#13 post-2015
Dennis Geef

The Dystopian Turn

Can we hope for a better world? Many American writers envision the upcoming world, but their novels are full of skepticism and fears.

When talks about a development agenda arise, people are discussing their hopes and fears for the world to come. What are these hopes and fears people are driven by? Turning to contemporary literature might give us a hint. The vision of a future society has fascinated writers ever since Thomas Morus wrote his famous Utopia in 1516. The whole science fiction genre focuses mainly on a vision of the world to come. In American literature, this vision is rarely positive. Just as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the 'end of history,' literature took a dystopian turn, painting a mostly dark and depressing picture of the society of the future. Most contemporary dystopias are deeply rooted in the problems of today’s society, but also give us glimpses of hope. Chuck Palahniuk, Richard K Morgan, and Cormac McCarthy are among the most famous contemporary practitioners of the dystopian genre.

“Dystopia isn't so much the opposite of utopia. It is more of a supplement to it, since even the most gruesome dystopias are often not devoid of utopian elements of hope for a better future.”

Dystopian fiction as a rule constitutes a negative extrapolation of a prototypically 'bad' future society. For that reason, the genre of dystopia is a subgenre of science fiction. Since the 1990s, a rash of dystopian fiction has been written, while the utopian genre, which imagines an ideally just society, has dwindled almost out of sight. The first mention of the term 'dystopia' can be dated to the end of the nineteenth century. The coinage of the term can be credited to John Stuart Mill, who used it as an antonym for utopia. Nevertheless, dystopia isn't so much the opposite of utopia. It is more of a supplement to it, since even the most gruesome dystopias are often not devoid of utopian elements of hope for a better future. The dystopia genre rose to prominence in the first half of the twentieth century when the most influential works of dystopian fiction were written. These still shape the general continuum in which dystopian fiction operates today. Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1921), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) constitute the basic source texts of the genre. They extrapolate based on the likelihood and necessity of future totalitarian orders. Orwell and Zamyatin described the danger they felt existing socialism's totalitarian forms posed, i.e., Stalinism, while Huxley and London describe a totalitarian version of capitalism, i.e., fascism.

The End of Utopian History?

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed 'the end of history'. According to this train of thought, it is considered impossible at present to imagine a future social order that is simultaneously essentially different and better than the present one. Fukuyama's argument is that the utopia of Western liberal democracy has already been realized. While the idea of Western society as the realization of utopia is easily discredited by citing the obvious disadvantages of the current order, the thesis that it has become impossible to imagine a future that is essentially different from our current social structure has proven valid. The postmodern mindset seems indeed incapable of imagining a future that differs positively from the present. In the 1980s and 1990s, dystopian fiction merged with science fiction to form the new genre of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk's worlds feature urban metropolises whose streets are filled with multicultural multitudes. Multinational corporations and not governments rule its uniformly dystopian worlds, and social Darwinism is the law of these societies. Prominent archetypes in cyberpunk include the outlaw hacker, human/machine hybrids, and the tough-guy loner. The contemporary preeminence of dystopian fiction is the culmination of a process that began at the beginning of the twentieth century.

“All the thematic elements of dystopian fiction already exist in the present world, which gives credence to the classification of the genre as retrospective rather than predictive.”

Dystopias by far outnumber the few examples of utopian futures in the literature of the last three decades. The genre’s stock topics include nationalism, militarism, slavery, exploitation, alienation, classism, racism, barbarism, enforced and controlled gender relations, rape, overpopulation, drug dependence, sexual perversion, pogroms, degeneration, nuclear devastation, ecological pollution, and totalitarian regimes that oppress the masses via a cybernetic apparatus of surveillance and control. As such, all the thematic elements of dystopian fiction already exist in the present world, which gives credence to the classification of the genre as retrospective rather than predictive. The classic Cold War dystopia, as exemplified by Nineteen Eighty-Four, features a tripartite plot structure that comprises the introduction of an average citizen to the totalitarian order, his/her political awakening and rebellion against the oppressive order, and the state’s subsequent hunt for the rebel which culminates in her/his eventual destruction or re-assimilation. Contemporary dystopian fiction displays a tendency to blend various genres and to depart from linear narratives. The new complexity displayed by contemporary dystopian novels frees the reader from the two-dimensional evaluative continuum of classical dystopian fiction. The reader, at first unsettled by the new dystopia's narrative techniques and the fragmented narrative structures of these texts, has to come up with a moral evaluation him or herself. This is in contrast to the classical dystopias where moral judgments were explicitly stated by the author.

