I divide speculative fiction into three subgenres (and so do many others): fantasy, science fiction, dystopia. To be complete, I’d maybe re-name that third category and include “utopia,” dystopia’s opposite, although you don’t usually see it today. Not in fiction.
Dystopia is a strange animal. It grows from attempts throughout human history to write UTOPIA.
Utopia, a word coined by Thomas More in the early sixteenth century, is a Greek pun with a double meaning. TOPOS is the Greek word for place. Using the prefix U before that word produces two contradictory effects. Literally, UTOPIA means no place. But phonetically, it could be understood as EU connected to TOPOS—EUTOPIA, the good place. So which is it? Both/and—a purely fictional place (utopia, NO PLACE) that imagines the best possible place (eutopia, GOOD PLACE).
Plato’s Republic is one of the earliest utopias. Thank you, Alexa. She informs me Plato lived from around 428 BC to around 347 BC. (BY THE WAY, Alexa. . . some put his birth a bit earlier than that.) Plato wrote his philosophic dialogue The Republic around 375 BCE. Ironically, in imagining the perfect society, Plato came to the attention of Dionysus, ruler of the Greek city-state of Syracuse. No, Alexa, the other Syracuse. According to various texts, the ruler’s brother-in-law became Plato’s disciple. This must have angered the great man, because Dionysus almost had Plato executed. He sold Plato into slavery instead. Another philosopher bought Plato’s freedom. After the death of Dionysus, Plato was summoned back to Syracuse to tutor the ruler’s son and turn him into the perfect philosopher-king envisioned in The Republic—an arrangement which soon went sour, and Plato had to leave Syracuse again.
Utopias, it seems, are tricky things, even trickier to implement in real life. Almost two thousand years later, Thomas More’s Utopia, first published in 1551 CE, became the book from which the genre gets its name. Utopia presented another vision of the perfect society—one greatly at odds with Henry VIII’s regime. Writing Utopia certainly didn’t lead to More’s execution at Henry’s hands later on—that was about More’s opposition to Henry deciding he was head of the English church—but again, the irony is huge. The envisioner of the perfect society brought low (by a head) through the power politics of the very imperfect real world.
There have been many other attempts to write utopias, before and since—Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Shangri-La in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon—serious, feminist, sentimentalized, and on and on.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, many of these utopian writings are indebted to ideas about the life of perfection in the Garden of Eden as it reflects the eternity of perfection in the Kingdom of Heaven. For a really fun spoof of such ideas, watch that hilarious tv show, The Good Place.
Plato’s cautionary tale notwithstanding, there have also been many attempts at establishing utopian societies for real. Right off the top of my head I can think of two: New Harmony, Indiana, and the nutso, ill-fated Oneida society of John Humphrey Noyes. Or think of the myriad of Sixties woo-woo attempts to found peaceful egalitarian communities. (For a wonderful novel about such an attempt gone off the rails, read Lauren Groff’s Arcadia,) Such utopian societies tend to be extremely short-lived, collapsing under the weight of improbable expectations about human behavior. Attempts by nation-states to found more perfect unions along utopian lines may have had to shape themselves to the realities of human beings and their drives, or die. Or kill off large proportions of their populations. Pol Pot, anyone?
Which brings us naturally to—DYSTOPIA, the opposite of utopia. What happens when utopian experiments go awry? What happens to a people subjected, not to the good place, but to the worst place? That’s the premise on which dystopian fiction builds. One interesting aspect of dystopian fiction: it is sometimes, but not always, post-apocalyptic. That is, the terrible condition of the world has been precipitated by some cataclysmic disaster (post-apocalyptic) OR perhaps equally horrific, it is simply the logical outgrowth of the present-day world’s condition.
