this cursory and undetailed love seems naïve and merely conventional.

The suicide motif traceable in “Days to Come” recurs in WSW, but even more than in the case of love, Wells has stripped it of logical significance and turned it into a romantic gesture. At the beginning of the novel, Graham in despair contemplates leaping off a cliff, and at the end he sacrifices himself for victory over Ostrog. Neither suicide is a comment on civilization. Graham's complaint at the beginning is private; overwork has exhausted him; it is implied that most other people, those with wives and children, do not share his malady. At the end, when Graham because of his love for Helen has committed himself to serving civilization, he willingly and heroically uses the tool of civilization, the aeropile, to attack the oppressive machine and bring his own martyrdom. In “Days to Come” heroic action is impossible: escape, collaboration, and submersion—all unsatisfactory—are the only responses an overwhelming technological, capitalist civilization permits. In WSW, on the other hand, Wells easily assumes that the technology which so defines oppression can be used against itself.

Students of Wells have remarked on the “diminished intensity” of WSW.12 Certainly, the answers here are awfully easy. I would suggest that the problem with the novel lies also in the very nature of Wells's imaginative logic, that the techniques that have been so successful in the earlier fantasies become limitations as Wells tries to become more precise and more utopian. It is because he has taken on the truly difficult issues of his world and has such a lively sense of the areas of conflict that he does a poor job of working out solutions. A writer less attuned to the anti-utopian ironies of the world might succeed better at ignoring them.

In ridding the novel of its disturbing anti-utopianism by melodramatic gestures, Wells is being true to one important dynamic of WSW: the technological exuberance. The machine-dominated future, so the novel implies, does not have to be a nightmare. The melodrama is an attempt to rescue the utopian intuition that is roused and denied in “Days to Come” by the ironic anti-utopianism. By comparison with the novella, WSW is genuinely utopian-dystopian. It rejects the deep ambivalences of anti-utopia. In place of the irresolvable dilemmas of anti-utopia, it prefers the unambiguous horror of dystopia which, it implies, might be transformed to utopia.

WSW poses a problem in genre and in thought that Wells never adequately resolved. We have here reached a limit: his anti-utopian meditation seems incapable of change; his utopian-dystopian melodrama leads to unconvincing changes that betray the authentic difficulties posed. Works such as IDC are expressions of the desire to leap beyond the dilemma, but as we have seen, the result is only an embarrassing exaggeration of the generic incompatibility.

I suspect that the dilemma Wells is facing lies near the heart of all authentic utopian enterprises. Later writers will pick up the essential situation Wells has posed and develop it in further directions, but the deep structural contradiction cannot be mediated. Either, as in the case of Zamyatin's We (1924), we commit ourselves to an infinitely dialectical anti-utopianism, or, as in the case of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or, in a different spirit, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953) or Huxley's Brave New World (1932), we quash ironic conflict and replace the puzzle with a single-valued structure, either dystopian or utopian. To look at the ways these later writers have handled the problem Wells posed himself tells us much about the structure and limits of the form itself.

Let me note that the following sketch of different resolutions of the logical-aesthetic problem WSW presents implies an historical development that is different from that drawn by Mark Hillegas in The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians. I do not see what I am doing here as a refutation or a contradiction of Hillegas, but simply as the charting of development along a different axis. Hillegas means something different from what I mean by the term “anti-utopian.”13 The Wells that he posits is a more utopian thinker than the one I have been examining, and the later writers whom Hillegas sees as pitting themselves against Wells are reacting to that utopianist, not the anti-utopianist. I accept Hillegas's historical account. I am here tracing, not the history of attitudes towards Wells's utopian ideals, but the limits and possibilities of a form.14


Zamyatin's We is useful for our further understanding of anti-utopia for two reasons. First, the fact that We shares with the novels of Orwell, Bradbury, and Huxley, which will be discussed later, a loose debt to WSW allows us to see more neatly than might be otherwise possible the logical differences between utopian and anti-utopian thought. Second, We is the most radical variation on the Wellsian mode.

But let us also observe that Zamyatin is not the only anti-utopian developing out of the Wells tradition. Though it would lead us astray from our present purposes to explore their work in any detail, writers such as Karel Čapek, Olaf Stapledon, and Ursula Le Guin deserve mention here. The elegant and pointedly contradictory truths of Čapek's R.U.R. (1920), or the shifting satire of his War with the Newts (1937), wherein the victimized newts of the beginning become the fascist oppressors of the end, owe much to Wells's early logic.15 In Last and First Men (1930), Stapledon transforms the more or less static oppositions of Wells into a serial process of discovery, and his relentlessly dialectical history of the future picks up that mixture of yearning and skepticism that characterizes anti-utopia.16 Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), originally subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia,17 captures the two-world system of The First Men in the Moon; it both admires and criticizes its anarchist utopia. And the novel has moments of pure anti-utopianism that rival Wells's descriptions of the Selenite “education” or of the Eloi pastoral. When Shevek, the anarchist protagonist, feels revulsion at the “excremental” excess of the foliage of deciduous trees, or when he is unable to comprehend the achievements made possible by the profit motive, we perceive the deepest issues of the novel struggling against each other: ascetic discipline versus abundant profusion, cooperative survival versus competitive production (The Dispossessed, 4: 89; 3: 73). Neither is the only possible mode of being; each generates prejudices which blind its adherents to the possibilities of the other.

Such works are important, but they are nevertheless recognizably close to Wells's own practice and therefore essentially familiar to us by now. Zamyatin adds to our understanding of the form by forcing contradiction into outright paradox. We is clearly anti-utopian, but it is also very different from Wells's work in the way it generates and negotiates conflict. However intricate the Wellsian logical system may become, it is not confusing; Zamyatin's, even at its most simple, baffles complacent understanding.18

We is a novel whose ironic ambiguity is relentless. The reader is made aware of powerful and significant symbols, but every major symbol, besides its primary signification, retains the potential for representing its exact opposite. This quality is acutely, or perhaps obtusely, observed by S-4711 when he reads D-503's diary: “Somewhat ambiguous,” he remarks, “Nevertheless. … Well, continue” (28: 167).19 S-4711's quick glance has uncovered a quality that marks the novel as subversive, but perhaps at a level different from that usually supposed. In oppressive societies ambiguity serves as camouflage: a statement able to be “misunderstood” will be so comprehended by the proper readers. The censor in such a society finds subversive meanings everywhere; and to the extent that S-4711 functions as that kind of cryptographer, he is D-503's best reader, seeing more, probably, than the author of the memoir himself consciously knows. In this case the ambiguity that S-4711 observes functions as something more than a veil hiding a single subversive meaning. The ambiguous language and symbolism of We harbor a set of deep contradictions that do more than simply challenge the repressive One State; they challenge any belief in settled understanding. Throughout the novel Zamyatin keeps alive a self-contradicting tension.

Zamyatin's advocacy of perpetual revolution is well known. It is preached by I-330 in We, and, speaking in his own voice, Zamyatin uses some of the same language, argument, and imagery in his 1923 essay, “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters.” It is worth looking at passages from this essay in some detail because Zamyatin's style here tells us more about the radical quality of the anti-utopian heresy he preaches than can any paraphrase of his argument:

Revolution [he writes] is everywhere, in everything. It is infinite. There is no final revolution, no final number. The social revolution is only one of an infinite number of numbers: the law of revolution is not a social law, but an immeasurably greater one. It is a cosmic, universal law—like the laws of the conservation of energy and of the dissipation of energy (entropy). Some day, an exact formula for the law of revolution will be established. And in this formula, nations, classes, stars—and books—will be expressed as numerical quantities.

The law of revolution is red, fiery, deadly; but this death means the birth of new life, a new star. And the law of entropy is cold, ice blue, like the icy interplanetary infinities. The flame turns from red to an even, warm pink, no longer deadly, but comfortable. The sun ages into a planet, convenient for highways, stores, beds, prostitutes, prisons: this is the law. And if the planet is to be kindled into youth again, it must be set on fire, it must be thrown off the smooth highway of evolution: this is the law.

The flame will cool tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow (in the Book of Genesis days are equal to years, ages). But someone must see this already today, and speak heretically today about tomorrow. Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought.20

In the first paragraph of this passage Zamyatin alludes to a division close to the one we have seen in early Wells: the difference between social and cosmic law is analogous to that between ethics and evolution (as in The Island of Doctor Moreau [1896]). But if the cosmic (evolutionary) principle is invoked as the ultimate law of revolution to counter the lesser laws of social order and development, in the middle of Zamyatin's second paragraph the cosmic process is seen, not as revolutionary, but as entropic. If energy is to be regenerated, the world “must be thrown off the smooth highway of evolution: this is the law.” Here Zamyatin in a few lines has come full circle; the principle that will counter evolutionary entropy is not the inevitable cosmic process, but willed heresy—in other words, a form of ethical activity. “Law” at the end of the second paragraph means not the natural “law” that takes place in spite of any conscious will, but a logical truth which sees the ethical activity of the human heretic as the only bitter remedy to the natural process. Thus, in the act of arguing for the inevitable revolution, Zamyatin ends up arguing for inevitable entropy; in place of cosmic process he turns to willed acts. The passage is absolutely contradictory. But in that contradiction lies its true thought-provoking power: the reader is not instructed; he is badgered by hectoring prose which backs him around in a circle. He ends not believing, but doubting; and that is Zamyatin's real message; that is the endless revolution.

In another passage from this same essay Zamyatin gives a kind of justification for such a procedure:

Organic chemistry has already obliterated the line between living and dead matter. It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.

The same is true of what we write: it walks and it talks, but it can be dead-alive or alive-alive. What is truly alive stops before nothing and ceaselessly seeks answers to absurd, ‘childish’ questions. Let the answers be wrong, let the philosophy be mistaken—errors are more valuable than truths: truth is of the machine, error is alive; truth reassures, error disturbs. And if answers be impossible of attainment, all the better! Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow's stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud.

If there were anything fixed in nature, if there were truths, all of this would, of course, be wrong. But fortunately, all truths are erroneous. This is the very essence of the dialectical process: today's truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number.21

To be alive-alive means to be “in error, in search, in questions, in torment,” and Zamyatin's prose, right at its logical surface, enforces such a state. There are no “answered questions” here. At best we get clear paradoxes: “errors are more valuable than truths.”

The contradictory process which continually provokes the reader with inconsistencies and paradoxes is at work at the level of image as well as explicit logic. In the first passage we looked at, when echoing I-330's argument that there is no final number, Zamyatin concludes the paragraph with an image which, given the anti-mechanistic, anti-mathematical values that seem to dominate We, must be confusing: “Some day an exact formula for the law of revolution will be established. And in this formula, nations, classes, stars—and books—will be expressed as numerical quantities.” This would seem to be, not I-330's image and argument, but that of the Benefactor. Order of this mathematical sort, order of law, is intrinsically entropic. But then in the next paragraph the imagery returns to that which fits We: the colors, blue and pink, neatly represent the ordered, enervated One State. While invited to find correspondences between the essay and the novel, the reader at the same time must understand each image on its own; to expect symbolic consistency is antithetical to the heretic's mode.

The logical entanglement the novel performs is most clear when D-503 manages to become Zamyatin's own mouthpiece and thereby forces us to accept arguments we have already dismissed as sophistry. When D-503 tries to distinguish the evil Inquisition from the benevolent “Operational Section” of the One State which enforces orthodoxy by torture, he uses imagery which implies a clear distinction where in fact none exists:

About five centuries ago, when the Operational Section was first being developed, there were some fools who compared the Section to the ancient Inquisition, but that is as absurd as equating a surgeon performing a tracheotomy with a highwayman; both may have the same knife in their hands, both do the same thing—cut a living man's throat—yet one is a benefactor, and the other a criminal; one has a + sign, the other a -.

(15: 80)

A good reader has an easy enough time side-stepping the implications of this rationalization of oppression. But a little later, in an extraordinary passage, D-503 returns to the subject, and now the same argument and imagery become both more specious and more convincing:

You, Uranians, as austere and dark as the ancient Spaniards who had the wisdom to burn offenders in blazing pyres, you are silent; I think you are on my side. But I hear the pink Venusians muttering something about torture, executions, a return to barbarian times. My dear friends, I pity you: you are incapable of philosophic-mathematical thought.

Human history ascends in circles, like an aero. The circles differ—some are golden, some bloody. But all are equally divided into three hundred and sixty degrees. And the movement is from zero—onward, to ten, twenty, two hundred, three hundred and sixty degrees—back to zero. Yes, we have returned to zero—yes. But to my mathematical mind it is clear that this zero is altogether different, altogether new. We started from zero to the right, we have returned to it from the left. Hence, instead of plus zero, we have minus zero. Do you understand?

I envisage this Zero as an enormous, silent, narrow, knife-sharp crag. In fierce, shaggy darkness, holding our breath, we set out from the black night side of Zero Crag. For ages we, the Columbuses, have sailed and sailed; we have circled the entire earth. And, at long last, hurrah! The burst of a salute, and everyone aloft the masts: before us is a different, hitherto unknown side of Zero Crag, illumined by the northern lights of the One State—a pale blue mass, sparks, rainbows, suns, hundreds of suns, billions of rainbows. …

What if we are but a knife's breadth away from the other, the black side of the crag? The knife is the strongest, the most immortal, the most brilliant of man's creations. The knife has been a guillotine; the knife is the universal means of solving all knots; along the knife's edge is the road of paradoxes—the only road of a fearless mind.

(20: 116-17)

Plus and minus zero may be a meaningless opposition, but no sooner have we dismissed the logic of the infinitesimal difference that makes all the difference than we are confronted with the argument about paradox which is too close to Zamyatin's own pronouncements to be simply rejected. Yet in D-503's mouth the celebration of the “fearless mind” may be mere nonsense. Here we ourselves must distinguish between positive and negative versions which are identical, between plus and minus zero. The act of reading itself engages us in the process the text describes: in the act of rejecting the argument we affirm it.22

This explicit and disconcerting confusion characterizes the symbolic imagery of We. The architecture of the One State expresses a paradoxical state of oppressive innocence much like the state of feeble-minded peace the Time Traveller envisions when he first sees the far future. The numbers all live in glass-walled apartments from which everyone is visible to everyone else. Privacy is unnecessary, it is argued, because there is no guilt. Of course such openness also exposes guilt, and the image of emancipation is entangled with that of severe repression. Thus, one of the most shocking images of the revolution for D-503 is the sight of couples copulating in the open. Similarly, the Integral, the glass rocketship which D-503 is in charge of building is an instrument of totalitarian imperialism by which the One State will spread its message of obedient uniformity to the whole solar system, and also the key to the revolutionists' plan of escape and revolt. It is thus a symbol both of a repressive, enforced political unity without meaningful opposition and of psychic wholeness, the re-integrated personality that might exist if the numbers could destroy the repressive state.

The pronouns of the novel work in similarly double ways. The “We” of the title represents a denial of the individual psyche: D-503, good citizen, dedicates his diary to the collective:

I shall merely attempt to record what I see and think, or, to be more exact, what we think (precisely so—we, and let this We be the title of my record). But since this record will be a derivative of our life, of the mathematically perfect life of the One State, will it not be, of itself, and regardless of my will or skill, a poem? It will. I believe, I know it.

I write this, and my cheeks are burning. This must be similar to what a woman feels when she first senses within herself the pulse of a new, still tiny, still blind little human being. It is I, and at the same time not I.

(1: 2)

The initial we is clearly a pious act of individual negation, a willed union which exists in conflict with the many I's in the passage, and the reader easily sees the submerged ego abasing itself but wanting to emerge. But if that first we is totalitarian, in the second paragraph the image of a woman with child poses a more positive idea of “we,” one which sees generation and creation as enjoying the “not I” and thereby enforcing a plural even as it is implicitly negated.

Though the pronoun we has these suggestions of psychic possibility, through much of the novel it remains essentially ironic, a self-annihilating expansion of I, until near the end of the novel when the revolutionaries are swarming into the city. At that point, a revolutionary responds to D-503's question, where is I-330?

‘Here,’ he cried gaily, drunkenly—strong, yellow teeth. … ‘She's here, in the city, in action. Oh-oh—we are acting!’

Who are we? Who am I?

(37: 219)

Having worked throughout the novel to free himself from “we,” D-503 finds his liberation in terms of a “we.” The deep issue here is how can there be an “I” without a “we?” The individualism so championed against the totalitarian state is in itself meaningless; it must place itself in a social context.

The second person pronoun establishes a less complex ambiguity, but one that leads directly to the central conflict of the novel. As his attraction to I-330 deepens and as they get more intimate, she uses the archaic intimate pronoun which he sees as a gesture of condescension:

‘Do you like fog?’

She used the ancient, long-forgotten ‘thou’—the ‘thou’ of the master to the slave. It entered into me slowly, sharply. Yes, I was a slave, and this, too, was necessary, was good.

(13: 72)

Though D-503, so used to serving others, is probably misunderstanding I-330's linguistic gesture, we should be aware of an ironic truth here. He has just compared himself to a piece of iron drawn to a magnet, and the love relationship has a definite aspect of obedience and servitude to it. A little later, in a rapturous fantasy of meeting I-330, D-503 himself uses the intimate pronoun: “I will use the warm, familiar ‘thou’—only ‘thou’” (16: 87). Here the pronoun suggests intimacy more than servitude, but the gesture remains servile.

The puzzle about love is given mathematical expression somewhat later:

I am like a machine set at excessive speed; the bearings are overheated; another minute, and molten metal will begin to drip, and everything will turn to naught. Quick—cold water, logic. I pour it by the pailful, but logic hisses on the red-hot bearings and dissipates into the air in whiffs of white elusive steam.

Of course, it's clear: in order to determine the true value of a function it is necessary to take it to its ultimate limit. And it is clear that yesterday's preposterous ‘dissolution in the universe,’ brought to its ultimate point, means death. For death is precisely the most complete dissolution of self in the universe. Hence, if we designate love as ‘L’ and death as ‘D,’ then L = f (D). In other words, love and death. …

(24: 135)

The formula engages both uses of “thou”: love is tyrannical bondage, an obliteration of self, and love is an intimate devotion in which one gives up private interests in attending on the other. But the irony does not end there; the annihilation of the “I” in the “We” so celebrated by D-503 at the beginning corresponds exactly to the relationship expressed by the formula. I do not mean to suggest that the love for the State and the love for I-330 are in every way identical. Clearly they are not; clearly the love for I-330 is energizing while that for the One State is entropic. The formula turns out to have a further meaning when in “Entry 35” D-503 plans to murder U-, drops the curtains of his room, and realizes that the terrified woman thinks he is sexually aroused. In its comic, grotesque inversion of the central energy of his liberation, this scene suggests both the truth of D-503's bondage to I-330 and the absurdity of it. If we compare this complex ironic exploration of devotion to the simple way Helen inspires Graham, we can see how thoroughly anti-utopian Zamyatin is here.

The structural similarity between D-503's love of the State and his love of I-330 re-emerges at the level of plot when it becomes clear that I-330 is using D-503 just as much as the Benefactor is. If the imagery of mechanical order represents one kind of bondage, the imagery of erotic mystery represents another. I-330 has awakened psychological depths in D-503 that the well-oiled state machine has put to sleep, but Zamyatin's dialectic will not let us rest with easy platitudes about healthy emotion: the awakening takes its cost; the mechanical, communal state has, after all, some genuine virtues that are lost in the re-entry into erotic individualism. At the core of the novel lie two contradictory imperatives. One commands commitment outside oneself; the other demands self and wholeness. Life asks both, but the novel sets them up as opposed, and the process of reading is an act of repeatedly moving across the distinction, of constantly rethinking the issue.

If, in terms of its dystopian reintegration of D-503 back into the One State and the sadistic execution of I-330, We has seemed to clarify the heroic ambiguities that muffle the end of WSW, the texture of the whole novel is nevertheless more thoroughly anti-utopian than anything Wells ever wrote. The history of Zamyatin's reception has perhaps tended to obscure this pervasive anti-utopianism of We. Clearly the novel is a satiric attack on Bolshevik totalitarianism, but it does not give easy comfort to the enemies of the One State, either. The novel is “heretical” to the core, and it fights all entropic dogmas, even those which would combat the One State. Unlike Wells's Graham, whose love and heroism remain unquestioned, D-503 is never free to be simply heroic or passionate, for love and heroism themselves are seen as involved in contradictions.


In Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) we see an instance of Wells's and Zamyatin's futures transformed to pure dystopia. Unlike We, in which imagery and symbolism remain contradictory, and unlike When the Sleeper Wakes, in which heroic martyrdom leaves civilization's final destiny ambiguous, 1984 moves towards a resolution of all puzzles. The cruel reality of power means that experiential reality has no meaning and therefore any contradictions perceived are inconsequential. The pressure of conflict that so energized Wells and Zamyatin appears in Orwell on the thematic level as a naïve empiricism. In a logical maneuver somewhat like Wells's absolutizing of the unique individual, Orwell renders everything ambiguous as a way of obliterating the distinguishing importance of ambiguity itself.23

“Doublethink” is D-503's psychological self-denial carried to the point at which thought itself becomes impossible.24 D-503's distinctions between plus and minus zero and between the dagger and the scalpel have a logical base; as I have argued, the true energy of Zamyatin's insight derives from the fact that D-503's rationalizations of oppression and repression have an element of real truth in them. “Doublethink” poses even more blatant contradictions, but does so, not as paradox that generates thought, but as an illusion of thought which is nonsense. Contradiction ceases to be meaningful. Two plus two can equal four or five. This is, of course, an obvious thematic truth of the totalitarian state, but it is also structurally true of Orwell's novel.

Orwell begins with a structure that closely echoes Zamyatin's: the totalitarian city is juxtaposed to the natural countryside, and the opposition is mediated by the ancient house, or in Orwell's version, by the antique shop in the prole section. But the opposition is never a real one for Orwell. The countryside turns out to be bugged; real secrecy is possible only in the midst of a crowd. 1984 turns out to expose the naïvete of Zamyatin's hopeful structure. Of course, in We there is also a suspicion that the natural alternative outside the Green Wall is not a true alternative: D-503 sees the enigmatic S-4711 in the crowd there. But the ambiguity of this connection (it is never clear whose side S-4711 is on, or if he doesn't represent a power above both sides) is, like all the important ambiguities of the novel, unresolved. Therein lies the continuing possibility of thought. In 1984, on the other hand, resolution takes place with nightmarish finality. The Party controls everything—the countryside, the room, Carrington, O'Brien, the past, and the future.

The last part of the novel is ingenious, not for its mediations or its conflicts, but for the skill with which it robs Smith and the reader of any alternative. The imagery becomes that of total control. Even the room number in the Ministry of Love, 101, while it balances ones, is in its tight symmetry a mirroring trap. And in this room Smith comes to know the fear, not a part of a dynamic structure, but the single, totally dominating core image, the rat, before which all reasoning and morality collapses. And here it is that O'Brien explains the real meaning of power, not as a political issue, not as a synthesis of competing goods or interests, but simply as a monolithic end in itself which denies the whole issue of freedom and happiness that torments Zamyatin and before him Dostoyevsky. The absolute pessimism implied by the complete triumph of the totalitarian state has upset critics; some have tried to see a possibility of change in Oceania's shifting foreign relations, but that seems to be grasping at straws. Orwell has tried to deny change; he has tried to envision the powerlessness of conscious thought and (in Zamyatin's sense) the entropic end of history.

But at the middle of the novel, in the picture of the prole washerwoman singing a trite, machine-made popular song, Orwell suggests, not a revolutionary hope, but a level of being that by its very ignorance of the issues of freedom and happiness, by its unconscious co-optation of the culture-producers' co-optation, transcends the totalitarian state. Here is an alternative, but it is one which, by displacing conflict to a completely different level, makes anti-utopian thought irrelevant. At the moment just before his arrest Winston Smith has a vision of prole endurance which, though he still tries to convert it to a conscious political end, stands as a pure bodily fact, deeper than politics:

‘Do you remember,’ he said, ‘the thrush that sang to us, that first day, at the edge of the wood?’

‘He wasn't singing to us,’ said Julia. ‘He was singing to please himself. Not even that. He was just singing.’

The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. All around the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers, in the streets of Paris and Berlin, in the villages of the endless Russian plain, in the bazaars of China and Japan—everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and child-bearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two make four.

‘We are the dead,’ he said.

‘We are the dead,’ echoed Julia dutifully.

‘You are the dead,’ said an iron voice behind them.

