(From Hunger Games to The Windup Girl: is Dystopia the new Black?)
“Things are more like they are today than they have ever been.”
Dystopia is a fine word, concentrated and resonant, for society gone wrong. We like to think that complexity (of politics, economics, technology, religion, demographics) means there are now more ways than ever in which society can go wrong. But that was also the perception in the past – in the the eighteenth century (Swift, Hogarth), the nineteenth (Dickens, Dostoevsky, Zola), and the early twentieth (Fritz Lang, Brecht, Orwell, Kafka, Huxley). Dystopia has always been a literary theme and a philosophical perception, but it didn’t always have such a good label.
This is absolutely not to demean current dystopias: novels by Gibson, Bacigalupi and others are wonderful on their own merits, but they’re in a line of descent from past literature.
I notice from my previous posts a rather anal-retentive tendency to do lists of books. It’s tempting to do the same here, because the literature of past centuries does dystopia very well, not by being aware of the word but by being aware of the condition. But maybe a single example will do: Bleak House. What could be more dystopian than the opening pages, with the symbolic fog swirling through the mouldering Chancery buildings? And through the mouldering people? What could be more dystopian than the Jarndyce litigation, where generations grow and die in the shadow of a legal case of almost geological slowness and impenetrability?
The first recorded use of the word Dystopia is believed to be by John Stuart Mill, in a speech given in 1868 to the British Parliament. He was probably using his knowledge of Greek to make a play on words, suggesting a place that was bad in its own right, rather than just an anti-Utopia.
Later came the academics, taking time off from counting the angels on a pinhead to suggest a distinction in literature between the anti-Utopian and the Dystopian. Personally I think the distinction, if it exists, is so small that it could probably find itself a place on the pinhead without displacing any angels.
Then the word came to be used to describe SF novels where society had gone wrong. But before then, there were already plenty of SF novels describing where society had gone wrong. Philip Dick ‘s Solar Lottery and The World Jones Made; Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We; Robert Sheckley’s Status Civilisation; Pohl and Kornbluth’s Space Merchants; Kornbluth’s The Syndicate. I thought that by separating them with semi-colons, and not putting them on separate lines, the list (for that it what it has become, despite my best efforts) might not look quite so anal-retentive as the lists in my earlier posts.
It was Eisenhower (not, surprisingly, George W Bush) who used the expression which I’ve made the title of this post. I don’t think he had Dystopia in mind when he said it – I’m not sure what he had in mind when he said it – but it sort of works. Dystopia (the condition, not the word) belongs in past writing as much as in current writing. It isn’t the New Black; or rather, it has always been the New Black.
Dystopia has always been a dark component of literature and philosophy, an ancient sinuous tapeworm. Except, unlike a tapeworm, it doesn’t just take, it gives. Literature and philosophy wouldn’t be the same without it.