By Grant Piercy
The word “utopia” was an invention of More to describe his idealized nation-state -- it’s a compound of two Greek words which means “nowhere.” Eventually, an idea would come along that would become the opposite of a utopia -- a negative version, a yin to its yang. Although there were earlier examples, the most popular and recognizable dystopian books must be Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Huxley’s vision saw a future saturated by eugenics, feel-good drugs, and automation, while Orwell presented a nightmarish oligarchy that sought to eradicate all original thought which might be in opposition to the state. Both have been compared to Yevgeny Samyatin’s We, a masterpiece which has seen little attention in the western world, probably due to Soviet suppression since it’s initial publication in 1921. But explaining these works of fiction does little to answer my initial question. They’re the origins of the genre, but the genre seems just as inevitable as someone dreaming up a perfect nation-state -- as More did.
I suppose the driving factor in wanting to find that perfect nation is hope. It’s rational then to consider the human emotion most closely associated with the dystopia is fear. We’ve seen dystopias rise to power in our history, they exist on the planet now. We was published in post-revolutionary Russia, behind an iron curtain. Brave New World came to prominence as Adolph HItler was attempting to purify the German race. 1984 was published just as the Cold War was beginning to ramp up between the major superpowers of the world.
It might seem like the fear suggested by dystopian fiction is that some philosophical doctrine will stomp out all dissent -- Orwell’s work certainly played to this. Consider rather that the dystopia, in it’s purest form, is more about the fear of what’s going to be lost. The Hunger Games focuses on poverty, as it’s title suggests. Brave New World’s concern is the loss of humanity for empty and easy pleasure. 1984 is the loss of freedom and independent thought. Or perhaps that’s what makes these visionary tales so compelling. We fear what we will lose.
Another great dystopian prophet was science fiction author Philip K. Dick, whose vision in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (loss of animals and environment) was transformed into the film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott in 1982. PKD was a master of dystopian fiction -- nearly all of his science fiction novels carry some imperfect future nation-state, usually dominated by corporate interests. Consider other films based on his work: Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, etc. Sometimes one just has to sit and wonder if this is simply PKD’s world and the rest of us are just living in it.
But nearly all of these works were creations of the 20th Century. At the end of that strange and turbulent 100 years, things seemed to be on the rebound. We’d gotten past two world wars, an arms race that could’ve meant mutually assured destruction, and things seemed to be on an uptick.
Then September, 2001. Then a new Global War on Terror. Then Guantanamo Bay. Then “free speech zones.” Then an economy in a nosedive.
This is the first generation in a century that doesn’t think they’ll have it better than the generation before them. Very few of our problems are ever solved; the same things we complained about in the first decade of the new millennium, we’re still complaining about. And it’s amplified through the infinite internet/television/hollywood Moebius loop.
I started writing my own dystopian vision in 2007, The Erased, and published it myself in March, 2012. I assume, not with any sense of humility whatsoever, that it began the same way Orwell and Huxley began -- viewing a few current problems and imagining their logical outcomes down the road.
Most good sci fi also asks a simple question: What If? Huxley asked, “what if eugenics? what if hypno-suggestion? what if the perfect drug with no side effects?” From there, he built the World State. Orwell asked, “what if omnipresent surveillance?” -- and even to an extent, “what if photoshop?” From there he built Oceania and Ingsoc.
I had to ask similar questions, as will any other author who brings it upon themselves to create their own dystopia. “What if every aspect of your existence was taken away?” was the basic question I wanted to answer -- hence The Erased. As an addendum to the first chapter, which, at the time, wasn’t even a chapter, I also added, “what if androids?” Obviously this trope has been dealt with before in science fiction, a bazillion times, Philip K. Dick’s masterful Electric Sheep the foremost example. But it’s also part of imagining the current world in which we live -- the geeks among us know Moore’s Law dictates that computer processing power doubles every six months or so. In a few years, androids will be a reality.
As a matter of fact, all the issues I mentioned -- the War on Terror, Guantanamo Bay, the quashing of dissident speech -- could become elements in the basic question, “What if every aspect of your existence is taken away?” On some level it even deals with one’s own mortality, because at some point, our existence will be taken away.
Suzanne Collins probably had similar concerns when she took to writing her trilogy. She’s admitted that her inspiration came from seeing footage of reality television on one channel and Iraq War footage on another -- the two began to blend together. She imagined a fallen America, which plays on a primal fear that our way of life will someday soon be destroyed (as most Apocalyptic fiction touches upon in some fashion). Offering children up for a competitive and deadly “game show” isn’t exactly a new idea either; though I often compare the basic plot idea to Stephen King’s The Running Man (even though that isn’t about children), others compare it to a Japanese film called Battle Royale. These ideas tend to build upon one another. If you say, “what if game show where children are forced to do battle?”, you brainstorm other questions on top of that, like “what kind of society would allow this to exist? what are the tenets of such a society? why has this society come into being?” The answer to the last question is usually tied to those contemporary issues that I discussed -- the dystopian society comes into being as a logical conclusion to or extension of an existing problem.
Some might consider the concept of the dystopia to be a “slippery slope” fallacy. Just because these problems exist doesn’t mean they’ll come to the conclusions of a dystopian work of fiction -- Ingsoc did not become the dominant social party of England in the year 1984. Man reached space long before the builders of the Integral in We. There still may be a few centuries before Huxley’s World State, but it doesn’t look like Christianity will be supplanted by Henry Ford worship. Does that mean readers should dismiss the lessons of a dystopian book? Absolutely not. These books serve as a warning that we should not give in to our fears and to remain vigilant.
It can’t simply be that we believe freedom and democracy will win out over the totalitarianism of a dystopian state. Victory is not inevitable. Back in high school, I used to fancy myself something of a conspiracy theorist. My history teacher once described me to the class: “His ideas may sound crazy, yes, but we need people like him to be vigilant. Otherwise, we’re vulnerable.” It’s become much harder to be vigilant in recent years because the zeitgeist has changed so rapidly. Where once we were warned of the privacy concerns inherent in something like 1984, today we want people to watch us. Big Brother is the name of a long running reality show instead of a malevolent dictator. We dismiss Facebook security concerns and post pictures of ourselves, tag everyone around us, and constantly let people know where we are and when. Pharmaceuticals are a multi-billion dollar industry, still searching for that perfect drug. The National Defense Authorization Act allows for the indefinite detainment of American citizens without habeas corpus. Legislators are looking for ways to control Internet content through bills like SOPA, PIPA, or ACTA. The indicators are all around us -- all those things that past dystopian fiction warned us about are just around the corner. It’s no wonder the popularity of the dystopia is exploding right now. We may already be living in one.
Grant Piercy recently published his debut science fiction novel, The Erased, about a wrongfully detained prisoner tasked with repairing a broken android. It’s currently available as an e-book through Amazon’s Kindle store. He grew up in north central Illinois, but currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and two dogs. He also enjoys discussing topics ranging from Nine Inch Nails and Gary Numan to the future of artifical intelligence on his blog.
E-mail: heathens [dot] on [dot] fire [at] gmail [dot] com