Story by Jesse Wright
In his most famous novel, 1984, George Orwell wrote, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”
This is a bleak and harsh view of what awaits society, but it is shared by many authors. From Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, to Orwell’s Magnum Opus and modern books like the Hunger Games, Divergent and The Giver.
Science-fiction writers often share a vision that the future isn’t going to be a pretty sight.
These stories have spawned a genre called the dystopian novel.
An exact definition for the novels is hard to pin down. However, the books are characterized by futures in which human societies face calamities in the form of totalitarian governments, environmental disasters, plagues or devastating wars.
The beginning of the genre is difficult to pinpoint. Drake English professor Yasmina Madden said she believes the first dystopian novel was Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. This would mean stories about the terrible fate of mankind have been popular since 1726.
Madden said the genre continues to be popular because readers love to see the “underdog succeed,” especially against oppressive forces.
“I also think that audiences like to see certain aspects of our culture amplified in dystopian works. In many of these narratives we can see parts of ourselves, or our beliefs, or our institutions gone horribly awry,” Madden said. “While it’s certainly disturbing to see the familiar gone wrong, it’s also compelling.”
Madden also has thoughts about why more narratives about the future do not offer hope for the human race.
“Dystopian fiction is often exploring a tension in our current culture and taking it to its extreme,” Madden said. “The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is my favorite dystopian novel, is exploring the dangers of extremist or essentialist perspectives. That makes for a pretty bleak society.”
Drake English professor Dina Smith agreed with this perspective. She said she believes dystopian novels are popular because the present is also bleak.
“Dystopian texts are always working through a process of reconciliation: imagining a future through the lens of the present that is always acknowledging the past,” Smith said. “That’s the politics of Utopian Studies scholarship: a desire to triangulate past (i.e. historical utopias) and future (i.e. sci-fi fiction) in order to understand what’s important in the present moment, how we displace our anxieties as a way of understanding current issues.”
Smith also does not believe the dire futures presented in any of these novels will come to fruition.
“The idea of utopian, dystopian literature is that it’s connected to its moment of production and responding to present, past concerns and through a lens of imaging, imagining a future,” Smith said.
Senior English major Peter Ripple agrees that dystopian novels criticize present societal problems by embellishing them. However, he is not so optimistic that they will not become reality.
“For example, 1984 exaggerates a government gone mad with control. This results in bleak looking futures because the purpose of a dystopia is to point out a potential pitfall of our present civilization, so we can address it before it becomes too horrific,” Ripple said. “As far as such a vision becoming a reality, I think it is entirely a possibility. In fact, looking at the recent NSA spying revelations, I would argue that we are only a few steps away from Orwell’s nightmare.”
The bleak futures presented by dystopian novels are going to continue to be a part of literature and popular culture for some time.
They will only become unpopular if society reaches a point the present is so horrible that no one can imagine more horrific future.