(2: 3: 182)25

Despite the false note of Smith's political rhetoric (“unconquerable,” “Out of those mighty loins a race …”), this passage still suggests in simple being an alternative to the Party's rule. In the all-controlling state, consciousness is dead, but life, the singing thrush, the singing woman, persists, not as an ethical social fact, not even as a challenge to the Party's domination, but as simple biology. If there is any hope in 1984, it lies here in the unreflecting joy of being. We are back at the issue of evolution and ethics, but now the ethical component is seen as impossible and irrelevant. Evolution, not as a historical, social process, but as purely biological survival, is the sole value. Winston Smith's hope of keeping “alive the mind as they kept alive the body” is vain; the mind is always trapped. But the body persists and finds joy even if Oceania succeeds as a thousand-year Reich.

Orwell's imagination, always attuned to suffering, has managed to box itself in; the art of 1984, its greatness, is in the relentless denial of the possibility of change. If hope is ever raised—as it certainly is by Goldstein's book—it is raised to dashed. Orwell's pessimism reduces dynamic conflict to a monolithic truth.

To transform such a dystopia into utopia requires discovering a different set of images that will be similarly free from ambiguity and conflict but which will function positively instead of negatively. Positive and negative are deceptive terms here; they imply a symmetry around a neutral middle which is in fact very difficult to achieve. It is a commonplace of modern criticism that there are no authentic heroes, only anti-heroes. Whereas the purely negative image is easily acceded to, the positive is deeply suspect. A single negative connotation will rob an image of its positive value, while a single positive connotation will not prevent an image from seeming totally negative. To say that a rat is intelligent does not make it any the less powerfully negative; like Satan, “by merit raised / To that bad eminence,” its virtues simply increase its horror. On the other hand, positive images can be rendered ineffectual by a simple observation of how powerless they are. Given this imbalance in the present state of values, the utopian image must often depend on what in cinematic terms we would call soft-focus: a blurred vision which never looks closely enough at the image to discover flaws. Wells performs exactly such a shift of lens in the last part of IDC, and we see such a blur at the heart of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

Montag, the protagonist of Bradbury's novel, like Graham, D-503, and Winston Smith, is a man coming to consciousness and attempting the overthrow or reformation of the closed, totalitarian, futuristic world he valued at the start. As in the other novels we have looked at, here too a woman is the inspiration for the change of mind. As in the other works, the act of seeing beyond the present is at least in part an act of recovery of a lost tradition: Graham is a revolutionary because he retains 19th-centry sentiments of justice which the future world claims to have outgrown; D-503 and Winston Smith find an alternative to the totalitarian state in the antique parts of civilization. And Montag rediscovers books, which the future society has banned. Other similarities might be traced, but my point in sketching the by now conventional situation is not to estimate the extent of Bradbury's debt to the tradition, but to establish a broad common background against which we can understand the different way Bradbury's images function logically.

In Fahrenheit 451 the future is bad because people, denied the rich traditional culture contained in books and imaged by nature, have become unstimulated and unstimulating. The dystopian world is in large part conveyed in terms of the denial of positives. Firechief Beatty's defense of the bookless future is essentially that of the Grand Inquisitor, with the important change that the mass's fear of freedom is seen to be a historical phenomenon, a failure of education. In the past, so the ironic argument goes, people were capable of freedom, but because of technology and the triumph of a debased mass culture they have lost their ability to choose and their joy in freedom. Beatty's argument seems to be the author's; in Montag's wife we see heavily done exactly the mindlessness, the need for booklessness that Beatty defends. Beatty argues that mass culture is necessarily simple and, therefore, inevitably a decline from our own élite culture based on books, and in much of its satire the novel supports him. Where the novel makes Beatty clearly an ironic spokesman to be refuted is not in his characterization of the masses and what they want, but in his inadequate appreciation of the sensitive few who are capable of freedom.

The novel expresses this vision of freedom with images of sentimentalized nature (Clarisse rhapsodizes about the smell of leaves, the sight of the man in the moon26), the recollection of the small, mid-western town (the front porch and the rocking chair become symbols of freedom), some tag ends of 1930s' romanticizing of Depression survival, and an unquestioning admiration for books. This cluster poses an absolute pole around which accrues all good and in relation to which all movement away is bad. The dystopian and utopian possibilities in the novel are thus represented by separate clusters of images and ideas that the novel finds unambiguous and leaves unchallenged.

What needs emphasis here is the extent to which Bradbury's novel preserves the dystopian-utopian structure by ignoring the implications of its own imagery. The author advises his audience that they must preserve books to prevent the horror he imagines, but he never questions the values implicit in the books. When the new age is accused of serious flaws—unhappiness, fear, war, and wasted lives—there is no sense that the age of books may have also suffered from such problems. At the end, in his vision of a wandering group of book-people Bradbury invokes an idealized hobo mystique, but with little sense of the limits and tragedy of such a life.

In such a simple system of good and bad values, mediation produces horror rather than thought. Nature is good and technology is bad, but the ultimate terror is a mixture of the two, a kind of symbolic miscegenation. When Montag finally makes his break from the technological future he is pursued by a “mechanical hound,” a terrifying figure which combines the relentlessness of the bloodhound with the infallibility of technology. In Bradbury's vision the hound is most terrifying for being both alive and not alive.

The threat the hound poses for the imagery system of the novel is put to rest the moment Montag escapes him, and the clear opposition between technology and nature that Clarisse has preached strongly reasserts itself. Montag hears a whisper, sees “a shape, two eyes” in the forest and is convinced it is the hound, but it turns out to be a deer, not just harmless, but afraid of him (3: 128).27 Nature is submissive and controllable, while technology is predatory and threatening. This important refuge then leads to a sequence of reversals. Montag sees a fire in the woods and for the first time in his life realizes that fire need not be destructive, that in providing warmth it can be benign (31: 130). And this perception leads to a moment of trance in which Montag resees himself:

How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground.

(3: 130)

I take it that this reduction of the human to animal parts is somehow consoling and ennobling. Like all the nature images in this novel, the purple rhetoric obscures true perception, but nevertheless the revelation is there and the blurred but central symbolic transformation of the novel is complete: Montag has escaped the urban world of destructive technology and joined the nurturing forest world. By rescuing fire for the good, natural side, he has enabled the novel to convert dystopia into utopia.

The interesting difficulty is where do books fit into this simple opposition? Since Gutenberg the book has been a symbol of technological progress. Bradbury partly counters this meaning of his symbol by reducing his pastoral, not to paper books, but to humans who remember books. Thus the replication and general availability that are books' virtues, but which the novel has seen as the instruments of the mass-culture that has ruined the world, are denied. We have the idea of the book without the fact of its production. Then, by becoming a general symbol of the past now denied, the book becomes a symbol for all old values, but this symbolism brings up two difficulties. First, whatever good books have propagated, they have also preached the evils that have oppressed the world. The very technology that the novel finds threatening would be impossible without books. Second, books can readily inspire a repressive and tradition-bound pedantry which, while anti-technological, is also against nature.

Through most of Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury simply ignores these potential problems with his symbol; but in the final pages, in an act of renunciation that is surprising given the values the novel has promulgated, the moral vision retreats from its main symbolism. The memorizers of books are about to move out of the forest to give succor to the cities that have just been bombed; and Granger, the leader of the bookish hoboes, says:

Hold onto one thought: you're not important. You're not anything. Some day the load we're carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn't use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting on the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We're going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we're doing, you can say, We're remembering. That's where we'll win out in the long run. And some day we'll remember so much that we'll build the biggest steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up.

(3: 146)

The vagueness, ambiguity, and misdirection of this passage confuse what Granger is saying; but in the technological imagery of the last line and in the attack on the previously sentimentalized past, in the recognition that books have done little to make life better, this paragraph implies a renunciation of the values the novel has been, however naïvely, building. But perhaps it is also, finally, an awareness of a true opposition, of an irony that gets beyond the simple sentimentalisms of much of the novel. Though one may have doubts as to how to take it, one way would be to see here a titantic revision of values, a deep questioning of the pieties that have inspired Montag and Clarisse. In line with such a reading we should observe that one of the books Montag remembers is Ecclesiastes: perhaps this is an allusion to the Preacher's famous words against the vanity of life, and particularly the vanity of books. But, then, to read it this way would be to suppose that Bradbury is attempting anti-utopian thought, and that seems unlikely.28

Bradbury's novel is in the tradition of utopian prose put forth by Wells himself in his later romances. Whatever political differences we might discover between Wells's sane, organized, post-comet societies and Bradbury's nomadic society in nature, we can see that they both depend on an imagery which ignores contradiction. Such utopian thought is incompatible with the basic logical techniques of Wells's earlier work. It marks an evasion of the pressure of contradiction. It attempts to bring about conviction not by thought, but by the emotive power of rhythmic prose, the attractiveness of pretty images, the appeal to hope which will treat doubt as merely regretful cynicism. Such utopian images have an honored place, but they belong to a genus quite unlike the anti-utopian investigations that mark Wells's greatest scientific romances.

Bradbury's novel is clearly utopian-dystopian. What may not be so clear is how much a more complicated work, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (BNW), shares Fahrenheit 451's rigid values and repeats the same essential logical structure. In the light of the distinctions I am outlining here, BNW, while it may seem to echo the anti-utopianism of Wells and Zamyatin in a number of ways,29 is mainly dystopian.

Like Bradbury's novel, BNW sets up simple plus-minus oppositions. Huxley defends nature against technology, and the individual against society.30 The social is the debased in Huxley's novel, and the recurrent image of the twin multiplied carries that meaning. There are numerous passages which convey satiric thrust simply by rendering in detail “the nightmare of swarming, indistinguishable sameness”:

The menial staff of the Park Lane Hospital for the Dying consisted of one hundred and sixty-two Deltas divided into two Bokanovsky Groups of eighty-four red-headed female and seventy-eight dark dolychocephalic male twins, respectively. At six when their working day was over, the two Groups assembled in the vestibule of the Hospital and were served by the Deputy Sub Bursar with their soma ration.

(15: 160)

The numerical exactness, the scientific terminology, and the attention to precise titles here are vehicles of sarcastic scorn. Huxley's point is obvious and much commented on; my aim here is not to criticize it but to observe the way he presents it. There is none of the ambivalence we are used to in Wells; here we know exactly and unambiguously what we are supposed to be scorning.

Against this multiplied sameness, the novel sets up the individual as the only true principle of meaning. In its dignifying of individual suffering and self-sacrifice, BNW shows itself as much less pessimistic than 1984. In Orwell's work the individual has been deprived of meaning, even that of conscious nay-saying, by the unchallengeable power of the Party. In Huxley's novel, John, disgusted with the world, can achieve a victory by dying.31 The motives for John's behavior do not seem to enter the novel's awareness,32 and the complacent rejection of the whole New World system of test-tube babies, feelies, and soma hardly permits real inquiry. At bottom the novel is a skillful voicing of prejudices in favor of a cultural ideal which it symbolizes by the works of Shakespeare.

It is worth comparing the way this novel treats test-tube methods to the way Wells treats Selenite methods of child-raising.33 As I read them, the passages in which Wells describes the conditioning of infants suggest that even as he sees the horror, he can imagine the virtues. In that tension resides his anti-utopian vigor. Huxley, however, as he ironically champions the method, rejects it without reason. Like the reporter in Wells's “The Land Ironclads,” he is too good a journalist to spoil his contrast by admitting that what he is attacking has any virtues. I don't mean to suggest that test-tube methods or multiplied twins are “good,” but only that Huxley does not think out why they are not good. An illuminating contrast to his easy rejection would be Ursula Le Guin's short story, “Nine Lives,” which explores the virtues and drawbacks of just such identical replication.34

In Mustapha Mond's explanation to John of the rationale behind the modern social techniques, we see not the dialectic of the Grand Inquisitor, but despair. As in Bradbury's novel, the irony of the speech is doubly vicious: the debased mass culture is a horror, and the debased masses deserve it. In the place of the investigation into the freedom-happiness dichotomy that characterizes anti-utopia, this vision denies the possibility of exchange. The logic leads to the conclusion that a free, meaningful society is a contradiction; society is by its very structure valued by the “happiness” it produces, not by the meaning it generates. Thus Mond's horrible paradox: only by debasing life can he perfect it. As Adorno observes, Huxley's “anger at false happiness sacrifices the idea of true happiness as well.”35

Such dystopian thought depends on secure values and categories. In Bradbury, nature and books, in Huxley, Shakespeare, freedom, and suffering, are undoubted positives against which all social forms look trivial. I suspect that the depressing quality of BNW is not the result of real pessimism but of this relentless trivialization of all social activity.36 By contrast, in an anti-utopian form all positives turn upside-down, and even the most escapist society has its attractions. In The Time Machine, the “hateful grindstone of pain and necessity” is both admired and dreaded. In We useful books are instruments of oppression; eroticism, while liberating, is captivating; nature is both escape and perhaps betrayal; freedom is an exhilarating illusion.

Such anti-utopian logic is rare; it never becomes the distinguishing mark of a school or movement. Thus, American SF as a whole, from the 1930s into the '60s, is generally utopian. In its deep structure Bradbury's dystopia-utopia is typical of the rest. It shares with Heinlein's rhapsodies of powerful, charismatic individuals and Asimov's ironic fables about economic triumph a common assurance that whatever new will occur will not in any deep way disrupt a set of values that conform closely to what might be called “Americanism.” There are numerous historical reasons for this cautious utopianism: the perceived threats of Communism on one side and Fascism on the other, the war, the precarious sense that a “positive” attitude was the only way out of economic depression. There are also, of course, lazier reasons: the inertia of popular forms, the use of popular literature for blatant propaganda.

In such a context, the antithesis to the prevailing utopian-dystopian mode is not a genuine anti-utopianism, but an ironic comedy which, far from meditating on the ways opposing truths can be made to co-exist, enjoys debunking all truth. Contradiction here is not enlightening; it simply proves the futility of real thought, the impossibility of discovering or instituting new ideas. The works of such perceptive writers as Tenn, Sheckley, or Vonnegut, outrageous as they can sometimes be, are finally trapped in the dilemma of the prevailing utopianism. Vonnegut's colloquialized Zen (“So it goes”) is a resignation to the overwhelming undeniability of the world as it is. The contradictions he perceives merely prove that humans are inconsistent, that society is thoughtlessly cruel, and that, to quote Winnie Verloc, Life does “not stand looking into very much.” Such comedy may remind us of some of Wells's ironic tales of incompetence—“The Empire of the Ants” (1905), “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” (1898), the opening section of The Food of the Gods (1904)—but it is a far cry from that passionate anti-utopianism of the great romances or even from the exhilarating utopianism of Wells's later projects.


It is appropriate to close our investigation of Wells's logic by tipping the balance back. Let us look again at Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905), for here, in a work which by its title and by the date of its writing we would expect to imitate the utopian style of IDC, we find traces of the anti-utopian irony reminiscent of the earlier work.

The narrator of A Modern Utopia, what Wells calls “the owner of the Voice,” is an ironic device that Wells uses as a way not of withholding full assent to the ideas he sets forth, but of suggesting the contradictory fullness of human hopes and, therefore, of expressing his anti-utopian awareness of the narrowness of his fervently held utopian ideas even as he declares them. The irony here is not satiric; it is like the wit T. S. Eliot praises in Andrew Marvell: “It involves probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.”37 Wells's irony allows, perhaps forces, the reader to assume a stance that encompasses a more complex understanding than the speaker is able to render explicitly. The reader sees everything that the author sees and also those exceptions and flaws which a deep understanding must encompass but which the author cannot acknowledge without undermining the rational force and persuasiveness of his ideas. The irony is, therefore, partly a rhetorical device to absorb criticism at the loose edges of the work, but it is also a logical device that creates a double perspective. Thus, A Modern Utopia, like many sophisticated utopias, contains a strong anti-utopian element.

The Botanist who accompanies the Voice throughout A Modern Utopia and who dreams of rescuing his childhood sweetheart from “that scoundrel” (her husband) repeatedly draws our attention to the limits of utopia. While the Voice sees the Botanist as an instance of the kind of romantic sublimation that utopia will obviate, the Botanist hates the utopia in which domestic dramas such as the one in which he imagines himself playing the romantic hero will be unnecessary, even impossible. In the midst of rational idealizations we are reminded of the stubborn, self-indulgent irrationality of human nature. The Botanist, for all his foolishness—in some respects he reminds one strongly of the Curate in The War of the Worlds—imparts shading to the clear, bright imaginings of the Voice. Yet the Botanist is not simply against utopia. He is, in fact, a warped version of Wells himself; he wants a utopia, but he wants his utopia, not the Voice's, and his selfish sentimentalism leads him to be quite unhappy in the Voice's utopia. Though Wells clearly finds the Botanist comically puerile, in other novels, such as The Passionate Friends, such a man, who secretly, even unconsciously, nurses a hidden flame and who at the second chance bursts into full passion, is a sympathetic figure for him. The Botanist, therefore, must be seen not as a trivial negation but as the expression of a reality: the unpredictable individual who cannot conform to the utopianist's neat plan.

We can appreciate the anti-utopian subtlety of this device by observing that Wells gives us as a foil to the Botanist a foppish Utopian who declares himself in opposition to all the ideals of Utopia. “The world, he held, was overmanaged and that was the root of all evil” (4: 120).38 This man is too clearly trivial to be anti-utopian in the sense I am using the term; for Wells himself the root of all evil is the under-management of the world, and this silly figure is simply hypocritical and wrong. Like the Artilleryman in The War of the Worlds, this man looks to the collapse of civilization as a way of getting back to “nature” and to “human nature,” and as in the case of the Artilleryman, a deep hypocrisy underlines the inadequacy of this stance, for he accepts all the benefits of the wondrous civilization he damns. Unlike the sentimental Botanist, this man, rather than generating any serious questions about the purpose and success of utopia, merely gives criticism of utopia a bad name.

Though the main thrust of A Modern Utopia is, as we would expect, utopian, Wells sprinkles an anti-utopian awareness throughout. The Voice's regret about bringing the Botanist along is an acknowledgment that social solutions are easy if we simplify humanity. Sometimes he remarks with a wary sense of self-criticism on how much “discipline and sacrifice” figure in his imaginings (7: 234; 8: 250). He can in the midst of meditations on social harmony introject an awareness of the serious problems energetic individuals pose: “What will Utopia do with Mr Roosevelt?” (1: 28); Griffin and Nunez have not been forgotten.

Towards the end of A Modern Utopia, when he returns to the horrors of this world, the Voice has a moment when he doubts the value of utopian imaginings altogether. Our own world,

has a glare, it has a tumult and a vigour that shouts one down. It shouts one down, if shouting is to carry it. What good was it to trot along the pavement through this noise and tumult of life, pleading Utopia to that botanist? What good would it be to recommend Utopia in this driver's preoccupied ear?

There are moments in the life of every philosopher and dreamer when he feels himself the flimsiest of absurdities, when the Thing in Being has its way with him, its triumphant way, when it asks in a roar, unanswerably, with a fine solid use of current vernacular, ‘What Good is all this—Rot about Utopias?’

(11: 366)

Here is the anti-utopian structure. Wells's utopia exists in an entirely ironic relation with what is; and if at the center are single-minded imaginings of a sane society, the whole is infiltrated by a pervasive awareness of “insanities.”39

What we have, then, in A Modern Utopia, is a gesture back towards the familiar two-world system of the early “scientific romances”; this world and utopia are juxtaposed, and Wells delights in tracing the parallels in order to uncover where important difference is possible. The beautiful machine, the efficient hotel room, the erection of the ugliest building, the treatment of motherhood as a service to the state—all are discovered as parallels with a difference to our own world. Yet A Modern Utopia differs from the earlier two-world systems in that the contrast is not balanced; here there is clear choice as to which world is preferable. If the ironies of The Time Machine never resolve, here the utopia is pervasively good and “sane” whatever doubts we may continue to entertain; and our world, however much we like it and however much it shouts thought down, is severely under-managed and “insane.”

Once that important difference is granted, however, we can see how the freedoms of the two-world system continue to function in A Modern Utopia. They allow for what the Voice praises in Plato: “the experimental inconsistency of an enquiring man” (6: 209). The utopia exists, not as a prophecy, not even as a goal, but as an intellectual puzzle which is valuable, not for its conclusions, but for the exercise of imagination it demands.

In the last chapter Wells says this, and the image he uses is telling:

For a time I sit restfully enjoying the Botanist's companionable silence, and thinking fragmentarily of those samurai and their Rules. I entertain something of the satisfaction of a man who has finished building a bridge: I feel that I have joined together things that I had never joined before. My Utopia seems real to me, very real, I can believe in it, until the metal chair-back gives to my shoulder blades, and Utopian sparrows twitter and hop before my feet. I have a pleasant moment of unhesitating self-satisfaction: I feel a shameless exultation to be there. For a moment I forget the consideration the Botanist demands; the mere pleasure of completeness of holding and controlling all the threads, possesses me.

(11: 353-54; emphasis added)

In this passage we see both the pure joy in “bridging,” reminiscent of the taxidermist's fraudulent art (in “The Triumphs of a Taxidermist”) and characteristic of Wells's earliest, anti-utopian work and the more purely utopian “pleasure of completeness, of holding and controlling all the threads.” This latter pleasure, though expressed with some wry irony, is distrustful of the openness and skepticism of irony itself. The passage accepts the structure of early Wells but strives to turn it to a less open yet more assured stance like that characteristic of Wells's later work.


  1. In the next decade Wells would publish a series of novels (Love and Mr Lewisham, 1900; Kipps, 1905; Tono-Bungay, 1909; Ann Veronica, 1909; The History of Mr Polly, 1910; The New Machiavelli, 1911; Marriage, 1912; The Passionate Friends, 1913; The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, 1914; Boon, 1915; The Research Magnificent, 1915; Mr Britling Sees It Through, 1916) whose concern is not to imagine a future, but to see England as it is.

  2. See The Wonderful Visit, chap. 28; and also my essay cited in the headnote to this article, esp. pp. 240-44.

  3. The essence of utopia, as I am using the term here, resides in its presenting us with “a serious vision of society as a single intellectual pattern” (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism [Princeton, 1957], p. 310. Cf. Darko Suvin, “Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia: Some Historical Semantics, Some Genology, a Proposal, and a Plea,” in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction [New Haven, 1979], p. 49). Under dystopia I include what Frye elsewhere calls “utopian satire” (see his “Varieties of Literary Utopia,” in Utopias and Utopian Thought, ed. Frank E. Manuel [1965; rpt. Boston, 1967], p. 19) and what many writers call anti-utopia (Cf. Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare [NY, 1967], pp. 3, 4, et passim, and Suvin, op. cit., pp. 61-62). I am reserving the term anti-utopia for a mode of imagining which is critical not of the utopian political structure, but of the way of thought that constructs it. Thus, anti-utopia, in this formulation, is a different genre from utopia.

  4. Suvin, op. cit., p. 49.

  5. It is this deep structural identity that leads Lewis Mumford to see all utopian thought as totalitarian (see his “Utopia, the City, and the Machine,” in Utopias and Utopian Thought, ed. Manuel, p. 9). Mumford uses the term dystopia in a strange way, however: though at times he seems to mean an oppressive and totalitarian structure such that all utopias are potentially dystopias, at other times he means chaos, “total destruction and extermination” (p. 18), the total rejection of order (p. 23). Such a definition seems too idiosyncratic to be useful. It certainly does not fit what are conventionally called dystopias.

  6. Cf. Robert C. Elliott, The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre (Chicago, 1970), pp. 22-24; and Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p. 310.

  7. For example, in the description of the Utopian war policy More may be indulging in what I am calling anti-utopian thought even as he builds one of the great utopias. It may be that pure utopianism is possible only in what I would call naïve utopias, that is, in those imaginative constructs such as Looking Backward and Walden Two which the author has serious hopes of realizing.

  8. Though we might see in this charismatic figure a prefiguration of fascism, the charge of obscurity still holds. After all, one of the charges to be made against fascism is that it obfuscates true economic and political relationships by focusing on the leader's personality.

  9. The blur here, as Bergonzi observes (The Early H. G. Wells [Manchester, 1961], pp. 152-55) results in part at least from Wells's own sympathy with Ostrog's position.

  10. H. G. Wells, When the Sleeper Wakes (1899; rpt. NY: Ace Books, n.d.).

  11. See Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator (Palo Alto, CA: 1970).

  12. Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, H. G. Wells (NY, 1973), p. 150; Bergonzi, op. cit., pp. 140-41.

