Dystopian Fiction

It’s election day in the UK, so now is probably as apt a time as any to write about dystopian fiction.

So, here goes…


I’ve picked five books in particular. Two of them, you will have heard of. The other three, possibly not. I shan’t be presenting detailed synopses of the five – there’s simply too much material for a blog post! However, if you’re interested, I would recommend them all as ones to read.

The five are:

1984, George Orwell (published 1948)

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)

Mockingbird, Walter Tevis (1980)

Jennifer Government, Max Barry (2003)

and lastly but not least, Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross (2008)

All of these books have something in common; the society depicted in them is not in any sense optimal. None of them are anywhere that you would ever want to live and in fact, in at least one case, it would be physically-impossible for you to do so. For the people that live in them, all of these societies impose effective restrictions on their lives and their choices and these restrictions are severe. The causes, however, differ widely.

1984 is the most well-known example, following formerly-loyal Outer Party member Winston Smith on a journey of personal and political rebellion. His journey occurs against the decaying, crumbling backdrop of a constituent region of Oceania called Airstrip One (the country formerly known as Britain). This journey is ultimately unsuccessful and ends with a horrifying capitulation to Big Brother and the Party. This capitulation is total – it even occurs within the privacy of Winston’s head, which had been his sole sliver of refuge previously.

At least in theory, the Party of 1984 is socialist, although as we discover later on, its actual ideology is simply power for its own sake. There is a similar element in Brave New World, where the planet is dominated by a softly-totalitarian State. The State here is relatively light on actual ideology, seeming to view itself more as a sort of managerialist dictatorship. What it is keen on, though, is maintaining an absolute monopoly on political power – very like Ingsoc. Both of these ruling elites are willing to be ruthless in the pursuit of their aims, although the State is arguably somewhat less brtual than Ingsoc (the State seems to prefer to exile its enemies rather than exterminate them).

However, a big thematic difference between the two comes in terms of consumer goods. The Brave New World is drowning in shiny new consumer goods (perhaps literally) and even people themselves are treated somewhat as comodities. By contrast, Airstrip One is subject to continual shortages of all basic goods, even to the point of widespread hunger and starvation. It is suggested that at least some of this shortage is artificially-generated, via means of the permanent war, as people with a higher quality of life might be more politically-rebellious. The State, however, seems to make exactly the opposite assumption – the World Controllers use consumer goods and cheap entertainment as a way of sedating and neutralising the masses.

At this point, it’s worth noting a theme that is absent from both books; neither considers the environmental impact of these policies. Can we really imagine that Eastasia/Eurasia/Oceania’s permanent war could be sustained indefinitely, given the degree of ecological damage it must trigger? Also, although the population of Brave New World is (so I recall) rather smaller than ours, nonetheless that population must be consuming resources at a much vaster rate, per capita, than we are – and they’ve been doing this for several centuries! One would think that an Earth treated like that would have long since succumbed to either global ice or a runaway greenhouse. Additionally, the world of Airstrip One has already endured a nuclear interchange, the effects of which we only see to a limited extent.

Ecological themes are present – faintly – in Tevis’s Mockingbird. When one of the characters travels the American wasteland, he notes the near-complete absence of animal life. We are told that the biosphere was ‘stifled’ during something called the Denver Incident, but this cryptic anecdote is never really explained. Ecological themes are more overtly present in Charles Stross’s ‘Saturn’s Children’, where in fact the ecological crisis on Earth has taken the form of a runaway greenhouse effect – the archetypal habitable planet is becoming a new Venus! (Oh, and Humanity is also extinct, too.) This is interesting as there appears to be a chronological progression – the closer we get to today’s world of dying forests, droughts, vicious winters and human-induced climate change, the more visible that environmental themes become. Probably this does reflect our increasing awareness of our impact on the planet.

Another interesting progression is that of the ‘Big Bad’. In Brave New World and 1984, the problem is an all-powerful state (or State). However, in Jennifer Government and Saturn’s Children, if anything, the opposite seems to be true. Jennifer Government’s world is at least theoretically a libertarian paradise. In practise, however, the absence of regulation means that all-powerful corporations can enforce their choices on ordinary citizens. Only large organisations enjoy any effective freedom in the Libertarian Utopia – murder is a tool of marketing and citizens have to take their employer as part of their name. Although their political freedom is theoretically-absolute, what meaning does it have if there’s no-one to vote for? The utopia has a self-defeating aspect to it.

A similar situation exists in Saturn’s Children. Humanity has become extinct (we never learn if this was accidental or if we were helped on our way out). Amongst other things, humanity’s robot successors never gained formal citizenship and never gained the vote, having only a quasi-legal half-life via way of self-owning corporations and other awkward arrangements. In practise, this leaves them utterly vulnerable to exploitation and enslavement by other, less-scrupulous individuals. In the robo-Libertarian Utopia, your only hope of freedom is being wealthy enough to afford a good lawyer-bot! In both SC and JG, all too often the only freedom anyone enjoys is the freedom to starve.

Mockingbird appears to represent an intermediate case between 1984/BNW and SC/JG. Here, part of the justification for the dystopia is that people’s ‘individual rights’ were supposedly interfered-with under previous regimes. Purportedly, the people of Mockingbird are free – free to live their lives without social engagement or ever being bothered by any other human being. However, this supposed freedom is maintained by laws banning such activities as reading (because of the risk of books communicating subversive ideas) and also by the robot Spofforth, who is a ‘Detector’ – an agent of the all-powerful but near-invisible Government of North America. One of his jobs is to catch and punish humans caught in subversive activities, such as attempting to learn to read.

It’s interesting to note that there appears to be a clear chronological transition here as well. BNW and 1984, with their all-powerful states and parties, date to the first half of the 20th Century. Mockingbird lies in between and JG and SC date to as recently as the Noughties. Possibly this relates to the replacement of the Post-War Consensus with Thatcherite-style Neoliberal economic ideas, and the unquestioned status they currently enjoy in politics (even though the 2007-2010 economic crisis has essentially demolished their intellectual underpinnings). Phrasing it another way, in the 20th Century an oppressive government seemed a frighteningly-likely possibility, whereas in the 21st, complete domination by uber-powerful corporations seems just a shadow’s width away.

One common theme between all the examples I’ve given, though, is that the dystopia seems hard to challenge. In Saturn’s Children, no-one even seems to be thinking about social reform. In 1984, Winston and Julia attempt to rebel but find themselves entrapped by the almost-demonic O’Brien. In Brave New World, the dissenters find themselves exiled, and the Savage kills himself. As for Mockingbird, well, the main characters achieve a personal peace and a degree of genuine liberty in their own lives, but humanity will soon be extinct anyway, so the relevance of their escape is dubious. (It’s implied in places that the sterility drugs’ effect is permanent.) Jennifer Government and their allies effect a local victory of sorts, but the basic corporate power-structure is left untouched. All of these books are pessimistic about the possibility of reform. I wonder if this could spring from the writers’ own real-world fears? After all, the social forces we fear the most, for ourselves and those around us, are also the forces that tend to seem the most immutable and the most irresistible.

This brings me to my last observation about dystopian fiction. What does seem clear is that dystopian fiction is more about the present and our present fears than it is about the future. It’s interesting to note that there do seem to be thematic trends with time, and this has to be reflecting fears and uneasiness in wider society. That said, there is a glimmer of hope in that the predictive power seems to be limited. 1984’s been and gone and there’s no sign of Ingsoc and all-powerful robots remain an AI-complete pipe-dream.

Of course, it also makes you wonder what the dystopian fiction of the 2040s and 2050s will be about. Possibly something we haven’t thought of yet.

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