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The Concept and History of Dystopian Fiction Essay

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Updated: Jul 18th, 2021

Introduction

The 20th century produced several new literary genres, dystopian fiction (DF) being one of them. Typically set in the future, DF stories, nevertheless, were meant to represent the fears of the era, including the social anxieties regarding political, societal, and cultural changes. However, owing to the profoundly insightful and incredibly imaginative thinking of DF authors, their works also reflect some of the aspects of contemporary reality.

The definition of DF may vary depending on its tone and context, yet it contains general characteristics that can be applied to most of its examples. Montz, ‎Green-Barteet, ‎and Day (2014) define DF as the literature that “situates itself in direct opposition to utopian thought, warning against the potential negative consequences of arrant utopianism” (p. 8), while Syvertsen (2017) prefers to denote the subject matter as “a negatively deformed future of our own world” (p. 36). Thus, the goal of this paper is to study the phenomenon of DF based on the examples of Orwell’s and Huxley’s fiction and determine the presence of the themes that overlap with the contemporary social, cultural, and political issues.

Among some of the most notable examples of the 20th-century DF, Orwell and Huxley’s works have to be mentioned. Orwell’s “1984” has practically become the staple of DF, coining the term “Orwellian” to describe a dystopian future. Huxley’s “The Brave New World,” while garnering lesser fame, also represents DF of the 20th century rather well.

The authors address the topics of totalitarianism, people’s rights and freedoms, the concept of sexuality, emotional and mental well-being, and other issues that remain problematic in the modern world as well. Therefore, the works of DF writers of the early 20th century tend to reflect some of the modern realities and ideas and affect contemporary society.

Analysis of the Concepts and Themes Related to Dystopian Fiction

Although each PDF author sets their story in a different environment with its unique characteristics, there are common themes and ideas in the DF genre and especially DF of the early 20th century. Because of the political pressure that could be observed in the world at the time, totalitarian regimes and their effects were often explored in DF as crucial themes. In addition, the key features of the 20th century DF include libertarian philosophy, the lead characters that fight oppressors, and political commentaries regarding the tyrannical regimes that protagonists attempt at overthrowing (Anwar, 2016). In essence, DF can be seen as the assumption of the drastic outcomes that the current negative trends in politics, economics, and social life may entail in the future.

Specifically, some of the specimens of DF have become so well known that they perform the function of a cautionary tale for humankind. The issue of politics and dictatorship is addressed explicitly in Orwell’s and Huxley’s novels (Morgan, 2018; Scott & Taylor, 2014). Specifically, Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “The Brave New World” as the staple of the genre have garnered such public acclaim that they are referenced when criticizing a particular line of political or cultural thinking that may be potentially harmful to certain populations (Anwar, 2016).

The problem of dictatorship is addressed explicitly in “1984” and less obviously in “Brave New World.” Particularly, in “1984,” the setting is described as entirely totalitarian, with the characters living under the dictatorship of Big Brother: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” (Orwell, 1949, para. 106-108). Orwell shows how totalitarian power shapes people’s perception of reality and distorting their perspective.

Although the specified imagery is linked to the era of Stalinism and the fear of Communism, which is no longer a threat, the specified examples are exemplary of how modern far-right parties use rhetoric in order to deceit people into accepting the ideas of totalitarianism and abandoning their freedoms. Similarly, “The Brave New World” paints the picture of the universe in which totalitarianism is implied, although people in it claim to have a substantial degree of freedom in regard to their sexuality: ‘As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them” (Huxley, 1932, para. 30).

Nevertheless, on closer scrutiny, ostensible freedom turns out to be a figment of their imagination and a tool used to control them and their need to rebel. The subtle hints that Huxley uses to indicate the intrinsic dissatisfaction with the artificial state of happiness strongly suggest that the author depicts a totalitarian regime.

The Elements of Dystopian Fiction in the Modern Society: Analysis

The political issues described in “1984” and “The Brave New World,” particularly, the problem of curbing people’s rights and freedoms, reflect directly the current political situation and the source of conflicts within the modern global society. Although totalitarian regimes are rather uncommon in most states, they are still present in certain countries, which makes the message of “1984” and the Brave New World” all the more powerful and disturbing.