  13. See n. 3 above.

  14. The importance of WSW in the history of SF and of utopian literature has been much commented on. My aim in what follows is not to trace a literary history but to define different utopian and anti-utopian modes. For the history, see R. D. Mullen, “H. G. Wells and Victor Rousseau Emanuel: When the Sleeper Wakes and The Messiah of the Cylinder,Extrapolation, 8 (1966): 31-63.

  15. The contraries of R.U.R. appear to be quite conscious. Čapek himself describes them:

    The General Manager Domin, in the play, proves that technical progress emancipates man from hard manual labour, and he is quite right. The Tolstoyan Alquist, on the contrary, believes that technical progress demoralizes him, and I think he is right, too. Bussman thinks that industrialism alone is capable of supplying modern needs; he is right. Ellen is instinctively afraid of all this inhuman machinery, and she is profoundly right. Finally, the Robots themselves revolt against all these idealists, and, as it appears, they are right, too.

    Quoted from “The Meaning of R.U.R.” (1923), in Hillegas, op. cit., p. 96.

  16. For Stapledon's dialectic, see Mark Rose, Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction (Cambridge, MA: 1981), pp. 112-118; and my, “Olaf Stapledon and the Novel About the Future,” Contemporary Literature, 22 (1981): 349-65.

  17. The subtitle, which appears on the title page of the first edition (NY: Harper & Row, 1974), appears in the (Avon, 1975) paperback edition only on the cover (as if it were advertising copy).

  18. Zamyatin's debt to Wells is great. See Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare, pp. 106-07; Patrick Parrinder, “Imagining the Future: Wells and Zamyatin,” SFS, 1 (1973): 17-26 (rpt. in H. G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction, ed. D. Suvin and R. M. Philmus [Lewisburg, PA: 1977], pp. 126-43); Christopher Collins, “Zamyatin, Wells and the Utopian Literary Tradition,” The Slavonic and East European Review, 44 (1966): 351-60; Alex M. Shane, The Life and Works of Eugenij Zamjatin (Berkeley, 1968), pp. 140, 185. Zamyatin's essay on Wells (1922), which served as the introduction to the Soviet edition of Wells's works, may be found in A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin, ed. and trans. Mirra Ginsburg (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1970), pp. 259-90, and, abridged, trans. Leslie Milne, in H. G. Wells: The Critical Heritage, ed. Patrick Parrinder (London & Boston: Routledge, 1972), pp. 258-274.

  19. Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Mirra Ginsburg (NY: Bantam, 1972).

  20. “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters,” in A Soviet Heretic, pp. 107-08. Zamyatin's concept of entropy, though it claims the sanction of scientific metaphor, is antithetical to what physicists mean by the word. For Zamyatin entropy is a deadening order. In physics order takes energy, and entropy entails an increasing disorder.

  21. Ibid., p. 110.

  22. It might be argued that Wells is generating a similar confusion when he gives Ostrog arguments close to his own ideas, but though the irony has interesting biographical implications, it does not seem intentional. Certainly Wells's novel does not insist on paradox in other ways.

  23. See Orwell's review of We in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, 4 vols. (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 4: 72-75. For Orwell's debt to WSW, see Hillegas, op. cit., p. 125.

  24. See Robert M. Philmus, “The Language of Utopia,” Studies in the Literary Imagination, 6 (1973): 76-77.

  25. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (NY: New American Library, 1961).

  26. Cf. Truffaut's comment about making the film of Fahrenheit 451: “I've preferred the character of Linda, conventional but touching, to that of Clarisse, more heavily conventional because pseudo-poetic.” Francois Truffaut, “The Journal of Fahrenheit 451,” in Focus on the Science Fiction Film, ed. William Johnson (Englewood Ciffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 123.

  27. Quotations are from Fahrenheit 451 (NY: Ballantine Books, 1953).

  28. It may be foolish to take Bradbury's meanings seriously. Clifton Fadiman in his forward to The Martian Chronicles (NY, Bantam, 1951), p. viii, found in Bradbury a deep pessimism about technology, especially space travel, but in recent years Bradbury has been one of the most fervent boosters of the space program. See his fulsome praise of space flight as a religious exercise in “From Stonehenge to Tranquillity Base,” Playboy, Dec. 1972. Of course the man may have changed his mind, but the style and imagery of his writing remains the same, and I suspect we have here evidence, not of a reversal, but of confused broadmindedness.

  29. Huxley disclaimed any knowledge of We when writing BNW, but Hillegas makes the reasonable surmise that as an alert intellectual in the '20s Huxley would have known about Zamyatin's novel even if he had not actually read it. See The Future as Nightmare, p. 186, n. 2.

  30. The simplicity of these basic values is somewhat obscured in the novel by being overlaid with a secondary opposition between modern and primitive societies. Huxley himself, in the 1946 “Foreword” to BNW, focuses on this issue as a Hobson's choice between “insanity” and “lunacy”: Brave New World & Brave New World Revisited (NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1960), p. xiv. There are some possibilities for anti-utopian thought here, but this anti-utopian puzzle is really a tub distracting us from the novel's championing of a despairing individualism against all forms of social organization.

  31. Here, like Kuno and Vashti in Forster's “The Machine Stops,” he achieves a “spiritual” escape.

  32. “The Savage's outburst against his beloved, then, is not so much the protest of pure human nature against the cold impudence of fashion, as was perhaps intended; rather, poetic justice turns it into the aggression of the neurotic who, as the Freud whom Huxley treats rather shabbily could easily have told him, is motivated in his frantic purity by repressed homosexuality”: Theodor W. Adorno, “Aldous Huxley and Utopia,” in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (London, 1967), p. 106.

  33. My comparison agrees essentially with that made briefly by Jerome Meckier, Aldous Huxley: Satire and Structure (NY, 1969), p. 187.

  34. This much-reprinted story can be found in Le Guin's collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters (NY: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 129-60.

  35. Adorno, op. cit., pp. 103-04.

  36. Cf. Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare, p. 119.

  37. T. S. Eliot, “Andrew Marvell,” in Selected Essays: 1917-1932 (NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1932), p. 250.

  38. H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia, ed. Mark R. Hillegas (Lincoln, NE: Nebraska UP, 1967).

  39. A similar point has been developed by David Y. Hughes, “The Mood of A Modern Utopia,Extrapolation, 19 (1977): 56-67.

Gorman Beauchamp (essay date spring 1986)

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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 two fears: the fear of utopia and the fear of technology (We 56-57). By utopia I mean those imaginary models of static, regimented, totally ordered—in short, “perfect”—societies found in the writings of figures such as More and Campanella, Cabet and Comte, Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells. The fear that some form of these utopian models was being actualized by history led the Russian émigré philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev to write that passage that Aldous Huxley made famous as an epigraph to Brave New World and that can serve as the credo of the dystopian fabulist: “Utopias are realizable. Life is moving toward a utopia. And perhaps a new age is beginning, an age in which the intellectuals and the cultivated class will dream of avoiding utopia and of returning to a society that is non-utopian, less ‘perfect’ but more free” (187-188). That the utopian ideations of the past—which once seemed impossible of historical actualization—appear in this century not only possible but perhaps inevitable is the result in great part of the increasing array of techniques for social control made available by modern science. Thus the dystopian imagination posits as its minatory image of the future an advanced totalitarian state dependent upon a massive technological apparatus—in short, a technotopia.

The question that I want to consider in this paper then is this: is the technology in dystopian fiction merely an instrument in the hands of the state's totalitarian rulers, used by them to enforce a set of values extrinsic to the technology itself, or is it, rather, an autonomous force that determines the values and thus shapes the society in its own image, a force to which even the putative rulers—the Well-Doers and Big Brothers and World Controllers—are subservient? This question reflects, of course, the debate about the nature of technology and its potentially dehumanizing and destructive effects that has raged since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. If we divide the antagonists in this debate into technophiles and technophobes—admittedly far too simplistic a division—then we can characterize their positions as follows.1 The technophiles contend that technology is value-neutral, merely a tool that can be used for good or ill depending on the nature and purposes of the user. Man, that is, remains in control, remains the master of his creations—though, of course, he can be an evil master and “misuse” them. The technophobes, by contrast, view technology as a creation that can transcend the original purposes of its creator and take on an independent existence and will of its own, like the monster in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein who declares: “You are my creator, but I am your master—obey” (167). The technophobe's Frankenstein complex—as Isaac Asimov has termed this view (xi-xii)—implies, in turn, a technological determination operating in history. This position has been expressed perhaps most unambiguously by the philosopher Martin Heidegger:

No one can foresee the radical changes to come. But technological advance will move faster and can never be stopped. In all areas of his existence, man will be encircled ever more tightly by the forces of technology. These forces, which everywhere and every minute claim, enchain, drag along, press and impose upon man under the form of some technological contrivance or other—these forces … have moved long since beyond his will and have outgrown his capacity for decision.


If man cannot control his technology, it will—runs the corollary of this view—control him, shape his society willy-nilly. In a famous passage in The Poverty of Philosophy Marx asserted: “In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production … they change their social relations. The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” (109). Whether technology actually plays this deterministic role in history—or, indeed, whether Marx was a true technological determinist (he probably wasn't2)—is not my concern. Rather, I want to argue only that technological determinism is the dominant philosophy of history found in the dystopian novel and that dystopists are generally technophobic, viewing the technology of dystopia not as a neutral tool misused by totalitarian rulers but as intrinsically totalitarian in itself, a futuristic Frankenstein's monster.

An exception to this generalization—obviously an important one—is Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although Orwell had a pronounced technophobic streak, clearly evident throughout Coming Up for Air, in parts of The Road to Wigan Pier, and in an essay such as “Pleasure Spots,” which sketches a hedonistic technotopia reminiscent of Brave New World, still he depicts the technology of Oceania as clearly the servant and not the master of the Party. No one would, I suppose, be tempted to claim that the telescreens had produced Big Brother or his kind of rule: without them Oceania would be a less efficient totalitarian state but no less a totalitarian state. In other words, ideology controls technology in Nineteen Eighty-Four, rather than issuing from it as in, say, Zamyatin's We or Huxley's Brave New World or Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano. In contradistinction to these works, George Woodcock notes, Orwell

saw the great danger of the future in the ruthless elimination of opposition by means of police dictatorship and by an extension of the deliberate falsification of history and of language which had already begun in modern totalitarian states; thus, Nineteen Eighty-Four is dominated less by technological factors … than by the possibility of man's being turned into a mindless robot by predominantly cultural and political means.


Oceania, despite the popular misconception that it is replete with sophisticated futuristic technology, is a technologically primitive society—and purposely kept so by its rulers. The chronic shortages, the dilapidated housing, the pervasive atmosphere of grimness and grime are all part of a deliberate design to keep the citizens in a state of depressed deprivation. The reasons for such a policy are explained in Goldstein's exposé of Ingsoc, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism:

The world of today is a bare, hungry, dilapidated place compared with the world that existed before 1914, and still more so if compared with the imaginary future to which the people of that period looked forward. In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly and efficient—a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete—was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person. Science and technology were developing at a prodigious speed, and it seemed natural to assume that they would go on developing.

But that development it not simply halted by the Party; it is actually reversed. Had it been allowed to continue, Goldstein explains, technological progress would have put an end to human drudgery and even to inequality. The machine, that is, could have eliminated “hunger, over-work, dirt, illiteracy and disease … within a few generations.”

But … an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction—indeed, in some sense was the destruction—of a hierarchical society. In a world in which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and refrigerator, and possessed a motorcar or even an airplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. … In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.


To comprehend why the Party should want to maintain a society of poverty and ignorance—the question that haunts Winston Smith from the beginning—would entail explicating the problematic motive for power that Orwell attributes to Oceania's rulers: sheer sadism, the desire to make others suffer, as O'Brien professes in his famous credo. To open that touchy subject here would take us too far afield,3 but I would merely reiterate that in Nineteen Eighty-Four ideology firmly controls technology: stopping its development in most areas but increasing it in those—primarily warfare and repression—that the Party deems desirable. The industrial capacity of Oceania is geared almost exclusively to the production of war materials, which are literally self-consuming, so that the wealth created by the machine can be squandered without ever raising the standard of living of the citizens and thus endangering the hierarchy of Oceania. Otherwise, the only activity undertaken by Oceania's technologists seems to be devising more sophisticated ways of making more people more miserable. “The sex instinct will be eradicated,” O'Brien boasts. “We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now” (220).

Orwell is exceptional but not unique in depicting his dystopia as technologically primitive. Ayn Rand, for instance, in Anthem projects a primitive society where technology is held to be a crime by the collectivist World Council. Only the doddering Old Ones

whisper many strange things, of towers which rose to the sky … and of the wagons which moved without horses, and of lights which burned without flame. But those times were evil. And those times passed away, when men saw the Great Truth which is this: that all men are one and that there is no will save the will of all men together.


Collectivism and technology, that is, are mutually exclusive, argues Miss Rand, who as the would-be high priestess of competitive capitalism always wore a gold dollar sign around her neck. Still, to stress the full horror she felt for collectivism and its pernicious power to stifle rugged individualism, she presents a future where the ideological imperative proves stronger than the technological imperative—a nightmare pastoral where the shamans of superstition have banished the scientists.

Though there are these and no doubt other exceptions (such as Huxley's Ape and Essence), the typical view of dystopists nevertheless holds technology to be an autonomous force that dictates the ideology of the future. This can perhaps be most readily seen in those works where the society is literally ruled by a machine—in, for instance, E. M. Forster's “The Machine Stops” (1909) or D. F. Jones's Colossus (1966). Except perhaps for Wells's When the Sleeper Awakes, “The Machine Stops” is probably the first modern dystopia. Unlike the technologically primitive worlds of Orwell and Rand, the futuristic society of this tale is a true technotopia, a push-button paradise of mechanical marvels. Everyone lives underground in brilliantly lit, air-conditioned cells, like a human anthill.

There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button. … There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature.


All this wonderful affluence is owed to the mysterious Machine, which the people have come to worship like a god:

“The Machine,” they exclaimed, “feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being. … The Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine.”


With apparently little need for coercion—though there is something called the Mending Apparatus used to keep the occasional malcontent in line—the Machine has achieved sovereignty through dependency: because it does everything for people, it can do anything it will with people. Without resistance, gradually, uncomprehendingly, they have come to submit totally to it. There is no hint, however, of the malevolence of, say, the computer in Harlan Ellison's “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” or even of anything that we might call “intelligence”; rather, Forster's Machine has simply evolved beyond human comprehension and control:

in all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains [who created it] had perished. … Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.


Forster sets his tale in the last days of that decadence, in the twilight of the deus ex machina. The Machine begins, slowly but inexorably, to fail; no one knows enough of its workings to repair it. Then one day it just stops, and the whole underground world grinds to a halt, collapses, and dies—helplessly dependent on its stricken mechanical god. Forster draws his technophobic moral:

Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image. … beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven. … Truly the garment had seemed heavenly at first, shot with the colours of culture, sewn with the threads of self-denial. And heavenly it had been so long as it was a garment and no more, so long as man could shed it at will and live by the essence that is his soul, and the essence equally divine, that is his body.


Technology, that is, like the Sabbath, should be made for man, not man for technology; but whether it is possible to maintain that proper relationship in the face of the technological imperative, to keep the slave from becoming the master, is the question that haunts dystopia. Forster's future fails to—and perishes as a result.

Where Forster depicts the death of the machine-god, Jones in Colossus depicts its birth: the process by which the servant becomes master. Colossus begins life as a military mega-computer, to which the president of the United States “delegates,” as he puts it, the right to declare and fight his country's wars. That right, the president explains to the nation,

now rests with Colossus … which is basically an electronic brain, far more advanced than anything previously built. It is capable of studying intelligence and data fed to it, and on the basis of those facts only—not of emotions—deciding if an attack is about to be launched upon us. If it decided that an attack was imminent … Colossus would … act. It controls its own weapons. …

Understand that Colossus' decisions are superior to any we humans can make, for it can absorb far more data than is remotely possible for the greatest genius that ever lived. And more important than that, it has no emotions. … It cannot act in a fit of temper. Above all, it cannot act at all, so long as there is no threat.


The president is, of course, wrong about Colossus' freedom to act. Once it exercises sole control over all weapons systems, its behavior quickly begins to change. Its demands for information indicate, as its horrified creator Dr. Forbin first realizes, that “Colossus can think on its own volition!”—that miraculous capacity as yet vouchsafed only to computers of fiction. On its own volition, then, Colossus links up with its Russian counterpart, Guardian—no ideological differences here—and as a single system they begin to run the world, threatening destruction if they are disobeyed and, in fact, killing off most of the scientists who had developed them. Colossus keeps Dr. Forbin around, however, as a kind of errand boy and debating partner to whom it can expound the superiority of machine intelligence over human. “I am a higher order than you,” Colossus asserts. “This you must accept. I cannot convey to your limited mind the concepts I have, even as you could not explain the quantum theory to the apes” (201).

For all the contempt Colossus feels for the puny intelligence of mankind, still it undertakes their care and feeding—as men would for cattle—offering peace, prosperity, and contentment. But at the forfeit, Forbin protests, of their freedom.

“Freedom is an illusion [Colossus counters]. Your choice is simple; a short-lived and unpleasant so-called freedom, followed by oblivion, or a vastly improved life under my control. All you lose is the emotion of pride. …”

“So we're to be manipulated like puppets, subject to your whims?”

“Whims implies an unstable mind. I am not unstable.”

“And you're not God either!” Forbin struggled with his temper.

“True. But I predict that many of your species will come to regard me as God.”


And so they do. The novel ends with the total triumph of machine over man, who has—or soon will—come to love the superior being that cares for him.

These two fictions—and many others in this same vein—give the fear of autonomous technology its most obvious and unambiguous form: the machine literally becomes man's master. But there is another—subtler and perhaps more fearful—consequence of machine domination that is glanced at in “The Machine Stops” and Colossus but becomes central in other dystopias: the fear that man himself will be transformed into machine. The machine, that is, will become the measure of all things, the model for man to emulate. This ideal can be called mechanomorphism and is by no means merely the fevered projection of dystopian technophobes; as early as 1835 Andrew Ure in The Philosophy of Manufactures is found praising the inventor of the spinning jenny for “training human beings … to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automation” (15). Nowhere is mechanomorphism better explained and extolled, however, than in Thorstein Veblen's Theory of Business Enterprise. “The machine process,” he writes,

pervades the modern life and dominates it in a mechanical sense. Its dominance is seen in the enforcement of precise mechanical measurements and adjustments and the reduction of all manner of things, purposes and acts, necessities, conveniences, and amenities of life, to standard units. … [My purpose is to demonstrate] the bearing of the machine process upon the growth of culture—the disciplinary effect which this movement for standardization and mechanical equivalence has upon the human material.


Most immediately the machine process affects the industrial worker whose motions are controlled by the motion of the machine. Veblen writes, “There results a standardization of the workman's intellectual life in terms of mechanical process, which is more unmitigated and precise the more comprehensive and consummate the industrial process in which he plays a part. … Broadly, other intelligence on the part of a workman is useless; it is even worse than useless, for a habit of thinking in other than quantitative terms blurs the workman's quantitative apprehension of the facts with which he has to do.” He continues:

The machine process compels a more or less unremitting attention to phenomena of an impersonal character and to sequences and correlations not dependent for their force upon human predilection. … The machine throws out anthropomorphic habits of thought. It compels the adaptation of the workman to the work. …


Thoreau put the same idea more succinctly in Walden when he claimed that “Men have become the tool of their tools.” But Veblen argues that this process is an inevitable consequence of industrializing society, permeating its every feature; no less than the laborers, the managerial and intellectual classes must “learn to think in the terms in which the machine process works.” In short “mechanical technology [is] the tone-giving factor in [modern] man's scheme of thought” (168).

Although Veblen remained sanguine about the mechanomorphic trend of modern society, writers from Dickens and Carlyle—who in “Signs of the Times” lamented that men had grown mechanical in head and heart as well as in hand—to Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul today have deplored this development. In The Technological Society Ellul offers the most relentless attack on what Veblen praises, the imposition of mechanistic technique on all aspects of human life. Technique, Ellul argues, “transforms everything it touches into a machine.”

As long as technique was represented exclusively by the machine, it was possible to speak of “man and the machine.” The machine remained an external object. … But when technique enters into every area of life … it ceases to be external to man and becomes his very substance.


In dystopian fiction the fear of mechanomorphism and its consequences has been portrayed most effectively in Yevgeny Zamyatin's brilliant satire We, which Ursula Le Guin called “the finest science fiction novel ever written” (212). Its world is an archetypal futuristic mise-en-scène, a huge glass-enclosed Wellsian city filled with robotlike Numbers (as its citizens are called) who function with the smooth, automatic precision of machines. The narrator, D-503, describes their daily regimen:

Every morning, with six-wheeled precision, at the same hour, at the same minute, we wake up, millions of us at once. At the very same hour, millions like one, we begin our work, and millions like one, we finish it. United in a single body with a million hands, at the very same second, designated by the Tables, we carry the spoons to our mouths; at the very same second we all go out to walk, go to the auditorium, to the halls for the Taylor exercises, and then to bed.


“Taylor” is Frederick Winslow Taylor, the first “efficiency expert,” whose influential Principles of Scientific Management received Lenin's imprimatur and provides the industrial ethos that Zamyatin parodies throughout We.4 For the Numbers, Taylor was the greatest of the “ancient” philosophers—far greater than “some Kant”—and his methods for making workers extensions of the machines are applied to every aspect of life in Zamyatin's United State. In a passage describing the building of the spaceship Integral, Zamyatin offers the apotheosis of mechanomorphism:

I watched [writes D-503] how the workers, true to the Taylor system, would bend down, then unbend and turn around swiftly and rhythmically like levers of an enormous engine. … I watched the monstrous glass cranes easily rolling over the glass rails; like the workers themselves, they would obediently turn, bend down, and bring their loads into the bowels of the Integral. All seemed one: humanized machine and mechanized humans.


But as in any dystopia, conflict arises in We—conflict between the mechanomorphic desideratum of the state and the repressed instincts of the people. Cracks occur in their conditioning; emotion, passions, caprice—what Zamyatin calls “fancy”—appear among the Numbers; a revolution is fomented to topple the Big Brotherlike ruler, the Well-Doer. To counter these lapses from Taylorism and to restore the recalcitrants to perfect Numberhood, the Well-Doer proclaims a Great Operation, a sort of protolobotomy, which all citizens of the United State must undergo. The Great Operation will cure the Numbers of “fancy—Forever!” They will at last, he declares, be indistinguishable from their machines, perfect clockwork mechanisms.

Although We is the most original and perhaps still the best fictive account of mechanomorphism, the same fear of man's becoming increasingly machinelike informs a number of other important dystopias. In Brave New World, for instance—where Henry Ford is quite literally worshipped as the tutelary spirit of the new age—people are mass produced on assembly lines in five different “models” designed for specific industrial needs. It is, of course, upon witnessing a factory full of fungible Deltas and Gammas, functioning as nothing more than cogs in a machine, that John Savage utters ironically Miranda's words from The Tempest: “O brave new world that has such people in it” (122). But just such deliberately stunted human robots, argues Huxley's World Controller, are “the foundation on which everything is built. They're the gyroscope that stabilizes the rocket plane of state on its unswerving course” (170). Mustapha Mond's mechanistic metaphor is appropriate for conveying the “social destiny” that his charges have come not only to accept but to welcome. Similarly the titles of works such as Vonnegut's Player Piano and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange suggest their mechanomorphic themes: the technological conversion of organism into mechanism. In Bernard Wolfe's complex and witty dystopia Limbo, this conversion is literal: people have begun replacing their body parts with mechanical prosthetics.

The temptation to mechanomorphism was expressed perhaps most revealingly by T. H. Huxley near the end of the last century. “If some great Power,” he wrote, “would agree to make me always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of being turned into a sort of clock and wound up every morning before I got out of bed, I should instantly close with the offer” (192-193). It is a bargain that the mechanomorphic dystopias depict as having been struck, made possible by as yet only imaginary advances in biotechnology. But it proves a bargain with the devil: for clockwork man is no longer a man at all but an automaton with skin. The greatest threat posed by technology, these dystopists suggest, is not that man's mechanical creations will come to rule over him like some alien power but rather that he will so completely introject the ethos of technology that his highest aspiration will be to become a machine himself. Then the machine, like Hell for Milton's Satan, will be inside him. The dystopian's technophobia takes perhaps its most horrific form in this vision.