When 21st century readers think of dystopian fiction, they invariably call up the two most famous recent examples, George Orwell’s 1984 (written in 1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Every fear a contemporary person might have that Alexa is recording every word they speak will find a comfortable home in 1984. They’re heeere! We’re theeere! Hi, Alexa. Orwell’s novel is a cautionary tale about a world where one dictator, Big Brother, controls everyone through complete invasion of privacy and propagandistic control of thought and expression. The protagonist’s feeble attempts to resist SPOILER ALERT! come to no good end. Also, rats.
Huxley’s novel is a bit messier. Huxley envisions a world where everyone is genetically engineered to fit a particular niche. When one of the “primitive” outliers to this system comes to the attention of a fascinated public, SPOILER ALERT! tragedy ensues. However, all is not as bleak as in the world of 1984. The protagonist of Huxley’s novel has seen the evil of his society’s ways, but instead of being executed or rat-tortured, he is shipped off to an island with the other dissidents. (In 1962, Huxley wrote a psibocilyn-fueled utopian counterpart and sequel, Island.)
These are the two novels that probably spring immediately to mind when you think “dystopian fiction,” but there are other “classic” examples. We, by the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin, probably influenced both Huxley and Orwell. We, written around 1920 and first published in English translation in 1924, is the tale of a poor schlub working in lock-step with all the others of the “United State.” (No s there—he’s not talking about us Americans.) In the aftermath of a devastating war, the world of Zamyatin’s novel provides perfect happiness to its citizens, but at the expense of freedom. Zamyatin writes, “There were two in paradise and the choice was offered to them: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. No other choice. Tertium non datur. They, fools that they were, chose freedom.” Zamyatin writes of a world in which one of the main impediments to happiness—sexual jealousy—has been removed by the simple expedient of assigning sex partners to everyone at regular intervals. Unfortunately for the protagonist, he falls for a beautiful rebel leader. Falling in love stirs his sense of personal freedom, but also his jealousy, and SPOILER ALERT! tragedy ensues. Zamyatin may not have taken hallucinogens, as Huxley did at the end of his life, but the prose is as hallucinogenic as you’ve ever read. I say that having only read a translation—so I really don’t know from personal experience—but the translation certainly makes it seem so. It’s as if Orwell and Huxley were the love children of Zamyatin and William S. Burroughs. Oh, wait. The timing of that doesn’t work, does it? Anyway. . . Thank you, Alexa. No, it doesn’t.
Another example that may spring to mind is Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, in which all books are burned so that society can be kept tractable. Bradbury was influenced by Hitler’s book burnings, Stalin’s purges of intellectuals, the threat of nuclear war, and the HUAC’s witch-hunts. Bradbury’s cautions of censorship’s danger to a free society have met with frequent censorship of his own book, with bowdlerization of his book by his own publishers, and with continuing attempts to censor all manner of books, including attempts as recently as yesterday. (See the American Library Association’s ongoing list of banned and challenged books.)Bradbury apparently rejoiced too soon that “things are going back in a very healthy direction.” Bradbury supposedly once memorably stated, however: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
The year after Bradbury’s book appeared, another writer’s dystopian book shook complacent readers to their very cores: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). Golding’s novel is a powerful fable of the human condition (some would argue, the male half). A planeload of British choirboys shipped off to avoid a catastrophic war crash-land on an island, the place where all sentimental ideas about the innocence of childhood go to die. By now, Golding’s novel qualifies as a classic. One very tough-to-watch English language movie has been made of it, very accurate to the spirit of the novel —the uncompromising Peter Brook’s 1963 black and white film adaptation.
A later cheerfully-technicolor 1990 version was made, widely decried as watered-down pabulum. See THIS review, for instance. Apparently an all-girl version was planned but the idea was widely panned. Was it ever released? I don’t actually know. And at least one more film version was made, in Filipino.
