A “dystopia” is the opposite of a utopia -an ideal world. Both have been the subject of various novels and films. Perhaps for dramatic reasons, dystopias tend to be a little more interesting. Another related but distinct genre is the post-apocalypse world, as in life following nuclear war or a plague that wipes out most of humanity.
Dystopias, on the other hand, are about the day to day life of people living under tyranny or some other miserable condition. The best known example of a dystopia in literature is George Orwell’s 1984. This novel, written in 1948 (Orwell simply reversed the years), was no doubt at least partly inspired by recent events in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
1984 is a brilliant and chilling novel for several reasons. For one thing, it shows us what life would be like under a purely malevolent, all-powerful and ruthless dictatorship. As the Party leaders admit, they do not believe in anything except power. If there is a downside to this portrayal of pure tyranny, it is that it’s more than a little depressing. You finish the book with a sense that the Party is invincible.
Orwell’s novel is also famous for pointing out the role language plays in forming our thoughts and beliefs. The Party in 1984 finds that if people are thoroughly brainwashed by propaganda-filled language, they will be incapable of rebelling. Thus, they create the diabolical technique of “doublespeak.” The slogans of the Party, “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” are examples of this. Victims are eventually brought to the point where they will believe anything, such as 2+2=5. 1984 is about the complete subjugation of the individual at the hands of a merciless regime.
The other major entry in the dystopian genre is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. While the society portrayed in this equally brilliant novel is not quite as overtly malevolent as the one in 1984, it is just as insidious in a more subtle way. It has been observed that Huxley, perhaps fortunately, turned out to have been more prophetic than Orwell in describing the kind of world that would come about in the half century or so after these books were written.
In Brave New World, people are not so much frightened or beaten into submission as lulled into a state of mindless complacency. Between the drug soma, the open sexuality and the constant diversions of popular entertainment, people do not have the time or energy to form original thoughts. Everything, including birth, has been automated; Huxley was an early prophet of genetic engineering and test tube babies.
When you consider the way people are beholden to television and celebrity culture today, you can easily see similarities with Brave New World. As for the “soma,” this is not so different from all the (legally prescribed) drugs given to both children and adults today to treat modern “diseases” like ADD, depression, anxiety and so forth.
In modern society, as in Brave New World, no one is expected to face reality without the aid of chemical or electronic stimulants or relaxants.
A more recent worthy addition to the dystopian genre is Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is in some ways a more fully realized novel than even 1984 or Brave New World. For as brilliant as both of those are, the characters of both are really just there to react to their dystopian circumstances. Yet in Ishiguro’s novel, the characters are extremely well developed, to the extent that you don’t even realize you are reading a dystopian novel until a quarter or so into it. This also makes it more chilling. The sinister aspects of the society, which I won’t even specify, since in this case it would spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet read it, are so taken for granted by everyone that no special attention is paid to them. The horror of it all gradually descends on us as we find out what’s really going on.
Aside from providing interesting backdrops for stories, dystopias have a cautionary message. Hopefully, as we read about the terrible things going on in a novel like 1984, we will be on guard against anything similar happening in our own world. For example, people speak of government surveillance as being “Orwellian.” The cautionary effect may not always work, but at least we have clues about some things to look out for.