What do you think of when you hear the words Sci-Fi? Chances are, the words inspire images such as the one above, of nightmarish landscapes featuring clogged streets, flying cars, neon lights and massive skyscrapers. Or possibly you’re partial to the more utopian visions, with space travel, beautiful arcologies and happy shiny people who want for nothing and treat each other with peace and civility.
All good, but chances are, no one thinks of medieval literature from the Islamic world when they hear that term. Chances are no one thinks of anything other than the industrial age, of men like H.G Wells and Jules Verne. For most of us, these are the people who pioneered the field of science fiction, no doubt about it. But amongst scholarswho specialize in tracing literary genres to their roots, one book stands out as the possible progenitor of them all; a little known novel by the name of Theologus Autodidactus.
Outside of antiquarians and theologists, not many people have heard of this story, and up until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t either. So you can imagine my surprise when I learned about it. To me, science fiction was not something that could have predated the scientific revolution, or the age of industry when steam locomotives, steam ships, and a revolutionary understanding of the world and man’s place in it inspired flights of fancy which went well beyond our world. And yet, as it turns out, a manuscript which was written sometime in the 13th century by an Islamic scholar living in Egypt.
His pen name was Ibn al-Nafis (nee Ala-al-din abu Al-Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi), and he was what westerners would later refer to as a “Renaissance Man”. Not only was he an expert physician he also studied jurisprudence, literature and theology and became an expert on the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence before he died. In addition to writing many treatises on medicine, one of which was made famous for being the first in which pulmonary circulation of the blood was mentioned, he also wrote extensively on law and the world’s first coming of age tale/science fiction novel Al-Risalah al-Kamiliyyah fil Siera al-Nabawiyyah, which translated into Latin is known as Theologus Autodidactus.
Plot Summary: Broken down succinctly, the story revolves around a protagonist named Kamil, an adolescent feral child who at the beginning of the story finds himself spontaneously transported to a cave on a deserted island. Almost immediately, it is clear that the boy is an autodidactic, a self-directed learner who has mastered several fields through independent learning.
Over time, he is met by several castaway who get shipwrecked on the island, learning and sharing from them. In time, the castaways band together to make a ship and agree to take Kamil with them back to civilization. As they return to the world of man, Kamil begins to see all the works of man, learns of philosophy, law and medicine remaining a self-directed learner all the while) and comes to several conclusions.
As he grows, he is taught the value of jurisprudence, religion, the necessity of the existence of God, and the value of the sciences, arts, and all other things that make man civilized. His own coming of age is reflected in explorations of the origin of man, the current state of the world, and predictions of the future. Towards the end, the plot develops from this coming-of-age scenario and begins to incorporate several new elements, such as the the end of the world, doomsday, resurrection and afterlife are predicted and scientifically explained using his own empirical knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology.
Ultimately, Ibn al-Nafis described his own work as a defense of “the system of Islam and the Muslims’ doctrines on the missions of Prophets, the religious laws, the resurrection of the body, and the transitoriness of the world”. Essentially, this meant presenting rational arguments for religious ideas, such as bodily resurrection and the immortality of the human soul, using both demonstrative reasoning and literary examples to prove his case. In this respect, he was not unlike Thomas Aquinas and a host of other western scholars from the High Middle Ages, men who would similarly try to defend reason based on faith and use empirical knowledge to defend the existence of a spiritual, universal order.
However, what set Ibn al-Nafis’ work apart was the way in which he expressed his religious, scientific and philosophical views through a fictitious narrator who went on to experience what the world had to offer. Rather than writing things in treatise form, which was the style for most philosophers of the day, he chose to do what only a select few of his contemporaries did and tell the story through a narrator who’s own journey illustrated one’s own journey of discovery. In that respect, he was like Voltaire, who’s fictional Candide had to venture out into the world in order to realize the truth about life and the order of things, though their conclusions were vastly different.
And finally, fact that he chose to speculate about what the future held, up to and including the apocalypse itself, is what makes this work classifiable as science fiction. Here, he was most comparable to men like H.G. Wells and Verne, men who looked to the future in the hopes of illustrating the current state of humanity and where it was likely to take them. And though these, and later generations of individuals, often had a negative appraisal of such things, Iban al-Nafis’ was arguably positive. His exploration was designed to affirm belief in the existence of something greater than material nature, but provable using the same basic laws.
I can’t imagine being able to find a copy of this book any time soon. It’s not like Amazon has copies on hold for anyone looking to a little cross-cultural antiquities reading. I checked, they really don’t! Still, I’d consider it a boon to find a translation and read the whole story for myself. What I little I learned can’t possibly capture the historic and cultural importance of the novel. Something to add to the reading list, right next to The Peach Blossom Spring and Beowulf!
Picking up where I left off last time, I thought I’d get into some examples of how dystopian fiction has influenced popular culture. And given all the feedback I got on my previous post, I also wanted to incorporate some suggested titles as well. But, just to be clear, I still haven’t read Hunger Games, so please don’t ask about it!
Alright, so last time, I mentioned just about every examples of dystopian literature I could find. From the earliest examples of Candide and Gulliver’s Travellers, onto the more modern interpretations of The Time Machine and We, and culminating with classics like BNW and 1984, I essentially ended before I could get into how these novels have had an influence on film and other media. In addition to inspiring the written words, these classics have inspired an entire culture of iconography, symbolism and motifs.