When exploring DF of the 20th century to find a common thread in it, one may notice that the dangers of intrusive and omnipotent media are rendered quite often as an imminent threat to people’s freedoms and independence. Indeed, in “1984,” media produced by technology and innovation is described as extraordinarily invasive and, most importantly, uncontrollable by an average citizen (Bina, Mateus, Pereira, & Caffa, 2017). Hijacking personal data and delivering it to the ominous totalitarian government, media in DF is always a threat. The specified phenomenon represents the societal worries about the rapidly developing technology and the possible threats that it may pose to people.

The abuse of media as a highly negative phenomenon and the opportunity to interact with it as a neutral one has also been explored in “Fahrenheit 451,” which is shockingly accurate to the current situation. While technology is not used for the unceasing surveillance of the general population currently, it has, indeed, become more interactive, inviting people to engage with the media that they consume.

Specifically, in “Fahrenheit 451,” Mildred refers to the actors that she sees on the parlor wall as “my family” (Bradbury, 1953). Furthermore, as the narration unwraps, Mildred is shown as enthralled in the lives of the people from the parlor wall and nearly hypnotized by them (Bradbury, 1953). The specified addiction to media can be seen as a rather clever prediction and a critical look at the role that media plays in the lives of modern people.

In addition, the problem of censorship rendered in both novels can be seen as very realistic in the context of present-day reality. While freedom of speech remains an integral human right in most states, some countries restrict the chances for people with opposing opinions to voice their concerns about specific political and economic issues. Thus, “1984” and “the Brave New World” reflect modern reality to a considerable extent, pointing to the fact that policing of people’s opinions may be unleashed once the concept of free speech is abandoned.

Addressing the common threads in the DF of the 20th century without mentioning the problem of totalitarianism is impossible. Nearly every novel written in the DF genre on the specified time slot features a variety of totalitarianism, which sets rigid limitations on citizens. The specified characteristic of the dystopian future that dictates very specific lifestyle choices to the population appears in “1984,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “Animal Farm” (Resch, 1997). Although the specified novels, as well as their successors, are typically set either in the future or, in the case of “Animal Farm,” in an imaginary setting, each of them alludes to the threat that permeated the global society at the time.

Specifically, the concept of the totalitarian regime that makes all people bow to the will of a leader is borrowed from the history of the Soviet Union, Orwell’s “Big Brother” being a very obvious metaphor for Stalin and the KGB (Greider, 2014). It is often argued, however, that the elements of the nightmarish environment in which Orwell’s characters live alludes to Nazi Germany, with the “doublespeak” referring to the Nazi culture and the “Big Brother” incorporating the traits of Hitler (Stock, 2016). In either scenario, the novels clearly represent the dark reality of the past and seem not to be directed into the future.

However, on closer inspection, one will notice that the traces of the problems about which Orwell and other DF authors warned humankind seem to have pervaded some of the areas of the global environment by now. For instance, the issue of surveillance, as dubious as the arguments against it might be, remains an inseparable part of the modern era (Awan & Raza, 2016). Therefore, the problem of political tyranny raised in DF remains a valid discussion point in the present-day environment.

Technological concerns that were addressed in the works of DF writers addressed not only the issue of communication, although the specified problem was also important. The changes to the very essence of human nature and the probability of tampering with it quickly became one of the leitmotivs for DF of the 20th century, with Huxley’s “The Brave New World” rendering the issue directly. Particularly, Huxley mentions the changes made to people on a genetic level to limit the extent of their physical and mental abilities (Stock, 2016). Therefore, DF of the 20th century reflected the social anxiety about the possibilities that genetic engineering opened. Afterward, the concern will grow even stronger as the phenomenon of cloning is discovered and the ethical problems underlying it are revealed (Schaeffer, 2015).

For instance, in “the Brave New World,” the ruling party redefines the very essence of human nature both genetically and psychologically by shaping people’s intelligence artificially and creating a distorted representation of sexuality. At a comparatively early point of his novel, Huxley provides the following dialogue between the director and one of the girls: “We had Elementary Sex for the first forty minutes,” she answered. “But now it’s switched over to Elementary Class Consciousness” (Huxley, 1932, para. 71). While the specified passage does not contain any details that can be defined as particularly disturbing, it points to the shift in perspective regarding sexual experiences as a one-dimensional concept. Indeed, as the story evolves, it turns out that the world in which the lead character lives views sex only as a means of gaining physical pleasure.

