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The All-Encompassing Machinery: Dystopia in the 21st Century

“[I]maginative literature is one of the most important means by which any culture can investigate new ways of defining itself and of exploring alternatives to the social and political status quo. Utopian literature, with its quest for the ideal society, represents the epitome of this project, and thinkers like Jameson have particularly stressed the importance of utopian impulses in literature. In the same way, literary works that critically examine both existing conditions and the potential abuses that might result from the institution of supposedly utopian alternatives can be seen as the epitome of literature in its role as social criticism.”

“Dystopias are often seen as ‘cautionary tales,’ but the best dystopias are not didactic screeds, and the best dystopias do not draw their power from whatever political/social point the might be making; the best dystopias speak to the deeper meanings of what it is to be one small part of a teeming civilization. . . and of what it is to be human.”

– John Joseph Adams, from the introduction to Brave New Worlds

I wanted to open this column with these quotations because they exemplify two major ideals that underpin writing in a dystopian vein, and the tensions inherent in the idea of dystopian literature’s capabilities and objectives. The word “dystopian” is used frequently these days to describe all sorts of media productions with a variety of messages, but the resonance of its meaning is rendered vaguer and diluted as a result. In about 150 years the word has gone from a simple opposite of “utopia” to a powerful strategy of authorship to a broadly-employed, edgy synonym for a variety of ideas within literature, film, political theory, and philosophy. But what significance can the term have now when applied to literature, and what notions can it inspire for speculative fictional jaunts?

John Stuart Mill is credited with coining the term in the 1860s:

“It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.”

Contained within this statement is the core of what dystopia is and what it can be, far removed from debates over Irish land bills. While usually defined by its supposedly literal Greek composite as “bad place” it is, as both Brooks and Adams note, not just a “bad place” but a place from which authors construct a narrative of critical commentary. While Adams seems to downplay the political and social aspects in his interpretation, and Booker places them front and center, both ideas take root in this “bad place.” But both the term itself, and the literature it has inspired, signify more.

The prefix “dys-” also means “difficult,” “unfortunate,”and even “malfunctioning.” In most dystopian tales those in power, those who run the system, think that it is the best way to govern, to provide a structure for the maintenance, if not perfection, of the body politic. The problem is not that the society is a dark tyranny of cruel oppression, but that its effects are misrecognized or dysfunctionally integrated into the socio-political system (and, increasingly, as Tom Moylan has pointed out, in the economic system as well). Often an elite, and sometimes the wider citizenry, believe that the system works. As Brooks puts it, dystopian tales are a “warning against the potential negative consequences of arrant utopianism. At the same time, dystopian literature generally also constitutes a critique of existing social conditions or political systems, either through the critical examination of the utopian premises upon which those conditions and systems are based or through the imaginative extension of those conditions and systems into different contexts that more clearly reveal their flaws and contradictions.”

Booker continues: “[w]hat began in the 19th-century as dire warnings of social entropy amidst technological excess became treatises on the excesses of ideology and authoritarianism in the first half of the 20th century.” A dystopian story is not a strict genre, a compilation of characteristics; is as much a principle of outlook or an aesthetic as it is a genre or classic mode of narration. “Dystopian literature is not so much a specific genre as a particular kind of oppositional and critical energy or spirit,” he notes. However, Booker closely allies dystopian writing and cultural criticism without noticing that many writers who are not first and foremost cultural critics also write dystopian tales. Writing in a dystopian style is partly a tactic that is less about form than about a story’s direction and atmosphere. I don’t agree with his idea that dystopia and science fiction, or dystopia and fantastika, are not allied. I think that taking that social critical turn away from representing the “real” and the immanent and into an alternate future (or even past or present) dislocates the text and harmonizes it with some tropes and conventions of the fantastic, often of a more speculative fiction (and thus operationalized) bent. This stripping of dystopia away from the fantastic seems like more of an academic exercise, an effort to move the rarified study of dystopia away from less seemly genres and associations.

