Dystopian Fiction: From H.G. Wells to Suzanne Collins
What is Dystopian Fiction?
Most people understand what a "utopia" is but "dystopia" isn't quite as commonly known. Basically, dystopian fiction completely goes against what a utopia is all about. Where a utopia pictures the perfect society and an ideal world, dystopian literature is more nightmarish and dark, as it explores political and social structures.
Some of my own personal favorite novels are dystopian fiction. What makes this genre so interesting is its exploration of some of the darkest parts of the human psyche and society both within the political sphere and in social norms. For the most part, its main characters are subjected to a loss of freedom, little happiness, and/or no justice in a society that has taken the guise of a utopia. In cases like George Wells' infamous 1984, they can even be read as warnings for people to be wary and vigilant of the world around them.
Jules Verne and Dystopian Fiction
One of the earliest examples of dystopian fiction comes from Jules Verne, who is more famously known for his novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). Before these infamous works, Verne wrote his dystopian novel entitled Paris in the Twentieth Century in 1863. In it, he writes about a young man in a world of fast cars, towering skyscrapers, and even a worldwide communications network who cannot seem to find happiness and inevitably comes to a tragic end. Interestingly, he did not actually publish this work within his lifetime. He was advised against it for the sake of his career and the manuscript sat in his safe until his great-grandson discovered it in 1989. It wasn't published until 1994.
What do you think?
Is dystopian fiction better with or without blaring political/social statements?
History of Dystopian Literature
The history of dystopian literature goes way back, beginning with the birth of the term "utopia." During the Tudor dynasty in England, Sir Thomas More (also known as Saint Thomas More) wrote his novel, Utopia, in 1516. In it, he focuses on a traveler who describes the political organization of the island country of Utopia.
More was clever, as he created the word "utopia" and names within the novel with allusions and meanings that covertly added to what he was talking about. "Utopia" comes from the Greek ou-topos (no place) and eu-topos (good place). So it is a place that is good and yet does not exist. The traveler's name, Raphael Hythlodeaus, alludes to the archangel, Raphael, who is the agent of truth while his surname means "speaker of nonsense" in Greek. This coincides with the fact that the traveler's words are true in that he speaks of a good nonexistent place but that in the end it is all nonsense since a true utopia is impossible.
Due to the unattainability of a utopia, many authors have not pursued this type of fiction since More's time and instead turned to its complete opposite to focus their literature on, the dystopia. One of the earliest and most infamous authors of dystopian fiction is H.G. Wells. His novel, The Time Machine (1895) is a perfect example of a dystopia. In it, a man creates a time machine and goes into the future. There he finds that humans have become divided into two distinct races, the upper class humans and the Morlocks. Years without conflict have left the humans uneducated and desensitized while Morlocks have become more aggressive and violent. It is a statement on class systems and, like any classic dystopia, shows how even a society built with good intentions may inevitably end disastrously.
Another high roller in the realm of dystopian literature is Ayn Rand. Her novella, Anthem (1938) is a very distinct example of this genre. It features a man, Equality 7-2521, who lives at an unspecified time in a dark future where individuality has been eliminated and technological advancement is nearly nonexistent. He is writing in a tunnel about his background and the society he is surrounded with as he has come to realize he is cursed with the desire to question and dream, rather than conform. Eventually, Equality renames himself Prometheus as he learns about the past and wonders why humanity gave up so much and if they will regain it.
A more recent example of dystopian fiction is Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (2008). Unlike the novels of the past within this genre, Collins does not provide readers with a blaring lesson or political/social statement to walk away with. Still, it features a character, Katniss, who is living in a post-apocalyptic world under a government that has complete control over the twelve districts that surround it. It also has a very distinct class separation between lower and upper class that even goes so far as to keep them separated by mountains with no contact whatsoever, beyond the Hunger Games. Another difference between this novel and many other works of dystopian fiction is that the class system and political organization seems to become better for the lower classes at the end instead of worse. However, Katniss, to the disappointment of many readers, still ends up unhappy despite so much work to make things better.
