An Assessment of the Dystopian Literature Read Thus Far….
Well, I’m depressed. And a little anxious… Orwell gave me nightmares. Recently, I saw an image of a bow in a magazine ad and thought immediately, helplessly, of the character of Katniss Everdeen. The enormous flat screen television on sale at a local tech store (I’ll not name it) made me think that we are, wow and holy crap, coming closer to the wall-sized screens of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Reminders of the literature are almost everywhere I look. So unsettling. And then I got it. Dystopian novels are meant, first and foremost, to unnerve the reader. Their function is to show us a world we do not want under any circumstances, and to use those still innocent yet potentially destructive things already in existence in the real world as tools to elaborate the theme-“Danger. Be warned.”
During the 80’s there was a raft of post-nuclear holocaust movies that came out to starkly illustrate the potential results of nuclear war with films such as “The Day After”, and the “Mad Max” series. These movies reflected the fear generated by nuclear missiles before the end of the Soviet era and the Cold War. They acted as a beacon, saying “Is this what we want? If not, we must make changes now!” And while nuclear weapons are not “still innocent”, we have not yet experienced nuclear war, and “The Day After” presented our worst fears in color and the truth that in nuclear war there are no winners.
Thus, looking at the novels I have read, I want to review the real world apparatuses that were employed in the stories that made their worlds dystopic. What was going on in the world at the time these novels were written? It is fair to say that a writer is a writer of his or her time. Authors emerge from and are informed by their particular eras. Therefore, they write what they see–or sense. They are the prophets of doom of their times. So, what was it about their times that so stuck in their craws?
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, brilliant and eerie, was published in England in 1932. One of the main themes of the novel is the notion of “Fordism” as a quasi-religious practice that informs the ideals of the New World society. Named after Henry Ford, the general premise of Fordism is industrialization and mass production. Fordism contemplated a world where the assembly line would quickly produce to an endless “consumership” items that would wear out and need to be replaced. To make this successful, workers needed to be regimented–clocked in and clocked out–and watched carefully to make sure they were producing. There arises the disturbing vision of a long line of people in gray overalls, standing in one spot, and repeating the same mindless action over and over and over again. However, this sameness in the workers made the assembly line possible. And the 1930s was the Depression Era, so a steady paycheck was a precious commodity. People fit in, obeyed, and learned to tolerate the monotony of their jobs–or else starve. Huxley saw the ills of “Fordism” before it became a “thing” in 1934. Huxley paints the picture of horrendous uniformity, obtuse consumerism, and super industrialization and ponders the insufferable compromises made in order to service society’s need for convenience and comfort. The other equally important theme in Huxley’s world is the idea of biologically engineering human beings to be conditioned for a specific class and purpose. Although DNA and genetic engineering had not been discovered in Huxley’s time, and even though there was no such thing as computerization yet, Huxley’s novel does, incredibly, suggest ideas that point squarely in their direction. However, Mendel had done his work with peas by 1900, which gave rise to Eugenics. And Huxley’s family was populated with biologists, including one Nobel Laureate. Therefore, there was available knowledge upon which Huxley could build a theme–namely the idea of Eugenics. In simple terms, this field of study, among other things, focuses on human “breeding”. That is to say, breeding into humans the desirable traits, while breeding out the undesirable traits. This idea is figured prominently in Huxley’s world and taken to the nth degree.
