Monday, August 22, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

I have dystopia on my mind this week, and that makes me think about the word itself. I had it explained to me once that “dystopia” developed by an odd route from “utopia”.

Apparently it happened like this.

Five hundred years ago, Thomas More wrote, in Latin, his satirical Utopia about an imagined perfect society. I have absolutely no Greek at my command, but I do know that the name More invented was formed by putting together the two Greek words for “no place” (a bit like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon). In emulation of More’s original, there has been written a whole genre of books dealing with imagined perfect societies. They include such items as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), which had an immense influence on early social democrats, and some of the works of H.G.Wells, such as his clean, hygienic and, I personally think, absolutely revolting version of a perfect society at the end of The Shape of Things to Come. (In fairness to Wells, he also wrote books about futures that he intended to be negative or terrifying, as in The Time Machine and The Sleeper Wakes).

Here’s the odd thing about that word “utopia”, however. It soon came to mean “perfect and wonderful place” rather than “no place”. This was partly because the Greek “u”, meaning “no”, was confused with the Greek “eu” meaning “joyful and positive”, as in euphoria, Eucharist, eulogy and eupeptic. By extension, the adjective “utopian” came to mean “so impossibly perfect as to be unrealistic and unrealisable”. It was used with appropriate degrees of scorn by anyone seeking to batter down ideas that sounded unworkable and too good to be true. Marxists in particular would condemn as “utopian” revolutionaries more radical than they – anarchists, syndicalists and others.

Utopian fiction is still written, especially by the few remaining proponents of hard-core science-fiction with its promises of endless bounty built on advanced technology. But sometime in the twentieth century utopia was overtaken in literature by its mirror image, dystopia, the depiction of dark, negative or terrifying future societies.

The “dys” came, naturally, from the Greek particle for “sad, bad and negative”, as in dysfunctional and dyspeptic. So “dys” was the opposite of “eu” rather than the opposite of “u”.

Why dystopia took over has been the subject of considerable debate. Generally, it’s attributed to the loss of faith in the notion of Progress that came with the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, positivism said that science would solve all our problems and build a glowing future. In the twentieth century, it was realized that science could invent high explosives, Zyklon-B, nuclear weapons and WMDs, could facilitate greater surveillance by the state, could allow for the more efficient running of Auschwitz and the gulag, could automate people out of jobs, could numb and lobotomise people with brainless mass entertainments and could impose far greater conformity. The imponderables of human nature meant applied science was stumped as a means of achieving human happiness; and any attempt to plan happiness ran contrary to human freedom. We weren’t necessarily marching to the bright, shining euphoric future. In fact, utopias now seemed singularly dodgy places, and the more practicable they became, the more intelligent people would strive to prevent them. This point is made by the Russian philosopher Berdiaeff in the epigraph that Huxley chose for Brave New World.

So on came the novels warning us how horrible the future might really be.

The obvious point to be made here is that dystopias, like so-called historical novels, are really about the time in which they are written. If historical novels have a tendency to impose the attitudes and values of the present age onto the past, dystopian novels project the fears, possibilities and anxieties of the present into the future. Current trends are extended onto the eternal plane. The durability of a dystopian novel will depend on how lasting those expressed fears, trends and anxieties are.

To prove the point, I’ll consider just the ones I’ve read over the years, though I know it’s easy to compile a much longer list of dystopian novels than this.

From 1909, E.M.Forster’s The Machine Stops, a direct swipe at H.G.Well’s perfect machine-run utopias, written at a time when Europe was arming for war.

From 1921, Zamyatin’s We, clearly reacting to the early phases of the Bolshevik revolution in its image of a controlled, over-organized, conformist society.

From 1932, Huxley’s Brave New World, with its vision of brainless, soulless, hedonistic sex and soporific drugs to control society, drawn from Huxley’s experience of the jazz-and-booze-fuelled 1920s. (More than one recent critic has urged us to read the novel “counter-intuitively” and see that Huxley is as much attracted to the society depicted as he is deploring it. You can prove this point by seeing how close the social structure in his last, and lousy, “utopian” novel Island is to the social structure in his “dystopian” Brave New World.)

From 1948, Orwell’s 1984, the world of totalitarianism based on images of the Second World War and Stalinism.