Paradoxically, it also articulates with a realist style that many writers of dystopia use in their stories. That style is used most often in “classical” dystopian works and those whose main thrust is cultural criticism, but is also effective in stories that examine the human concerns referred to by Adams. In Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” for example (the lead story in Brave New Worlds), she narrates the story in a deadpan, third-person style, as if a disinterested witness. Yet the feelings and actions of the characters are profoundly manifest in a situation that descends into a chilling climax. Distanciation and intensification of experience both come into play, the cruel and incongruous become a rote aspect of life. This technique brings the often hyperbolic, exaggerated utopia/dystopia into a realm of recognizability that creates empathy for the characters and a matter-of-factness that contributes to the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Dystopian fiction began as a reaction (sometimes a very reactionary one) to unreflexive utopianism, but eventually became more sophisticated, although maintaining a sharp, singular point. In general dystopian works have made people consider the shortcomings of the world around them, and the one that they were helping to make, rather than serving as “pure” entertainment. It seems that today a lot of dystopian writing has lost that focus and become just another sort of difficult literature domesticated for mass consumption. Dystopian tales are frequently critical jeremiads, whether on politics or human nature, but recently dystopian stories have become the background for everything from powerful SF novels to escapist media to children’s books. At some point dystopias became more than cautionary tales and philosophical meditations, serving as settings for everything from Hollywood blockbusters to first-person shooter games. Setting aside the question of why such desolate futures are so popular and diverting, what change came about in the conception of dystopia that took it so far afield from its earlier meanings?

The answer may lie in the broader, increasingly flexible use of the term in fantastic literature and the removal of some of its more unsettling aspects as it was exported to other media. The oppositional, reflective use of dystopia has developed from the classical mode into something more. As Samuel Delany noted over thirty years ago in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw “Modern SF has gone beyond this irreconcilable Utopian/Dystopian conflict to produce a more fruitful model against which to compare human development.” Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed is one of the finest examples of this development. But with increasing application to a diversity of works, the term became more availalbe for appropriation. The idea of dystopia is now more outlandish and metaphorical than ever, and has less to do with politics and the problems of progress. It is often less “realistic” and more intentionally improbable, creating a different sort of distanciation and intensification. It is a fantasia the reader/viewer enters into so that they can disengage from our own rather dystopic existence. In the 19th century writers and critics were afraid of a dystopia occuring; in the 21st we seem to be living in it. In fact, reader/viewers obtain a sense of pleasure, a thrill of improbability by pretending they are in exaggerated, far worse situations than the ones we face in the real world (which I think is particularly true in YA novels like Suzanne Collins Hunger Games Trilogy.

Despite this shift, dystopian literature in the 21st century is not all just diversion and backdrop. Next week I’ll discuss some recent works of dystopian literature, how they draw from fantastika and reclaim and amplify the dystopian spirit.

1 Comment on The All-Encompassing Machinery: Dystopia in the 21st Century

  1. You seem to be magically or maniacally under the messily mistaken impression that Dystopian “Scientific Fiction” emerged, evolved, or was eventually devised and served only as a rather recent reaction to, or apparently arrived absolutely after “Utopian” Scientific Fiction had previously been created….Or, at least, this…seems…to be your suggested and supported thesis?

    What you clearly seem to implicitly ignore is that, arguably, the very first “Scientific Fiction” work, M. Shelly’s “Frankenstein”, had clearly set the mold or served as a supreme model for most Dystopian styles of Scientific Fiction. Thus, the we have the disappointing result that the Dystopian “Antithesis” style of Scientific Fiction actually preceeded the supposed Hegelian “Thesis” of the Utopian style of Scientific Fiction???

    While your thesis surely sounds logical and fine…reality…and facts, do sometimes have a troubling way of making a major mess with marvelous, mellifluous sounding theories. Usually, I admit, literary genres–within the Western World’s Literary themes–have had optimistic oriented origins, and we observe only later, much later (Post-Modern), do they dare to delve into the disturbing darkness of depressing dystopian diatribes. Thus, I admit that with this set pattern patently in place, I would presume that SF would fameously follow a familiar and faithful path, but…it did not! 

    However, I will absolutely and attentatively agree that 21st century Western Europe’s SF is clearly held captive by the Dystopian models. Even the American SF has now nearly nastily or totally submerged, slunk, or sunk to the depressing dystopian depths. Previously, American SF has persevered and preserved a prodigious and im-pressive re-putation for “Unbounded Optimism” (My own little effort and entitled paper on this trying theme) in its impressive indigenous index of SF offerings, but after the late 1960’s–even in America–this errosion effectively errased the engaging entertaining style of earlier efforts and eras.

    I have some facts and theories explaining this rather regretable result, but I will delay or defer to debate this dire and dreadful issue at present. You probably would not prospectively want to read the right stuff or what I would write anyway!


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