Not surprising, really. Every work of dystopian fiction and satire has sought to create images in the reader’s mind, using highly specific descriptions in order to paint a scene and inspire the right mood. Whenever these novels have been adapted to film, or directors were simply trying to convey similar themes, the task of properly conveying it all visually has always been a hefty one. The same is true for graphic novels and any other visual medium. So today, just for fun, and perhaps to complete my romp through the realm of this inspired genre, here are some examples of dystopia in modern media:
Blade Runner: Granted, Blade Runner was based on Philip K Dick’s Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep?, a dystopian story in some respects, but not in the same way that the movie was. Whereas the novel took place in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (circa 2019) which is sparsely populated and where a living animal is seen as a status symbol. In the movie, the year and location are the same, but the setting is starkly different. Here, it is a stuffy, polluted, mega-city made up of massive skyscrapers and giant animated billboards, where the streets are dirty and packed with people who spoke a strange dialect known as Cityspeak (check out my post on Cityspeak for on that).
And what made it all so awesome, aside from the plot, was the attention to detail. Director Ridley Scott, the same man who brought us Aliens, brought his usual artistic touch and a team of first-grade set designers to the table. Overall, they produced some pretty awesome concepts, ones which are still being praised to this day. Here are just a few:
The Tyrell Corp. building, which was kind of the focal point of the movie. Early on, we get a birds-eye view of it as Detective Deckard Cain (Harrison Ford) is being flown there in a Spinner (flying car). Later on, the leader of the Replicant party, Roy Batty, travels there as well seeking answers to some of life’s most basic questions.
For starters, the building is clearly based on a the design of a Ziggurat, the breed of ancient Babylon temple that inspired such legends as the “Tower of Babel”, and which serves as a clear representation for the almost godlike power Tyrell wields. The interior design, with its large columns, soft lighting, candles, an owl (a possible reference to Athena’s owl) and the way Tyrell can block out the sun at will all serve to further illustrate this point. That scene near the end where is dressed in lavish white robes also seemed pretty symbolic, I’d say!
And for those who read 1984, there is a possible encoded reference to the four ministries as well- Truth, Peace, Love, and Plenty – all of which were pyramid-like in design. Coincidence? Who knows? All that matter is when it comes to massive structures that harken back to ancient Egypt and Mesapotamia, the symbolic value is clear. Much like the civilizations that built them, these things stood for power and dominion, both over lesser subjects and the afterlife itself. They were the ruler’s way of achieving immortality by creating something that embodied their power and would stand the test of time. As Shelley said in his poem “Ozymandias”: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
And when it comes right down to it, this old-world kind of mentality, updated for the modern age, is indispensable to any dystopian story: Absolute power, wielded by the few over the many and represented in conspicuous and obvious ways! In many cases, it comes in the form of totalitarian governments (a la The Party) who runs things with an iron fist and build massive government buildings to remind everyone of who’s in charge. But in other cases, it takes the form or corporate dominance, where the wealthy rule society like feudal barons while the rest live like serfs. And much like their bureaucratic peers, they choose to lord this by building lavish buildings to themselves and covering themselves with ornate symbols!
Another trademark bit of dystopian set design were the massive skyscrapers, complete with giant video-billboards. No doubt, these too were designed to give the impression of the control corporations had over the people of LA in the future. As if regular sized billboards ads weren’t enough, (or televised, print, bench, flier, blimp, and radio ads) now it seemed that corporate monopolies were splastering their logo’s on screens the size of buildings!
And just to make it realistic, Ridley Scott and his designers were also sure to use logos that were already big in the early 80′s and seemed destined to get bigger – Atari, Coca Cola, Pan Am Air, Cuisinart, Bell System. But interestingly enough, all of these companies suffered heavy losses after the movie’s release. The phenomena came to be known as the “Blade Runner Curse”. Strange, one would think audiences began associating them with dark imagery or something
But personally, I think one of the most effective aspects of the movie’s look and feel came through in the construction of the streets. Here, Scott’s design team made sure that every shot was crammed full of people who whore plastic jumpers, dark glasses, cool headgear, and carried what looked like umbrellas with neon handles. Then came the street vendors who peddled food or exotic pets in the same neighborhoods, facades that were ashen grey in color, and all kinds of neon signs written in various languages. It painted quite the scene, one which can only be described by the words “Future Noire”.
Brazil: Directed by Terry Gilliam, an old-time member of the comedy troupe Monty Python and director of such movies as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, Brazil was a rather humorous take on the classic 1984. In it, we are presented with a dystopian society that is ruled by a totalitarian regime, but which is buffoonish and incompetent rather than exacting and brutal.
In addition, the people in this world are also overly-dependent on machinery which is rather unreliable and poorly maintained. And last of all, there is the main character of Sam Lowry, a low-level government employee who works in a mind-numbing government job, lives in a small apartment, and is having prescient dreams about a woman and a man in mask who is torturing him.
The movie shared many plot and thematic elements with 1984, but much of its genius comes through in the set design and direction. Given that the aim of the movie was to present a world in which the machinery is as undependable as the bureaucracy, Gilliam decided to go with a look that would call to mind the kind of over-the-top aesthetics of past sci-fi films. While everything was admittedly grey, dark, and shot in wide and tilted angles, there was also a sort of comic, retro feel to the whole thing. This helped to establish the central premise of the movie, in which incompetence and mind-drudging inefficiency were what was destroying humanity, not a specific agenda.
In addition, Gillian had much to say about artifice and vanity in this film. Lowry’s mother, who plays an important role in the plot, is obsessed with plastic surgery which she hopes will make her look younger. Towards the end of the movie, Lowry dreams that his mother is attending the funeral of a friend who died as a result of too many invasive procedures. And in what can only be described as an moment of oedipal confusion, his mother even looks like Jill, the much younger woman he has fallen in love with!
An interesting take on 1984 isn’t it? Rather than following a philosophy like the one espoused by O’Brien, where the Party wields absolute control over reality and people’s minds, want to eliminate all emotion except hatred, and has destroyed any activities that do not serve their interests, the totalitarian regime in Brazil is instead motivated by laziness and a desire to cover its own ass. Not being wrong literally means more to them than the lives of their citizens. What better commentary is there on a bureaucratized society?