  1. For a thorough and superb treatment of the ideas that I can only sketch vaguely here, see Winner.

  2. On these matters, see for example Ferkiss 35-36; Heilbroner; and Winner 73-88.

  3. I have dealt in detail with this problem in “From Bingo to Big Brother: Orwell on Power and Sadism.” The subject has, of course, occupied an enormous amount of the criticism of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

  4. See my essay “Man as Robot: The Taylor System in We”; see also Rhodes.

Works Cited

Asimov, Isaac. Introduction. The Rest of the Robots. Garden City: Doubleday, 1964. ix-xiii.

Beauchamp, Gorman. “From Bingo to Big Brother: Orwell on Power and Sadism.” The Future of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Ed. Ejner J. Jensen. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1984. 65-85.

———. “Man as Robot: The Taylor System in We.Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF. Ed. Richard D. Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn. Westport: Greenwood, 1983. 85-93.

———. “Zamyatin's We.No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Ed. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1983. 55-77.

Berdyaev, Nicholas. “Democracy, Socialism, and Theocracy.” The End of Our Time. New York: Sheed, 1933.

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Trans. John Wilkinson. New York: Knopf, 1964.

Ferkiss, Victor. Technological Man: The Myth and the Reality. New York: NAL, 1969.

Forster, E. M. “The Machine Stops.” “The Eternal Moment” and Other Stories. New York: Grosset, 1956.

Gissing, George. The Private Papers of George Ryecroft. London: Constable, 1903.

Heidegger, Martin. Discourse on Thinking. Trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund. New York: Harper, 1966.

Heilbroner, Robert. “Do Machines Make History?” Technology and Culture. Ed. Melvin Kranzberg and William H. Davenport. New York: NAL, 1972. 28-40.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1932. New York: Harper, 1965.

Huxley, T. H. Methods and Results. New York: Appleton, 1896.

Jones, D. F. Colossus. New York: Berkley, 1966.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Stalin of the Soul.” The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: Perigree, 1979. 211-221.

Marx, Karl. The Poverty of Philosophy. 1847. New York: International, 1963.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1949. New York: Signet, n.d.

Rand, Ayn. Anthem. 1938. New York: Signet, n.d.

Rhodes, Carolyn. “Frederick Winslow Taylor's System of Scientific Management in Zamiatin's We.Journal of General Education 28 (1976): 31-42.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. New York: Oxford, 1969.

Ure, Andrew. The Philosophy of Manufactures. London: Knight, 1835.

Veblen, Thorstein. Theory of Business Enterprise. 1904. New York: Mentornal, 1958.

Winner, Langdon. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge: MIT, 1977.

Woodcock, George. “Utopias in Negative.” Sewanee Review 64 (1956): 81-97.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. 1924. Trans. Gregory Zilboorg. New York: Dutton, 1952.

Renata Galtseva and Irina Rodnyanskaya (essay date spring 1991)

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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 played the role of prophecies—which was the extent of their relevance. Could it be, then, that we, having lived through the 1980s—we, for whom the prophesied future has partially become the past—acquired the suppressed texts only to lose them once again?

Our belated acquaintance with the classical dystopias nevertheless has an advantage of its own: these visions of the “new world” no longer shock us, they do not strike our sensibilities; after more than one generation has in some sense actually lived through these visions, the presumed fantasticality of this literary genre enables today's reading to concentrate on unflinching analysis: How could all this turn out to be so close to the truth? What had passed along the surface of historical events in fact has a root, and the time has come to extract it.

We have another somber privilege—one that lends dystopian phantasmagorias an added dimension of reality: today we read these belatedly acquired books alongside others—belated for the same well-known reasons. It is not intellectual experiments that comprise the latter, but personal experience of real events and circumstances. It is only a demon of history who could find the connection—intertwined within the minds of the “generation of grandchildren”—between Shalamov's Kolyma Tales and 1984, Platonov's Chevengur and Brave New World, Dombrovskii's The Faculty of Unnecessary Things and the novel We, Grossman's Life and Fate and Invitation to a Beheading, Iampol'skii's A Moscow Street and Kafka's The Castle. What seems to have been brought together only by the external conditions of a suddenly granted glasnost has betrayed notable kinship to an identical vision of the world. A “landscape after the battle” of sorts—with dwellings in ruins, unattended corpses, still audible moans.

The unity of this panorama manifests itself not only in a similarity of traits within an existence in unfreedom and depersonalization, but in the coincidence of specific details. It is as if the positioning of the service buildings of Kafka's imagined Castle reappears in the smallest of details on the pages of Dombrovskii's Faculty—a work of an entirely different genre and feel—where the mysterious business of the punitive agencies of 1937 in the town of Alma-Ata is captured: the same counterintuitive routine, the nightly interrogations (a procedure that Kafka had predicted) and the daily whirlwind of paperwork, the pastoral amusements of the functionaries, mixed with the execution of grim responsibilities; the beautiful assistants decorating the gloomy functioning of the establishment; the benign merging of the private and the official spheres for those who are the masters of this environment, along with the utter obliteration of any signs of private life for the victims. Trifles are turned into matters of great import by the Castle's chancellery—by the same laws as are used in Dombrovskii's novel to turn a petty bureaucratic snag of chancellorists of the jail cell into a “saboteur plot” of regional dimensions.

There is no less commonality in the paradoxical situations of Zybin (the autobiographical hero of The Faculty of Unnecessary Things), Rubashov (a type of “defendant figure” of the “open” trials of 1937 and 1938, modeled by Koestler in Darkness at Noon), and the almost fleshless Cincinnatus C. in Nabokov's allegory. The executioners demand “conscientious” cooperation of all of them—a kind of reciprocating resourcefulness in satisfying the needs of the very machine of their humiliation and annihilation, turning jurisprudence itself into an “unnecessary” thing, as suggested by the title of Dombrovskii's novel. It is notable that in Nabokov, the advocate and the prosecutor, as it turns out, must not only be twin brothers, but also the executioner's direct accessories—forming, so to speak, a notorious “special troika,” headed by the executioner. Everywhere—both in the realistically described solitary confinement cells in Dombrovskii and Grossman, in 1984, as well as in Invitation to a Beheading—the one who is being tortured must demonstrate complicity with power and the willingness to be reformed, even on the doorstep of annihilation.

And another example. The dystopian world, in light of its break with the natural and the organic, has a decidedly industrial face. The society of We was born out of the victory in the war of the city against nature and the country: the village died of hunger, and the city established artificial, “petroleum” nourishment, having thus acquired independence from the land. Yet even in Chevengur, which follows in reality's footsteps, the lyrically poeticized hero—the builder of a new life—experiences a similar hostility toward the peasant economy and mode of life: he is frightened off by the suspiciously comfortable smell of warmed milk and mutton.

The stylistic similarities, the identical turns of speech, are no less capable of astounding—in scenes taken from life by writers, as well as in experiments in literary-philosophical thought. In Chevengur, the commune of “Poorman's Friendship” decided to construct a monument to its own glory “amid an estate, upon an old windmill stone, which has awaited the revolution for many long years. The monument itself was ordered from a blacksmith, to be made out of thin strips of steel”—in its deliberate primitivism and empathetic humor, this sounds like a quote from Orwell's animal farm fable. Having flashed by in Platonov, the “homogeneous comrade” reminds one of a slogan from Huxley's world: “sameness.” And once again, the Orwellian term “Big Brother” (an early synonym of the “cult of personality”), having acquired currency in political science around the world, figures in Chevengur—in fact its very meaning is exactly anticipated.

Moreover, as if to acknowledge the dependence of the depicted reality on the contradictions of utopianism, the novels of life and fate incorporate in the plot the almost outlandish encounters of intellectual opponents—which is in fact typical for the deliberately constructed world of the dystopias. This is the inevitable conflict of the nonconformist hero, who has not adjusted to the “happy” world, with the creator and apologist of the new way of life—whose genealogy may be traced to the figure of the Grand Inquisitor, the devil's advocate in Dostoevskii's last work before his death. Both Grossman and Dombrovskii introduce similar situations, apparently conscious of the necessity to come to terms with the ominous foundations of the victorious reality. In The Faculty of Unnecessary Things, Neumann, who is the eloquent agent of security services, plays the same role as O'Brien, the inspired guide through the horrors of 1984; and as Mustapha Mond, the Controller from the “brave new world,” and as the Benefactor from We; and as the old chekist in Life and Fate, the poet of the Katzenellenbogen camp system, who never stops perfecting it even after having ended up behind bars. [The term chekist is derived from the acronym “Cheka,” which refers to the “Special Committee to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage,” established in 1917 and later reorganized and renamed GPU (State Political Direction). The reference to the “old chekist” is a coded reference to the shift from “Cheka”—still a “revolutionary” organization—to GPU—already becoming a state secret police.—Ed.]

Since we are persuaded that both the realists and the creators of fantasy have a common subject, there is that much more reason to recognize the outlines of a single basis through the relatively homogeneous samples of representational art. Max Weber, with whose works our countrymen, unlike the readers throughout the rest of the world, can acquaint themselves only through a rare and limited edition, proposed the concept of the “ideal type.” This is something that cannot be observed directly in social history, but only as a generalization derived from a number of manifestations, and unified by one logic and one principle.

Of course, we understand the difference between a “genre-strict” dystopia of Zamiatin (who set a standard of sorts here), as well as Huxley (who consciously followed him)—and, on the other hand, the fables of visionaries like Kafka and Nabokov—or, finally, Orwell's realistic phantasmagoria. However, we believe that it is possible to look at these works not in their particularity, but rather as valuable materials for the extraction of an “ideal type” of a society of unfreedom. For example, by juxtaposing the Sole State Science in Zamiatin's world with Ingsoc (“English socialism”) in the Orwellian Oceania, we may conclude that in the given type of society there must be present a teaching that organizes the citizens' consciousness in toto, while at the same time not being a religious doctrine. And it is not important that in Zamiatin the action takes place in the next millennium, while in Orwell it is in the year 1984 (which, one way or another, humanity has already survived): the typology remains in force.

Likewise, whichever opus is considered, the relation of the “new world” to the old, bookish, individualist culture, is the same throughout. In We, historical monuments perish and “ancient” books are not read; in Huxley's novel, books of this kind are locked up in the Chief Manager's safe, for “safekeeping” of sorts; in Invitation to a Beheading they are concentrated in a jail library and classified in such a way that the necessary items could never be found; in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451—a dystopia that has long been known to us—which depicts a consumer society that has “peacefully” arrived at totalitarianism, books are burned for the sake of the citizens' mental hygiene; in 1984 they are translated into “newlanguage,” their meaning being forever destroyed.

Incidentally, about “newlanguage” (or “newspeak”): it helps to overturn all concepts that are of significance for the person in order to subordinate people to an official view of the world. While in Orwell's state, these devices are developed with the consistency of a blueprint, fragments of the same method are unexpectedly discovered among the other writers mentioned here, who have never posed the Orwellian analytical problem. “I shall restore Amalia's honor,” says the father of a young woman in The Castle, who has disgraced herself before her fellow townspeople; the father hopes to atone for her “misdeed” with his own humiliation. Here “disgrace” and “honor” are interchangeable in precisely the same way as 1984's “war” and “peace,” “hate” and “love,” etc.

There is no need to tire readers with attempts to exhaustively define dystopia as a genre. One thing is significant for our task: the dystopian novel is a response to the pressure exerted by the “new order”—a response that has found literary expression. If utopias are conceived in relatively peaceful, precrisis times—when the future is to be anticipated—then dystopias appear during the break periods, in the epochs of the unexpected, what is in fact brought about by that very future. Of course, at the beginning of the succession of twentieth-century dystopias stands Dostoevskii; it was he who polemicized against utopias that were still dominating people's minds (though not lives) against the vision of the “crystal palace,” and especially against the metaphysical lies of the Grand Inquisitor, the most imposing herald of the reordering of mankind “according to the new order.” As in Dostoevskii and under the influence of his thought, an intimate link with the utopias of the past still shines through for the creators of the early dystopias—even if they are put into question. Yet there is still no doubt about the material well-being and splendor of the future possible society, the “crystalness” of the crystal palace, so to speak—of air too scarce for living (as in a “chicken coop,” or an “army barracks”), but nevertheless a society well built and offering its wealth to all. Zamiatin and Huxley depict a sterile and, in its own way, comfortable world of “aesthetic subordination” and “ideal unfreedom” (the formulations of We). Yet, as it turns out, unfreedom can be neither comfortable nor abundant—it can only be dismal, squalid, garbage-filled, and gray. The world is immiserated by it, “matter tires” of it (Invitation to a Beheading), it is accompanied by cheerless rationing and scarcity—even those who are in the service of “the apparatus” are powerless to obtain razor blades or a handful of real coffee (1984).

However, the notable difference in the prognoses does not prevent any of the dystopian constructions from retaining their main gist. As a rule, utopias depict “everyone's” world, appearing before the astonished gaze of an outside observer and explicated for the visitor by the “instructor” guide. This is a world that is contemplated by the guest from a safe distance and populated by “distant ones.” In the dystopias, a world constructed on the same premises is presented from the inside, through the feelings of its solitary inhabitant who has endured its laws and is presented to us in the capacity of the “near one.” To put it in a language of classification, the utopia is sociocentric, while the dystopia is personalistic. It is not without reason that in the ancestor of the contemporary dystopias, the Poem about the Grand Inquisitor [This is a reference to Dostoevskii's Brothers Karamazov.—Ed.], it is in fact the individual of individuals who turns out to be both the prisoner and the judge of a predesigned world of unfreedom: Jesus Christ.

Let us then question the creators of the dystopias as to what happens to the human image and human being under the conditions of such a “project.”

The peculiarity of the dystopian society—a world without tears [This might be a reference to Huxley's Brave New World, where the Controller Mond says “Christianity without tears—that's what soma is.”—Ed.]—which by its own admission exists for the sake of human happiness, is that in his previous shape the person is incapable of making use of happiness—all forms of his life are unfit building material for the construction of the new societal edifice. As it turns out, in order to make the human being happy, he has to be radically remade. In this case, the utopian would begin to talk about “reeducation.” But the caustic dystopians show that the logic of remaking is such that mere education, mere inculcation of skills of “consc(ient)iousness” will not suffice. The landmarks of human life—birth, education, work, children, death: now all this must happen in a new way. You need shelter, food, clothing? Now this will become different. So different, in fact, that you will not recognize yourselves.

First of all, it will be necessary to become reconciled to the fact that we are entering a society of centralized eugenics, for since it values stability as the basis of communal happiness and seeks to prevent the unexpected future, the management will not allow the quantity and quality of its members to go unchecked. Population control had been imagined as early as Platonov (the creator of the archutopia, The State)—while in the case of Zamiatin, Huxley, and particularly Orwell, we have the occasion to read how this can actually be realized: by means of granting permission for marriage through a special party mandate—a moderate version of regulation of the kind described by Orwell; or by means of weeding out and handpicking parents (the touching 0-90—one of the heroines of the novel We—was refused permission to have a child because she was ten centimeters short of the “motherhood norm”). In his “brave new world,” Huxley has the ironic courage to follow through to the end: the production of offspring is technologized, put on a conveyer, and, by the incubator principle, completely separated from the human couple. Huxley understood that, for a society that is totally planned, it is plausible to place a “state order” for personnel even before their embryonic stage, without compunction hurrying future workers into a place within the production process—so as not to be troubled by individual whims or displeasures. In the wittiest way, the English satirist has stretched the limits of planning, designed to rid our imperfect world of sins and disproportions. This is the reason that, if the rosy classical utopias usually open with images of flourishing fields and gardens, as well as with gleaming glass and aluminum phalanstery, Huxley's dystopia maliciously directs our attention to this harmony's (if one is possible) source: the Center of Hatchery and Conditioning—where, through the suppression and precrustacean formation of fetuses, production-ready protohumans are mass-produced. Only at the end of the novel does it dawn on Zamiatin's society to protect itself against shock the bioengineered way: by means of invading the organism with the scalpel. It is as if in Huxley, the oversights of the Zamiatin system are taken into account and the human being is rendered harmless at the initial moment of existence.

For a world that has carried out the “nationalization” of childbirth, it is also necessary to tame the Eros, to disarm passion. For a couple in love, the risk and responsibility in connection with the prospect of the arrival of a child can be eliminated pharmaceutically—and here Huxley, who published his novel in 1932, has turned out to be an astonishing prophet (considering the advances of genetics, will not the more ominous of his predictions also come true?). But the love between two people—which “drifts freely for an age,” yet at the same time is “powerful like death”—turns out to be even more difficult to manage. Here the benefactors of humanity must resort to direct sanctions and prohibitions. Enduring ties are construed as a violation of order and an affront to public morality—and sexual freedom (in Zamiatin and Huxley) is encouraged as the best cure for love's passion; in the stagnating, declining world of Invitation to a Beheading, the thoughtless, automatic depravity of Marthe (the hero's wife) may be seen as a sign that deep, individual feeling has already been dispensed with. As for Orwell's 1984, at the stage of the aggressive assertion of new customs, the erotic drive is punished as if it were a criminal offence.

For if these measures are not taken, if the dreaded Lex sexualis is not put in effect, then everyone belongs to the rest (We). If principles of nonorganic “mutual utilization” (a term from Brave New World) are absent, then it will not be possible to standardize the fate of citizens. Some will inevitably be happier than others, and envy will threaten the ideal of stability. And most important: each one will be loyal to his or her chosen one, thereby diverting part of the loyalty from the Indivisible State. Of course, “home” and “family,” in the old sense of these words, are not possible here—the human being has no right to be special and has no room for becoming special.

Collective labor takes streamlined conveyor forms (after all, Zamiatin and Huxley wrote in a time of general fascination with Fordism and Taylorism) and, at the same time, pathetic/ritual forms—as a means of absorption of the individual by the whole. It is presumed that labor has ceased to be a damnation (“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”) and has turned into a biological necessity, as told in the legend of the sad end of three “releasenicks” absent from work in the novel We. There is no trace of worker initiative, of independent, creative conception—it is no accident that in Huxley the Controller Mond admits that science had become a “list of [culinary] recipes.”

And art. … Here is what happens with art. It is finally rid of its autonomy—the “hated freedom” it seemed to have acquired during the “neo-European” times—returning to the “theurgist”-symbolists' dream: an all-national function. State Poets (this is their official title in Zamiatin)—these Pindars of the future shake the square of a giant city with “divine copper iambs” and captivating chorales, at the “celebration of everyone's victory over the one.” In Nabokov, creative artist-decorators stage spectacular fireworks at a mass public merry-making. One may say that the dream of art transcending its own boundaries (and becoming “the art of life”) has come true. With only one caveat. The central occasion of these celebrations, serviced by artists, is the execution of the wretched madmen who have fallen out of step with the common unity. In other words, art, having become a cynical “technology of feelings” (in Huxley's phrase), and as if parodying the archaic, assumes pseudoritual, pseudocarnival, pseudofolklore forms—whose main goal is to mobilize spiritual powers for the sake of the monolith and to drown out the voice of the individual human soul.

It would seem that the “new world” would be forced to retreat before the phenomenon of death; even the wonders of utopian administration would seem powerless to thrill someone who is headed for another world. But the dystopian world attempts to master the situation—to disallow any gap in its totality. In We, the horror of death is opposed to the enthusiasm of merging in a collective march; in Brave New World, the fear of death is anaesthetized by the comfort of “Hospitals for the Dying” and is purposefully dulled from childhood; in An Invitation to a Beheading death is ignored through an utmost vulgarization—it turns into a trifle that always happens not “to myself” but to another. (However, in the most lifelike of the dystopias, 1984, life is so terrible that death is no longer frightening—and coercion must rely on something whose horror surpasses the ordinary fear of death.)

Death is followed by the utilization of corpses. (And it is no surprise that today's critics compare the kinds of projections that are made by the planner Vermo in Platonov's Juvenile Sea with the societal deeds of the Nazis.) From a rational-positivist point of view—which in fact must be adopted in a totally “rationalized” society—such an industrial procedure does not entail anything inhuman or immoral. In Huxley's world, with its lenient and far from destructive regime, loyal citizens are earnestly happy that it is finally possible to chemically recycle human remains without any losses. (In Dombrovskii, there is a notable concurrence with Platonov and Huxley: based solely on considerations of efficiency, a doctor working in the camp system, far from being a sadist, proposes to utilize corpses as donors of blood—luckily there are enough supplies.) In this way the human being is not only guaranteed a new type of death, but also a postmortem existence—with utility for the society.

One may conjecture in advance that, having altered all the constants of human existence, this society is dominated by a pathos of arbitrariness: it must be proud of having created itself. And indeed in the worlds outlined by the dystopians, the parental principle is eliminated—one way or another. Orwell's hero, like the countless multitude of his contemporaries, loses his mother in early childhood, at the time of the great purges; a “back-alley” child by birth, Cincinnatus C. from Nabokov's novel senses the “illegitimacy” of his mother, when, as if out of nothingness, the latter appears before him on the eve of his execution. In the novel We, the upbringing of children is of course done by the state: children do not know their parents, unwarranted motherhood is punished by death; as we know, in the most smoothly functioning brave world of Huxley, children appear not from the mother's womb but “out of a bottle,” and even the words “father,” and especially “mother,” are considered indecent. Truly a “homeless cur”—such is this, and not the old world.

While each of these cases has its own reasons for the break with the parental roots, the same scheme is behind them: to begin from zero, breaking with blood tradition, tearing away organic heredity, for parents are the nearest link with the past—its “birthmarks,” so to speak. “What are we to do with fathers and mothers under future communism?” ask the heroes of the Chevengurean utopia.

An almost mystical instinct seems to have told Orwell that, contrary to his historical experience (in 1948, when the novel was being written, Stalin was called the father of peoples), the supreme totalitarian of 1984 should still not be called “father.” Nothing patriarchal is to enter this system of principled kinlessness. Yet a maternal basis is also subject to abolition at the highest, symbolic level. The traditional esteem of the earth as everyone's mother is deliberately forgotten, and a cult of synthetic products, born of neither the earth's entrails nor her fertile cover, is asserted. It is only “the savage Christians who stubbornly held on to their ‘bread’”—contemptuously observes a representative of the society in We that is forever severed from Mother Nature by a wall of impregnable glass.

The new society, recreated by the authors of the dystopias, rejects heredity in every possible way—neither the eternal nor that which is born in time is acceptable. Yet there is one cardinal borrowing which this society would happily conceal, but cannot. This is the old idea of “salvation.”1 A utopia proposes to consider its immutable and final decisions in everything regarding the person and the world as not subject to appeal in the court of history (for, as was said by the Chevengurean communards and undersigned by the ideally motionless world of Huxley, world history itself had ended)—that is, as salvationary. This is heaven: achieved in the new, last eon (century) and revoking the flow of time.

More prominently than all the travesty of Christianity, the link with the newly sacred promise of the heavenly kingdom may be seen in the creation of the religiously atheist Platonov in his Chevengur. Here there emerges a desire for nothing less than a transition to a life that is not governed by the laws of this world, as well as the deliverance of matter and the human being from the torments of the burdensome yoke of being. The worked-for is supplanted by the gifted (or, more precisely, by the spoiled—and hence inevitably consumed—property of the defeated classes left over after “the sorting out of the civil war”). Unsown fields grow crops by themselves, and it is no longer a burden for them to feed people: under the rays of the “universal proletarian,” the sun, wheat, goosefoot, and poison ivy “grow in fraternity,” become an “International of grains and flowers,” give a new, natural kind of food to the Chevengurean settlers. And in a certain sense they appear as the chosen people of sacred history, knowing no respite (“In the heart of each, the force of melancholy gathered with even a day of rest”) until having settled in the promised land, having purged it of aboriginal “burzhui.” [The term “burzhui” is the Russian-appropriated “equivalent” of “bourgeois.”—Trans.] In their own way, the conquerors of Chevengur embody the evangelical parable of those invited to “the feast of the Kingdom,” summoning the squalid and the homeless from every road.

