I was 14 or 15 the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale. I felt changed after. We all have books like that, that change your thinking and perspective in such a way that they make you different —as if they burrowed into your central nervous system. It wasn’t just the story or the characters or Margaret Atwood’s beautiful writing, it was that the world, the horror she had constructed, felt familiar. It felt possible. I knew it was fictional, but it felt like I was reading a version of history that just hadn’t happened yet, like a time traveler.
Good dystopian fiction, whether it’s literature, film, or TV, is like that — a warning to the past from a possible future. It’s a reflection of current societal fears manifested into their most extreme forms. And looking at dystopian fiction over the past 100 years, we can see the changes the culture was struggling with and glimpses of our current lives. Because some dystopian fiction was eerily accurate about what was coming, from Fahrenheit 451 predicting reality TV to Brave New World imagining a scenario in which women had easy access to birth control pills to Feed nailing our targeted-ad controlled feeds.
All of this begs the question: what does recent dystopian fiction say about what we’re nervous about right now?
First, we should define dystopian fiction. “Dystopia,” as a word, was coined in 1868 by John Stuart Mill while speaking in the House of Commons. Basically, his argument was that it was impossible to set up any utopian society because even with all the rules or advances you put in place, you could never remove human will and therefore any plan is inherently flawed. Therefore, he claimed, any utopian thinker was dystopian instead.
Most dystopian fiction today is set around that basic premise. A society thinks they’ve figured out a better way, like The Giver (1993), and it seems in some way (or to some classes) like they’ve succeeded in creating a utopia. In Lowis Lowry’s dystopian future, there’s no war, hunger, racism, sadness, or physical pain. But to achieve such bliss, the ruling party has to counteract Mill’s assertion that people’s flaws will never let a utopia happen.
In The Giver, people are drugged to keep from having sexual urges and thereby forced to be complacent. They’re euthanized when they show chronic disobedience or are not useful to society. And they don’t feel any wild swings of positive emotion either. Love, happiness, pleasure — they’re are all muted in order to keep order and control. That’s the thing about utopias, as the dystopian genre warns us, there’s always a trade-off.
The interesting thing about this brand of fiction is while it’s often the same basic idea, there are wildly different executions. And these visions of a future that’s seemingly progressive or better, are often reflections of our current societal fears. In Brave New World, published in 1932, Aldous Huxley put to page the anxieties the country was facing over rapid changes to how connected the world was. Through cars, airplanes, and new mass media, the world seemed more connected than ever. And yet, Huxley troubled over what the trade-off was for this, imagining a world in which all connection to nature was lost. In his future creation, people chased happiness only — they used drugs, the joined mass orgies, and they no longer had children. They didn’t know the land or read Shakespeare. Enjoyment of flashy mass media, infinite distractions, he worried, was leading to mindlessness. It was a means of controlling the masses.
In his The Perennial Philosophy he further articulates this view:
All the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence. That most popular and influential of all recent inventions, the radio, is nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes. And this din goes far deeper, of course, than the ear drums. It penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions — news items, mutually irrelevant bits of information, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but merely create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas.
Huxley may be talking about radio here, but this rings eerily true for today’s world of social media. The cravings for small bits of information — delivered fast and in the most entertaining way — have come to fruition. Huxley’s world of horror, it seems, isn’t so far off.
In Fahrenheit 451 (1953), set during the meteoric rise of television sets in homes, the world has rejected knowledge. People prefer reality entertainment about dysfunctional relationships over books, literally seizing and burning them to avoid accidentally getting facts. Yes, author Ray Bradbury predicted our obsession with reality TV, but more chillingly, it feels like he predicted a world in which facts, knowledge, and science would be rejected by the people. Considering trends of mainstream climate change denial, this is uncomfortably close to home.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” Bradbury famously said. “Just get people to stop reading them.”
From The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which imagines a future in which women’s hard-earned rights are being stripped away by an extremely religious government, to Gattaca (1997), which struggles through the ethical implications of gene selection (and how it could be used to design the perfect child), dystopian fiction’s greatest fears of their times, are often reflected in our current reality.