Judge Dredd: Yes, the movie didn’t so well, and the script and plot were so simplistic that Stallone himself called it a “no-brainer”. But that doesn’t change the fact that the source material is actually one of the better graphic novels in existence, especially when it comes to depth and irony. Set in a post-apocalyptic world of the not-too-distant future, the comics take place for the most part inside “Mega City One”, one of several megalopolis’s that have sprung up in the US after a nuclear war which left it and Soviet Union utterly devastated.
Within this city, just about everything is automated and unemployment is almost universal. Every city block contains over fifty-thousand people, amounting to a population of about 400 million people per city. Due to overcrowding, massive unemployment and uncontrollable violence, the leaders of this future society created a quasi-fascist justice system whereby individual “Street Judges” (policemen) were charged with dispensing judgement and punishment on site. This had a stabilizing effect on society, but the problems remain…
Automatically, one can see a few things at work here. For starters, there’s the Hobbesian idea of man in the state of nature; how because of nuclear war, life became “nasty, brutish and short” and a tyrannical system was needed to put things back in order. In addition, there’s the whole “who polices the police?” side of things, where audiences naturally fear that the judges will abuse their power or fight to the death to hang onto it.
And last, there is the very real sociological concept of the “megalopolis”, the Northeastern mega city running from Virginia to Maine which was originally coined by French geographer Jean Gottmann. In the course of the comic’s history, it is made clear that Mega City One was not actually designed, but grew out of natural urban sprawl that predated the nuclear war. It was only after the war that it became a self-contained place where automation, unemployment and chaos become so rampant.
Now one might also get the impression that this was all meant to illustrate some preachy, “we made a mistake” kind of message (which is in fact what happened in the movie). But in truth, these issues are presented with a fair degree of subtly and irony in the graphic novel.
Knowing full well how his audience would react to fascist symbols and ideology, John Wager (creator) presented readers with a story that is loaded with both. For starters, the Judge’s symbol is an eagle, which bears a striking resemblance to the Nazi black eagle. The Judge’s uniform is also highly ornate and calls to mind the classical imperial motifs of Centurions and Gladiators. And the fact that Dredd’s face is never seen can only be seen as highly indicative. He’s a faceless law-giver, much like Stormtroopers or the SS.
What’s more, the people who sport these symbols and preach these values are presented as heroes. Judge Dredd, for all intents and purposes, is a social fascist who is bereft of sentimentality, doubt or remorse over what he does. Unlike the other Judges, there’s no crime he won’t ignore, and he never stops for more than ten minutes at a time to rest in a sleep chamber, then he’s back on the job. He also has little sympathy for people who believe in enlightened reform or who criticize the Street Judges for their abuses of power.
The purpose of this always seemed to be for the sake of ironic social commentary. Rather than condemning the Judges and the system they represent (or endorsing them) we are meant to see how – under the right circumstances – something like this could very well happen!
THX 1138: You know, its movies like this that remind us all that there was a time that George Lucas had talent, when he cared about thing like plots and inspired story-telling, and not special effects and merchandizing. But I’ll leave my riffs about the Star Wars prequels for another day. Right now, I will admit that there is plenty about this directorial debut worth praising, and not the least of which was the faithful dystopian tone it struck.
Set in a dystopian future where the human race is required by law to take drugs that suppress emotion and sexual desires, are controlled by android police, and all inhabitants worship a godlike being known as OMM 0910, the story is clearly a commentary on how rationalization and automation threatened to destroy humanity. In addition, there are clear and obvious parallels to novels like We,Brave New World and 1984.
For example, the people in this future are all given designations instead of names, the state sanctioned religion is reminiscent of Big Brother, and the mandatory use of mind altering drugs calls to mind Soma. And of course, the stark, clinical portrayal of society in the future is very similar to descriptions of the One State and Oceania in We and 1984. And let’s not forget the scene were android police torture and abuse the main character? Tell me that didn’t come directly out of the scenes where Winston was languishing in the Ministry of Love!
And of course the overall moral of the story, that love is precious and will fight the odds against the forces of cold rationality, this too was practically lifted from Orwell’s and Zamyatin ‘s classics! This is not a criticism, mind you. If anything, Lucas demonstrated a keen ability to adopt freely from novels and franchises in a way that really worked. Much as he would do with Star Wars just a few years later, he seemed to know where to borrow from and how to put it all together!
The Watchmen: Now this was one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. Lucky for me, it also falls into the realm of dystopian fiction, hence I can talk about it here! In addition to taking place in an alternate universe, the setting is one which is quite dark and gritty. Set in the 1980′s, which is the same period in which it was written, the story is of an alternate reality where the existence of superheroes has caused history to diverge quite a bit from our own. Technically, superheroes have been in existence for many decades, which helps to give the story a real sense of historicity.
However, it was with the service of superheroes in actual wars and government programs that caused history to shift. Beginning with Doctor Manhattan’s intervention in Vietnam and culminating in the development of cheap, renewable energy by Ozymandias (with Manhattan’s help), the Cold War took an unexpected turn. Russia was systematically beaten back to the point where it was becoming desperate and nuclear war seemed inevitable. Meanwhile, society began to decay as war began to occupy more and more of society’s attention and the inner cities were neglected and left to rot.
Told for the point of view of Rorschach, a borderline social fascist with deep-seated issues, the darkness and impending sense of doom really come through! As he investigates the death of the Comedian, a fellow superhero who’s death incites the whole plot, we learn how both he, the Watchmen, and society came to be the way it is. His own tragic story, and that of the Comedians, serves to illustrate how the American Dream failed and cynicism and fear took over.
