Dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. (Oxford Dictionaries)
There are times, and they seem to becoming more and more frequent, when I wonder whether the world we inhabit today might be described as dystopian. War, terrorism, genocide, famine, epidemics, climate change… No, I’m not going to get all political, but it’s difficult sometimes to watch footage of the latest bombing or gun massacre and not wonder what sort of world we live in.
This isn’t about doom and gloom of the actual sort; it’s about fictional doom and gloom, though it’s often impossible, without being deliberately obtuse, not to comment on how one mimics the other.
Yet dystopia doesn’t need to be gloomy; at least, not all of the time. Take Ready Player One. I consider myself a seventies child, but I was still in my teens during the early eighties and loved spotting the references in the novel to eighties pop culture. It’s very much a dystopian world that our hero inhabits, caused by an energy crisis – people living in on-the-cheap apartment blocks made from trailers stacked one on top of another due to rocketing overpopulation; terrorism; food shortages. Gloom aplenty, but it’s how people escape their otherwise drab existence where the fun comes in. And it’s a lot of fun. An almost limitless virtual universe, a vast interactive game, that sounds so appealing that we might, if given the opportunity, seriously consider sharing their deprivations if we can also join in their means of escape.
Of course, most fictional dystopian worlds aren’t places we’d want to live. That’s kind of the point. One of the first dystopian novels I can remember reading was when I was a teenager. It was finished in 1948 and the author simply reversed the last two digits of that year to come up with a title. Aspects of the novel seem eerily prescient today. Take a walk around any city or town centre and you’ll be recorded by any number of CCTV cameras; records exist of your phone calls and texts, of your online browsing habits. Big Brotheris watching you. And what about ‘Doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’? Orwell’s terms have morphed into today’s Doublespeak. Again, I don’t want to get political, but Doublespeak is as prevalent today as wannabe celebrities. Alternative facts, anyone?
Since you’re visiting a site devoted to writing and reading, there’s a fair chance that you feel the same way about books that I do. If I had to give up every form of entertainment except one, I’d heave a heavy sigh of regret at losing films, sport and music, but I’d keep my books. It’s because of this deep love of the written word that I found myself squirming at times while reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For anyone who doesn’t know, the title comes from the temperature at which books burn. No spoilers, but this presents as grim a future as any other book mentioned here and is, for me, up there with Something Wicked This Way Comes as my favourite Bradbury work.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood tells of a future USA, or a part of it, taken over by a new order under which women are subjugated. The eponymous handmaid’s role is to breed, and nothing much else. The novel reminded me of 1984 in generating that brooding sense of menace, of being constantly watched. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagines a future where breeding programmes eliminate disease and deformity. It is quite a long time since I read either of them, but in my memory they are the sorts of story that make you think shit, this could really happen and hoping fervently it never does.
It was also a long time ago that I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the book upon which the film Blade Runner was based. My memories of the film are stronger, but I do recall enjoying the book and feeling that the film took all that was good of the novel and built upon it.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is set in a world filled with poverty and malnourishment and overpopulation. Global warming is making matters considerably worse and, on top of all that, there is war between various superpowers. Once more, it is impossible not to see parallels with today’s world; while we haven’t quite reached the levels of despair experienced by the characters in Le Guin’s novel, are we really that far from it? I would dearly like to think not – or that we will somehow turn aside from the path of self-destruction we seem hell-bent on pursuing – but the more pessimistic part of me doubts it.
I’m going to finish with two novels by that famous author Richard Bachman. Although set in grim, dystopian worlds, they both tell tales that enthralled and thrilled me in my late teens.
The Running Man is a rollercoaster of a story about a desperate man driven to enter a futuristic game show in an effort to raise funds for something that I’ve forgotten (medicine for his wife or child?). If you’ve seen the film version starring Arnie, don’t be put off – the book is by far superior.
The Long Walk is about an annual event where a hundred teenage boys set off on a walk. It’s not a race, as such. They will keep walking until there is only one left standing and he’s the winner. Doesn’t sound that bad until the reader realises what happens if the competitors’ walking pace falls below 4mph. It’s a gripping and, in its way, horrific tale, and I find it compelling. It’s long overdue a film adaptation.
Those are some of my favourite dystopian novels. I haven’t included post-apocalyptic books, which will get their own post. I know, I know, virtually all post-apocalytpic tales arguably also qualify as dystopian, but I don’t think the reverse is as often true.
(A quick note about the title – it’s a nod to Private Frazer, one of my favourite characters in the old BBC sitcom, Dad’s Army.)