“Since socialism as it once existed disintegrated, the dystopian imagination has concentrated on depicting totalitarian versions of our current transnational phase of capitalism.”

A theme that has been passed on to postmodern dystopia is the use of language as an instrument of oppression by the totalitarian state. Despite the poststructuralist influence on the concept of language in the fictitious worlds of the books, and the employment of postmodern narrative devices, the authors of contemporary dystopias defend the identity of the subject and insist on the applicability of such paramount universals as human rights. Since socialism as it once existed disintegrated, the dystopian imagination has concentrated on depicting totalitarian versions of our current transnational phase of capitalism. Writers who have recently ventured into the world of dystopian works of literature include Chuck Palahniuk, the notorious writer of transgressive fiction, Cormac McCarthy, who is widely recognized as one of the major American novelists of the present, as well as British novelist Richard K. Morgan, who started his career with the publication of cyberpunk novels.

Rant by Chuck Palahniuk

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey (2007) marks the entry of Chuck Palahniuk—renowned for novels like Fight Club (1996) and Choke (2001)—into the dystopian genre. Rant constitutes a fictitious oral biography of the title character as well as a coming-of-age story, a dystopian novel, and a science-fiction time travel story. It thus can be classified as a postmodern dystopia. The world of Rant is a near-future scenario which extrapolates from current trends to describe the future state. Due to the fact that increasing numbers of automobiles clog the streets of this future United States of America, American society has been divided into two castes to allow the infrastructure to convey more vehicles. 'The Infrastructure Effective and Efficient Use Act—the I-SEE-U Act' was passed by the government before the story opens, and it divides the populace into two distinct strata: Nighttimers and Daytimers. Nighttimers have to live and work at night, while the upper strata are allowed to live their lives during the day. A curfew prohibits Nighttimers from going out during the day and they are discriminated against and oppressed, while the Daytimers represent a future version of the moral majority. Nighttimers do the low-paid menial work in the world of the story.

“The Droolers represent postmodernity's rejects; they are the useless surplus population who has returned like a Freudian repressed desire to haunt the upper class.”

Palahniuk's future US differs from the present real-world version in another important aspect. The entertainment industry has been replaced by 'boosting peaks,' or 'neural transcripts'. Every citizen has a port on the back of his or her neck from which they can connect to machines that record their sensory stimuli. These recorded experiences are sold as peaks. People use this new technology as a substitute for real experiences. 'Boosting peaks' in the novel is a stand-in for the Internet and the postmodern medium par excellence: television. It represents the cutting-edge technological gimmick with which the entertainment industry pacifies the masses. The novel's title character, however, was infected with the rabies virus early in life, and it destroyed his ability to boost peaks. Rant has therefore lived an authentic life from a young age. The postmodern craving for authenticity is Rant's motivation for letting all kinds of animals bite him, for moving to the city, and for joining 'Party Crashing'. The cult of 'Party Crashing', hugely popular among the Nighttimer population, is another novel idea presented in the story. Party Crashing constitutes a secret demolition derby that takes place on the city streets at night. Among the Nighttimer population, the rabies epidemic caused by Rant has produced the Droolers, people infected with the rabies virus who in the delusional state of the disease begin to behave like zombies from a George Romero movie. The Droolers are shot on sight by the police and vigilante squads. The authorities and the Daytimer community do everything in their power to limit the rabies epidemic to the Nighttimer community. The Droolers represent postmodernity's rejects; they are the useless surplus population who has returned like a Freudian repressed desire to haunt the upper class. The pent up, repressed, unsatisfied consumer desire personified by the Droolers comes to the surface in the most extreme form possible, i.e., in the practice of cannibalism.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Cannibalism also plays an important role in Cormac McCarthy's dystopian novel The Road (2006). The Road is a hybrid of a literary quest, a post-apocalyptic dystopia, a work of survival horror, and a travel novel. It thus is a postmodern dystopia as well.

“Father and son progress through a blasted, burned-out landscape pushing a supermarket cart in which they have stowed their meager belongings.”