However, the issue of sex no longer being tabooed has more dimensions in the contemporary environment than Huxley outlined in his DF. While in the “Brave New World,” exploring the nature of sex and sexuality was represented as lewdness and the refutation of any emotional context, the modern interpretation of sexual education and sexual relationships is seen as the endeavor at exploring all facets of the subject matter and developing a healthy attitude toward it. Therefore, the observed commentary about the possible future that may be plagued by indecency and debauchery can also be seen as the fear of changes in the representation of gender and sex.

Moreover, it is stated in the novel that people are cloned to produce new offspring: “Standard men and women; in uniform batches” (Huxley, 1932, para. 20). The specified phenomenon embodies the fears that the authors had for the concept of what would become genetic engineering. Indeed, while genetic experiments are not currently used to introduce casts in the contemporary global society, the ethical aspects of the specified procedures and especially cloning have been questioned multiple times, with no answers having been produced so far. Thus, DF of the 20th century has addressed a range of concepts pertaining to the field of the modern biological engineering area, pointing to the dilemmas that need further elaboration and in-depth research.

Counterargument

Although there are certain connections between the issues raised in DF, particularly, the novels written by Huxley and Orwell, claiming that they represent the present-day reality might seem as debatable. DF is an exaggeration in its essence, with the political and societal constraints blown out of their proportions to showcase the problematic aspects of certain ideas and philosophies. In a range of cases, the specified anxieties make the authors of DF push the suspension of their readers’ disbelief too far and, thus cannot be seen as the accurate depiction of modern reality. For example, the tyranny described in 1984 is seen as barbaric when evaluated through the prism of modern standards.

Because of the exaggeration that the author uses to create the necessary atmosphere, the situation described in the novel, particularly, the level of surveillance described at the beginning and the tortures that Winston undergoes at the end, seems beyond unrealistic. While it serves its purpose of a cautionary tale, it does not even approach the realities of the present-day world, where the dictatorship of the USSR is no longer in existence, and where the principles of democracy are upheld as the required standard.

Therefore, it is doubtful that DF could dully reflect the realities of the present day. Instead, it attempts at predicting the worst possible outcome based on the imminent threats to people’s well-being that could be observed at the beginning of the 20th century. Without the specified dangers, the potential of DF is limited to the realm of the past. Although the novels written by Orwell and Huxley were supposed to warn people about the possible dark future, they fail to render the contemporary anxieties since some of the threats that served as the foundation for these DF novels are no longer in existence.

Rebuttal

At a second glance, the problems explored in Orwell’s and Huxley’s works are quite tangible even for the contemporary audience. Due to the existence of the political regimes that can be described as rather rigid and restricting social freedoms, the concerns voiced by DF authors maintain their urgency and significance. Even in the states that are typically viewed as representative of democratic principles and freedoms, problematic issues such as gender inequality and the presence of racial and class-related prejudices exist. The specified concerns have grown exponentially after the U.S. elections and the recent alterations in the American policies toward ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups.

Moreover, the themes addressed in Huxley’s and Orwell’s works are even more realistic in the states where the government does not support democratic principles and, thus infringes upon the rights of vulnerable groups. Consequently, asserting that DF themes and anxieties are linked to the contemporary global environment would be an understatement. The problems of totalitarianism, authoritarian principles, and prejudiced opinions remain disturbingly real in the modern setting despite the efforts taken to manage the lack of justice, as predicted in Huxley’s and Orwell’s works.

Therefore, it is critical to explore the novels and compare them to the elements of the present-day world. By placing the ideas and problems described by DF authors in the context of the modern world, one will see the absurdity of the existing prejudices, as well as realize the drastic lack of social and legal justice. The absence of protection for vulnerable groups, including ethnic, social, and cultural minorities is a critical issue that remains an inseparable part of modern society. Thus, Huxley and Orwell’s novels remain sadly realistic in the present-day setting.

Conclusion

Because of its self-awareness and the ability to render the angst of the 20th-century society in the face of drastic technological, political, and economic changes, DF can be seen as relevant to and even characteristic of the modern setting. In a range of works created in the early 20th century, the changes that humankind was about to experience within the next several decades are predicted rather accurately and describe the negative effects of these changes.

The specified phenomenon can be explained by the lack of knowledge about the boundaries that science was going to push, as well as the possibility of failing to retain control over the unceasing progress. As a result, while some of the technological, social, economic, and even political alterations mentioned in the DF at the time, have become true, humankind has also developed the ability to not only cope with these changes but also make their effects positive.