But of course, the point with dystopian stories is not just to speculate, but to make a point about the time in which it was written. Looked at from this angle, the Watchmen was really telling us about the real world of the 1980′s, a world which had come very far since the post-war era in terms of technological, social and cultural development. And like many other cultural commentaries, a sense of failure and betrayal is at work. What happened to the post-war dream? What happened to the American Dream? How did poverty, crime, licentiousness and cynicism become so rampant? From Rorschach point of view, the Cold War is largely to blame, but so is human nature. And given that he is such a dark and messed up character, I don’t think his opinions were meant to be taken too seriously!
V forVendetta: Yet another awesome graphic novel, and one which also inspired a hit movie adaptation. A piece of speculative fiction, this series was produced in the 1980′s and was set in a near-future dystopian England. Over the years, this series’ thematic elements and symbolism have been compared to 1984. However, in truth, the story has much more in common with The Iron Heel and It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis (which should have made my list of dystopian literature, dammit!) In these two novels, especially the latter, a fascist regime takes power by appealing to the people’s sense of moral purity and a desire for order, and in the end the people got more than they bargained for!
But alas, the story in the comic book version involves nuclear war and the transformation of the UK into “lifeboat Britain”. Given that the movie was made in the early 2000′s, the story had to be updated somewhat. There, the focus shifted to terrorism and the exploitation of fear – echoes of The Handmaids Tale and “Loose Change” there, but I digress. After being passed over by the nuclear holocaust, Britain found itself being flooded with refugees and victims of the war. Bit by bit, authoritarian measures were put into place to deal with the crisis, until eventually, the fascist government of Norsefire took over, and that’s when the real changes happened!
They’re motto: “Strength Through Purity, Purity through Faith” pretty much sums it up! In addition to pushing a religious agenda, they were also very much concerned with purging British society or minorities and “undesirables”. A police state was put into place where a series of departments – the Eyes, Ears, Mouth, and Hands – were tasked with controlling and monitoring all aspects of society. The Eyes handled surveillance, the Ears listened to people’s by tapping their phones and bugging their homes, the Mouth disseminated propaganda, and the Hands investigated criminal activity. And of course all minorities, be they racial minorities, homosexuals, or just political dissidents, were sent to concentration camps where they were exterminated and experimented on.
Into all this enters the character of V, an anarchist revolutionary who is the product of one camp’s twisted experiments. As a result of their invasive procedures, he became an enigmatic genius/amnesiac with a serious chip on his shoulder who is now on a quest to pay the government back for its crimes. His famous disguise, the Guy Fawkes mask and robes of black and red, are as intrinsic to establishing his character as his monologues and affinity for blowing up government buildings!
Judging by the color scheme alone, one immediately can tell that this man is an anarchist by his use of the color black (or anarcho-syndicalist seeing as how he combines it with red). The mask is a further indication of this, given that Guy Fawkes was a radical who tried to blow up parliament because he believes any vestige of government to be anathema to freedom. So in the end, we can see that this a man who wants to bring down the system and is reaching into Britain’s forgotten past to resurrect the idea of civil liberty.
In contrast, Norsefire’s logo was pretty straightforward too. In the comic, Norsefire represented itself on its “motivational posters” with a set of white wings with a space in the middle that was in the shape of a cross, and behind it lay flames. This is obviously meant to conjure up images of religious propriety, or holy war, and of action, all of which are clear allusions to fascist and religious-right iconography. It was also meant, in my opinion, to call to mind Britain’s Action Party, a fascist political group that played a small but influential role in British political life during the 1970′s.
In any case, one can see several staples of dystopia at work in this series, hence why it earned a loyal following and garnered so much critical acclaim. In addition to the idea of a nuclear war breeding totalitarian regime in Britain (right out of 1984), of “Lifeboat Britain” giving rise to a fascist regime (which may have helped to inspire the novel Children of Men) and countless allusions to Nazism and how it really could take root in Britain – which calls to mind Orwell’s essay “England Your England” where he basically asserted that it couldn’t.
Wow, this sort of stuff makes me feel head-heavy and tired! It seems that when you get into a subject as rich as dystopian literature and its various offshoots, there’s no shortage of material! But I think I’ve learned something from all of this and it’s important that I get it right. So bear with me…
As I said in my last post, utopian literature predates dystopian by a couple centuries at least. And I also focused on the differences between the two, how utopian lit shows our failures by using a prefect society as a comparison while dystopian societies show the logical outcome of our most worrisome flaws. However, I’ve now come to think that the issue is far more complicated than all that. For starters, one can find elements of the former in the latter and vice-versa. What’s more, utopian novels and treatises were often loaded with irony, at times truncated themselves to make the point that perfect societies were not so perfect, or perhaps unattainable.
On the other hand, all dystopian novels take as their starting point the idea of a failed utopia. Whether it was a willful lie (as O’Brien revealed in 1984) or an attempt at perfection gone wrong, all dystopians arose out of attempt to create a “perfect society”. In the case of the classics written after the 18th century, the inspiration for this is clear. Beginning with the French Revolution, then the Russian, and countless other revolutions who’s aim was to radically transform society, it seemed that every attempt to create “real equality” and an “earthly paradise” was doomed to result in tyranny and abuse. Sometimes horribly so!
But the earlier utopian writers didn’t have these failed social experiments to point to. In their case, saying that utopias were unattainable would have had to have been purely philosophical. And examples abound! The very word Utopia, for example, is Greek for “no-place”. And the narrator of this book, the man who is an apparent specialist on this fabled society, is named Raphael Hythloday. This last name has a Greek root which loosely translates to “expert in nonsense”. Samuel Butler, another utopian writer, named his fictional society Erewhon, which is simply “Nowhere” written backwards. In addition, in his “perfect” society, people are punished for being sick and treated for criminal behavior, an inversion of the usual procedure!
I guess its like the dividing line between heaven and hell, or revelation and madness. Somehow, the line is fine, and one misstep can take you from one to the other in the blink of an eye! And, as with everything else, we carry these things with us and project them wherever we go. Well… that was deep! Stay tuned, I’m sure to have something more cheerful for next time!