The story is about an unnamed father and his son who travel due south across a post-apocalyptic US on foot. Before the story begins, an apocalyptic cataclysm has turned the country through which the two travel into a desert of ashes and soot. The apocalyptic event that turned the US into a wasteland is never explained in the text. Father and son progress through a blasted, burned-out landscape, pushing a supermarket cart in which they have stowed their meager belongings. The two move through the post-apocalyptic US 'like shoppers in the commissaries of hell'. The road from the novel's title is littered with dead bodies and dilapidated buildings. The protagonists scavenge for food and try to avoid contact with other survivors, since most of them have become cannibals. Survival horror stories deal with small groups of humans who survive an apocalyptic event, and then have to deal with the post-apocalyptic landscape left by the disaster. The ubiquitous threat of zombie attacks, which is the other main feature of said stories, has been replaced here by the threat posed by marauding gangs of cannibals. The father carries a handgun, which he uses to defend himself and his son. The remnants of humankind that sparsely populate the world of the text have turned into 'men who would eat your children in front of your eyes'. The apocalyptic event of McCarthy's story did not turn the population into zombies, but the utter scarcity of food has turned most remaining human beings into cannibals who hunt their own kind. The cannibalistic inhabitants of McCarthy's dystopian future reflect the social Darwinism of our neo-liberal present, just as the zombie from the survival horror genre reflects the mindless consumer of late capitalism.

Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan

Market Forces (2004) by Richard K. Morgan depicts a future society in which class difference has manifested as physical separation. The division of the story's population into haves and have-nots is shown through the ghettoization of the inhabitants of Morgan's fictitious UK. The gentrifying tendency of postmodern capitalism has become so complete in the world of the novel that the poor are fenced into the so-called 'zones'. Market Forces merges the common rags-to-riches story with dystopian science fiction and cyberpunk. The novel is a highly political fable that explicitly satirizes the current tenets of neo-liberalism. In the world of the story, executives from London-based financial firms duel each other to the death for promotions and lucrative contracts. These duels are carried out on the streets in armored cars called battlewagons. The haves in the story are those who were born into the upper class or who have managed to enter it by surviving the truly murderous competition, such as Chris Faulkner, the story's protagonist.

“Executives from London-based financial firms duel each other to the death for promotions and lucrative contracts.”

However, the world of Market Forces is not a meritocracy. The subalterns in Market Forces have no chance of entering the upper echelons of society. The have-nots are clearly discriminated against. Faulkner's father was shot by a security guard because he was dressed like a poor person, and his mother died of a curable disease because she had no money for treatment. In the zones, there are no cars, no medical facilities, and no protection by the law. The zones are consequently gang territory. While the affluent can move freely in and out of these guarded ghettos, their inhabitants cannot. The novel describes Chris Faulkner's rise from the dispossessed to the very apex of this futuristic society. Faulkner works in the Conflict Investment Department of a financial firm called Shorn Associates. Conflict investment involves small wars in developing countries; it is about the sinister manipulation of Third World politics by violence-prone Western corporations. Shorn invests in insurgent groups fighting civil wars in the Southern hemisphere and is rewarded with a percentage of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) once the insurgents it backed take over the government. This practice in the novel exemplifies how real multinational corporations are more often than not directly involved in the armed conflicts going on in the Third World. From his lower-class beginnings, Faulkner rises to become one of the 'masters of the universe' who in the world of Market Forces rule supreme and make and break people as they see fit. The exceptionality of his ascent emphasizes the absence of upward mobility in the world of the story as well as its decline in the UK of the present.

“The outrageous exaggerations of dystopian fiction are for the most part much closer to current reality than one might initially be inclined to believe.”

Real dystopias?

At the most basic level, all contemporary dystopian fiction of any critical significance engages with the two crucial problems of our current era: the problem of distributive injustice, both in Western society and globally as evidenced by the North-South divide; and the problem of environmental degradation as evidenced by climate change and the greenhouse effect. The segregation of Western society along lines of financial solvency—which finds its expression in the rise of the precariat, skyrocketing differences in wages and wealth, and the steep decline in upward social mobility—as well as the huge differences in wealth between the global North and the South, have solidified social differences. Furthermore, the negative consequences of climate change, such as droughts, desertification, and floods, as a general rule hit the countries of the South the hardest, while those countries that caused the phenomena we call climate change in the first place, the industrialized societies of the West, are for the better part exempt from these catastrophes. This situation constitutes a state of affairs that scorns notions of justice and equality. In the light of these facts, it can be posited that the outrageous exaggerations of dystopian fiction are for the most part much closer to current reality than one might initially be inclined to believe.

Photo: “Breaking the silence” by Isengardt
2012 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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