To sum it all up, dystopian fiction comes to us as a reaction to Sir Thomas More's Utopia. Since around the nineteenth century to today, it has remained a popular genre but has also changed from being straightforward about its political or social ideals to being a little more subtle. Most people read The Hunger Games as merely another work of young adult fiction, without seeing its dystopian side, for example.
More on Works of Dystopian Fiction
Literature Examples of Dystopian Fiction
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
This is one of my personal favorite novels that I first read back in high school for class and fell in love with immediately. Like most novels within dystopian fiction, Huxley's work is set in a society that presents itself as a utopia but suppresses individuality and even emotion. The population is limited by government control. Everyone is unable to reproduce and all babies are factory made and raised by the government. Then they are divided into four distinct classes: Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon, based on the genetic traits, such as intelligence, that they are provided with at birth.
Huxley's society is full of sex, drugs, and overspending alongside the drive to never be alone. This ensures a highly entertained and spendy society that is fearful of individuality. Its main character, Bernard, dares to question how things are run and brings John, from the Savage Reservation that is outcast from society, to his world. John loves Shakespeare and soon discovers that the people of London are nothing like he thought. His attempts at isolating himself from civilization prove futile and the story ends tragically.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Published in 1960, A Canticle for Leibowitz is about a boy named Brother Francis Gerard in a world 600 years after a nuclear war that has left it almost completely destroyed. In this piece of dystopian fiction, the culture has turned against knowledge and advancement through technology, as a result of a war they believed was caused by these traits in society. Books are destroyed, no one reads, and anyone who attempts to attain knowledge is destroyed by the mob called the "Simpletons."
Years earlier, a man named Isaac Edward Leibowitz founded the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. Originally, Leibowitz was a Jewish electrical engineer for the U.S. Army but he converted to Roman Catholicism after the war. His order aims to preserve knowledge by hiding books, memorizing, and copying them. Overall, Miller's novel is divided into three parts total, with a complicated story ending in death and destruction as history, inevitably, repeats itself.
1984 by George Orwell
This classic piece of dystopian fiction was first published in 1949. It is about a totalitarian society in the future called Oceania that is ruled by The Party. In it, we read of Winston Smith and his adventures as he rebels against he intellectual confines of society and finds romance with Julia, only to be caught, tortured, and re-educated. Many words and phrases such as "Big Brother" and "thinkspeak" are from this novel and are commonly used even by those who have no idea where it comes from. Some read it as a warning about the potential power the government can have over people.
Ayn Rand: Dystopian Fiction Read as Prophecy
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
I tried reading this novel recently and couldn't get through it. It's long and it requires a lot of work from its reader but I'm told it's worth it. Atlas Shrugged is considered one of Rand's best works. Published in 1957, this novel was the last and the longest she ever published.
Atlas Shrugged is a difficult piece of dystopian fiction to briefly summarize. Basically, it is about Dagny Taggart's efforts to repair Taggart Transcontinental as she is hindered by the fact that many of the big business owners are retiring and disappearing. Taggart does everything to make reparations possible. Eventually, the story leads to romance as well as political chaos as the collapse of the country commences.
V For Vendetta by Alan Moore
I know there are some of you may not consider comics to be literature and I would agree, but there are plenty out there that most certainly are more than just comics and deserve a spot in that capital L for literature slot. V for Vendetta is an example of just that. With a movie adaptation to boot, it is a part of the dystopian genre that is just as full of political and social commentary as its predecessors.
Moore's comics are about a society in the UK from the 1980s that is ruled by a totalitarian government. V is a rebel who manages to fight back against the restraints of government, including bombing Parliament and executing three officials for crimes committed. His name, V, stands for vengeance and so much more as he works to fight for the people.
© 2012 LisaKoski