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One Person's Utopia Is Another's Dystopia

WeContributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.

A dystopia, very simply, is the antithesis of a utopia, or the ideal, perfect state. In saying so, it’s obvious the two are dependent on each other. In fact dystopian visions are almost always in response to a person or movement’s vision of utopia. As soon as an “ism” is formed, as soon as the precepts for a future great society have been codified, there will be another view that details the myriad ways this future vision will go wrong.

The past five or 10 years in SF literature have offered a plethora of titles detailing the ways our current society might spiral into a dystopian future. The Hunger Games and Suzanne Collins’s follow-up novels are obvious examples of a materialist, fame-obsessed culture gone awry. And no examination of dystopias is complete without some mention of Margaret Atwood, whose Handmaid’s Tale responds to a number of societal mores and political extremes. There is an argument to be made that her current novel MaddAddam, as well as the preceding novels in that trilogy, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, represent a future world more fully realized and chilling for its extrapolation of corporate hegemony and scientific hubris than any on record. But that might be slightly hyperbolic; the canon of dystopian fiction is so rich and varied, it’s impossible to make such a statement.

HARM by Brian W. Aldiss is on one end of the spectrum, an end that is colored by a deep concern over the extremes of societal and governmental control in the wake of large-scale terrorism.  Mr. Aldiss, a true and venerable science fiction master, details a near future that is wracked by paranoia and intolerance—a secret police state in which writing satire about the assassination of the Prime Minister is grounds for arrest, interrogation, and clandestine detention. As Jonathan Carroll says on the dust jacket blurb, the book is “disturbing as hell,” which for the protagonist, Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali—a British citizen who authored the above satire—it certainly is.

But this disquieting nature is also what is important about the book, for as terrifyingly gripping as it is, it tells us about our own culture. Dystopias, when done best, reflect the extremes of contemporary society and project what current trends in thought a political practice might mean for a future civilization that too closely hews to a particular set of values.

Take, for example, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Written in 1920, We might be the first science fiction dystopia. Here we are given a brutal vision of what a Russian Futurist utopia might become in practice—a future modern industrial Bolshevik state built on the ruins of White Russian and the rubble of WWI. Set hundreds of years in the future of 1920, humans have become automatons. They are workers and engineers, given numbers rather than names, all working for the good of the One State.

As Bruce Sterling points out in his foreword to the Modern Library edition, We is “(almost) entirely devoid of literary referents.” Many of the science fictional themes we’ve come to view as clichés—synthetic food, androgynous jumpsuits, surgical mind control—are presented in We as if cut from whole cloth, totally fresh and new for the time.

It was certainly groundbreaking from a science fiction perspective. Both George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World are thought to have been influenced by We. Ursula K. Le Guin, author of her own quasi-dystopian vision, The Lathe of Heaven, called it “the best single work of science fiction yet written.” No faint praise, to be sure.

But to digress, or perhaps regress, some might say that Jack London’s The Iron Heel, written some 12 years earlier than We, lays claim to the first dystopian novel, and that well may be true, but London’s novel is not strictly science fiction. In We, the main character (named D-503) helps to hijack a spaceship that was to have been used to go forth and covert lesser civilizations to the orthodoxy of the One State. London’s novel details turn-of-the-century socialist thought in contrast to an authoritarian American oligarchy, and does not extrapolate on any of the technological possibilities we’ve come to expect from hard science fiction.

But London’s work is none the less important in the development of dystopian fiction, and may have even influenced Zamyatin, who oversaw the translations of many writers, London among them, while involved with the House of Arts established by Maxim Gorky.

Even as the ideological inspiration (dyspiration?) for these novels differs greatly—the war on terror for Aldiss, Bolshevik Futurism for Zamyatin, and American capitalism for London—the vision they offer is very similar, as the central themes of dystopia are ever-present in each work. Authoritarian control of the majority by a minority, a stifling societal framework, and the dehumanization of the individual are defining features of the subgenre. In trash as in science fiction, one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.

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