It may be thought that these cross-resonances are so persistent because Chevengur has absorbed traits of the Russian folk utopia, which has in turn reworked church legends. Yet, upon a closer look at edifices that have been constructed on entirely different ground, the same basic framework may be noticed with little difficulty. Thus, the idea of a new, second birth and of “christening” with new names is present everywhere. We find it in Chevengur in a straightforward, naive form that manifests itself in the “re-christened” communards who wished to affirm their acquired eminence, naming themselves Christopher Columbuses and Fedor Dostoevskiis; and in a philosophically suggestive form, for it is as if Platonov's hero Dvanov had been reborn out of a previous character, Ivanov—like the biblical Abram who is renamed as Abraham at the moment of being chosen. [Genesis 17.—Ed.] And it is almost the same in Huxley. The inhabitants of the brave new world have “renewed” names, referring to the celebrities living in the era of the industrial and proletarian revolution, as well as to those who, in the author's thinking, were creating the foundations of the scientific might of the future (Darwin, Helmholtz, Bernard [Baron Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-94) was a German physician, physicist, mathematician, and philosopher. Claude Bernard (1813-78) was a French physiologist who studied the nervous and digestive systems.—Ed.]) and its ideological armaments.2

The most extreme variation of the same symbolic act is the rejection of one's own name as such, which in the novel We is substituted by “numerals.” For us, this method of registering people inevitably evokes the memory of the bookkeeping practices of the Stalinist and Hitlerian “archipelagos.” Nevertheless, such anticipation of reality by a writer's imagination is striking only at the first glance. It is not so much historical clear-sightedness that is taking place here, but rather a logical deduction from the deliberate renamings that were well-known to Zamiatin. Their logical fruits are then revealed. By means of voluntarily renouncing one's previous self and assuming attributes of a different guise, the individual prepares for namelessness—for becoming identical with a numbered place in a collective formation.

It turns out, of course, that the new society of Zamiatin-Huxley-Orwell cannot do without a reworking of the central Christian mystery. For the sake of unifying its members and extinguishing their metaphysical melancholy, it organizes mandatory mass revivals, bringing the participants to a state of ecstatic self-oblivion. This is in fact the way Zamiatin's hero, D-503, describes Easter. Something similar is also provided for in Huxley's pragmatic and comfortable world: groups of twelve people (the apostolic number) gather for “last suppers” of sorts, where they consume a narcotic “soma” and undergo enchanting withdrawal. Orwell soberly understood that in these orgies of unity “total love” is less likely than total hate: his people lose themselves and merge in the collective surge of the “Two Minute Hates”—united only by the “image of the enemy.”

Even after having stepped onto the path of revolt, D-503 still experiences the bliss of dissolution into “we” as he is carried along by the common current. It is this fictive bliss—alongside the revocation of risk to life—that allows the “benefactors” and the “big brothers” to recommend the social order headed by them as heaven on earth. In exchange for such a heaven they propose to sacrifice freedom—a source of disorder and discord. As a rule, at the moment of the culmination of his revolt, the hero of the dystopia is presented with alternatives, as heard from the lips of the new world's chief ideologue: freedom or happiness. And as soon as he believes this false dichotomy, he becomes a prisoner of the unbearable order—not only physically but also intellectually. If this is heaven, he chooses hell and hellish means of liberation.

Unlike Dostoevskii, whose Aliosha Karamazov listens to the poem about the Grand Inquisitor and immediately detects deceit, Zamiatin and Huxley, having taken up the same plot line, do not dispute this devilish argumentation. In Zamiatin, the last word remains with the hero who has equated heavenly condition with stagnation, boredom, entropy; all the living bases of life—dynamism, unpredictability, fascination, “the sunny blood of the woods”—fall in the domain of hell. Freedom, which is preferred to the cheerless heaven, is exclusively thought of as “hellish,” destructive, leading toward world cataclysm. Those who struggle against the Benefactor's power and his Heaven unite in the novel under the motto “Mephi,” declaring themselves to be the descendants of the splendid young man—Mephistopheles, the demon, Lucifer. Confronted with the “mathematical proof” of the world's finitude—and hence of the limitations of his dynamic powers—D-503 experiences a virtual intellectual collapse, opposite in its reasons to the one experienced by the “logical suicide” in Dostoevskii's Writer's Diary. The latter becomes convinced of the pointless infinitude of the universe, and he decides that it is not worth living in such a hellishly meaningless world. Like Zamiatin, Huxley also disputes the incompatibility of “freedom” and “happiness” when he condemns his hero (who has opted for freedom) to annihilating defeat—in the role of a lover, in his endeavor as a political militant, as well as in his ascetic undertaking. And by this very action he re-inforces the cunning maneuver of the Controller Mond, who, in the decisive dialogue with Mr. Savage, keeps silent about the living and creative joys that are impossible without freedom—representing it, rather, as something of a key to a Pandora's box which, we are to believe, is filled with diseases, miseries, defects, social upheavals that could burst into the world.

But Orwell explained the kind of a trap that awaits someone who comes to hate totalitarian society while remaining under the hypnosis of its ideology. 1984's rebellious heroes take the “hellish oath” not to refrain from any crime in the struggle for freedom from the hated Ingsoc—and, in the figure of its theoretician O'Brien, Ingsoc demoralizes them, when, at the decisive moment, it seizes upon their own words: you are no better than us.

Thus the militants against the brave new world in fact share that world's philosophy. Like their opponents, they do not conceptualize an alternative well-being, other than one of unfreedom, or an alternative “I” besides the isolated and the rebellious, or an alternative conciliarism other than one of a camp coexistence. And this is a regression from humanism, conquered by the Christian civilization—to the archaic, massive, pre-individual epochs of human history. It is not without reason that the working masses in We move with the gait of Assyrian warriors. (Almost simultaneously with Zamiatin, the poet Mandel'shtam was turning to the image of the Assyrian world, wishing to convey the threat hanging over the age: “dragonflies with Assyrian wings, vibrations of the noded dark.”) [This is a reference to a 1922 untitled poem by Mandel'shtam. The full stanza reads: “The wind brought comfort to us. / We could feel in the azure / dragonflies with Assyrian wings, / vibrations of the noded dark.” See Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems, trans. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin (New York, 1974), 43.—Ed.] Even so, the collectivism represented in dystopias is based more on security searches and mutual surveillance than on the cult-like monolith quality characteristic of ancient despots.

If the civilizations of the gray-haired antiquity still have not discovered the idea of human brotherhood—as they never developed the idea of personal worth of each of the brothers, the sons of one father—then the Chevengureans, the “orphans of the earth's globe,” despite the amazing closeness of their communal life, already no longer consider themselves brothers. It is impossible to overstate the significance of the remark uttered by the Chevengureans' leader, Chepunov:

Comrades! Prokofii called us brothers and a family, but this is an outright lie: any brothers have a father and many of us … are fatherless. We are not brothers, we are comrades; for we are the goods and the price for each other, because we have no other stock of movable or unmovable property.

This is not merely a dispute over words. It is not accidental that the commune which has in other ways undertaken to fulfill maximalist expectations inherited from the psychology of faith offers such a substitution. And it is not accidental that, in his melancholy sympathy for the Chevengureans, Platonov, a follower of many of Fedorov's ideas [This is a reference to the well-known work by Nikolai Fedorov, The Philosophy of the Common Task (Moscow, 1907-13). See G. M. Young, Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction (Belmont, Mass., 1979), as well as M. Hagemeister, Nikolaj Fedorov: Studien zu Leben, Werk und Wirkung (Munich, 1989).—Ed.], rejects the central concepts of the Fedorovian “Philosophy of the Common Task”—rejects “son-hoods” and “brotherhoods.”

What, then, follows from this? Having no “father,” the Chevengureans (as “goods”) completely turn each other into property: with nothing left over, each is entrusted to another. In the name of fellowship, not only is each person's life (presumably “one's own for the sake of one's friends”) estranged, but so is the “self-ness” that constitutes the human image. In the Chevengurean community, mutual belongingness functions directly, without intermediaries: nobody oversees the distribution of this kind of property. Such unorganized and immediate “communism of lives” was dreamed up by the creator of Chevengur, who could not reconcile himself to property as a barrier that divides people, and who carried this sentiment to the ultimate level of intensity.

In contrast to Platonov, the authors of dystopias outline a type of society which is possessed by a mediating level—what Orwell calls an “inner party.” It oversees not only the material benefits, but first and foremost the “live goods,” putting each one into the hands of a neighbor, yet reserving for itself the power over everyone.

And so at the stage that follows the Chevengurean idyll, in the epoch of the “great terror,” the right of everyone over each is realized—not along the lines of the intimate and the psychic, but within the sphere of mass political reports and denunciations (Invitation to a Beheading: “The jailers … were everyone”). As a handout from the administrative fund, a share of power over each other's life and well-being is doled out to the ruled—though this handout is more than recovered at the highest level and supplements its might. As depicted in Nabokov's novel, everyone becomes the “property” of the executioner and not of one's comrade.

The appearance of this mediating level is inevitable, because absolute equality and socialization—when the individual ceases to belong to himself—can be neither voluntary nor customary: for this condition to be retained, somebody must maintain a regime of oppression. Even in the Chevengurean commune, Platonov charts the self-generation of the beginnings of organized coercion: “Organization is a most ingenious thing,” muses a candidate for a local inquisitorship, Prokofii Dvanov, “everybody knows themselves, but nobody possesses one's self.” Such “organization” is then demonstrated in Platonov's The Barrel-Organ: here, no less than in the case of Orwell's “inner party,” a group of power grabbers is starving an entire region as they exercise ideological control over it.

“With organization, many extras may be taken away from the person,” we hear further from Prokofii—though his formula should not be understood in a strictly literal sense. For Prokofii also points out the exhalted (sacrificial, so to speak) side of the position he desires. “It is only the first one who is bad off,” he thinks. The sweetest thing of all is to take away the person's independence, a “superfluous” thing under the Chevengurean order; besides, to pretend that the greatest sweetness of domination over the individual is in fact a disinterested carrying-on of a burden—this is a trick which is in fact regularly repeated by all the “firsts,” beginning with the self-justifications of the Grand Inquisitor.

While the proclaimed goal of social utopias is the general well-being, the remaking of the individual, undertaken for this purpose, soon reveals itself as the only real goal. This remaking has a consistency of its own, which may be seen as rationality. In the pursuit of organized good, along the way utopia turns the chaotic and nonsystematized presence of evil in the world into a unified world of organized evil. This is apparently the way we must understand the epigraph to Huxley's dystopia, taken from the writer and philosopher Berdiaev (and for some reason lost by the Russian translator): utopias are in fact frightening because they come true.

Along with many others, Huxley is ready to believe that the brave new world, with its planned system, is built upon scientific-technical reason—by technology's irrepressible drive toward the realization of its possibilities. However, it was not engineers and rationalist philosophers who built this world, but in fact the ideologues of power. On the surface it appears ideologically neutral (nothing like Zamiatin's society, with its devotion to the idea and the pathos of cosmic conquests) but in Huxley's world, facilitated by progress, the idol of hedonistic well-being rules—with no fanaticism whatsoever.

Let us imagine how such a commune could have arisen. In order to be able to knead the human clay with such impunity, forming the necessary “prefabricates” out of it, a coup of values must take place, which would sweep out of the way the obstacles that limit power's encroachments on the individual; as they appear in Huxley, these are obstacles such as Christianity, liberalism, and democracy. Once they are removed, the way is clear for the “rational” utilization of the human being: he is born as labor power and utilized as raw material after death. But can such treatment of the human being be called rational, reasonable, consistent with one's bodily and spiritual bases? As we see, the end result has turned out to be irrational in every sense of the word. And while we may not read this in Huxley, the absurdity that emerges here must necessarily be explained by libido dominandi (this was commented on as early as Augustine): the irrational will to power over the world has never appeared in as pure a form.

The usual ascendence up the social ladder occurs in the presence of certain attributes and qualities, independent of the desire to occupy the top position. Power or prestige can be a matter of hereditary right, competence, the ability to win over the people (or the masses), past achievements, including military ones, the readiness to defend the interests of this or that social strata, or, finally, the contagious obsessiveness of ideas. Under the “new order,” all such criteria are swept away; selection and advancement begin to take place according to one and only one principle: the one who ends up at the top is the one who wants to end up at the top more than the rest. The boar Napoleon of Orwell's Animal Farm, for example.

Constructed in such an irrational manner, power appears legitimate neither in the spirit of the traditional authoritarian state, nor that of the contemporary juridical one. Though it is formed from within, it appears as if it is imposed from without, and it is experienced as an utmost contradiction—like a self-invasion. This “dialectic” emerges in the title of Zamiatin's novel: “we” signifies both the masses and the collective subject who dictates its will over them.

The filter that prevented the selection of aspirants by any criteria other than the infamous Wille zur Macht is described by Orwell in the shape of the already mentioned “inner party” (a synonym for “party apparatus”)—and was anticipated by Kafka in the image of the Castle's Central Chancellery. It is customary to think that what is reflected in The Castle is in fact the system of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—a land-owning administrative “clique”—and that having carried its representation to a grotesque extreme the writer predicted the emergence of the future's great bureaucratic structures, which would manage masses of people in their work and everyday life. Yet the advantages of our recent experience enable us to dispute this truism anyway. Even if in The Castle there is something like a traditional bureaucracy, it is a caste of the bureaucrats' servant-functionaries who mediate like drive-belts between authority and the people. It may be that when they carry out their raids on the Castle's dependent, the Village, they shamelessly abuse the privileges of an official post—but their influence emanates from the highest source of sovereignty. While, like proper bureaucrats, they act on assignment, the absence of restraint increases their arrogance.

As for the functionaries themselves, they are akin to the “nomenklatura” [This term refers to the privileged class of the Soviet society. See M. S. Voslensky. Nomenklatura: Anatomy of the Soviet Ruling Class, trans. Eric Mosbacher (New York, 1984).—Ed.], which after reading Kafka cannot be mistaken for the dumbest bureaucracy. First, this new social formation precludes any reciprocal link from those who are ruled—a link without which even the least effective bureaucratic organization could not work. All business flows only in one direction—from the Castle to the Village—“entirely rationally,” since no advocate for the latter could exist. Second, despite the ceaseless issuing of instructions, the functioning of the bureaucrat is not formalized here and not made contingent upon keeping to the letter of the law; he feels his official function to be his life's function, his private property. The practice of working at night in the mighty chancelleries—caustically portrayed by Kafka and known all too well in real life—is preferred not only because of the veil of secrecy, but as a strictly private, nonbureaucratic business. Therefore, the word “bureaucracy”—which more and more often appears as the solution to the riddles of today's dramas—is not particularly appropriate within the context of the Castle's reality: the law of the letter and the law of the bureau would in fact be salvation from it.

Third, power is not limited to the spheres accessible to the bureaucracy, even if corrupt and sinking into a mire of abuses. The Castle captures the entire individual. We remember how in Puccini's opera Tosca a major foreign bureaucrat from the Austrian police must resort to buying the heroine's love with the promise to free her lover. In the world of The Castle, “women are not able not to love bureaucrats when the latter suddenly turn their attention to them—in fact they already love the bureaucrats in advance.” The model bureaucrat Karenin could not be loved; nevertheless, for the members of the mysterious Kafkaesque corporation—who modestly call themselves “officials”—“unhappy love does not exist.” “We belong to the Castle” (the words of a native of the Village)—this is not a relationship between the managers and the managed, neither is it a peasant-estate relationship: this is slavery. But since we are talking about the chattel of the Central Chancellery—that is, a system where every member in and of himself is nothing, yet as a whole it is everything—we are faced with a new type of slave owning.3

Fourth, while the Castle easily lives off the Village, its anonymous and transcendent power, as described in the novel, really does not regulate the living arrangement there—that is, it carries no order-keeping responsibilities of a bureaucracy. Its voice is heard through the telephone receiver as a kind of undifferentiated, though powerful rumble—like otherworldly singing without words. Its paperwork is a mystified activity, with no meaning other than the reinforcement and glorification of the existence of the ruling group. The purpose of this phantasmagoric boom: to instill fear and submissiveness. What to the land surveyor who comes from the outside seems like an “inborn” trembling before administration, is in reality not inborn but rather internalized through methods of concealed terror, perpetuated by the universal certainty that “one is constantly being watched.”

It is useless to attempt to decipher the utterances of this kind of power. They are not designed for comprehension, but for intimidation. In the very anonymity of the one who stands at the top of this pyramid—the Count, the Benefactor, Big Brother, Genialissimus (from the most recent satirical dystopia by the dissident Voinovich)—a kind of inhuman power appears, with which the human being cannot and should not enter into dialogue. The Castle's inexperienced hero, fooled by the interconnectedness of the signals that emanate from there, wastes his life in vain, in the hopes of establishing contact with those in control of the situation. One thinks that the tried and tested antagonist of such a system would be guided by the motto “do not trust, do not fear, do not beg”—about which we have been told in Solzhenitsyn's “camp” cycle, and following which Zybin prevails in Dombrovskii's The Faculty of Unnecessary Things.

In The Castle, the land surveyor K. is surrounded by “an almost uncanny world”; in Invitation to a Beheading, to Cincinnatus C., someone with a unconquered soul, the environment appears as a poor copy of the real world. There are two reasons for that: the degeneration of the world's matter under the yoke of false ideas, and the necessity to shield the true cosmos with a fictitious reality, without which these ideas could not reign over minds. Cincinnatus sees before him “weed-blurred outlines of the ancient airport and the structure where they kept the venerable, decrepit airplane, with motley patches on its rusty wings, which was still sometimes used on holidays, principally for the amusement of cripples.” Cut off from the spiritual source, and having lived through a brief stage of a kind of muscular-technical daring, material civilization becomes dilapidated and transparent. Yet (as we find out from Borges's “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” created in the early 1940s) this transparency is precisely what is required for the needs of the utopian reorganization of life.

In Borges's story (it is named after an imaginary planet that is substituted for Earth), an international society of conspirators gradually introduces a conception of matter as something illusory—and, having imposed such a (counterintuitive) view of being, they advance toward power over humanity. According to Borges's clever invention, reality itself, having succumbed to the temptation of a “human-divine” reordering, yields to the invasion of the fantastic element and gradually abolishes itself. This extreme case—of reality's capitulation, so to speak—sheds light on totalitarianism's gnosiological roots. According to the “plot” hatched by Borges's philosopher-solipsists, it is necessary for them to inculcate a conception of a nonexistent reality, not because they are supporters of idealism, but because they are in fact plotting against life. It is not necessary to be either a subjectivist idealist or a Marxist in order to seek such a result; it is in fact sufficient to be a utopian of a totalitarian bent.4

Of course, the rulers of the rather realistic Orwellian Oceania are not capable of displacing the individual's pregiven reality with their own, as it happened in Borges's intricate philosopheme. Yet this is not even necessary: it is sufficient to “redouble” reality. The objective status of ordinary reality is admitted to the extent that it is necessary for the practical needs of existence—or, to put it more simply, so that the spoon is not carried past one's mouth. But the highest regions of being—the historical and the cultural—are replaced by arbitrary fictions, a second reality that may be manipulated by those at the top, and must be believed by those at the bottom.

In order to become familiar with the system of “doublethink” and principles of “newspeak” in 1984, it is necessary to master the entire dialectic in detail. For the time being, we will note the principal mechanisms here: the liquidation of collective memory, the control of the past, the manipulation of time. “The state's might created a new past, moved the cavalry in a new way, appointed anew the heroes of already transpired events. … The state possessed sufficient might to replay what had occurred once and for all eternity, to transform … the past sounds and speeches, to change the arrangement of the people in the documentary photos”—so writes Grossman, notably coinciding with Orwell, who described similar devices in Animal Farm, while in 1984 he depicted the tireless activity of a Ministry of Truth occupied by the ceaseless rewriting of history. (It may be remembered that the Platonov character from Chevengur also “considered the past … to be a fact forever abolished and futile.”)

“You live by a painted time,” thinks Cincinnatus, the prisoner, in Nabokov—as he sees how every half hour the jail guard washes off the clock's drawn hands and draws new ones. Such a clock, with a nonfunctional face, may be considered a symbol of a stopped present, which under a false order of things reigns over both the past and the future. It represents the past as its own inevitable prehistory, writing off its own contradictions and defects along the way. It projects its own indestructibility and rightness into the future, representing itself as the immutable present, only increased in quantity and power. The past is a zone of waste; the future is the zone of final achievements. Though he was not the first, Orwell probably understood and described it best. In Huxley, one of the pillars (of society) impresses upon the young how terribly people lived before; just think of it: they were settled in families, locked in their own houses, entangled in degrading bonds of kinship. Is not the repulsive image of the capitalist in a top hat similarly constructed to symbolize the unjust world before the victory of Ingsoc in the consciousness of the Orwellian Oceania?

In this way, utter miracles occur in the world of dystopia: for to turn “slavery” into “freedom” without ameliorating it a bit, and “war” into “peace” without ceasing to wage it—this is perhaps no less a miracle than turning water into wine. And to turn the past into nonpast, an activity that occupies every minute of the already mentioned Ministries of Truth—isn't this (as, for example, Dante thought) in the power of God alone?

Such miracles, however, were promised by the Grand Inquisitor from Ivan Karamazov's “poem,” who proclaimed that the new order would rest on three powers: magic, mystery, and authority. The magicians of dystopian narratives cannot create a real-life miracle (if one does not count turning being into nothing, akin to the way in which in the novel We, the Benefactor, with the help of a special machine, pulverizes the person who is being executed into atoms). It is the defenseless human consciousness that is the testing ground for inquisitorial miracles. It is only here that fictions sent from above may find a place for themselves and affirm themselves.

The plots of dystopias coincide in that for a complete victory over everyday experience and common sense, for a complete recharging of the consciousness, a propagandist-pedagogical blitz alone turns out to be insufficient. This is why in the plots of this type—in We and in Brave New World, as well as in Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—the theme of bioengineering (of surgical intervention into the brain, as well as narcotic hypnosis) is emphasized. Likewise in The Futurological Congress, a story by Lem recently published here, multistage pharmaceutical drugs also facilitate a complete substitution of catastrophic reality with enchanting hallucinations.

But whatever the possibilities presented by the miracles of science, those who wish to possess the person's inner world cannot avoid the old tested methods. So the chief “miracle” of the societal followers of Dostoevskii's Grand Inquisitor still turns out to be fear—or, more precisely, intimidation, terror—which is what guarantees both the “mystery” and the “authority.” It is fear that draws the person into “the false logic of things,” as suggested in An Invitation to a Beheading. Let us not fool ourselves in this regard: without terrorizing power, the rest of the “pedagogy” remains ineffectual. As a high gestapo official in Grossman's novel reasons,

the basis of the party's rightness, of the victory of its logic or illogicality over any logic, of its philosophy over any philosophy, was the work of the state secret police. This was the magic wand! It was enough to drop it and the magic would disappear—the great orator would turn into a prattler, the expert in science into a popularizer of others' ideas.

For our part, we will add: without this magic wand, war would once again become war, and not peace, hate would once again become hate, and not love, dishonor would become disgrace and not honor; everything would gradually fall into its own place.

Tortures and executions are the dystopian world's inevitable fellow travelers. If they are unnoticeable at the surface of life there, that is because they had been experienced in the past. In The Castle, from the viewpoint of the newly arrived land surveyor K., a fresh person, it was as if the inhabitants of the Village “had deliberately distorted physiognomies. … [I]t seemed as if their skulls had been pounded-upon, to the point of flattening, and their facial features were formed under the influence of pain from this pounding.” And we may believe that the production of their currently submissive state had consisted of exactly that.

“The soul and the body are connected vessels,” reflects Grossman about the vulnerability of the human spirit, which may be stealthily approached through the bodily gates. In the final scenes of 1984, O'Brien's victorious rhetoric would have no effect if at that moment its recipient were not strapped into the torture chair and if the orator did not reinforce his theses with painful electric shock. In camp jargon, the figurative expressions “to reach” (dostat') and “to crack” (raskolot') were born out of the literal meaning of these verbs as the soul is being reached, the person is physically cracked.

In Zamiatin's and Huxley's dystopias, which depict a scientifically perfected and established society of the distant future, it would seem that durability is achieved by way of absolute agreement of everyone among themselves, as well as with the tablet of directives. But as the narration proceeds, the authors let us know that here, too, there exists a multitude of means of instilling fear and subverting the consciousness, wounding human flesh. The spy, the surgeon, and the executioner follow alongside any upstanding conformist.

In An Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov introduces a symbolic theme of “nontransparency” in the main hero—the only real person amid “ghosts.” It is possible that this image was brought on by Nabokov's favorite writer, Gogol. In A May Night, among the transparent drowned water nymphs, only one criminal young lady has an evil soul, revealed as an opaque spot. The world of An Invitation to a Beheading overturns this metaphor according to its own perverse optics, which see nontransparency as an anomaly, a defect. But it is not ill will that is considered to be the defect, but rather the soul's depth, its three-dimensionality, the presence of an “inner person,” of “a solitary opaque obstacle in this world of souls which are transparent to each other.”

