Each generation has its very own dystopian novel. These books never seem to fade away, every year continuing to sell new copies and receiving a vaunted place in literary circles. What is it about them that strikes such a chord with readers? From Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We written in 1920 through to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, these warnings of the future capture the imagination in a way that no other genre seems to manage.
Yet the dystopian vision for this generation has yet to be written. Naturally, there are many wonderful books that present a terrifying future and a world of tyranny or triumph. Still, these science-fiction writings tend to lack the prophetic power of novels like Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. Could it be that they are too far removed from present reality to inspire the impending doom of the traditional dark dystopian fantasy?
Close Enough to Reality
The greats of this category all have one thing in common that later attempts often miss entirely: They are closely rooted in the world in which they were first published. That is not to say in purely chronological terms that they mimic the times, but rather that they reflect the fears inherent in those periods.
The common thread to their longevity appears to be that the reader can see a direct path from where they are now to the terror or tyranny that is often at the heart of these novels. A sci-fi story that describes a tyrannical Martian planet where workers are forced to mine precious materials while being corralled by genetically modified wolves is certainly a frightening vision, but it’s too far removed from present experience to make a lasting impact on how we actually view and perceive the world around us.
Orwell’s 1984 presented us with a society that lives in homes, goes shopping, goes to work, eats in lunch canteens, and has all the hallmarks of reality. The rationing that takes place in the book, the shortage of razors; when the book was published in 1949, WWII rationing in the United Kingdom was still in effect and would be for another five hard years. The people of the day could witness their own lives in the pages and recognize elements of the propaganda that was so used to control a disheartened and downtrodden people.
Just a few years later, across the Atlantic, Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451. Surely such a tale of firemen being tasked as book burners – the destruction of words and ideas – was too far fetched for the audience of 1953? Perhaps not. The novel was written during the peak of the McCarthy era. People were persecuted for their “subversive” ideas – not only in the public sphere but also by the very hand of government. It was not a stretch of the imagination for the average reader to see that the state-sanctioned burning of books and suppression of ideas was something that could all too easily happen in their lifetimes.
Tyranny in the Technology Era
But what of today? What will be the dystopian novel that reaches into the very back of our minds and taunts us with its ever-possible threats?
There is little doubt that technology will play a large part in the dark semi-fictional future. Brave New World shocked us with its casual usage of pharmaceuticals, in the form of Soma, to deal with all of life’s real or imagined woes. But perhaps the starkest piece of tech across the genre was that of the television.
In 1984, Winston Smith’s constant overseer was the telescreen. It was the essence of the state inflicted upon his own home, showing that Big Brother was, indeed, always watching. Orwell writes:
“It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.”
The wearing of an “improper expression.” It seems that we have our own version of these so-called “facecrimes” today: micro-aggressions. It has been accepted without question by our rulers that such things not only exist but that they hourly display our wanton hate crimes. We don’t have telescreens, but we have computers, phones, surveillance cameras on almost every city street, and even microphones, all routing information on innocent people to a host of databases.
Is it so outlandish to believe that someday soon, people’s facial movements will be evaluated by a computer to display the tiniest micro-aggressions, and those who flicker even the smallest sneer at the progressive orthodoxy will be denounced?
And what of Fahrenheit 451? Again, wall TVs play an integral part in facilitating the tyranny of the state. In this novel, there is a certain amount of interaction between the viewer and the TV; basic, but still there. The programs that engage Guy Montag’s wife are far from educational. They seek to dull her mind and her spirit by pumping inane gossip into her ears, making her thrill at talk of neighbors and the happenings in others’ households. Today we have our reality TV. Has there ever been a more wholly useless waste of spare time? We are invited to marvel at the lives of “real” people, gasp at their shenanigans, their pratfalls, and their manufactured turmoil. All this to distract us from the very real drama of our own lives.
How many “water-cooler” opportunities in offices across the country degenerate into what someone watched last night, the story in a TV show, rather than discovering the reality of our fellow man or woman? We’re being sold these “real-life fictions” to cut us off from genuine interaction.
The difference between these telescreens and wall TVs of the dystopian novels was that in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, TVs couldn’t speak to you – but we have the equivalent now: computers tuned into the internet; they have become two-way devices that personalize interactions. Sadly, the interactions are merely fraudulent.
Living your life on the web, in fear of expressing your own valid opinions. Threats of enforced vaccination. Living in terror of a virus that will crush our livelihoods, lock us indoors, and suspend our very rights.
I worry that we don’t have to wait for the next dystopian classic novel to realize the coming tyranny, we’re already living it.
Read more from Mark Angelides.