Dystopian Fiction: Part 1
(Image from the film, Soylent Green, inspired by Harry Harrison’s, Make Room! Make Room!)
For the sake of this blog, and not relying totally on memory, I have used a brief synopsis of each novel mentioned here courtesy of Wikipedia.
I haven’t read a dystopian novel in decades. Why? First, because I read enough of them; and second, because I started to see the direction in which our governments and our world were and are heading. Reality intruded upon fiction, and such novels began to depress me, even if they ended on a happy, upbeat and optimistic note. I now read for escapism, to be entertained, or educated if I’m reading history or biographies.
During the Depression of the 1930s, and even through WWII, escapist entertainment was extremely popular, especially in films, because people wanted to forget, even for a few hours, what was happening in the real world. Today, in the Information Age, we are bombarded by both real and fake news, and by the landslide of dark, world events. And yet, dystopian fiction, in both literature and the cinema, are more popular now than ever. Is this the new escapist entertainment for the 21st century? Perhaps. I don’t know what every writer and film maker had in mind, but I do know that in the past, authors always had a clear agenda: they were writing cautionary tales.
What I intend to do with the first 3 parts of this 4-part blog is to introduce readers to early and perhaps all but forgotten dystopian novels that I’ve read. These are books I think should not be forgotten, and are must-read novels. Part 4 will deal with more recent fiction, as well as an "incomplete/partial" list of films. So let’s begin, shall we?
While it's recently been said by others that William Golding's 1954 classic, Lord of the Flies is the most relevant novel of our current times, and it's a great novel, I have to say that the most famous of all dystopian novels is 1984. Published in 1949 by George Orwell, this novel has twice been made into films, to my knowledge. The novel is set in Airstrip One, formerly Great Britain, and a province of the superstate called Oceania, whose residents are victims of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance and public manipulation. Oceania’s political ideology, euphemistically named English Socialism (shortened to “Ingsoc” in Newspeak, the language invented by the government) is enforced by the privileged, elite Inner Party. Via the “Thought Police,” the Inner Party persecutes individualism and independent thinking, which are regarded as “thoughtcrimes.” (While Orwell’s Animal Farm is a satirical tale about Joseph Stalin and Communist Russia, it can also be considered a dystopian novel.)
Another famous dystopian novel is Brave New World, written in 1931 by English author Aldous Huxley, and published in 1932. Set in London in the year AD 2540, the novel anticipates developments in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning that are combined to make a profound change in society. The novel opens in the World State city of London, where citizens are engineered through artificial wombs and childhood indoctrination programs into predetermined classes (or castes) based on intelligence and labor. It has been adapted for the theater, radio and two television movies.
One of the earliest dystopian novels I can think of and which I first read sometime in the 1970s is HG Wells’ 1910 classic, When the Sleeper Awakens. (Also known as The Sleeper Awakes.) This science fiction novel is about a man who sleeps for two hundred and three years, waking up in a completely transformed London where he has become the richest man in the world. Although his dreams are fully realized, the future is revealed to him in all its horrors and deformities.
While Wells’1933 The Shape of Things to Come speculates on future events from 1933 until the year 2106. The plot is straight-forward, and quite realistic, perhaps even prophetic. A long economic slump causes a major war that leaves Europe devastated and threatened by plague. The nations with the strongest air-forces set up a benevolent dictatorship that paves the way for world peace by abolishing national divisions, enforcing the English language, promoting scientific learning and outlawing religion. The enlightened world-citizens are able to depose the dictators peacefully, and go on to breed a new race of super-talents, able to maintain a permanent utopia. It has inspired at least two motion pictures. It begins on a dark and dour note, but most definitely ends with the hope and promise of a much brighter future.
Sadly, an all but forgotten novel, The Iron Heel is a dystopian thriller written by American writer Jack London and first published in 1908. This novel frightened me when I read it, because I could see the parallels in what was happening in the world today, and in what direction I fear the world is heading in. Generally considered to be "the earliest of the modern dystopian" fiction, it chronicles the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. It’s a very dark, grim story, and arguably the novel in which Jack London’s socialist views are most explicitly on display. A forerunner of soft science fiction novels and stories of the 1960s and 1970s, the book stresses future changes in society and politics while paying much less attention to technological changes.
It Can't Happen Here is a semi-satirical 1935 political novel by American author Sinclair Lewis. Published during the rise of fascism in Europe, the novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a politician who defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and is elected President of the United States, after fomenting fear and promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and “traditional” values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes a plutocratic/totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of Adolf Hitler and the SS. The novel's plot centers on journalist Doremus Jessup's opposition to the new regime and his subsequent struggle against it as part of a liberal rebellion. While it may seem outdated to some readers, it is still a powerful novel about a very frightening and possible future.
In Part 2 I’ll discuss a number of dystopian novels of the latter half of the 20th century.
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