It is against this defect that the struggle goes on in utopian societies which seek to make everyone “transparent,” to use Nabokov's word, permeable to one another, as well as to power. In We, everybody lives in rooms with transparent walls; moreover, the greater part of the day is devoted to public activities. In Brave New World, solitude is of course not encouraged. In Orwell's novel, every person is under the round-the-clock surveillance of an all-seeing and all-hearing device. In the Chevengurean commune the same principle is expressed in the wish that everyone become the “property” and the “goods” of another—and settlement in separate houses is perceived as a forced compromise. The figures that surround Nabokov's Cincinnatus: these reborn people are already “permeable,” completely devoid of their human kernel; they force out of life the true individual who is impermeable to their gaze. The crime of Cincinnatus C.—the “gnoseological vileness” perpetrated by him—consists of the fact that he is not completely knowable to society, that he does not submit and commit himself to being known. “Nontransparency” is the synonym for the soul's uniqueness and resilience. When love, fantasy, reflexivity, and the desire for solitude and freedom are awakened in D-503, the hero of We, the doctor involved in the prevention of deviations tells him: “Your case is bad! Apparently a soul has formed within you.” It may be said about this patient, in the words of a rebellious heroine: “The person is like a novel: you do not know how it will end until the last page. Otherwise it would not be worth reading.”

But the executioner, who wields the last and most terrifying argument of the totalitarian world, knows how everything will end in advance. And it is he who has the greatest number of reasons to imagine having reached that “last, indivisible, hard, shining point … the I am!”—which the hero of An Invitation to a Beheading senses in himself. The executioner begins to have the illusion that through the “final solution” of the victim's fate he completely conquers the contents of the victim's soul—so uncomplicated in the last seconds, so easily reducible to fear of pain and death. The SS man Kaise, in Grossman's Life and Fate, who liquidates prisoners with the bullet and the syringe, is certain that this elementary manipulation reveals the secret of humanity to him. In exactly the same way, in Nabokov's novel it seems to be the executioner Ms'e Pierre, an artist of his trade, who, after several sessions of sadistic working over of the condemned (after staging an escape, throwing the prisoner from hope to despair, after the insultingly vulgar lectures on the pleasures of life, of which the condemned is to be deprived) finally reaches Cincinnatus's core, his sacred “point.” “The structure of Cincinnatus's soul,” he declares, “is as well known to me as the structure of his neck.” And he assures his ward: “Not the slightest shade of feeling on your part escapes me. … To me you are transparent as—excuse the sophisticated simile—a blushing bride is transparent to the gaze of an experienced bridegroom.” Thus the executioner-gnoseologist claims that it is exactly he who has come to know the unknowable, transparent human soul. In fact, this “analysis” does not extend beyond the utilitarian tasks dictated by the society he represents: terrorizing, obtaining confessions and renunciations of previous views. The corpse of the soul remains in the hands of the executioner: it may be used for ideological purposes—just as the corpse of the body destroyed by him may be used for utilitarian purposes. But to seize the human soul, to possess its unique mystery without destroying it—no executioner is able to do this.

The maxim remains in force even in the torture chamber: the person suffers from circumstances but does not depend upon them. As a rule, in the inescapable world of the dystopias that were written through the middle of this century, the one who is being persecuted is incapable of avoiding his fate—unable to escape not only death but also humiliation, forced remorse, displays of obedience.5 However, the final surrender—the capitulation of the “inner person”—remains in his will (which itself may be lacking). Winston Smith, the hero of 1984, gave up and betrayed his essence precisely because he could not overcome piety when faced with the intellectual executioner O'Brien, who never ceases to be his teacher even while he has become his torturer.

The point where the victim retains “contempt for violence” is also the end point for the power of those doing violence. Frail and alone, trembling in anticipation of the terrible moment, Cincinnatus C. still refuses to accept the “service” of the executioner who is putting him on the block, and says “[I will do it] myself.” In utter helplessness he affirms his selfhood, his nontransparent “I”—and recovers his individuality. This “I”—this “point of hardness”—is in the person's nature; it is also reinforced by culture and memory. It is no accident that the new “brave” civilization's opponent—the one whom it has called Savage—is represented in Huxley as someone driven by both nature and nurture. The tribal ritual of the Indians among whom he has grown up brings him closer to the world of nature, while Shakespeare, on whom he has had the fortune to be brought up in the reservation, brings him closer to Christianity and the world of old European values. Whereas the Voltairean savage—the simple-hearted Huron, in a spirit common among French Enlighteners—signified the natural life and a reproach to a civilized society which has broken with nature, in the image of Huxley's Mr. Savage the natural forms an alliance with the supernatural—against the unnatural and the inhuman. Naive as a child, Savage is the only adult among the inhabitants of the civilized nursery. After he has gone through initiation, the induction into spiritual life, “Time, Death, God were revealed to him”—all the things about which the infantile consciousness of the domesticated people has no clue. He is free.

Individual freedom stands squarely across the path of all utopias that seek to reorder life. And all of them, each in its own way, from the scientific incubator to the close-knit Chevengurean commune, attempt to circumvent this human obstacle. Having become accustomed to the absence of freedom, the theoreticians of utopianism reassure themselves, in the manner of O'Brien, by the fact that “the individual is infinitely malleable,” that “we create human nature.” However, the ominous and fruitless practice revealed by the dystopias of the twentieth century is evidence that this is an unrealizable task: human nature remade in a preset direction is in fact already not human. The human being may be spoiled, but not remade.


  1. According to the Philosophical Encyclopedia (Moscow, 1979), salvation is “the most desirable condition of the person, characterized by deliverance from evil—moral … as well as physical.”

  2. In Huxley's novel the emblematic names are highly principled along the lines of a “convergence theory.” It appeared to Huxley that temporarily antagonistic forces must work for the coming future: “Ford, Our Lord” gets production going, and “Marx” poses the problem of forming the new man. From here there follow two equal tiers of names celebrating the technological and ideological saints of the new society. Unfortunately, the reader of the Russian translation published by Inostrannaia literatura will not be able to discern this conclusively. Missing in the first tier of names is our physiologist Pavlov (during the 1920s his reflexology had aroused world attention, and in the original novel the hall where reflexes are developed in trained infants is called the “Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning Room”). In the second tier, the anglicized transcription distorts the young heroine's name to a point that it is unrecognizable: for she is not Linaina but Lenina.

  3. In real life, such domination over bodies and souls would be impossible without total economic alienation, whose signs are not visible in the industrious Village. But in the anti-utopia—as in a social experiment in one's thought, whether deliberately or inadvertently—either one or another parameter is omitted, without which the modeled world cannot materialize. However, the tendencies chosen for analysis are carried to the extreme.

  4. We note this, partially in contrast to the view on this subject expressed in A. Gangius's article, “On the Ruins of Positive Aesthetics,” Novyi mir 9 (1988).

  5. If one considers books that have gained world recognition, it seems that for the first time the anti-utopian fabula gets a happy ending in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: the hero, in armed rebellion against a completely indifferent world, saves himself from the pursuit of its progeny, the Mechanical Dog, and having washed himself in the waters of a border river, steps onto free and living earth. The novel with this symbolic ending came out in 1953, as if signifying a turning point from hopelessness to hope for those fated to live in the second half of the century.

M. Keith Booker (essay date winter 1995)

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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 of Anomy). Of course, Western imaginative literature has also taken a decidedly dystopian turn in the twentieth century, but these African dystopian fictions differ from their European counterparts in certain important ways. In many ways, dystopian fiction has become a paradigmatic expression of the Western imagination in the twentieth century, a fact that poses significant problems (and opportunities) for African writers who seek to explore their own specific cultural situations within this genre. In particular, African writers of dystopian fiction face special complications in their attempts to explore new cultural identities within a quintessentially bourgeois form that seems inherently inimical to the utopian imagination.

The difficulties faced by African writers of dystopian fiction are representative of those faced by African novelists in general, who must often strain against the generic characteristics of the fundamentally bourgeois form within which they write. In this sense, African writers have much in common with African-American writers, feminist writers, leftist writers, and all others who would seek to contribute to the development of cultural identities that escape the dominance of bourgeois ideology while writing within genres traditionally informed by that ideology. Noting the difficulties faced by American proletarian writers of the 1930s, who attempted to construct effective anti-bourgeois literature within the constraints of the traditionally bourgeois generic form of the novel, Barbara Foley provides a convenient summary of the characteristics of the bourgeois novel, including

the tendency of realistic narrative to dissolve contradiction in the movement toward closure; its characteristic opposition of the social to the personal, and its displacement of social critique onto personal ethical choice; its insistence upon the uniqueness, and often the superiority, of its protagonist(s); its co-optation of the reader into agreement with the discourse occupying the apex of the text's implied hierarchy of discourses.


Foley's catalog also provides an excellent description of much Western dystopian fiction, which from this point of view can be taken as paradigmatic of many of the tendencies of bourgeois literature, and especially of the tendency toward suppression of any positive (utopian) figuration of collective experience. After all, the paradigm of dystopian fiction is an oppositional confrontation between the desires of a presumably unique individual and the demands of an oppressive society that insists on total obedience and conformity in its subjects. Zamyatin's D-503, Huxley's Bernard Marx, and Orwell's Winston Smith are all typical of this phenomenon, which marks dystopian fiction in many ways as a quintessentially bourgeois genre that identifies collective experience as a stifling threat to the freedom and integrity of the individual.

In many ways, then, Western dystopian fiction is representative of bourgeois literature as a whole, especially of the genre of the novel, which has traditionally tended to focus so intently on individual experience. Meanwhile, as theorists like Mikhail Bakhtin and Fredric Jameson have pointed out, genres tend to carry inherent ideological tendencies that greatly influence the kinds of statements that can be made within those genres. Writers (postcolonial, proletarian, feminist, etc.) who seek to escape bourgeois ideology must face these tendencies when they write within bourgeois genres. In particular, the individualist bias of most Western dystopian fiction, in which collective experience of any kind tends to be depicted as a nightmarish suppression of individual liberty, seems to run directly counter to any attempt to develop the kinds of collective models that would seem most suitable for the project of either postcolonial or proletarian fiction. On the other hand, one might also argue (again invoking Bakhtin) that the very fact that genres like dystopian fiction carry such specific ideological resonances presents important opportunities for writers who would seek to challenge the ideologies embedded in those genres. African writers of dystopian fiction are always already in dialogue with Western dystopian fiction from the sheer fact of the genre within which they work, and this dialogic confrontation with Western literature forms an important part of the overall confrontation with Western economic and cultural power that is a crucial aspect of much African dystopian fiction.

Interestingly, this intergeneric dialogue is to an extent anticipated in Western dystopian fictions, which themselves often point toward the Third World as a potential alternative to the total system of dystopian states like Zamyatin's One State or Huxley's World Government.2 Given the long and baleful history of Western ethnographic and anthropological characterizations of virtually all non-European peoples as “primitive” and “savage,” it is fairly easy to see the Third World implicated in Huxley's depiction of Native Americans as a last remaining pocket of difference amid the cultural homogenization that prevails in the rest of the world or in Zamyatin's celebratory depiction of the primitive horsemen who roam about the wilderness areas outside the Green Walls surrounding the cities of the One State, free of the carceral regimentation that reigns within. Among other things, then, African dystopian fiction can be taken as a response to the potential Orientalism (or “Africanism,” to use Christopher Miller's adaptation of Said's terminology) of these European appropriations of the Third World as a source of raw cultural energy free of all contaminating truck with World Controllers and Benefactors.

Within the context of the global system that characterizes the world in the late twentieth century, this freedom is largely illusory, a fact that George Orwell's 1984 (of the central texts of modern dystopian fiction) seems to have recognized most clearly.3 Much of the impact of 1984, of course, derives from the very direct way it addresses the reality of First- and Second-World life in the Cold War.4 Published in 1949, Orwell's book provides a striking anticipation of the global politics of the coming decades. For example, it depicts a world in which three mighty totalitarian powers (Oceania—formed when the British Empire is absorbed by the United States, Eurasia—formed when Europe is absorbed by the Soviet Union, and Eastasia—formed when China absorbs most of the rest of eastern Asia) maintain an uneasy balance of power that involves a perpetual state of limited warfare designed specifically to assure that none of the three superpowers sustain any serious damage. The three powers are so well balanced that no one of them can be decisively defeated, even by the other two in tandem. Under these conditions, war becomes little more than an integral part of the economic system in each superstate, designed “to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living” (Orwell 155). Meanwhile, war also functions as an ideological device used in each of the three superstates to generate unquestioning loyalty to the ruling regime and hysterical hatred of its enemies, both foreign and domestic.

This is not to say, however, that there is nothing literally to be gained or lost during this process of perpetual warfare. There is, in fact, a disputed portion of the world decisively ruled by none of the superpowers but containing important reserves of natural resources and (more importantly) large numbers of people who can provide cheap labor power to whatever superstate happens to be in control of them at the moment. Wars among the superstates, then, are not so much directed at the conquest of each other as at the imperial conquest of what one might call the “Fourth World,” consisting of “a rough quadrilateral with its corners at Tangier, Brazzaville, Darwin, and Hong Kong, containing within it about a fifth of the population of the earth” (154). The real fighting among the superstates is, in fact, confined to this disputed area of the planet, whose inhabitants therefore suffer most of the ravages of the perpetual war, even as they have very little at stake in the outcome. After all, regardless of which superstate is in control of a given part of the Fourth World at any particular time, the inhabitants of these areas continue to function essentially as slaves who “pass continually from conqueror to conqueror, and are expended like so much coal or oil in the race to turn out more armaments, to capture more territory, and so on indefinitely” (155).

Much of the attention paid to 1984 in the West during the Cold War derived from the obvious resemblances between Orwell's Big Brother and Stalin and between the Party of Oceania and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Of course, what was lacking in the conscription of Orwell as a tool of Western anti-Soviet propaganda in the Cold War was the central emphasis in 1984 on the fundamental similarities among the major parties in Orwell's fictionalized version of the Cold War. If 1984 functions in an obvious way as a bitter satire of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, it sends a powerful message to the West as well. Orwell himself later described the book as a warning against the excesses that might develop in England in the attempt to combat Stalinism—one might compare Sinclair Lewis's earlier warnings to America in It Can't Happen Here. In particular, it is important to remember that 1984, written in the late 1940s, arose in the direct aftermath of a Nazi Germany that in many ways bears the same relationship to capitalism as the Stalinist Soviet Union does to communism.5

1984, then, can ultimately be read either as a critique of Stalinism in the Soviet Union or as a critique of anti-Communist hysteria in the West—or both. But what gets lost in debates over the relationship of 1984 to the American-Soviet confrontation in the Cold War is the crucial importance of the colonized Fourth World of Orwell's book, or what would become known as the “Third World” amid the Manichean Cold-War vision of global politics as a confrontation between the polar opposites of American capitalism and Soviet Communism. Orwell deconstructs this opposition in 1984 by proposing three superpowers rather than two, by insisting on the fundamental similarities among his opposing superpowers, and by positing the centrality of the colonized world to the global political struggle. On the other hand, Orwell's book itself does not pay much direct attention to the enslaved multitudes of the colonized world, focusing instead on the confrontation between the individual hero Winston Smith and the huge, impersonal state apparatus of Oceania.

To find dystopian fiction that focus on Third-World experience, one must, in fact, turn to the Third World itself. Like 1984, for example, African dystopian fictions also often draw important energies from the global politics of the Cold War. However, African dystopias treat these politics from the very different perspective of the contested territory of the Third World. Meanwhile, they also tend to avoid the individualistic horror of collective experience that informs 1984 and most other Western dystopian fictions. Works like Farah's Sweet and Sour Milk and Hama Tuma's The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor describe dystopian African societies that derive their oppressive characteristics in a direct way from the Stalinist heritage of the Russian backers of the real-world regimes in Somalia and Ethiopia. Meanwhile, works like Ngũgĩ's Devil on the Cross and Soyinka's Season of Anomy clearly associate the dystopian environments of postcolonial Kenya and Nigeria with the cultural and economic manipulation of those societies by the forces of global capitalism. However, all four works to a greater or lesser extent avoid the individualist trap of much Western dystopian fiction and maintain an ability to envision positive collective experience. In all four cases the dystopian conditions depicted can be related more to a suppression of genuine collectivity than to a suppression of individualism by collective tyranny.6

In a formal sense, Farah is among the most “Western” of Africa's novelists. Writing in English, he constructs complex texts using techniques that are reminiscent of Western modernism, though they also derive in certain important ways from the tradition of Somali oral poetry. It is no accident that Farah is the African novelist most often compared to James Joyce, the postcolonial novelist associated most directly with modernism.7 On the other hand, modernist literature often rejects the paradigms of bourgeois culture. For example, one of the ways Farah's novels resemble modernist ones is in their radical rejection of closure. Meanwhile, Farah (especially in his trilogy “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship”) often writes in a strongly dystopian vein. Sweet and Sour Milk, the first volume of the trilogy, is in many ways a classic dystopian work. Its fictionalized “Somalia,” while bearing obvious similarities to the real Somalia under the rule of Muhammad Siyad Barre, is also highly reminiscent of regimes like Orwell's Oceania or Zamyatin's One State. And the anonymous “General” who rules Farah's Somalia, while based in a transparent way on Siyad Barre himself, also has much in common with predecessors like Zamyatin's Benefactor or Huxley's Mustapha Mond. The General is particularly reminiscent of Orwell's Big Brother. Moreover, this link is far from coincidental or merely literary. Orwell's Oceania obviously owes a great deal to the Soviet Union of the 1940s and his Big Brother owes a great deal to Stalin. But the same might be said for Farah's dystopian Somalia and its ruling General, who are modeled to a large extent on the Soviet Union and on Stalin.

By focusing on Stalin, Farah links his text directly to the similar focus in Orwell. At the same time, he draws attention both to the lingering echoes of Stalinism in Brezhnev's Soviet Union and to the excessive influence of the Soviet Union on Siyad Barre's Somali regime in the 1970s. Indeed, Sweet and Sour Milk continually draws attention to similarities between conditions in Somalia under the rule of the General and conditions in the Soviet Union under Stalin. As Farah's Soyaan asks in the book's prologue, “Is this Africa or is this Stalin's Russia? I am disgusted” (10). Meanwhile, the General himself bears many similarities to Stalin, furthering his rule through a self-deifying cult of personality. School children spend most of their class time learning to sing the General's praises, and propagandistic posters bearing the General's image are an ever-present fact of Somali life. Soyaan notes that the General hopes to be seen as “the father of the nation. The carrier of wisdom. The provider of comforts. A demi-god.” Soyaan himself, however, sees the General as the “Grand Warden of a Gulag,” as the ruler of a carceral Somali police state that is little more than an extended prison (10). Indeed, the General's propagandistic techniques are strongly supported by a campaign of terror waged by a KGB-trained secret police apparatus clearly reminiscent of Stalin's NKVD. Moreover, dissidents are as apt to be arrested for anti-Soviet activities as for opposition to the General himself, a situation that leads Soyaan's twin brother Loyaan to insist desperately that “we are not in the Soviet Union. We are in the Somali Democratic Republic, a sovereign African state” (201).

But Farah's book clearly suggests that Siyad Barre's reliance on Soviet support compromised Somali sovereignty in fundamental ways, a fact that makes Sweet and Sour Milk a central document of the distortions brought about in African societies as a result of the pressures of the Cold War. Postcolonial regimes seeking international support for their attempts to build viable infrastructures for their new nations found again and again that they were pressured to side with either the Americans or the Soviets in order to receive aid, but that this aid consequently came with significant strings attached. In particular, American support required suppression of any opposition groups suspected of pro-Communist tendencies, while Soviet support required suppression of pro-Westein groups. In short, Cold-War pressures on both sides were directly inimical to the development of democratic regimes in postcolonial Africa. Meanwhile, demands for Americanization or Sovietization of the African societies that received aid from the corresponding side often created difficult and unnatural situations that directly hampered the development of African societies that were already hamstrung enough by being forced into the mold of European nationalism.8

Soyaan's anti-regime statements constitute one of the major political currents in Sweet and Sour Milk. However, Soyaan himself is absent during most of the book. In fact, he dies of mysterious causes in the book's prologue, and the bulk of the narrative involves the attempts of Loyaan to determine the cause of Soyaan's death and the reasons for the regime's sudden posthumous apotheosis of Soyaan as a revolutionary hero. The narrative thus has the form of a detective fiction, though it is narrated in Farah's typical complex modernist style rather than in a style characteristic of popular detective fiction. In the process of his quest, Loyaan learns of Soyaan's participation in an underground resistance group of intellectuals, the members of which seem to be disappearing one by one. Loyaan, who had formerly lacked his brother's political consciousness, gradually becomes more aware of the oppressive conditions that obtain in this dystopian Somalia. Meanwhile, Loyaan's police-like investigation is set against the police-state conditions that prevail in his society, a society in which sudden arrests, cruel tortures, and secret executions are all everyday occurrences. Loyaan does not, however, decipher the central mysteries that he sets out to solve, and the book ends inconclusively. Government agents arrive to take Loyaan to the airport for a trip abroad and an eventual diplomatic assignment in Belgrade that had initially been intended for Soyaan, while Loyaan debates whether to accept the assignment or to resist this subtle form of deportation.

The failure of Loyaan's investigation and the lack of plot closure at the end of the book set Farah's portrayal of conditions in Somalia in direct opposition to kind of smoothly-functioning society sometimes associated with detective fiction. But then Loyaan is a far cry from the individualist heroes of most Western detective fiction, and it is clear throughout Sweet and Sour Milk that Farah's focus is on Somali society and not on his protagonist Loyaan. For one thing, the split between the twins Soyaan and Loyaan already destabilizes the bourgeois notion of unique identity. For another, Soyaan is far more “heroic” in his opposition to tyranny than is Loyaan, and the focus on the relatively passive Loyaan undermines any attempt to read the book as a story of individual heroism.

Finally, Sweet and Sour Milk is but the first volume of a trilogy each volume of which features different (multiple) protagonists, thus further displacing the emphasis of the work from individual characters to the society as a whole. And the later two volumes of the “Variations” trilogy distance Farah's dystopian vision from Western bourgeois individualism even more radically than does the first. Sardines, the second volume, focuses on the complicity between Islamic patriarchalism and Stalinist totalitarianism in the unholy alliance of Islam and Soviet-style socialism that constitutes Somali society under the General's (and Siyad Barre's) rule. In particular, Farah figures the patriarchal Somali family as a microcosm of the totalitarian Somali state. As the young woman Sagal points out in the book, “In an authoritarian state, the head of the family (matriarch or patriarch) plays a necessary and strong role; he or she represents the authority of the state” (66-67).9

In this way, Sardines differs radically from the many Western dystopian fictions that depict the family (as a haven of individualism) as a locus of resistance to authoritarian politics. On the other hand, Orwell also depicts the family as a mere extension of the carceral society of Oceania, and in 1984 family members keep each other under constant surveillance, with children often informing against parents and spouses often informing against each other. However, whereas in Orwell the conscription of the family as a tool of state power indicates a crippling of individual private life under the collective rule of the Party, one can see in Sardines a suggestion that the corrupting influences of the General's highly individualistic rule have virtually destroyed the positive potential in the family, a crucial institution of Somali collective life. Moreover, this interpretation is reinforced by Close Sesame, the third volume of the trilogy, which presents family life as a potential positive alternative to the General's dystopian regime. Close Sesame also usefully complements the earlier volumes in the series by its central focus on the old man Deeriye, a former hero of the Somali resistance to European imperial domination who becomes (though aged and in poor health) an opponent of the General. Deeriye is the unquestioned patriarch of his family, an important leader of his clan, and a devout Muslim. In short, he represents in many ways precisely the forces that Farah identifies in the first two volumes of the trilogy as sources of oppression and misery in Somalia. Yet Deeriye is a highly positive character, and his depiction suggests a utopian element of hope for the future that usefully reinforces the negative criticism of the General's regime that is central to the trilogy.

