How to Recognize a Dystopia: Watch an Animated Introduction to Dystopian Fiction

Lit­er­a­ture and film can open up to the depth and immen­si­ty of social truths we find pro­found­ly dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble, to artic­u­late. If our polit­i­cal vocab­u­lary (as Oxford Dic­tio­nar­ies sug­gest­ed in their word of the year) has become “post-truth,” it can seem like the only hon­est rep­re­sen­ta­tions of real­i­ty are found in the imag­i­nary.

Amidst the vio­lent upheavals of the last cou­ple decades, for exam­ple, we have seen an explo­sion of the dystopi­an, that ven­er­a­ble yet mod­ern genre we use to explain our con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal con­di­tions to our­selves. It has become com­mon prac­tice in seri­ous debate to ges­ture toward the out­sized cin­e­mat­ic sce­nar­ios of Snow­piercer, or The Hunger Games and Har­ry Pot­ter series, as stand-ins for dis­turb­ing present real­i­ties.

You may have also encoun­tered recent ref­er­ences to lit­er­ary spec­u­la­tive fic­tion like William Gibson’s The Periph­er­al, Mar­garet Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Olivia Butler’s Para­ble series, and Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albe­muth, the first nov­el Dick wrote before VALIS about his sup­posed reli­gious expe­ri­ence. Draft­ed in 1976 but only pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in 1985, Dick­’s pre­scient nov­el takes place in an alter­nate U.S. (like The Man in the High Cas­tle), in which para­noid right-wing zealot Fer­ris Fre­mont, a Joseph McCarthy/Richard Nixon-like fig­ure, suc­ceeds Lyn­don John­son as pres­i­dent.

There is no point in dwelling on the ethics of Fer­ris Fre­mont.… The Sovi­ets backed him, the right-wingers backed him, and final­ly just about every­one… Fre­mont had the back­ing of the US intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty, as they liked to call them­selves, and exi­gents played an effec­tive role in dec­i­mat­ing polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion. In a one-par­ty sys­tem there is always a land­slide.

The sti­fling total­i­tar­i­an con­trol Fre­mont exer­cis­es is very much a hall­mark of dystopi­an fic­tion. But does Dick’s novel—set in an alter­nate present rather than a fright­en­ing future, and with an alien/supernatural invasion—qualify as dystopi­an? What about Har­ry Pot­ter, with its fairy tale intru­sions of the mag­i­cal into the present? The TED Ed video at the top, nar­rat­ed by Alex Gendler, sets flex­i­ble bound­aries for a cat­e­go­ry we’ve most­ly come to asso­ciate with prophet­ic, futur­is­tic sci­ence fic­tion, and offers a broad­ly com­pre­hen­sive def­i­n­i­tion.

The word dystopia, a Greek coinage for “bad place,” dates to 1868, from a usage by John Stu­art Mill to char­ac­ter­ize the indus­tri­al world’s moral inver­sion of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. That word, Gendler points out, is a term More invent­ed to mean either “no place” or “good place.” Gendler dates the emer­gence of the dystopi­an to Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Trav­els, a book, like Har­ry Pot­ter, set in an alter­nate present fea­tur­ing many mon­strous intru­sions of the fan­tas­tic into the real. Unlike the boy wiz­ard’s saga, how­ev­er, the mon­sters in Gul­liv­er serve as alle­gories for us.

Swift, Gendler argues, “estab­lished a blue­print for dystopia.” His Lil­liputians, Bob­d­ing­na­gians, Laputions, and Houy­hnhn­ms all rep­re­sent “cer­tain trends in con­tem­po­rary soci­ety… tak­en to extremes.” In lat­er exam­ples, the form con­tin­ued to reflect the per­ni­cious thought and sci­ence of the age: the extreme eugen­ics of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the prison-like fac­to­ry con­di­tions of Fritz Lang’s film Metrop­o­lis, the repres­sive hyper-ratio­nal­iza­tion in Yevge­ny Zamyatin’s 1924 Sovi­et-based dystopia We, and the med­ical tech­noc­ra­cy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Bor­row­ing lib­er­al­ly from Zamy­atin and com­pet­ing with Hux­ley, George Orwell’s 1984 set a new stan­dard of verisimil­i­tude for dystopi­an fic­tion, stark­ly remind­ing thou­sands of post-war read­ers that “the best-known dystopias were not imag­i­nary at all,” Gendler says. The his­tor­i­cal night­mares of World War II and the fol­low­ing Cold War dic­ta­tor­ships birthed hor­rors for which we can nev­er find appro­pri­ate lan­guage. And so we turn to nov­els like 1984 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cra­dle, both of which apt­ly show us worlds where lan­guage has ceased to func­tion in any ordi­nary com­mu­nica­tive sense.

Per­haps one of the most-ref­er­enced of dystopi­an nov­els in U.S. polit­i­cal dis­course, Sin­clair Lewis’ 1935 It Can’t Hap­pen Here, gave lit­tle but its title to the pop­u­lar lex­i­con. “Lewis,” writes Alexan­der Nazaryan in The New York­er, “was nev­er much of an artist, but what he lacked in style he made up for with social obser­va­tion.” The nov­el “envi­sioned how eas­i­ly,” Gendler says, “democ­ra­cy gives way to fas­cism.” The cri­sis point comes when the peo­ple want “safe­ty and con­ser­vatism again,” as Roo­sevelt observed that same year—a year in which “the promise of the New Deal,” Nazaryan remarks, “remained unful­filled for many.”

The irony of Lewis’ sce­nario is that those left behind by Roo­sevelt’s poli­cies are those who suf­fer most under the fic­tion­al pres­i­den­cy of author­i­tar­i­an Sen­a­tor Berzelius “Buzz” Win­drip. Mean­while, the more com­fort­able con­sole them­selves with hol­low denials: “it can’t hap­pen here.” Extreme eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and social strat­i­fi­ca­tion have been an essen­tial fea­ture of clas­si­cal utopi­an fic­tion since its first appear­ance in Plato’s Repub­lic. In the mod­ern lit­er­ary dystopia, the sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, and polit­i­cal mech­a­niza­tion that philoso­phers once cel­e­brat­ed become implaca­ble weapons of war against the cit­i­zen­ry.

For all the mal­leable bound­aries of the genre—which strays into sci­ence fic­tion, fan­ta­sy, sur­re­al­ism, and satire—dystopian fic­tions all have one uni­fy­ing theme: “At their heart,” says Gendler, “dystopias are cau­tion­ary tales, not about some par­tic­u­lar gov­ern­ment or tech­nol­o­gy, but the very idea that human­i­ty can be mold­ed into an ide­al shape.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Clock­work Orange Author Antho­ny Burgess Lists His Five Favorite Dystopi­an Nov­els: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Island & More

Octavia Butler’s 1998 Dystopi­an Nov­el Fea­tures a Fascis­tic Pres­i­den­tial Can­di­date Who Promis­es to “Make Amer­i­ca Great Again”

Hux­ley to Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Ersi Samara says:

    I won­der if social media aren’t mas­sive forms of con­tem­po­rary Dystopia, at least to a large extent. Mar­ket­ing too, as far as it cre­ates a non-exis­tent world of per­fec­tion and com­plete sat­is­fac­tion.

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