Even earlier than these mid-century twentieth century examples of dystopia, writers produced several memorable tries at the genre, apparently jolted by both the promise and threat of Western society poised at the edge of the 20th century. I’ll only mention two: H. G. Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes (1899/1910) and E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1903—warning: to refresh my memory, I had to find a pdf version on the internet, because the only versions on sale by Amazon and elsewhere seem to be flawed texts at best). Wells’s novel is troubling and not very well-written. Even he was dissatisfied by its literary qualities. It was first serialized as When the Sleeper Wakes in 1899, but then in 1910 Wells re-wrote it and re-issued it as The Sleeper Awakes. I’ve only read the 1910 version, but its Rip van Winkle gimmick provides the platform for a very strange vision of what the future may be like (Wells’s enthrallment with the new frontier of human flight pervades the book) and is a strange mash-up of socialist thought and repellant racism and White jingoism. Anyone who has read The Time Machine and remembers the contrast between the effete Eloi and the debased Morlocks has a flavor of what this other novel is like. Wells hated the great Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, panning it in a review that claimed Lang stole a lot of his ideas from The Sleeper Awakes. I don’t know about that. But Metropolis is a great wounded act of genius, and The Sleeper Awakes is. . .pretty appalling. Here’s a great discussion of the issue by John Crowley.
NOTE: you can’t talk about this subgenre without being political. So I am. Just stop reading if my own politics offend you. For balance, I’m including this one novel which I find repellant, but I’m excluding others, such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Or Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold, which has been described as “an anti-minority, anti-woman survivalist rant” and “an anti-racist novel only a Klansman could love.” Ugh. This isn’t an academic article, it’s a blog post, and this blogger can take only so much.
Forster’s short story, “The Machine Stops,” is a lot more interesting than Wells’s novel, in my opinion. It’s a bit unsatisfying to contemporary readers with all of its telling instead of showing, and it’s no Passage to India, but it’s very intriguing. People in Forster’s dystopian future live in cells like bees in their hive, their every need provided by an all-powerful machine. They never see the light of day and don’t want to—each cell is illuminated by artificial light à la billionaire Charlie Munger’s new dorm for the University of California-Santa Barbara. One day (in Forster’s story, not Munger’s dorm—run, students! Get out while you can!), the machine stops. SPOILER ALERT! Tragedy ensues.
Dystopian fiction of recent decades
Here’s what comes immediately to mind:
The Handmaid’s Tale is on everyone’s mind right now, of course. Women dressed as handmaids protesting the Texas anti-abortion laws, the Hulu television series, the horrifying parallels with reality in which a right-wing, misogynistic regime seizes control of a nation and its people, apparently with the consent of many of them. . .
But Oryx and Crake may prove even more prophetic. All these other horrors will be swept away if we succeed in destroying the environment of the entire planet, as we are on track to do. The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that its oppressive regime has come to power through fears and societal degradation stemming from toxic damage to the environment. In that way, it’s a kind of precursor to Atwood’s Maddaddam novels: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood—both very effective, powerful novels—and the much weaker Maddaddam. Oryx and Crake is especially powerful, a latter-day Robinson Crusoe where one of the last people on a blighted earth tries to live whatever diminished life he can. He is truly marooned. As the novel unfolds, we find out more and more why and how the disaster happened, all fingers pointing to overwhelming corporate greed and chicanery. Present-day scandals suggesting corporate involvement with the opioid crisis, as well as Big Social Media’s dissemination of devastating disinformation fueling the Covid-19 pandemic, show the novel as especially prophetic. But readers can hark back to Unsafe at Any Speed, Silent Spring, the revelations about what Big Tobacco executives knew and when they knew it. . .
and on and on. . .the seeds of this type of dystopian novel are all there, and Atwood is the master. The Year of the Flood, a sort of sequel—a book set in the same dystopian world—is almost equally as good as Oryx and Crake. Some readers like it better.
