Dystopian Literature, as a genre, can be associated with utopic writings with a long historical existence. The first utopias can be traced to the times of ancient Greece: such as Plato’s Republic. Time and again, such fiction has captured the imagination of various people; with each new era, such fictional societies envisioned in utopian literature have cropped up: from More’s Utopia, Bacon’s New Atlantis, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, right to modern times. These works are used to elucidate or critique the current frameworks by positing alternate visions. Otherwise, they can be seen as a commendation of certain praiseworthy societies by emulating their characteristics. They are the author’s idea of the perfect place! However, recent times have witnessed the proliferation of more politically charged dystopian literature than its utopian counterparts. This article deals with this other pessimistic representation of fictional societies in fantastical narratives — in other words, dystopian literature.
Dystopian literature is recognized as the antithesis of such idealistic societies present in utopian fiction. Michael Bodhi Green elaborates upon this: “Dystopia is the opposite of utopia: a state in which the conditions of human life are terrible as from deprivation or oppression or terror (or all three).” Dystopian literature, therefore, can be described as a darker turn taken by the utopia. The world depicted is cynical and deplorable — definitively worse than reality. Unlike utopian fiction’s glorified, rosy descriptions of Edenic spaces, dystopias are more mature writing and are more politically engaged. They are not simply fantastical narratives meant for entertainment — what Batman movies or Hunger Games movies are popularly recognized as — but can exist simultaneously as political critiques, social commentary, and insights into the human psyche.
To elaborate, their political import can surface at multiple levels. They can mirror some shortcomings of the existing domain, which are stretched exaggeratedly to make these flaws glaringly apparent to the readers. The readers can make connections between their worlds and the heavily criticized worlds of dystopia to understand their own poisoned reality better. Additionally, the guise of fiction allows the authors to speak truths without the fear of execution. Most dystopian writings censure current political regimes, making them prone to punishment by the state. However, by using such fantastical means, they can quickly reveal damaging truths by keeping up the appearance of fiction.
Moreover, the tragedy often ensconced in such writings can serve a reformatory purpose as it elicits an emotional and rational response from the readers. It can perform a cathartic function where the readers gain better knowledge of the world around them and are emotionally spurred into action. An article in The Washington Post suggests that dystopian fiction can encourage active protest against injustices: “This convinced us that dystopian narratives themselves matter, beyond just the violence and collective protest portrayed within them. The core narrative lesson of the story appears to make people more open to radicalism and rebellion”. This means that, despite being in the realm of imagination, dystopian literature is implicitly linked to real-life political activism.
To illustrate, one can look at Margaret Atwood’s famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a depiction of a totalitarian regime with anti-feminist tendencies. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the excessive use of radiation has caused large-scale infertility and the possibility of slow, painful deaths. A scientific disaster in a patriarchal society naturally translates into fertile women becoming the most significant assets of the state and death-by-radiation a viable mode to eliminate transgressive females. Women are stripped of any humanitarian right and are reduced to their various functions to serve men. Fissure of emotional bonds, excessive surveillance and complete control of the state, extremist hypermasculine religious fervour, and colour-coded objectification of women are some of the many horrors depicted in Atwood’s tale. All of this allows Atwood to provide a scathing critique of patriarchal mentality, totalitarian governments, and modern capitalist technology.
Furthermore, Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel prize-winning author, is known for twisting and inverting realities. His famous work, Never Let Me Go, presents a highly scientifically developed world that has found cures for many medical problems. Yet, the novel does not emphasize the greatness of such an advanced society. Instead, it questions the moral and emotional implications of technological inventions. It challenges the utilitarian ideology behind many such projects that are ethically compromising. The novel raises some deep philosophical questions on human relations, emotions, and agency; it finally posits the question of what it is to be human.
Both the novels mentioned above, as examples of dystopian fiction, depict bleak totalitarian societies. The socio-political frameworks in these novels directly threaten human liberty and create a suffocating, oppressive environment. The focus on particular stories of a few characters allows the critique of the overarching system possible. This is done by valuing human bonds and feelings above discourses on social rules, materialistic gains, scientific advancement, etc. Thus, despite the broad scope of dystopian fiction — encompassing wars, disasters, political overturns, and new societies — it is in the privileging of the individual narratives that the politics of the fiction fully emerge.
To conclude, these dystopias do not just blame existing structures but provide warning signs. An article in The Guardian comments on this cautionary impulse in dystopian fiction: “Contemporary dystopian literature and films, on the other hand, pull their inspiration increasingly from our worst imaginings of ourselves and seem to be closer to reality than not. The line between entertainment and reality blurs to the point of alarm”. The article asserts that the closeness that the audience feels between their worlds and highly fantastical worlds creates ominous signs for them. The audience is made to believe that the ridiculous world of dystopia is created out of the continuation of the present actions, such as unequal social structures, environmental degradation, hyper-scientific activities, or the political dominance of certain groups. Therefore, dystopia is not a simplistic fantasy of the author but a fertile ground for political discussion.
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