Lately, I’ve been feeling kind of dystopian! Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m working on an anthology of dark science fiction with some fellow writer’s over at Goodreads (called Writer’s Worth). Or it might just be that this seemed like the next logical step in the whole “conceptual science fiction” thing. Regardless, when it comes to the future, sci-fi writers love to speculate, and it usually takes one of two forms. Either humanity lives in a utopian society, where technology, time, and evolution have ferreted out our various weaknesses. Or, we live in a dystopian world, where humanity has either brought itself to the brink of annihilation or is living in dark, polluted, and overpopulated environments, the result of excess and environmental degradation.
As with all things science fiction, the aim here is to use speculative worlds of the future to offer commentary on today. As William Gibson, himself a dark future writer, once said: “Science fiction [is] always about the period in which it was written.” So today, I thought I would acknowledge some truly classic examples of dystopian literature and the books that started it all. Here they are:
Dystopian literature, contrary to popular conception, did not begin in the 20th century with Brave New World. In fact, one can find examples going as far back as the Enlightenment when philosophers and scholars used fictional contexts to illustrate the weaknesses of society and how they might be reformed. And, in many ways, this form of social critique borrowed from Utopian literature, a genre that takes its name from Thomas More’s seminal book that describes a perfect fictional society.
But where More and earlier writers (such as Plato and St. Augustine) used perfect civilizations to parody contemporary society, this newer breed of authors used dark ones to do the same. In short, Utopian literature showed society how it could be, dystopian literature as it was.
Candide: A true classic, though it is sometimes difficult to classify this work as a true dystopian work of fiction. For one, it is set in the contemporary world, not in a fictionalized society, and revolves around the life of a fictional character who travels from one region to the next, seeking to answer the fundamental question of whether or not this is “the best of all possible worlds”. However, this book remains one of the principal sources of inspiration for science fiction writers when constructing fictional worlds for the sake of satirizing their own.
Published in 1755 by the critic and philosopher Voltaire, the story was inspired by the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and the church’s and Leibnizian’s attempts to rationalize it. At the beginning, Candide – the main character whose name means “optimism” – lives a sheltered existence where he is busy studying and living with his friends and companions. However, this existence is quickly interrupted by the arrival of war, and Candide and his companions are forced to travel from place to place, witnessing all the problems of the world.
These include war, slavery, rape, imperialism, abuse of power, and exploitation, which they observe as the story takes them from Europe to the Middle East to the Americas. Eventually, they return home and reflect on all they have seen and whether or not this is “the best of all possible worlds”. They conclude that it is not, but offer a resolution by saying that “we must cultivate our garden”.
Gulliver’s Travels: Another classic example that is often considered a combination of utopian and dystopian novels. This is because the plot involves the travels of one man – Gulliver, whose name is a play on the world gullible – whose journey takes him through many fictional worlds where life is either perfect or tragically flawed in various ways. However, since the purpose of these worlds is to parody English society in his day, it is often included as an early example of satiric literature that falls into the utopian, dystopian, and science fiction camps.
The story involves four journeys where Gulliver travels to several fictional societies and records what he sees for posterity. The first voyage takes him to the land of the Lilliputians, a race of tiny people whose morals match their physical size. After some rather brief descriptions of how these people select their leaders (limbo tournaments and other stupid games), we learn that they are a parody of the British system of parliament.
His second voyage takes him to a place that is the polar opposite of the first. Here, in the land of the Brobdingnagians, he is presented with giants whose physical size mirrors their moral outlook. They consider Gulliver to be a curious specimen, whose descriptions of his country disgust them. In the end, they consider him a cute sideshow attraction and refuse his offer of technological advances (like gunpowder). Gulliver then leaves, thinking the people are out of their minds, but ironically states that he withheld the worse about England out of a desire to save face.
His next voyage involves a little “island-hopping”, first to the flying city of Laputa, an island nation where technological pursuits are followed without a single regard for the consequences. He then detours to another island, Glubbdubdrib, where he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures.
Then onto Luggnagg, where he encounters the struldbrugs – an unfortunate race of people who are immortal but frozen in old age, with all the infirmities that come with it. Gulliver then reaches Japan, which is in the grips of the post-war Shogunate period, where he is narrowly excused from taking part in an anti-Christian display that all foreigners were forced to perform at the time (stepping on the symbol of the Cross).
His final voyage before going home takes him country of the Houyhnhnms, a race of horse-people who see themselves as “the perfection of nature” and who rule over the race of Yahoos – deformed humans who exist in their basest form. Gulliver joins them and comes to adopt their view of humanity – that of base creatures that use reason only to advance their own appetites. However, they soon come to see him as a Yahoo and expel him from their civilization. In the end, Gulliver returns home to regal his family of his adventures but finds that he cannot relate to them anymore. His journeys have filled him with a sense of misanthropy that he cannot ignore.
Throughout the narrative, Swift’s point seems abundantly clear. Each voyage to a fictitious world serves as a means to parody a different element of British society and civilization in general. And ultimately, Gulliver serves as the perfect narrator, in that his ignorance and naivety allow him to absorb the lessons of the journey in a way that is both ironic and sufficiently detached. Can’t just hand the reader the moral, after all! Gotta make them work for it!
The Time Machine: Published in 1895, this science fiction novella inspired countless adaptations and popularized the very idea of time travel. In addition to introducing readers to the concept of time as the fourth dimension and temporal paradoxes, H.G. Wells also had some interesting social commentary to share. In this story, the narrator – known only as The Traveller – recounts to a bunch of dinner guests how he used a time machine to travel to the year 802, 701 A.D. where he witnessed a strange culture made up of two distinct peoples.