George Orwell wrote the most dystopic of the dystopian novels in his terrifying 1984. Published in England in 1949, the superstate of Oceania is always either at war or on the verge of war. All work and social efforts are centered on supporting the country’s war effort. There is mass poverty and decay. The dominating political party “English Socialism” is ruled by the foreboding and omnipresent “Big Brother” who may or may not exist as a real person in Orwell’s world. However, his signs and enormous posters are plastered everywhere, “Big Brother is watching you,” and the face that has been attached to Big Brother is not unlike that of Joseph Stalin. And Orwell’s world is strongly influenced, in fact, patterned after the post-world war two Soviet Union. Motifs such as government surveillance, military-like policing, censorship, kangaroo courts, government employed torture and execution, and government controlled misinformation and propaganda mirror the Soviet regime under Stalin, and create a frightful portrait of the world under communist rule. In this world, no one is safe, no one is free to think their own thoughts, and all citizens must adhere blindly to the government’s inconsistent laws. People can be arrested for an incorrect facial expression and children are encouraged to inform on their parents. Love, pleasure, individuality, and family intimacy have been outlawed and replaced by hatred and suspicion. From beginning to end, this novel is unsettling. There is no happy ending–not even an equitable one. It is repressive, unforgiving, and relentless. But this was Orwell’s understanding of what world-wide Stalinism would be like. And at the beginning of the Cold War, when this novel was written, the paranoia toward communist Russia was only beginning, and during the 1960s would reach an almost hysterical state. This is because the Soviet Union was thought to represent the polar opposite political and social views of the West. It was an end of liberty and individuality, forced ideology, and the constant fear of the “secret police.” Anti-communism is the message in Orwell’s book.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was published in the USA in 1953. Bradbury’s theme for his book-banning/book-burning world came as a result of McCarthyism. Named after US Senator Joseph McCarthy, this term refers to a political movement from 1950-1956 whose sole purpose was to hunt down and destroy all domestic communists and communist sympathizers. McCarthyism is marked by its unconstitutional methods of interrogating subjects and coercing these people to inform on their friends and associates, its dismissal of evidence or its acceptance of unsubstantiated “evidence”, its attack on the artist and academic communities, its production of anti-communist propaganda, and censorship. The other looming theme in Bradbury’s world is the nation-wide “distraction” of television. Written during the very midst of what has come to be termed as the Golden Age of Television, Bradbury expressed his loathing of the mass media of radio and television because he believed that these mechanisms were threatening to remove the need for books. He believed television was creating a generation of lazy thinkers, and explores this notion in the character of Guy Montag’s wife Mildred. Taking the idea of lazy minds to an absurd and therefore dystopian extent, he envisions a society incapable of critical thinking whose lack of literature-inspired insight had led to wide-spread amorality and a lackadaisical attitude toward the pressing issues of the day. Bradbury’s “society” is so ignorant and distracted by television that no one seems to notice the fighter planes flying overhead as the nuclear war begins.
Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games Trilogy began with The Hunger Games, published in the USA in 2008, followed by Catching Fire in 2009, and Mockingjay in 2010. Considered “young adult” fiction, this series set in the dystopic world of Panem in a world rebuilt after a world war. The themes of this trilogy include poverty, self-preservation, and reality television. During the 2000s, the economy of the USA spiralled downward. People lost their jobs, were forced out of their homes, and faced destitution. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans, causing a crisis that was felt across the country. And the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 left a death toll of over a quarter of a million people. Collins considers in The Hunger Games the will of the individual to survive through terrible turmoil–some are able and others are not. And she looks at the lengths people will go to live, and in her world of Panem, the children must kill or be killed to survive.
Television has always hosted “reality” shows if one includes game shows, news programs, talk shows, and sports/variety shows. However, it wasn’t until the 2000s that reality television really hit the small screen in force. Started by shows like “Survivor” reality television is ubiquitous across networks, and rivals situational “acted” television programming in popularity. In The Hunger Games, all television is reality television catering to government controlled “news” programs and the televised Hunger Games tournaments. Used as a tool to misinform and instill fear in order to control the people of Panem, television is in the homes of even the poorest people and enormous screens are installed by the government Capital in all community squares. Watching televised “real” violence has desensitized the people of the Capital in particular. They no longer are able to understand the gravity of the murders they witness on the screen, and even though they cheer their favorite tributes and feel sad for a time when they die, the next year brings new games and tributes, and the last ones, except the winners, are forgotten. In addition, the government propaganda has convinced them that the games are not only necessary, but they are a solemn reminder of a violent past and the many millions who died.
The notion of personal ideology and autonomy “under attack” is present in all four of these dystopic worlds. After reading these novels, I think that this is the common thread, and will be one of the major focuses of my paper.