As a writer, I love stories about dystopia and grim-dark futures. I believe part of good fiction is a critical view of our humanity, especially in our capacity of creating truly monstrous consequences. Dystopic fiction is the pinnacle of this examination, stories where mankind has created their own unique hell our of hubris or ignorance. Reading about these futures, we can hopefully see the paths to those failures and avoid them ourselves. I feel it is one of the core aspects of reading or writing fiction, no matter what genre you are in: Why did the murderer kill? What caused the mutant virus to become so viral? Why did the countries go to war? How did the Galactic Empire rise to power? My own book revolves around an alternate historical British Empire rife with corruption, slavery, racism and class disparity and explores what these mean to my characters and how they maneuver through my dark, gritty world.
Experiencing these as a reader or exploring them as a writer can be both illuminating and rewarding because it teaches us something of ourselves. It helps us understand who we are as individuals and among the collective. For some, it can also be reassuring, comforting in the knowledge that our world could never be like that. We read George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm or Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale and we tell ourselves ‘this is terrifying but could never happen to us. We’re too smart to let this happen.’
Should we be saying that?
1984 deals with a society where history has been rewritten to suit the government, to reinforce its narratives and manipulate public opinion. The very nature of history and definition of words can be changed on a whim by this insidious bureaucratic autocracy. Animal Farm is widely regarded as a treatise on Communist Russia, but tells a fundamentally broader allegory: the animals rise up and take control of the farm for the greater good in a government where all are considered equal. Over time, a ruling class emerges and eventually a single charismatic leader. While the ruling members promise a better life for all animals, the rulers are frequently the exclusive beneficiaries of any type of luxury or largess. Through the use of scapegoating and gas-lighting, the animals are convinced that those who do not agree with the ruler are at fault for their hardship. The same ruler falsely claims achievements that he either was not present for or that he was not responsible for, as well as exaggerating his own accomplishments. Over time, the animals and those they usurped are indistinguishable from one another.
Brave New World is the story of an America ruled by an authoritarian government, ruled by elites where media entertainment and social engineering have pacified the masses into accepting what we are told and shown as true. Fahrenheit 451 similarly detailed a world ruled by television and mass entertainment, where books are an illegal commodity and all that the individual knows is filtered through the prism of their televisions.
Finally, we focus on gender dystopia with The Handmaiden’s Tale. In this tale, infertility is rampant and only the socially elite are allowed to have children. As a result, fertile women are a commodity that only the rich and elite can afford as families are torn asunder and women lose all control of their own bodies and freedoms.
Unfortunately, these prescriptive tales are edging closer and closer to becoming real. A world where America is rule by an authoritarian demagogue, where history and facts that do not suit the needs of society’s elite or the government are labelled as lies and fake, where so much of our information is filtered through either imperfect or manipulative news sources and other forms of mass entertainment, where the government relies on diversions or clumsy appeals to our patriotism, where women are not viewed as worthy of controlling their own bodies and reproductive rights. This world, our world, was foretold by these apocalyptic books.
So, any enthusiasm I might feel about writing a novel featuring Britain’s decline from Victorian Decay to Victorian Dystopia is dulled somewhat by the ongoing demise of the American Dream. This country seems to be living the longest slow-motion multi-car wreck ever conceived. What’s worse is that you can see the other drivers and know that they can see the wreck coming, that they hopefully understand what choices led us to this point and what decisions must be made, what actions must be taken to mitigate the damage; yet they maintain their course. Worse, they seem to be accelerating towards their own Armageddon.
Almost as bad are the backseat passengers, unavoidably along for the ride and largely powerless to stop what is occurring but also undeniably responsible in many ways for who is at the wheel. Almost to a person, they claim to know how to drive better but always make the same mistakes once they’re behind the wheel. For some individuals, the accident is preferable for it presages change; they think things can only improve. Or they are convinced that this mad and deluded driver will swerve at the last minute, gaining insight and wisdom to reform and steward them to their preferred destination, unaware they while he might drive by familiar landmarks, he might have a totally different terminus in mind. That’s how it would work in fiction, in movies and in books. Just not in this book.
Let me talk about one last novel before I end this post, if I may: Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. This novella is currently enjoying some renewed attention due to its adaption by Amazon into a television series. Unfortunately, the televised series misses the mark in one, significant and crucial aspect, an aspect that is quite important to this discussion. The plot of the novel and the show is that America lost World War Two and has been divided between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and now plucky Americans fight back against these two oppressive and totalitarian conquerors in a thoroughly dystopian world. However, while the shows presents an unrelenting view of a sinister and horrific world complete with unabashedly stereotypical evil antagonists, the book takes a slightly different tact. True, the Nazis have still systematically gassed nearly all of America’s Jewish population. Slavery has still been reinstated in the South. Yes, Nazi Germany is also waging a brutal and relentless campaign of extermination in Africa, just like in the show. Yet, for most of the characters, life is not that different than today. For most, the occupation only incurs slight losses and inconveniences. Most Americans survive and even thrive in Nazi America. And while one would expect a Nazi regime to be fundamentally racist itself, racism is also extremely pervasive in the general public as well. One could say almost encouraged or expected. For most, the atrocities and inhuman acts perpetrated by the Nazis and Imperial Japan are ignored, distant and inconsequential. They enjoy a relatively good life, so why expect a higher moral code, why care about the suffering and deprivations experienced by those unseen others? Why rebel against a racist and genocidal government when you are part of the accepted majority? Why indeed?
We seem to be living in a dystopian novel too pitch perfect to be believed, something any writer would crave to have written but too fanciful and unrealistic to merit publication. Yet here we are, turning the page, not with excitement and anticipation, but with fear and dread. But – hopefully – not resignation.
“The party told you to reject all evidence of your eyes
and ears. It was their final, most essential command.“
~ George Orwell, 1984