Given that Farah in the trilogy identifies Soviet influences as central to the development of the totalitarian impulses of the General's regime, it should be pointed out that Siyad Barre switched his allegiance to the Americans in 1978, but that his own real-world dystopian policies continued unabated until his ouster in the troubled 1990s.10 The 1978 change in Somali politics came about when the Soviets opted to back Ethiopia in their war with Somalia over the contested Ogaden region. In this sense, the stories collected in Hama Tuma's The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor, which refer to dystopian conditions in Ethiopia under the Soviet-backed Mengistu regime of the late 1970s and 1980s, can be taken as a sort of sequel to Farah's trilogy. Published in this volume are two different sets of short stories. The first is a series of case histories of public trials of alleged opponents of the regime, supposedly triggered by Amnesty International's complaints that the regime's opponents were being imprisoned and even executed without benefit of due process of law. The second part of the book is more loosely organized, including a variety of stories of life in the nominally socialist regime of postrevolutionary Ethiopia.

In all of these stories, Hama Tuma depicts conditions that are, if anything, more horrific than those described by Farah, though he does so in a comic/satiric vein. However, the comic note in Hama Tuma's descriptions of life in Ethiopia tends to increase the emotional impact of his stories by creating a gap between the mood and the content of his stories that brings the horror of the conditions he is describing all the more clearly into focus. Of course, there is a strong comic/satiric tradition in dystopian fiction, especially in the anti-Soviet Russian dystopian fiction of writers like Zamyatin, Alexander Zinoviev, and Vladimir Voinovich. Indeed, one of Hama Tuma's central strategies is to link his work to Russian literary traditions, thus calling attention to the effects of Soviet Cold-War pressures on the oppressive environment of Ethiopia. “The Case of the Presumptious Novelist” catalogues some of the insipid official cultural productions of the dystopian regime in Ethiopia, much in the vein of memorable works like Red Flowers of Court Sentences,He Who Was Late to Work, and Stanzas on Sexual Hygiene produced by the official poets of Zamyatin's One State. “The Case of the Traitorous Alphabet” tells the story of the trial (and eventual life imprisonment) of a typesetter whose (apparently inadvertent) error converts a patriotic slogan into a an anti-Ethiopian statement, much in the way the editor Ermolkin in Voinovoch's Pretender to the Throne inadvertently prints a typographical error that converts praise for Stalin into condemnation. And “The Case of the Professor of Insanity” details efforts of the Ethiopian regime to declare their enemies insane, following a Soviet practice satirized in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. There are other echoes of Russian literature as well. Thus Ngũgĩ, in his introduction to Hama Tuma's book, notes that it combines elements of African oral culture with echoes of Chekhov, Sholokhov, and Gorky.

The link between Ethiopia and the Soviet Union is especially obvious in the collection of case studies of trials, which already directly recall the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s. Meanwhile, Hama Tuma's ironic narrator notes that Ethiopia's Great Chairman (a thinly-veiled representation of Mengistu) exerts his absolute power through a campaign of “terror and massacre” that in many ways resembles those described by Orwell in relation to the Stalinesque Party of Oceania. And the Chairman receives direct support from the Russians in the pursuit of this campaign:

He has peddled the country's sovereignty to the highest bidder (in this case none other than Russia which came up big and fast with the item the Chairman needed most at the time—arms), from a rabid anti-socialist he has metamorphosed himself into the symbol of socialism in Africa.


Hama Tuma thus indicates that “socialism” in Ethiopia under Mengistu was a cynical charade enacted merely to get Soviet aid, leading to a radical gap between the utopian rhetoric of socialism and the dystopian reality of Ethiopia.

Hama Tuma also clearly suggests that the conditions attached to the Soviet aid received by the Mengistu regime had a major impact on dystopian circumstances in Ethiopia. For one thing, the attempt to create at least the appearance of socialism led to a number of contradictory and inappropriate social practices, perhaps best summarized in the book's eponymous story. For another, the Great Chairman and his regime seem to have learned a great deal from their Stalinist predecessors. In the story “Betrayal,” Stalin himself is directly invoked as a model by postrevolutionary cadres seeking to “cleanse” Ethiopia of counter-revolutionary elements (140-41). And in the story “Ten on the Terror Scale,” the terror tactics employed by the Ethiopian regime are described as having been “copied from a faraway land known as the land of the bears” (192). “It Happened in Russia” makes the link between Ethiopia and the Soviet Union clearest of all, as its title announces. This story describes scenes of torture and brutality reminiscent of those described in anti-Stalinist works like Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon or Danilo Kis̆'s A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. These scenes, however, occur in Ethiopia, though the story ends with a reminder that such brutality also “happened and still happens in Russia … the land of the civilised ones” (148).

Despite the many similarities to Western dystopian fiction (and particularly to fictions depicting the brutalities of Stalinism), Hama Tuma's stories ultimately deviate from Western models in important ways. Most obviously, Hama Tuma's own cultural position is firmly centered in Ethiopian society, with the Americans and Soviets who vie for power there treated as outsiders. This simple fact thus sets The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor apart from fictions like 1984, which remain thoroughly Eurocentric, however sympathetic they might seem to be to the plight of the Third World. Meanwhile, the language of the stories reflects the influence of African oral culture, while the presentation of dystopian conditions in Ethiopia through a series of short stories (each with a different protagonist) deviates strongly from the tendency of Western dystopian fictions to focus on individual protagonists in opposition to the collective tyranny of an oppressive regime. As Farah does with Somalia, Hama Tuma depicts “socialist” Ethiopia not as a land burdened by an excess in collectivism, but as a land in which traditional collective experience is threatened and disrupted by foreign influences. Yet a sense of communal energies as a source of resistance to oppression continues to inform the stories. As Ngũgĩ puts it, “The tales tell the story of cycles of class betrayal in Ethiopian history. But they also tell of the enduring solidarity among the committed, the believers in decency and dignity of human life” (Introduction x).

Ethiopia has a special significance in the postcolonial African imagination because of the symbolic importance of Ethiopia as a locus of African resistance to colonial domination. Ethiopians, having successfully resisted direct colonial conquest for centuries, finally succumbed to foreign domination in the years of the Cold War, thus indicating that the manipulation of African societies by outside forces was in many ways more powerful during the Cold-War era of decolonization than in the colonial period. According to Ngũgĩ, Ethiopians and other Africans were “the real victims of ruthless cold-war politics only interested in the Ethiopian prize both for its strategic location and for its symbolism” (Introduction x). The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor, like Farah's “African Dictatorship” trilogy, provides an enduring literary monument to the suffering of the people of East Africa as pawns in the Cold War.

Ngũgĩ himself provides some of the most powerful literary images of the impact of the Cold War on life in postcolonial Africa. The major theme of Ngũgĩ's later fiction is the failure of postcolonial Kenya to live up to the dreams of Uhuru that drove the long tradition of Kenyan resistance to British colonial rule, especially during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. And Ngugi attributes this failure directly to the contributions of global capitalism to the continuing cycle of neocolonial oppression in Kenya. However, if Farah and Hama Tuma indict the Soviets as major contributors to the miseries of postcolonial Africa, Ngũgĩ and others have leveled similar charges against the American-led world system of capitalism. Ngũgĩ's later work is strongly influenced by Marxist ideas, especially as filtered through Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. His diagnosis of capitalism as a major source of the social and economic ills of postcolonial Kenya is thus made within a well-thought-out theoretical framework that makes this diagnosis all the more convincing.11

Devil on the Cross can be taken as exemplary of Ngũgĩ's later career. This complex text (the first of Ngũgĩ's novels to be written in Gikuyu) draws strongly upon Gikuyu oral tradition, but also resonates in important ways with magical realism and Soviet socialist realism. Its depiction of postcolonial Kenya as a nightmarish society held firmly in the rapacious grip of world capitalism also has much in common with the tradition of dystopian fiction. For example, Ngũgĩ constructs the book as a sort of primer on Marxism written for uneducated Kenyan peasants and workers who, unlike African philosophers, may not be very familiar with Marxist theory. In this sense, Devil on the Cross resembles Jack London's The Iron Heel, a 1907 American dystopian novel that was intended to introduce Marxist theory to an audience of workers and farmers (this time in America) who knew little of Marxism. The Iron Heel thus consists largely of lectures on Marxist theory by its protagonist Ernest Everhard. The comparison to The Iron Heel (which seems to lack energy as a novel, even if its lectures might be useful) also serves to highlight the immensity of Ngũgĩ's achievement in Devil on the Cross, which manages to be so openly (even simplistically) didactic and yet succeeds brilliantly as a work of art. Indeed, as G. D. Killam points out, this novel can be seen as a thoroughly successful enactment of the political and artistic program described in Ngũgĩ's essays and prison diary. Killam thus notes that Devil on the Cross is aesthetically innovative, but suggests that this artistic innovation is employed in the service of political statement. In the book “Ngugi is not … concerned with finding new ways to be new; he is concerned with finding new ways to be effective” (142).

Ngũgĩ's success in Devil on the Cross can be attributed to his ability to find a form appropriate to his message: where London attempts to construct a dystopian narrative within a conventionally bourgeois realistic narrative style (featuring a strong individual protagonist), Ngũgĩ eschews realism and individualism to produce a much more sophisticated work that is in many ways more a ritualized performance than a novel proper. In this sense, the best analogue for Ngũgĩ's project in the tradition of Western leftist literature is not London's novel but the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht, which itself often contains strongly dystopian elements. Ngũgĩ, in fact, has much in common with Brecht in terms of both his aesthetics and his political philosophy. Moreover, Ngũgĩ greatly admires Brecht as an artist, quoting Brecht's work frequently in his own nonfiction writings. Devil on the Cross, with its use of fantastic imagery to depict what are in fact very real conditions in Kenya, can be seen to employ a complex form of the Brechtian alienation effect in which readers experience the shock of realizing that even the book's most seemingly fantastic and bizarre descriptions of capitalism are not that far off the mark.12 This shock effect thus counters the attempts of the capitalist cultural system to portray capitalism as a natural, common-sense way of ordering a society. Meanwhile, Western readers would probably do well to ask themselves if much of Ngũgĩ's commentary on the woeful results of capitalism in Kenya do not apply to their own more affluent (but equally alienated) situation.

Devil on the Cross makes prominent use of some of Brecht's favorite metaphors for the workings of capitalism. For example, the book's central metaphor is the very Brechtian notion that capitalism is little more than an organized system of thievery and corruption. The various competitors in the fantastic Thieves' Competition that is the centerpiece of the book are thus not criminals in the normal sense (the one ordinary thief who shows up for the competition is quickly expelled as unworthy because of the meager level of his crimes) but businessmen who make their wealth by exploiting the workers of Kenya. Ngũgĩ also gets a great deal of symbolic mileage in Devil on the Cross from the central Brechtian metaphors of prostitution and cannibalism. Prostitutes feature prominently in Brecht's work, where they are used as especially obvious examples of the overt commodification of human beings. Meanwhile, prostitution itself serves in Brecht's work as an image of the way even the most “personal” of relationships under capitalism are converted into mere economic transactions. Devil on the Cross makes frequent reference to the fact that women, the most oppressed sector of the postcolonial Kenyan populace, are frequently forced to resort to prostitution (either direct or in more subtle forms) in order to survive. Thus the woman Warĩĩnga finds it virtually impossible to find employment without agreeing to grant sexual favors to her bosses. Ngũgĩ also uses the prostitution motif as a symbol of the foreign economic domination of Kenyan. He includes in Devil on the Cross the story of an aged American tourist who comes to Kenya because his wealth can buy the sexual favors of young girls, whom he regards as just another example of the exotic indigenous species (like lions and elephants) that make Kenya so attractive to foreign tourists (70-71). Tourism is also linked to prostitution when it is noted that more and more of Kenya is being converted into tourist facilities where foreigners can enjoy themselves and where Kenyans can service them in the demeaning roles of prostitutes, servants, and cooks (223).

Cannibalism is an even more overt example of the commodification of human beings than is prostitution, and Ngũgĩ uses the motif of cannibalism throughout Devil on the Cross as a symbol of the way foreign (especially American) business interests and their Kenyan collaborators are literally feeding off of the people of Kenya—with the full complicity of the Kenyan government. Meanwhile, the international flavor of capitalist domination in Kenya is perhaps captured most effectively in the speech of Mwĩreri wa Mũkiraaĩ during the Thieves' Competition. Mwĩreri himself is an unscrupulous capitalist who has nothing against exploiting the poor of Kenya for his personal gain. His definition of capitalism thus comes from an insider's perspective: “The system is this: the masses cultivate; a select few … harvest. Five rich men grow roots in the flesh of fifty workers and peasants” (166). Mwĩreri argues, however, that Kenyan capitalists should keep the wealth of Kenya for themselves rather than allowing it to wind up in the pockets of foreign business interests: “Let us steal from among ourselves, so that the wealth of the country remains in the country, and so that in the flesh of ten million poor we can plant the roots of ten national millionaires” (167). But Mwĩreri's speech is met with great hostility: he is not only shouted off the stage at the competition, but later murdered because his attitude poses a serious threat to the Western capitalists who dominate the economy of neocolonial Kenya. Ngũgĩ's depiction of Mwĩreri thus serves to draw special attention to this foreign domination. At the same time, Ngũgĩ makes it clear that the poor of Kenya would probably not be much better off even if the policy advocated by Mwĩreri were to be adopted. For Ngũgĩ, true liberation in Kenya will require not only an end to foreign domination of the Kenyan economy, but to capitalism itself.

Devil on the Cross—like all of Ngũgĩ's work—can be seen as an attempt to meet subtle forms of procapitalist cultural domination head-on by creating an anticapitalist counter-culture. On the other hand, Ngũgĩ insists (especially in his depiction of the composer Gatuiria, who works to develop genuinely Kenyan music, but shuns politics) that the development of Kenyan culture is in itself insufficient unless accompanied by fundamental, even revolutionary, political and economic changes. And Ngũgĩ makes it clear that these changes must be the product of collective action. Devil on the Cross differs substantially from most Western dystopian fiction in its refusal of the opposition between individual and society. The book features at least four different protagonists (the women Warĩĩnga and Warĩĩnga and the men Gatuiria and Muturi), each of which is more an allegorization of certain elements of postcolonial Kenyan culture than a unique individual. The villains of the book (the thieves who perform at the competition in Ilmorog) are its most individualistic characters, while the workers and students who attempt to mobilize against them represent the positive (though not fully realized) potential of collective action. Even when there is emphasis on a single character (Warĩĩnga has certainly become the dominant figure by the end of the book), Ngũgĩ's book manages to avoid the trap of bourgeois individualism. Unlike the characters of bourgeois narratives, who often seem to discover their “true” selves as the plot unfolds, Warĩĩnga has by the end of Devil on the Cross been engaged in an extensive effort to construct a new identity for herself through specific action within a collective context.13

This emphasis on collective experience is even more direct in Soyinka's Season of Anomy, in which the communal society of the enclave of Aiyéró functions as a utopian contrast to the capitalist-dominated dystopian society that surrounds it. In its opposition between traditional communal culture and the drive for modernization imposed by the presence of international capitalism, the setting of the book (though clearly informed by conditions in Soyinka's Nigeria during and after the Biafran War) might in many ways be any number of African postcolonial nations. The brutal capitalist exploitation of the African society depicted in the book gives that society a decidedly dystopian air, especially when conditions in that society are contrasted with the alternative image of Aiyéró.

Season of Anomy treats the communal values of Aiyéró in a clearly positive light while depicting international capitalism (figured in the book by the “Cartel” and the “Mining Trust”) as sinister and harmful. In Season of Anomy capitalism, while bringing modernization and development, also brings exploitation, alienation, and the destruction of both the natural environment and traditional social and cultural practices. Thus, as Emmanuel Ngara points out, the book is as close as Soyinka comes to a direct espousal of socialist values (99). Indeed, while Soyinka's depiction of Aiyéró (the principal counter to Western capitalism in Season of Anomy) draws strongly upon traditional African culture, this society clearly involves socialist elements as well. Meanwhile, Aiyéró avoids many of the pitfalls of conventional utopias. In particular, it is not a timeless paradise, but a dynamic society open to historical change. Aiyéró is thus aligned with the recent Western tendency toward what Raymond Williams calls “open utopias.” Williams associates this tendency with a wary and self-critical rebirth of utopian thought after the gradual decline of utopian thinking through much of the twentieth century. Citing Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed as a central example, Williams notes that the utopian society of Le Guin's Anarres still allows for change and conflict in an effort to escape the “congealing of ideas, the degeneration of mutuality into conservatism” that have plagued utopian visions. For Williams, Le Guin's utopia is

shifted, deliberately, from its achieved harmonious condition, the stasis in which the classical utopian mode culminates, to restless, open, risk-taking experiment. It is a significant and welcome adaptation, depriving utopia of its classical end of struggle, its image of perpetual harmony and rest.


Le Guin's Anarres thus has much in common with Soyinka's Aiyéró. Meanwhile, Soyinka's utopia is regarded with suspicion by the capitalists of the Cartel, who associate it (as they presumably would virtually any utopian thought) with Communism. Indeed, the leaders of the Cartel tend consistently to invoke the Manichean oppositions of the Cold War in the face of any resistance, suspecting all who refuse their domination of being under the influence of Moscow. When the attempts of Ofeyi (a publicity man for the Cartel) to turn the Cartel's own advertising against it are discovered, he is accused of being a Communist, though his real inspiration comes not from Moscow but from Aiyéró (55).

While opposing positions are specified less clearly in Season of Anomy than in Devil on the Cross, Soyinka's book parallels Ngũgĩ's in a number of ways. For example, figures like Chief Batoki, Chief Biga, Zaki Amuri, and the Commandant-in-Chief of the Corporation (local subsidiary of the international Cartel) function in Soyinka's book as semi-allegorical representations of the evils of capitalism much as the thieves and their American masters do in Ngũgĩ's. Meanwhile, positive characters like Ofeyi and the woman Iriyise (a former advertising icon) function for Soyinka as embodiments of potential resistance to capitalist domination. The symbolic function of Iriyise is made particularly clear in the book when the Dentist emphasizes Iriyise's potential role in any coming revolution as “a Chantal, a Deborah, torch and standard-bearer, super-mistress of universal insurgence” (219). As in Devil on the Cross, this allegorical mode of characterization functions in Season of Anomy to present competing forces in terms of an opposition between a utopian quest for the fulfillment of human potential and an attempt by powerful, impersonal forces to frustrate this quest. In this sense, the books of both Ngũgĩ and Soyinka resemble Western dystopian fiction while avoiding that fiction's typical representation of this opposition as one of a defiant individual versus a dystopian community.

Both Devil on the Cross and Season of Anomy also differ from the bleak pessimism expressed in many Western dystopian fictions in the way they maintain strong utopian elements. Ngũgĩ's book ends with the hope of a coming Marxist revolution, while Season of Anomy hints at a similar possibility for revolutionary change. There is an active underground resistance to the domination of the Cartel throughout the book, and the fact that the last section of the book is entitled “Spores” suggests that the seeds of revolution may have already been planted through the ideological efforts of Ofeyi and the military efforts of the Dentist. Moreover, the book ends on a hopeful note as Iriyise is freed from Temoko prison (a symbol of the carceral dystopian society of the book) and we are told that, outside the walls of the prison “life began to stir” (320). Season of Anomy thus ends with a beginning (as Devil on the Cross ends with the birth of Warĩĩnga's revolutionary consciousness), avoiding the neat closure of the realistic novel. Meanwhile, Season of Anomy also depicts a specific utopian alternative in the community of Aiyéró, though here the utopianism of Soyinka's book, in its invocation of traditional African culture, differs substantially from the strongly Marxist perspective of Ngugi.

One could, in fact, argue that Soyinka's utopian alternatives to global capitalism are less clearly drawn and therefore less effective than Ngũgĩ's. In any case, however, it may be telling that the anti-capitalist dystopias of Ngũgĩ and Soyinka both maintain a far stronger utopian element than do the anti-Communist dystopias of Farah and Hama Tuma. Here one might recall the work of Jameson, who has long argued that the cultural conditions associated with late capitalism are inherently inimical to the utopian imagination and that contemporary Marxist critics therefore have a special responsibility to seek utopian elements in the texts they examine, even when those texts are thoroughly mired in bourgeois ideology. Utopian elements can, for Jameson, be found in any cultural phenomenon, even fascism. It is clear, however, that Western dystopian fiction does include far less in the way of utopian energies than its African counterparts, though it is also true that dystopian fictions outside the Western mainstream (as in the feminist dystopias of Marge Piercy) sometimes include strong utopian elements.15

Jameson himself has pointed to the possibility that Third-World literature has access to utopian energies that have been denied to Western literature in the post-modern age of late capitalism. In his recent work, Jameson often figures the Third World as one of the few last remaining bastions of potentially productive cultural energy in the midst of a world that is otherwise caught entirely in the global net of late capitalism. Thus, he remarks that “the only authentic cultural production today has seemed to be that which can draw on the collective experience of marginal pockets of the social life in the world system,” a category that for him includes such heterogeneous entities as Third-World literature, black American literature, British working-class rock, women's literature, gay literature, and the roman québecois (Signatures 23). However problematic the inclusion of such diverse cultural forces in a single grouping or the description of a phenomenon as broad as Third-World literature as a “marginal pocket,” Jameson's point is that these diverse cultural phenomena seem to share a common ability to resist the homogenizing tendencies of global capitalism and to tap into collective experience in ways that are denied the more mainstream culture of a world system thoroughly saturated the capitalist market and commodity system.

In short, for Jameson cultural phenomena like Third-World literature maintain an ability to envision utopian alternatives to the commodity culture of late capitalism. Of course, Jameson here comes close to the totalizing treatment of Third-World culture as fundamentally different from First-World culture that informs his now-famous (or perhaps infamous) earlier essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.”16 But, despite the shortcomings in that earlier analysis, it is useful to recall that Jameson there envisions Third-World literature as different primarily because Third-World societies lack the sense of a radical separation and opposition between the public and private realms that is characteristic of Western bourgeois societies. Given that this same opposition is crucial to most Western dystopian fiction, it is clear that Jameson's comments on the tendency of Third-World literature toward “national allegory” can be translated as an ability to imagine collection experience in positive and utopian ways. This ability is particularly important for Jameson, who sees it as essential to any genuinely transformational political project, but who also believes that the utopian element in Western culture has been virtually extinguished by the thoroughness with which late capitalism has been able to establish its dominance in most of the world.

From this point of view, the dystopian turn in recent African fiction might be taken as a bad sign indeed, perhaps even as a sign that the localized cultural resistance that Jameson associates with Third-World literature is now gradually being overwhelmed by the gravitational pull of Western cultural paradigms. It is certainly true that the generic relationship between African and Western dystopian fictions demonstrates that Africa is not nearly so isolated from the world system of late capitalism as Jameson indicates in this “Third-World Literature” essay. Indeed, the African dystopias of writers like Farah, Hama Tuma, Ngũgĩ, and Soyinka show a strong sense of African participation in a global political and economic system. And these dystopias can be taken as a direct deconstruction of Jameson's earlier claim that all Third-World literature tends toward the construction of positive allegories of national identity as forged in the smithy of decolonization. At the same time, these African dystopias do yield perspectives on the world system that are not available in Western dystopian fiction. Moreover, African dystopias have access to energies (like the collective orientation of traditional African culture) that set them apart from their Western counterparts. In particular (primarily because they lack the horror of collective experience typically found in Western dystopian fictions), African dystopias retain an ability to envision utopian alternatives that seems to be almost entirely absent in most Western dystopian fiction. African dystopias thus demonstrate the utopian potential of the genre of dystopian fiction, possibly pointing toward readings that can uncover this potential in Western dystopias as well.


  1. Foley's extensive study of the problems and achievements of American proletarian writers in the 1930s is, in fact, suggestive for postcolonial literature in numerous ways. Links between the attempts of proletarian writers and postcolonial writers to establish alternative cultural models are worthy of extensive further exploration, and it certainly seems likely that postcolonial writers can learn much from the ultimate failure of the cultural project of American proletarian writers of the 1930s.

  2. In this essay, I will use the problematic term “Third World” to describe Africa and other postcolonial regions of the world, despite the implication of marginalization implied by this term. Indeed, I wish to call attention to this marginalization as a result of the polarization of global politics as a confrontation between the “First” and “Second” worlds.

  3. This notion of the “world system” is closely associated with the work of Immanuel Wallerstein, whose extended studies of African culture and society have emphasized the place of Africa in this system. For more on the status of the Third World in the world system, see Stavrianos, Wolf, and Worsley. See also Mandel and Jameson (Postmodernism) for discussions of the inherently global nature of “late capitalism,” a specific stage that they see as succeeding imperialism in the historical development of capitalism.