On the one hand, there were the Eloi, a society of elegant, beautiful people who live in futuristic (but deteriorating) buildings and do no work. Attempts to communicate with them prove difficult since they seem to possess no innate curiosity or discipline. He assumes that they are a communistic society who have used technology to conquer nature and evolved (or devolved) to a point where strength and intellect are no longer necessary to survive.
However, this changes when he comes face to face with a separate race of ape-like troglodytes who live in underground enclaves and surface only at night. Within their dwellings, he discovers the machinery and industry that makes the above-ground paradise possible. He then realizes that the human race has evolved into two species: the leisured class of the ineffectual Eloi, and the downtrodden working classes that have devolved into the brutish Morlocks. In the course of searching the Morlock enclave, he learns that they also feed on the Eloi from time to time. His revised analysis is that their relationship is not a benign one, but one characterized by animosity and the occasional act of kidnapping and cannibalism.
Is there not a more perfect vision of industrial society or class conflict? Written within the context of turn of the century England, where discrepancies in wealth, class conflict, and demands for reform were commonplace, this book was clearly intended to explore social models in addition to scientific ideas. And the commentary was quite effective if you ask me…
The Iron Heel: This dystopian work was written by Jack London, the same man who wrote the classic Call of the Wild, and was released in 1908. A clear expression of London’s own socialist beliefs, the novel is set in the distant future when a socialist utopia – known as the Brotherhood of Man – has finally been created. Overall, the plot revolves around the “Everhard Manuscript”, a testament that details the lives of the story’s two main protagonists and which takes place between 1912 to 1932 in the US. The work is known for its big “spoiler”, letting readers know outright that the protagonists die in the course of their pursuits, but that their efforts are rewarded by providing inspiration to later generations who succeed where they fail.
In the course of this speculative story, we learn that an oligarchy – the Oligarchs or “Iron Heel” – has seized power in the US by bankrupting the middle class and reducing farmers to a state of serfdom. Once in power, they maintained order through a combination of preferential treatment and control over the military. After a failed revolt (the First Revolt) takes place, preparations are underway for a second which is expected to succeed in restoring the Republic. Unfortunately, it too fails and the protagonists are killed. However, centuries later, when their Manuscript is discovered, the Oligarchy has been unseated and a debt is being acknowledged to these characters and their actions.
Thus, London speculates that a socialist society would someday emerge in the US, but only after centuries of dominance by oligarchs who would come to power by decimating the middle class, controlling trade unions, and transforming the military into a mercenary front. His main characters, though condemned to death in the present, will be vindicated in the distant future when humanity will, at last, overcome its greedy tendencies and usher in a state based on equality and fraternity. Apparently, this novel inspired such greats as George Orwell, but not in the way you think. Whereas London chose to offer his readers a sense of consolation by showing them everything turned out okay in the distant future, Orwell chose to take the hopeless route to make his point!
We: The story takes place in the distant future, roughly one thousand years after the One State conquered the entire world. After years of living in a perfectly synchronized, rational, and orderly world, the people of the One State are busy constructing a ship (the Integral) that will export their way of life to extra-terrestrial worlds. Published in 1921, and written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the story was clearly inspired by life in post-revolutionary Russia, with its commitment to “scientific Marxism, but was also a commentary on the deification of reason at the expense of feeling and emotion.
The story is told from the point of view of D-503, chief engineer of the Integral who is keeping a journal which he intends to be taken on the voyage. As we learn in the course of the novel, everyone in the One State lives in glass apartments that are monitored by secret police known as the Bureau of Guardians. All sex is conducted strictly for reproductive purposes and cannot be done without state sanction. However, the main character soon comes into contact with a woman named I-330, a liberated woman who flirts with him, smokes, and drinks alcohol without regard for the law.
In time, he learns that I-330 is a member of a revolutionary order known as MEPHI which is committed to bringing down the One State. While accompanying her to the Ancient House, a building notable for being the only opaque structure in the One State where objects of historic and aesthetic importance are preserved, he is escorted through a series of tunnels to the world outside the Green Wall which surrounds the city-state. There, D-503 meets the inhabitants of the outside world – humans whose bodies are covered with animal fur. The aim of the MEPHI is to destroy the Green Wall and reunite the citizens of the One State with the outside world.
In his last entry, D-503 relates that he has undergone an operation that is mandated for all citizens of the One State. Similar to a lobotomy, this operation involved targeted x-rays that eliminate all emotion and imagination from the human brain. Afterward, D-503 informs on I-330 and MEPHI but is surprised how she refuses to inform on her compatriots once she is captured. People beyond the wall even succeed toward the story’s end in breaching a part of the Green Wall, thus ending the story on an uncertain note.
And now we move on to the dystopian classics that are most widely known, that have inspired the most adaptations and sub-genres of noir fiction. Although updated many times over for the 20th century, these dystopian novels share many characteristics with their predecessors. In addition to timeless social commentary, they also asked the difficult question of what it would take to set humanity free.
Whereas some chose to confront this question directly and offer resolutions, other authors chose to leave the question open or chose to offer nothing in the way of consolation. Perhaps they thought their stories more educational this way, or perhaps they could merely think of none. Who’s to say? All I know is their works were inspired!
In addition to parodying the worst aspects of scientific rationalism, imperialism and the notion of progress, the story also went on to inspire some of the greatest satires ever known. In addition, many of its more esoteric elements have appeared in countless novels and films over the years, most notably the concepts of encapsulating walls, secret museums, government-sanctioned breeding, and machine-based programming.
Brave New World: There’s scarcely a high school student who hasn’t read this famous work of dystopian fiction! And although Aldous Huxley denied ever reading We, his novel nevertheless shared several elements with it. For instance, his story was set in the World State where all reproduction is carried out through a system of eugenics. In addition, several “Savage Reservations” exist beyond the veil of civilization, where people live a dirty, natural existence. But ultimately, Huxley’s aim was to comment on American and Western civilization of the early 20th century, a civilization where leisure and enjoyment were becoming the dominant means of social control.
