I pulled out my copy of Oryx and Crake this week. For those of you not familiar with that title, it is about a future where genetic manipulation has gone terribly awry by Margaret Atwood. She is one of the best writers of thoughtful dystopian futures, ranking with Orwell, Asimov and Rand. But what is a dystopian future?
Random Dictionary definition of dystopian:
1. a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression,disease, and overcrowding.
The British dictionary has a slightly different view:
2. an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be
To break it down; dys means uncomfortable, abnormal, or painful. And Utopia:
1. an imaginary island described in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) as enjoying perfection in law, politics, etc.
2. (usually lowercase) an ideal place or state.
3. (usually lowercase) any visionary system of political or social perfection.
In my younger years I adored books with apocalyptic futures. They certainly helped form my political views, encouraging some out of the box thinking. And now it seems they have become the rage, with the Giver, Hunger Games, and others being made into movies. A whole new generation is being treated to the thought-provoking ideas behind dystopian futures. No doubt kids of today think Katniss is the first heroine to strike against an oppressive regime. They don’t know about Orwell, Atwood or Zamyatin. Although, at one time neither did I!
My first book about a dystopian society was Watership Downs. Of course, at the time I don’t think I realized how Adams was exploring human societies through the guise of rabbits searching for a safe haven. It is still one of my favorite books, and I reread it roughly every year or so. The first book where I remember being fascinated by the political ramifications of the dystopian society was We. In this novel, society had no word for ‘I’, everything that was done must be done for the benefit of the whole. Slowly, as he records his work on a space rocket, D-503 discovers that there is in fact an ‘I’, and not simply a ‘We.’
Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote We in 1924, confirming that dystopian scenarios have been around for a long, long time. Probably since Sir Thomas Moore wrote about his Utopia in 1516. He made an ideal society enjoying absolute perfection in all facets of society. Of course, people had to immediately imagine what would be the opposite of such a society. A facet of human nature.
What makes a thought worthy dystopian story? Exactly that: it makes you think. Mad Max, while entertaining, was not exactly thought-provoking. On the other hand, the transition of animals in Animal Farm, from “we are all equal” to “some are more equal than others,” is an intriguing progression that we can all recognize. It happens time and again in our society as regimes rise and fall. I think an excellent representation of this would be the French Revolution. Once the poor were in charge, they treated the rich exactly as they themselves had been treated. And slowly, an elite rose once more, resetting the tensions. With the best of intentions (although I am sure there were many poor simply looking for revenge), the rebels could not come close to Utopia.
Does that mean have we already been through dystopian futures in our history?How many could we find? Are we destined to have a future where a few rule and the rest suffer? Are we simply waiting for the end event that precipitates that future? Or can we learn from ourselves?