From 1952, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, where automation destroys both creativity and the dignity of labour, apparently inspired by Vonnegut’s witnessing the first phases of applied computer technology in a wartime aircraft factory.

From 1953, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where literacy is actively stamped out and “firemen” are people who burn books. Some attempts have been made to interpret this as an attack on the censorship of books. But Bradbury was writing in the first years of American network television and the book’s chief satiric target is the brainlessness of mass media entertainments that wipe out literacy.

From 1960 L.P.Hartley’s Facial Justice. This one is almost forgotten now (though quite prolific, Hartley tends to be remembered only for The Go-Between), but I do have a copy sitting on my shelf. It depicts a future world in which the notion of equality is pushed so far that personal names are standardised and everyone has mandatory plastic surgery so that nobody is advantaged by exceptional good looks. A conservative novelist reacts to standardised ideas of beauty peddled by mass circulation magazines and cosmetics companies.

From 1970, Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, probably the least worthwhile book on this list and so shamelessly ripped off from Brave New World that Levin seems to be cashing in on the dystopian genre rather than really expressing fears or giving a warning. For what it’s worth, it’s a drug-controlled dystopia where people are convinced they are perfectly happy but creative sexual drives are suppressed.

From 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which fundamentalist Christians have taken over the United States and imposed a theocracy upon it. In other words, a feminist writer reacts to the resurgence of conservative Protestantism in America in the Reagan era.

There have been many other novels that have presented their readers with “dire warnings”. Some do it in the form of pure fantasy or fable (Ernst Junger’s On the Marble Cliffs,1939 – sometimes interpreted as an anti-Nazi allegory). Some do it in the form of an immediate political possibility, without depicting a society notably changed from the present. Constantine Fitzgibbon’s now-forgotten best-selling shocker from 1960, When the Kissing Had to Stop, has Britain subjected to a Communist coup because of the weak-kneed attitudes of anti-nuke protesters and a feeble government. But this is more conservative political thriller than real dystopia.

I’d reserve the word dystopia for those novels that outline the whole working and nature of an unpleasant future society. For this reason I don’t think all nasty alternative realities (like Kafka’s fables, or China Mieville’s 2009 novel The City and the City) can be classified as dystopias. Nor can all those science-fiction novels that have incidental elements of nastiness in them.

Which brings me to this question.

What are the uses that writers put their future hells to?

Most obviously, dystopias are both satires and warnings. Less commonly are they intended as serious predictions. Their tone is like that of the Old Testament prophets. “Unless we mend our ways – or reverse this current trend in society – these dreadful things could happen to us.” In the Old Testament, the dreadful thing would be the wrath and punishment of God. But dystopias are their own punishment, their own hell.

But there’s the reverse side to this. If a dystopian novel is a good one, we finish it with a sense of relief that society isn’t like that yet. We might consider a current social trend more critically, but we are also likely to be more reconciled to present reality. This reaction is one that was sometimes been exploited by critics – especially the older Marxist ones who damned the likes of We and 1984. Writers of such dystopias, they insisted, were merely reactionaries who wanted to frighten readers away from the ideal of a rational, planned society. They were smug comfortable bourgeois, aiming to stifle the revolutionary impulse in others and make people uncritical of present reality.

I don’t accept this argument, which misses the many levels of meaning in the various dystopias I have listed. But I do have to admit that after the satire and the warning, at least one of the uses of dystopia is as dark escapism.

1 comment:

  1. So tempting to add to this list of dystopia writing. But I'll try not to. Except to extend what you said about modern Sci-Fi having a lot of it. There was a trend in the early 2000's where many of the more popular Sci-Fi (by which I mean, they actually stocked them in NZ book shops) focused on a society where government was replaced by big business. Or where advertising ran the world. "Jennifer Government" by the Australia author Max Barry is a good example of the big business dystopia, but contains the advertising theme as well. The title character works for the government, surnames have been replaced by the name of the company you work for. For example John Nike is the main bad guy.
    It is very much the fictional reflection of the whole "No Logo" movement, and it's be interesting to see this theme in sci-fi fade over the last decade, just as the consumer politics of Naomi Klein seems to have lost momentum.