This last aspect was the overwhelming focus of the novel. In the World State, all people are bred for specific roles. Alphas are the intellectuals and leaders of society, Betas handle high-level bureaucratic tasks, Deltas handle skilled labor, Gammas unskilled labor, and Epsilons menial tasks. Therefore, all vestiges of class conflict and generational conflict have been eliminated from society.
But to further ensure social control, all citizens are sleep-conditioned from a young age to obey the World State and follow its rules. These include the use of Soma, a perfectly legal and safe designer drug that cures all emotional ales, promiscuous sex habits, and “feelies” (movies that simulate sensation).
In the end, the story comes to a climax as two of the main characters, Bernard Marx and Lina Crowe, go to a savage reservation and find a lost child named John. His mother was apparently a citizen of the World State who became lost in the reservation and was forced to stay after she learned she was pregnant. Having experienced nothing but alienation and abuse as a “savage”, John agrees to go with Bernard and Lina back to “civilization.
However, he quickly realizes he doesn’t fit into their world either and expresses disdain for its excesses and controls. Eventually, the people who sympathize with him are sent into exile and he is forced to flee himself. But in the end, he finds that he cannot escape the people of the World State and commits suicide, a tragic act that symbolizes the inability of the individual to find a resolution between insanity and barbarity.
Overall, Huxley’s BNW was a commentary on a number of scientific developments which, under the right circumstances, could be used to deprive humanity of their freedom. In many ways, this was a commentary on how the expanding fields of psychology and the social sciences were being used to find ways to ensure the cooperation of citizens and ensure good work habits.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in factories and in the creation of “assembly-line discipline”, which was exemplified by how the people of the World State revered Henry Ford. In addition to performing eugenics on an assembly-line apparatus, the people worship Ford and cross themselves with a T (a reference to his model T car).
But above all, Huxley seemed to be asking the larger question of what is to be done about the process we know as civilization. If it was inimical to freedom, with all its rational, sterile, and domesticated luggage, and the alternative – a dirty, superstitious, and painful existence – was not preferable either, then what was the solution?
In the end, he offered no solution, allowing the reader to ponder this themselves. In his follow-up essay, Brave New World Revisited, he expressed some remorse over this fact and claimed that he wished he had offered a third option in the form of the exile communities – people who had found their own way through enlightened moderation.
1984: Ah yes, the book that did it all! It warned us of the future, taught us the terminology of tyranny, and educated us on the use of “newspeak”, “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime”. Where would dystopian literature be today were it not for George Orwell and his massively influential satire on totalitarianism? True, Orwell’s work was entirely original; in fact, he thoroughly acknowledged a debt to authors like H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. But it was how he synthesized the various elements of dystopia, combining them with his own original thoughts and observations, and crystallized it all so coherently that led to his popularity.
But I digress. Set in the not-too-distant future of 1984 (Orwell completed the book in 48 and supposedly just flipped the digits), the story takes place from the point of view of an Outer Party member named Winston Smith. Winston lives in London, in a time when England has been renamed Airstrip One and is part of a major state known as Oceania. As the book opens, Oceania finds itself at war with the rival state of Eurasia, though not long ago it was at war with Eastasia and will be so again. As a member of the Ministry of Truth, Winston’s job is that of a censor. Whenever the enemy changes, whenever the Party alters its policies, whenever a person disappears, or the Party just feels the need to rewrite something about the past, men like Winston are charged with destroying and altering documentation to make it fit.
Ultimately, the story involves Winston’s own quest for truth. Living in the constant, shifting lie that is life in the totalitarian state of Oceania, he seeks knowledge of how life was before the revolution; before the Party took control before objective reality become meaningless. He also meets a woman named Julia with whom he begins an affair and rediscovers love.
However, in time the two are captured and taken to the Ministry of Love, where they are tortured, brainwashed, and made to turn on each other. In the end, Winston accepts the Party’s version of reality, simply because he discovers he has no choice. His tragic end is made all the more tragic by the implicit knowledge that he will soon be killed as well.
For discerning fans of science fiction and dystopian literature, the brilliance of 1984 was not so much in how the totalitarian state of the future is run but how it came to be. According to the Goldstein Manifesto, which is the centerpiece of the novel, World War III took place sometime in the 1950s and ended in a stalemate, all sides having become convinced of the futility of nuclear war.
Shortly thereafter, totalitarian revolutionaries with similar ideologies took power all over the planet. In time, they became the three major states of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, whose boundaries were a natural extension of the post-war spheres of influence.
Also interesting is Orwell’s speculation on how these totalitarian ideologies came to be in the first place. In short, he speculates that dominance by a small group of elites has been an unbroken pattern in human history. In the past, this arrangement seemed natural, even somewhat desirable due to poverty, scarcity, and a general lack of education.
However, it was within the context of the 20th century, at a time when industrial technology and availability of resources had virtually eliminated the need for social distinction, that the most vehement totalitarians had emerged. Unlike the elites of the past, these ones had no illusions about their aims or their methods. As the antagonist, O’Brien, says “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake… Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”
This message still resonates with us today. Even though western civilization did technically dodge the bullet of WWIII and does not resemble the world of 1984 in the strictest sense, the cautionary nature of Orwell’s critique remains. Even if the particulars of how 1984 came to be didn’t happen, the message remains the same: human freedom – meaning the freedom to live, love, and think freely – is the most precious thing we have. Beware those who would deprive you of it for your own safety or in exchange for some earthly utopia, for surely they will themselves to be your master! There is also an ongoing debate about which came true, 1984 or BNW, with the consensus being that it was Huxley’s dystopian vision that seemed more accurate. However, the jury is still out, and the debate is ongoing…
Fahrenheit451: Here is yet another dystopian novel that has become somewhat of a staple in the industry. In Bradbury’s vision of the future, society is permeated by mindless leisure and decadence. Virtually all forms of literature have been banned, and local “firemen” are responsible for enforcing the ban. Wherever illegal literature is found, firemen are responsible for arriving on the scene and putting them to the flame. Yes, in a world where all houses are fireproof, firemen are no longer responsible for putting fires out, but for starting them!
