From Sir Thomas More's 1516 philosophical novel Utopia to Disney's 2016 adult-friendly kids' movie Zootopia, the genre of the "-topia" has been remarkably durable. Taking Plato's Republic as their model, the first utopian fictions flourished in an optimistic age, when political philosophy imagined a perfect union between government and science. Such fiction portrayed mostly harmonious, high-functioning civilizations as contrasts to real, imperfect societies—and yet, as modern industry began to threaten human well-being and formerly idealized forms of government acquired a tyrannical hue, the genre began to project into the future not hopes of freedom, ease, and plenty but rather fears of mass suffering, imprisonment, and misrule. In place of utopias, modernity gave us dystopias, terrifying fictions of a hellish future birthed by war, totalitarian rule, gross economic inequality, and misapplied technologies.
Before John Stuart Mill coined the word "dystopia" in 1868, pessimistic post-Enlightenment thinker Jeremy Bentham created an earlier, perhaps even scarier, word, "cacotopia," the "imagined seat of the worst government." This was the term favored by Anthony Burgess, author of one of the most unsettling dystopian novels of the last century, A Clockwork Orange. Depicting a chaotic future England filled with extreme criminal violence and an unnerving government solution, the novel can be read as either, writes Ted Gioia, "a look into the morality of an individual, or as an inquiry into the morality of the State." It seems to me that this dual focus marks a central feature of much successful dystopian fiction: despite its thoroughly grim and pessimistic nature, the best representatives of the genre present us with human characters who have some agency, however limited, and who can choose to revolt from the oppressive conditions (and usually fail in the attempt) or to fully acquiesce and remain complicit.
The rebellion of a single non-conformist generally forms the basis of conflict in dystopian fiction, as we've seen in recent, populist iterations like The Hunger Games series and their more derivative counterparts. And yet, in most classic dystopian novels, the hero remains an anti-hero—or an un-hero, rather: unexceptional, unimportant, and generally unnoticed until he or she decides to cross a line. A few of Burgess's own favorites of the genre roughly follow this classic formula, including Orwell's 1984. In the short list below, Burgess comments on five works of dystopian fiction he held in particularly high regard. Two of them, Aldous Huxley's Island and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, break the mold, and show us two opposite extremes of civilizations perfected, and completely annihilated, by Western progress. Burgess's first choice, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead seems not to fit at all, being an account of past atrocities rather than a speculative look into the future.
Nevertheless, Burgess seems willing to stretch the boundaries of what we typically think of as dystopian fiction in order to include books that offer, as Mailer's novel has it, "a preview of the future." See Burgess's picks below, and read excerpts from his commentary on these five novels. You can read his full descriptions at The International Anthony Burgess Foundation website.
- The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
The futility of war is well presented. The island to be captured has no strategic importance. The spirit of revolt among the men is stirred by an accident: the patrol stumbles into a hornets’ nest and runs away, dropping weapons and equipment, the naked leaving the dead behind them. An impulse can contain seeds of human choice: we have not yet been turned entirely into machines. Mailer’s pessimism was to come later — in The Deer Park and Barbary Shore and An American Dream — but here, with men granting themselves the power to opt out of the collective suicide of war, there is a heartening vision of hope. This is an astonishingly mature book for a twenty-five-year-old novelist. It remains Mailer’s best, and certainly the best war novel to emerge from the United States.
- Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
This is one of the few dystopian or cacotopian visions which have changed our habits of thought. It is possible to say that the ghastly future Orwell foretold has not come about simply because he foretold it: we were warned in time. On the other hand, it is possible to think of this novel as less a prophecy than the comic joining together of two disparate things — an image of England as it was in the immediate post-war era, a land of gloom and shortages, and the bizarrely impossible notion of British intellectuals taking over the government of the country (and, for that matter, the whole of the English-speaking world).
- Facial Justice by L.P. Hartley
Jael 97 is facially overprivileged: her beauty must be reduced to a drab norm. But, like the heroes and heroines of all cacotopian novels, she is an eccentric. Seeing for the first time the west tower of Ely Cathedral, one of the few lofty structures left unflattened by the war, she experiences a transport of ecstasy and wishes to cherish her beauty. Her revolt against the regime results in no brutal reimposition of conformity — only in the persuasions of sweet reason. This is no Orwellian future. It is a world incapable of the dynamic of tyranny. Even the weather is always cool and grey, with no room for either fire or ice. The state motto is ‘Every valley shall be exalted.’ This is a brilliant projection of tendencies already apparent in the post-war British welfare state but, because the book lacks the expected horrors of cacotopian fiction, it has met less appreciation than Nineteen Eighty-Four.
- Island by Aldous Huxley
Nobody is scientifically conditioned to be happy: this new world is really brave. It has learned a great deal from Eastern religion and philosophy, but it is prepared to take the best of Western science, technology and art. The people themselves are a sort of ideal Eurasian race, equipped with fine bodies and Huxleyan brains, and they have read all the books that Huxley has read.
All this sounds like an intellectual game, a hopeless dream in a foundering world, but Huxley was always enough of a realist to know that there is a place for optimism. Indeed, no teacher can be a pessimist, and Huxley was essentially a teacher. In Island the good life is eventually destroyed by a brutal, stupid, materialistic young raja who wants to exploit the island’s mineral resources.
- Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
England… after nuclear war, is trying to organize tribal culture after the total destruction of a centralized industrial civilization. The past has been forgotten, and even the art of making fire has to be relearned. The novel is remarkable not only for its language but for its creation of a whole set of rituals, myths and poems. Hoban has built a whole world from scratch.
Burgess's list gives us such a small sampling of dystopian fiction, and with so many classic and contemporary examples about, it's tempting to add to his list (one wonders why he chooses Huxley's Island and not Brave New World). There's no reason why we can't. If you're so inclined, tell us your favorite dystopian novels, or films, in the comments, with a brief description of their merits.
H/T to one of our fans on our Facebook page, John B.