In post-apocalyptic Southern California, the protagonist, a young girl with a prophetic vision, tries to make her way to safety through a violent, degraded landscape. Unlike many of its genre, this novel ends on a hopeful note about the power of community to heal a broken world. The Parable of the Talents is its satisfying sequel. Read this great New Yorker article to find out more. Says it a lot better than I can. Everything we’ve been experiencing over the last few years, all there, taken to their ultimate horrifying conclusion.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Wow, is this post-apocalyptic novel bleak. If you as a reader don’t do bleak, don’t go here. There are only hints about what disaster led to the destruction of the ordinary world, but it casts its protagonist and his young son adrift in a violent landscape full of the most savage and violent fellow-survivors imaginable. SPOILER ALERT! cannibals! The movie version is bleak but not this bleak. The movie kind of pulls its punches through typical movie tactics like a nice doggie.
Nevertheless—just to reassure you if you have read other novels by McCarthy—nothing in The Road is as bleak and violent as the author’s Blood Meridian is bleak and violent. Maybe nothing in literature is as bleak. That novel is about the past, though, so its discussion doesn’t belong here. I wonder, though, whether it’s as much about the past as a reader might at first think. Has there ever been a truer (and more violent, and bleaker) vision of the consequences of Manifest Destiny? Did I mention bleak?
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And the movie made from it, Blade Runner
In Dick’s masterful novel, the world has become close to uninhabitable through the after-effects of nuclear war. Everyone who can has immigrated to off-world colonies. The protagonist, one of the few who remain, is tasked with hunting down “andys,” robots practically indistinguishable from ordinary humans. The movie based on Dick’s novel, Blade Runner, is a very satisfying, moody, neo-noir riff on Dick’s vision, and I do love it, right down to the voice-over and Harrison Ford looking satisfying, moody, and neo-noir.
Harrison Ford looks very young. Did you recall this movie is set in 2019? Well, 2019 was plenty dystopian enough, but why is it that in all these types of movies, flying cars are a must-have? Don’t answer that, Alexa. Just the same, I love this movie. I have to confess that I haven’t seen the sequel/re-make, Blade Runner 2049, set far enough in the future that we won’t catch up with it very soon. That movie has had mixed reviews, but Harrison Ford is in it. Still, love these movies or hate them, Dick’s novel, while covering some of that same ground, is a thing apart. I really admire it. The narrator is a sort of tired everyman without the glamour of Harrison Ford. Dick’s novel asks the big questions: who are we? What does identity really mean? What are we here for? I loved it and I was sorry I waited so long to read it.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
One of those dystopian novels that is not post-apocalyptic at all, showing the natural consequence of the direction we’re already moving as a society. Three friends grow up together in a boarding school environment. Gradually we realize what kind of boarding school this is. Its students are clones carefully tended as spare organ parts for others. It’s a fascinating character study of the results of facing despair. (Unfortunately, the movie made from this great novel is pretty pallid.) This is one of my favorite novels ever, written by one of the best writers of our era ever.
Young readers feel the shadow of the coming apocalypse as much as the rest of us, I guess. The most successful of these novels is The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. As practically everyone knows by now, it’s the story of a young girl in a post-apocalyptic United States who is chosen to fight to the death in a gladiatorial game that is kind of incomprehensibly attached to the degrading of society. But it’s very entertaining, as is the movie made from it. The sequels, books and movies—not so much. Likewise, the first book in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth is really pretty fascinating about the segmentation of post-apocalyptic Chicago into different warring factions. I know this novel has been much-maligned, but I liked it. I even liked the movie. But the sequels, books and movies both, are just terrible.
There are so many more dystopian reads I haven’t gotten around to. Read the GREAT comprehensive list published on Vulture.com. I plan to read through that list at my leisure, if the (real) apocalypse doesn’t stop me first. I’ll just say one thing about the Vulture picks—some of them I wouldn’t have thought to add to this post. When I think of Gulliver’s Travels, for example (no. 3 on The Guardian‘s 100 best novels list), I think right away of biting satire. It’s not a children’s book, people. Don’t let little children get their hands on it. But it really is dystopian biting satire. When the King of the Brobdingnagians makes his thoughts known about Gulliver and his ilk (ordinary people, in other words), how dystopian is this?
I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.
I’ll save my observations about dystopian video games for later. Thank you, Alexa. I’m unplugging you now. That is all.