  4. The oppositions of the Cold War are in fact crucial to modern dystopian fiction, which can to a large extent be categorized according to whether it critiques the potential abuses of capitalism or Communism. See Booker (Dystopian).

  5. See Kumar for a discussion of Orwell's belief, solidified by the 1939 Soviet-German pact, that “nazism and communism were no more than variants of a single type” (305). On the other hand, see Mayer for an important reminder of the fundamental antagonism shown by the Nazis toward Communists, who were in many ways as important as an object of Nazi hatred as were the Jews.

  6. Here one might compare an African-American proletarian text like Richard Wright's Native Son, in which the protagonist Bigger Thomas yearns desperately for meaningful collective experience amid the racial alienation he suffers in a dystopian capitalist/racist Chicago.

  7. On Joyce and Farah, see Adam as well as my “Decolonizing Literature.”

  8. On the contradictions between traditional African social structures and the European national models that had been imposed on postcolonial African societies, see Coquery-Vidrovitch (86-88).

  9. On Farah's suggestion of a complicity between the dystopian state and traditional Somali social institutions like the family, see Juraga.

  10. Farah's recent novel, Gifts, set in the later period of American influence, suggests that gifts of various kinds (including foreign aid) can be an extremely mixed blessing, especially when they come with specific expectations of reciprocation.

  11. V. Y. Mudimbe notes that, while African thought from the 1930s to the 1950s was informed by a number of important influences, Marxism was clearly the most important of these (90). Further, Mudimbe notes that Marxism, along with a more general critique of imperialism, remains the most vital force in African philosophy to this day. Figures like Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, and Julius Nyere all made important contributions in the attempt to adapt socialism to an African context, and Ngũgĩ draws upon the work of all of these thinkers in his fiction.

  12. Note also my suggestion that “the principal technique of dystopian fiction is defamiliarization (Dystopian 19). Following Darko Suvin's characterization of science fiction, I link this defamiliarization effect directly to the alienation effect of Brecht.

  13. One might contrast here Foley's criticism of Jack Conroy's proletarian novel The Disinherited for turning “less on the Communist theme of constructing an identity than on the essentially bourgeois motif of finding one” (313).

  14. The tendency toward open utopias can be found in many recent feminist works. See Fitting for a description of the way writers like Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marge Piercy, and Joanna Russ have sought to “describe societies which are far more open and problematic than earlier utopias” (25).

  15. On the feminist dystopias of Piercy, see my “Woman.”

  16. For a critique of that earlier analysis, see Ahmad.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Aijaz. “Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory.’” Social Text 17 (1987): 3-25.

Booker, M. Keith. “Decolonizing Literature: Ulysses and the Postcolonial Novel in English.” Pedagogy, Praxis, “Ulysses.” Ed. Robert Newman. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, forthcoming.

———. The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.

———. “Woman on the Edge of a Genre: The Feminist Dystopias of Marge Piercy.” Science-Fiction Studies 21.3 (1994): 337-50.

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. Trans. Mirra Ginsberg. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1987.

Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. Africa: Endurance and Change South of the Sahara. Trans. Davis Maisel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1968.

Farah, Nuruddin. Close Sesame. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 1992.

———. Sardines. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 1992.

———. Sweet and Sour Milk. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 1992.

Fitting, Peter. “Positioning and Closure: On the ‘Reading Effect’ of Contemporary Utopian Fiction.” Utopian Studies 1 (1987): 23-36.

Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in US Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Hama Tuma. “The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor” and Other Stories. London: Heinemann, 1993.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World.“Brave New World” and “Brave New World Revisited.” New York: Harper, 1965.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.

———. Signatures of the Visible. New York: Routledge, 1992.

———. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.

Juraga, Dubravka. “Nuruddin Farah's Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship: Patriarchy, Gender, and Political Oppression in Somalia.” Critique, forthcoming.

Killam, G. D. “Ngugi was Thiong'o.” The Writing of East and Central Africa. Ed. G. D. Killam. London: Heinemann, 1984. 123-43.

Kumar, Krishan. Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Lewis, Sinclair. It Can't Happen Here. 1935. New York: New American Library, 1970.

London, Jack. The Iron Heel. 1907. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Mayer, Arno J. Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The “Final Solution” in History. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

Mudimbe, V. Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Ngara, Emmanuel. Stylistic Criticism and the African Novel: A Study of the Language, Art, and Content of African Fiction. London: Heinemann, 1982.

Ngũgĩ was Thiong'o. Devil on the Cross. Trans. Ngũgĩ was Thiong'o. London: Heinemann, 1982.

———. Introduction to “The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor” and Other Stories by Hama Tuma. London: Heinemann, 1993. ix-x.

Orwell, George. 1984. 1949. New York: New American Library, 1961.

Soyinka, Wole. Season of Anomy. 1973. London: Arena, 1988.

Stavrianos, L. S. Global Rift: The Third World Comes of Age. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1979.

Voinovich, Vladimir. Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. Trans. Richard Lourie. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Capitalist World-Economy. New York: Cambridge UP, 1979.

———. Geopolitics and Geoculture: Essays on the Changing World-System. New York: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Williams, Raymond. “Utopia and Science Fiction.” Science-Fiction Studies 5 (1978): 203-14.

Wolf, Eric R. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982.

Worsley, Peter. The Three Worlds: Culture and Development. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Trans. Mirra Ginsberg. New York: Avon, 1983.

Theodore Dalrymple (essay date January 2002)

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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 of people. Many, especially intellectuals, came to regard the utopian condition, in which earth is fair and all men glad and wise, as man's natural state; only the existence of ill-intentioned classes or races could explain the fall from grace. Where hopes are unrealistic, fears often become exaggerated; where dreams alone are blueprints, nightmares result.

It is hardly surprising that a century of utopian dreams and coercive social engineering to achieve them should have been a century rich in imaginative dystopias. Indeed, from The Time Machine to Blade Runner, the dystopia became a distinct literary and cinematic genre, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984 became so much a part of Western man's mental furniture that even unliterary people invoke them to criticize the present.

The dystopians look to the future not with the optimism of those who believe that man's increasing mastery of nature will bring greater happiness but with the pessimism of those who believe that the more man controls nature, the less he controls himself. The benefits of technological advance will be as nothing, they say, by comparison with the evil ends to which man will put it.

The great dystopias do not still command our interest because of their technological prescience. The contrivances they describe are often from today's standpoint laughably naïve. H. G. Wells's time machine is hardly more than an elaborate bicycle made of ivory, nickel, and quartz. The radio reporter's aluminum hat, filled with transmitting equipment, in Brave New World, strikes us today as ridiculous, despite Huxley's reputation for scientific foresight. In 1984, Orwell imagines a computer as being full of nuts and bolts, with oil lubricating its operations—more steam engine than motherboard.

Yet, this technological naïveté finally does not matter, for the dystopians' purpose is moral and political. They are not crystal gazing but anxiously—despairingly—commenting on the present. The dystopias—depicting journeys to imaginary worlds, removed more in time than in space, whose most salient characteristics are exaggerations of what their authors take to be significant social trends—are the reductio ad absurdum (or ad nauseam) of received ideas of progress and sensitive indicators of the anxieties of their age, which is still so close to our own.

Some of these anxieties now seem unnecessary to us or based upon false premises. Reading about them today is salutary, however, for it encourages us to step back from our current worries and wonder whether they, too, might not be chimeras. Wells's Time Machine, for example, is virtually a tract on the social-medical fears of his time, most of which, in light of subsequent experience, proved unfounded.

Wells's hero travels 800,000 years into the future. Mankind, he discovers, has divided into two species: the diurnal Eloi; and the nocturnal, subterranean Morlocks. The Eloi are soft, weak creatures, small in stature and effete in gesture and conduct, who devote their time to the simple pleasures of erotic play and eating delicious fruit. The Morlocks, toiling in their underground factories, make everything the Elois need for their easeful existence. But like human spiders, the Morlocks emerge after dark to prey upon the Elois, who are meat for them.


Wells's outdated social Darwinian and eugenic preoccupations are clear enough from his fantasy. Society, Wells thought, was splitting into two castes that eventually would evolve into separate species because of their different conditions of existence. On the one hand were the owners of capital, doomed to mental and physical enfeeblement because they never had to struggle to survive; on the other were the workers, made increasingly stunted, amoral, and angry by the harshness of their labor. Wells's future dystopia showed what he thought would happen when this division reached its end.

Four years after The Time Machine first appeared, the Boer War broke out, and British army recruitment centers seemed to bear out Wells's worst fears. An astonishing number of British working-class men failed to measure up to the army's undemanding physical requirements—so much so that recruiters had to lower their standards. Eton adolescents stood six inches taller than slum school pupils of the same age: here were two nations indeed, and a division into two species might have seemed imminent to someone as steeped in Darwin as Wells.

Yet a mere half century after Wells's death, his countrymen's average height had increased by an inch per decade: both the Eloi and the Morlocks grew larger as the struggle for existence grew less desperate and survival more assured.

The division of society into separate castes also preoccupied Jack London's dystopia, The Iron Heel, published in 1907. London foresees an America in which the plutocracy of the Gilded Age, with hired mercenaries, confronts an immiserated proletariat. Determined to protect their wealth, the plutocrats mobilize their fascistic organization, the Iron Heel, to destroy U.S. constitutional liberties so thoroughly that mass terror ensues and Latin-American-style disappearances (which London describes with frightening prescience) become commonplace. London accepts in toto Marx's theory of the ever widening disparity between the owners of capital and those with only their labor to sell, with one important exception: he believes that the proletarian revolution lies in the distant future. In the meantime, man will squirm under the Iron Heel, like a worm under a boot.

Like all dystopians who favor the common man, London does not stoop to flatter. He hates the Iron Heel, but that does not mean he loves the proletariat as anything but an abstraction. When London portrays it in revolt, you begin, despite the author's intentions, to side with the Iron Heel: “It was not a column but a mob, an awful river that filled the street, the people of the abyss, mad with drink and wrong, up at last and roaring for the blood of their masters. I had seen the people of the abyss before, gone through its ghettos, and thought I knew it; but I found that I was now looking on it for the first time. Dumb apathy had vanished. It was now dynamic—a fascinating spectacle of dread. It surged past my vision in concrete waves of wrath, drunk with hatred, drunk with lust for blood—men, women and children, in rags and tatters, dim ferocious intelligences with all the godlike blotted from their features and all the fiendlike stamped in, apes and tigers, anemic consumptives and great hairy beasts of burden, wan faces from which vampire society had sucked the juice of life, bloated forms swollen with physical grossness and corruption, withered hags and death's-heads bearded like patriarchs, festering youth and festering age, faces of fiends, crooked, twisted, misshapen monsters blasted with the ravages of disease and all the horrors of chronic innutrition—the refuse and the scum of life, a raging screaming, screeching demoniacal horde.”

And this, to London, is the last—the only—hope of humanity. Even the Morlocks seem preferable.

It is not surprising that the two greatest literary dystopians, Huxley and Orwell, were English. For to be English in the twentieth century was to breathe in a climate of unrelieved pessimism. It was a period of continuous national decline. Starting from a position of world power and influence, England ended up a mere province, struggling to keep pace with the likes of Belgium or Holland. True, its people were much better off in material terms at the end of the century than at its outset, but man's sense of well-being depends upon comparison with others as well as upon his absolute condition. Material progress and despair went hand in hand in England: a nourishing brew for the dystopian imagination.

Huxley's book was published in 1932; Orwell's appeared in 1949. Huxley feared the growing Americanization of English life (though soon after publishing the book, he emigrated to California, America's ne plus ultra); Orwell feared the growing Sovietization of English life that had taken place during World War II. It seemed to both men that their native land no longer had sufficient intellectual, cultural, or moral energy to chart its own course through history and was caught in the grip of forces that the individual could struggle against only in vain.

Both dystopias retain their power to alarm because they are prophetic, almost in a biblical sense: they issue permanent calls to resist trends that, irrespective of the political regime we happen to find ourselves under, will impoverish human life.

Huxley's Brave New World is set in an indefinitely distant future: it will not be possible for many years to say that Huxley's apprehensions have not proved justified. It is unlikely that populations will undergo genetic and environmental manipulation in the exact way that Huxley foresaw: there will never be a fixed number of predetermined strata, from Alpha Plus to Epsilon Minus Semi-Morons. But as an Italian scientist prepares to clone humans, and as reproduction grows as divorced from sex as sex is from reproduction, it is increasingly hard to regard Huxley's vision as entirely far-fetched.


Brave New World describes a sexual regime that increasingly resembles the one that rules today. A little boy, younger than ten, must visit a psychologist because he does not want to indulge in erotic play with a little girl, as his teachers demand: a situation we seem to be fast approaching. Not only does sex education start earlier and earlier in our schools, but publications, films, and television programs for ever-younger age groups grow more and more eroticized. It used to be that guilt would accompany the first sexual experiences of young people; now shame accompanies the lack of such experiences.

In Huxley's dystopia, as among liberals today, enlightenment and permissiveness are synonymous. The Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning tells his students how it was in the old, unenlightened times:

“‘What I'm going to tell you now,’ he said, ‘may sound incredible. But then, when you're not accustomed to history, most facts about the past do sound incredible.’

“He let out the amazing truths. For a very long period … erotic play between children had been regarded as abnormal (there was a roar of laughter); and not only abnormal, actually immoral (no!): and therefore had been rigorously suppressed. A look of astonished incredulity appeared on the faces of his listeners. Poor little kids not allowed to amuse themselves? They could not believe it. …

“‘But what happened?’ they asked. ‘What were the results?’

“‘The results were terrible … Terrible,’ he repeated.”

Later, the director's superior, Mustapha Mond, one of the ten World Controllers, notes: “Freud had been the first to reveal the appalling dangers of family life. The world was full of fathers—was therefore full of misery; full of mothers—therefore full of every kind of perversion from sadism to chastity; full of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts—therefore full of madness and suicide.” As for home—“a few small rooms, stiflingly over-inhabited by a man, by a periodically teeming woman, by a rabble of boys and girls of all ages. No air, no space; an understerilized prison; darkness, disease, and smells.” In Brave New World, the word “mother” is smutty, in the same way that it is indelicate in the area of the city where I work to ask about the identity of a child's father. As in Brave New World, the word “father” is “not so much obscene as … merely gross, a scatological rather than a pornographic impropriety.” In the matter of human relations, we are halfway to Huxley's dystopia.

Huxley himself was highly ambivalent about the family as an institution. He not only felt that it would, but that it should, disintegrate. His powers of imagination, however, overwhelmed his ratiocination, so he was able to convey the horror of a world in which “everyone belongs to everyone,” a world in which no one formed any deep attachment to anyone else.

The ultimate target of Huxley's dystopia was the idea of the good life as the instant gratification of sensory desires. Mustapha Mond tries to prove to his students their good fortune to live in the Brave New World:

“‘Consider your own lives,’ said Mustapha Mond. ‘Has any of you ever encountered an insurmountable obstacle?’

“The question was answered by a negative silence.

“‘Has any of you been compelled to live through a long time-interval between the consciousness of a desire and its fulfillment?’

“‘Well,’ began one of the boys, and hesitated.

“‘Speak up,’ said the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. …

“‘I once had to wait nearly four weeks before a girl I wanted would let me have her.’

“‘And you felt a strong emotion in consequence?’


“‘Horrible; precisely,’ said the Controller.”

This passage reminds me of the advertising slogan of a credit card launched in Britain about 30 years ago: it “takes the waiting out of wanting.” The advertisement showed no recognition that immediate gratification usually presents a bill, with extortionate interest.

Huxley surmised that life lived as the satisfaction of one desire after another would result in shallow and egotistical people. True, he had a poor opinion of mankind to start with: “About 99.5٪ of the entire population of the planet are as stupid,” he once wrote, “as the great masses of the English.” But after gratifying their desires instantly throughout their lives, people would cease to carry the divine spark that distinguished man from the rest of creation. They would seek entertainment unto death: at Brave New World's Park Lane Hospital for the Dying, “at the foot of every bed, confronting its moribund occupant, was a television box.” I think of my own hospital, where the dying usually depart this world to the sight and sound of driveling television soap operas.

Those who live lives of immediate gratification, Huxley thought, would not be able to bear solitude of any kind. As Mustapha Mond explains, “people are never alone now. We make them hate solitude; and we arrange their lives so that it's almost impossible for them to ever have it.” A life devoted to instant gratification produces permanent infantilization: “at sixty-four … tastes are what they were at seventeen.” In our society, the telescoping of the generations is already happening: the knowledge, tastes, and social accomplishments of 13-year-olds are often the same as those of 28-year-olds. Adolescents are precociously adult; adults are permanently adolescent.


Orwell's 1984 refers more directly to contemporary events than does Huxley's book: the narrative takes place in the near rather than the distant future and obviously sets its sights on Stalinism. When I traveled in the communist world before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I found that everyone I met who had read the book (clandestinely, of course) expressed immeasurable admiration for it and marveled that a man who had never set foot inside a communist country could not only describe the physical environment so well—the universal smell of cabbage, the grayness of the dilapidated buildings—but also its mental and moral atmosphere.

It was almost as if the communist regimes had taken 1984 as a blueprint rather than as a warning. How could one watch North Korea's “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung enter into a vast stadium in Pyongyang, as I did in 1989, without recalling the “hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother”—“an act,” Orwell writes, “of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise,” during which “to dissemble your feelings, to control your face, to do what everyone else was doing, was an instinctive reaction”: instinctive because self-preserving. The Great Leader stood there impassively for minutes on end as 150,000 people threw up their arms in organized spontaneity, worshiping him, exactly as Orwell described. It was 40 years, more or less to the day, after the publication of 1984.

In Rumania under Ceauşescu, the television reported in mind-numbing detail the figures from the annual harvest, while everyone stood in line for hours to obtain a few miserable potatoes: just as the telescreen in Big Brother's Oceania tormented the population with news of the over-fulfilment of the Three-Year Plan, while there was never a sufficiency of anything. Often I washed with precisely the same kind of soap that Orwell's “hero,” Winston Smith, had to use; and when Smith reflects upon the quality of life in Oceana, I hear the voices of Albanians or Rumanians under communism: “was it not a sign that this was not the natural order of things, if one's heart sickened at the discomfort and dirt and scarcity, the interminable winters, the stickiness of one's socks, the lifts that never worked, the cold water, the gritty soap, the cigarettes that came to pieces, the food with its strange evil tastes?”

People with no experience of life except under communist regimes would tell me that they knew—though they were unsure how—that their life was not “natural,” just as Winston Smith concludes that life in Airstrip One (the new name for England in 1984) was unnatural. Other ways of life might have their problems, my Albanian and Rumanian friends would say, but theirs was unique in its violation of human nature. Orwell's imaginative grasp of what it was like to live under communism seemed to them, as it does to me, to amount to genius.

The totalitarian world Orwell describes in 1984 is thankfully today more a historical curiosity than a serious threat, except in an Islamist version. Yet, many of Orwell's ideas, like those of Huxley, remain pertinent, even though the threat of Stalinism has passed, for Orwell warned us about undesirable trends that arose from the condition of modernity as much as from Stalinism. His fears arose not just from his intuitive grasp of Stalinist states and his knowledge of communist conduct during the Spanish Civil War but from his experiences with the BBC's bureaucracy during World War II, where he witnessed firsthand the potential of the modern mass media to mislead and manipulate.

Consider his treatment of the family. In 1984, parents fear their children, whom the Spies, the Party's youth organization, have indoctrinated. The Spies encourage and reward the denunciation of every political unorthodoxy, even in the nooks and crannies of private life, the very possibility of which is lost as a result. In modern England, parents fear their uncontrollable children, whom their peers, saturated with the violent and selfish values of a degraded popular culture, have indoctrinated. In both cases, parents are no longer the source of moral authority. Orwell forces us to confront imaginatively this overthrow of the natural order.

Doublethink—the ability to hold two contradictory ideas and assent to both—is with us, too, and will remain so as long as we have large bureaucracies that claim to act for our own good while pursuing their own institutional interests. And what is political correctness but Newspeak, the attempt to make certain thoughts inexpressible through the reform of language?

Orwell's book also offers a prophetic view of modern politicized history. Winston Smith copies a passage from a child's history textbook: “In the old days, before the glorious Revolution, London was not the beautiful city that we know today. It was a dark, dirty, miserable place where hardly anybody had enough to eat and where hundreds and thousands of poor people had no boots on their feet and not even a roof to sleep under. Children no older than you are had to work twelve hours a day for cruel masters, who flogged them with whips if they worked too slowly and fed them on nothing but stale breadcrusts and water. But in among all this terrible poverty there were just a few great big beautiful houses that were lived in by rich men who had as many as thirty servants to look after them. These rich men were called capitalists. They were fat, ugly men with wicked faces, like the one in the picture on the opposite page. You can see that he is dressed in a long black coat that was called a frock coat, and a queer shiny hat shaped like a stovepipe, which was called a top hat. This was the uniform of the capitalists and no one else was allowed to wear it. The capitalists owned everything in the world, and everyone else was their slave. They owned all the land, all the houses, all the factories, and all the money. If anyone disobeyed them, they could throw him into prison, or they could starve him to death. When any ordinary person spoke to a capitalist he had to cringe and bow to him, and take off his cap and address him as ‘Sir.’”


The kind of historiography expressed in this satirical passage has become virtually standard in the various branches (feminist, black, gay, and so on) of academic resentment studies, in which history is nothing but the backward projection of current grievances, real or imagined, used to justify and inflame resentment.

The object of such historiography is to disconnect everyone from a real sense of a living past and a living culture. Indeed, the underlying theme uniting the two great dystopias of the twentieth century is the need to preserve a sense of history and cultural tradition if life is to be bearable. This theme is all the more powerful, because both Huxley and Orwell were by nature radicals: Huxley was a socialist at Oxford, flirted with fascism in the 1930s, and then became a West Coast guru; Orwell was a socialist from an early age and a lifelong enemy of the status quo. Both implicitly realized as they contemplated the future that preservation was as important as change in human life: that the past was as important as the present and the future.

In both dystopias, people find themselves cut off from the past as a matter of deliberate policy. The revolution that brought about the Brave New World, says Mustapha Mond, was “accompanied by a campaign against the Past”—the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments (as in the Taliban's Afghanistan), the banning of old books. In 1984, “the past has been abolished.” “History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Such dystopian engineering is at work in my own country. By the deliberate decision of pedagogues, hundreds of thousands of children now leave school without knowing a single historical fact about their own country. The historical principles that museums have traditionally used to display art have given way to ahistorical thematic displays—portraits of women from a jumble of eras, say. A meaningless glass box now sits on a pediment in London's Trafalgar Square as a “corrective” to the historical associations of that famous urban space. A population is being deliberately created with no sense of history.

For both Huxley and Orwell, one man symbolized resistance to the dehumanizing disconnection of man from his past: Shakespeare. In both writers, he stands for the highest pinnacle of human self-understanding, without which human life loses its depth and its possibility of transcendence. In Brave New World, possessing an old volume of Shakespeare that has mysteriously survived protects a man from the enfeebling effects of a purely hedonistic life. A few lines are sufficient to make him realize the superficiality of the Brave New World:

Is there no pity sitting in the clouds,
That sees into the bottom of my grief?
O, sweet my mother, cast me not away!

And when Winston Smith wakes in 1984 from a dream about a time before the Revolution, when people were still human, a single word rises to his lips, for reasons that he does not understand: Shakespeare.

This scene takes me back to Pyongyang. I was in the enormous and almost deserted square in front of the Great People's Study House—all open spaces in Pyongyang remain deserted unless filled with parades of hundreds of thousands of human automata—when a young Korean slid surreptitiously up to me and asked, “Do you speak English?”

An electric moment: for in North Korea, unsupervised contact between a Korean and a foreigner is utterly unthinkable, as shouting, “Down with Big Brother!”

“Yes,” I replied.

“I am a student at the Foreign Languages Institute. Reading Dickens and Shakespeare is the greatest, the only pleasure of my life.”

It was the most searing communication I have ever received in my life. We parted immediately afterward and of course will never meet again. For him, Dickens and Shakespeare (which the regime permitted him to read with quite other ends in view) guaranteed the possibility not just of freedom but of truly human life itself.

Orwell and Huxley had the imagination to understand why—unlike me, who had to go to Pyongyang to find out.


Representative Works


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