In the course of the story, the main character – a fireman named Guy Montag – begins to become intrigued with literature and discovers a sort of magic within it that is missing from his world. In addition, Guy is told by his boss that society became this way willingly. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of sloth, they chose convenience, ease, and gratuity over subtly, thought and reflection. In time, Guy’s choices make him a fugitive and he is forced to flee and seek refuge with other people who insist on keeping and reading books. It is also made clear that nuclear war is looming, which may provide some explanation as to how society came to be the way it is.
In this way, the book has a lot in common with both 1984 and Brave New World. On the one hand, there is active censorship and repression through the destruction of books and the criminalization of reading. On the other hand, it seems as though the people in Bradbury’s world surrendered these freedoms willingly. It is a fitting commentary on American society of the latter half of the 20th century, where entertainment and convenience seemed like the greatest threats to independent thought and learning. This, in turn, could easily form the basis of dictatorship. As we all know, a docile, narcotized society is an easily controlled one!
The Handmaid’s Tale: Here is another novel that few people get through high school without being forced to read, especially in Canada. But there’s a reason for that. Much like 1984, BNW, and F451, The Handmaid’s Tale is a classical dystopian narrative that has remained relevant despite the passage of time. In this story, the US has been dissolved and replaced by a theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead. In this state, women have been stripped of all rights in accordance with Old Testament and Christian theocracy. The head of this state is known as the Commander, the chief religious-military officer of the state.
The story is told from the point of view of a handmaid, a woman whose sole purpose is to breed with the ruling class. Her name is Offred, which is a patronym of “Of Fred”, in honor of the man she serves. Like all handmaidens, her worth is determined by her ability to procreate. And on this, her third assignment, she must get pregnant if she doesn’t want to be discarded. This time around, her assignment is to the Commander himself, a man who quickly becomes infatuated with her.
Over time, the infatuation leads to sex that is done as much for pleasure as procreation, and he begins to expose her to aspects of culture that have long been outlawed (like fashion magazines, cosmetics, and reading). She even learns of a Mayday resistance that is concerned with overthrowing Gilead, and that the Commander’s driver is apparently a member.
In the end, Offred is denounced by the Commander’s wife when she learns of their “affair”. Nick orders men from “The Eyes” (i.e. secret police) to come and take her away. However, he privately intimates that these are actually men from the resistance who are going to take her to freedom. The story ends with Offred stepping into the van, unsure of what her fate will be. In an epilogue, we learn that the story we have been told is a collection of tapes that were discovered many generations later after Gilead fell and a new, more equal society re-emerged. This collection is being presented by academics at a lecture, and is known as “The Handmaid’s Tale”.
In addition to touching on the key issues of reproductive rights, feminism, and totalitarianism, The Handmaid’s Tale presents readers with the age-old scenario of the rise of a dictatorship in the US. Apparently, the military-theological forces who run Gilead in the future seized power shortly after a staged terrorist attack that was blamed on Islamic terrorists. In the name of restoring order and ending the decline of their country, the “Sons of Jacob” seized power and disbanded the constitution. Under the twin guises of nationalism and religious orthodoxy, the new rulers rebuilt society along the lines of Old Testament-inspired social and religious orthodoxy.
This angle is not only plausible but historically relevant. For as Sinclair Lewis said back in 1936 “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” This is paraphrased from his actual, more lengthy comments. But his essential point is the same. If a tyranny emerged in the US, he reasoned, it would do so by insisting that it was religiously right and that it was intent on protecting people’s freedoms, not revoking them.
In addition, the angle where an Islamic terrorist attack spawned the takeover? Tell me that’s not relevant to Americans today! Though written in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian scenario received a shot of credibility thanks to eight years of the Bush administration, a government that claimed religious orthodoxy and used security as justification for questionable wars and many repressive policies.
Final Thoughts: After years of reading dystopian literature, I have begun to notice certain things. For starters, it is clear why they are grouped with science fiction. In all cases, they are set in alternate universes or distant future scenarios, but the point is to offer commentary on the world of today. And in the end, utopian and dystopian satires are inextricably linked, even if the former predates the latter by several centuries.
Whereas Utopian literature was clearly meant to offer a better world as a foil for the world the writers were living, dystopian literature offers up a dark future as a warning. And in each case, these worlds very much resemble our own, the only real difference being a matter of degree or a catalyzing event. This is why there is a focus in dystopian literature on explanations of how things came to be the way they are. In many cases, this would involve a series of predictable events: WWIII, a terrorist attack, more overpopulation and pollution, an economic crisis, or a natural disaster.
And in the end, the message is clear: whether it is by fear, poverty, or the manipulation of critical circumstances, power is handed over to people who will deliberately abuse it. Their mandate is clear and their outlook is the exact same as any tyrant who has ever existed. But the important thing to note is that it is given. Never in dystopian literature do tyrants simply take power. Much like in real life, true totalitarianism in these novels depends upon the willingness of people to exchange their freedom for food, safety, or stability. And in all cases, they inevitably experience buyer’s remorse!
Quicknote: Since getting “freshly pressed”, a lot of people have written in and asked me about my thoughts on “The Hunger Games”. Sorry to say, haven’t read it so I can’t offer any commentary. I will however be commenting on a number of more modern dystopian franchises, specifically examples found in film and other media, in my next post. Stay tuned, hopefully, something you like will pop there!