Consequently, what the writers of DF in the 20th century saw as the unknown and, thus frightening, the modern population regards as common and harmful. Therefore, it was the possibility of harm that the specified technologies and social changes could have brought that made DF so frightening and deprived of any chance to be ever defeated. By taking control over the process of innovation and development in every domain, including not only technology but also politics and economy, humankind proved that the dystopian future could be averted.

Progress Report

The DF of the 20th century is a unique era of fiction literature that has left a tangible mark on the global culture and has reflected the anxieties about the future that the writers had at the time. The connections between the expectations that DF writers of the 20th century had for the future and the current state of political, social, and cultural development of humankind are the key focus of the project. The need to evaluate whether there has been a shift in the understanding of a dystopian future between the early 20th century and the modern era is the primary reason for exploring the subject matter.

Indeed, although there are notions and ideas that remain perpetually negative and potentially threatening for humankind, such as global warfare, other notions may have become irrelevant with time. An introspect into the problems that the authors of the 20th-century DF raised, as well as the changes in the representation and perception thereof in the modern era, is the key goal of the paper. Put differently, the question that this research asks is whether the concerns voiced by the authors of the 20th-century DF have come true and if the consequences thereof are just as dire as these authors predicted.

The paper explores numerous crucial issues, yet there are three main points that require a thorough analysis. Specifically, the shift in the sociocultural perspective, the opinions regarding technological progress, and the problems associated with the political choices made by authorities can be seen as the essential talking points. In the paper, the specified concerns are addressed based on the evidence from different DF novels and recent studies, thus presenting the opportunity to compare the 20th-century ideas and the current situation.

In order to provide an in-depth analysis of the matter, scholarly sources and academic books were used along with the works of the DF authors in question. The latter served as the tools for illustrating the points made in the essay, while the former provided the theoretical framework for the discussion.

The scholarly resources located to support the analysis and provide the relevant information should be regarded as extraordinarily helpful. Offering the profound chances for studying the problems presented in the 20th-century DF in-depth, the specified academic resources allowed for an in-depth analysis of the links between the current socio-cultural and political situation and the predictions made by DF authors.

Specifically, the paper by Awan and Raza (2016) provided a chance to study the evolution of the Marxist ideas in the 20th century after “1984” was published. One might argue that the perspective offered by Awan and Raza (2016) cannot be considered as fully related to the topic since Marxism already existed when the book was published and, therefore, was a part of the reality that Orwell mocked. However, “The Brave New World” also builds assumptions regarding the further development of Marxoism, therefore, providing an in-depth analysis of the problem.

Similarly, McManus (2017) renders the idea of an artificially created perfect world in which the totalitarian nightmare remains a perpetual part of reality. The specified study helped shed light on the problem of altering people’s sense of morality and ethics as an inseparable element of DF. Thus, the identified resource provided an ample amount of information to contemplate when preparing the paper. However, by far the most interesting reading of all was the study by Claisse and Delvenne (2015), who posited that a narrative incorporating the elements of DF could become the tool for empowering people to make a positive change. While sound reasoning is preferable to scaring people into making the right choice, it is important to depict the possible dire outcomes of wrong decisions.

References

Anwar, M. (2016). Postmodern dystopian fiction: An analysis of Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’. International Journal, 4(1), 246-249. Web.

Awan, A. G., & Raza, S. A. (2016). The effects of totalitarianism and Marxism towards dystopian society in George Orwell’s selected fictions. Global Journal of Management and Social Sciences, 2(4), 21-37.

Bina, O., Mateus, S., Pereira, L., & Caffa, A. (2017). The future imagined: Exploring fiction as a means of reflecting on today’s Grand Societal Challenges and tomorrow’s options. Futures, 86, 166-184. Web.

Bradbury, R. (1953). Fahrenheit 451. Web.

Claeys, G. (2015). Dystopia: A natural history. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Claisse, F., & Delvenne, P. (2015). Building on anticipation: Dystopia as empowerment. Current Sociology, 63(2), 155-169. Web.

Huxley, A. (1932). . Web.

McManus, P. (2017). From Huxley to Eggers: Happy dystopians. New Left Review, 2(105), 81-105.

Montz, ‎A., Green-Barteet, M., & Day, S. (2014). Female rebellion in young adult dystopian fiction. Farnham, United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Morgan, D. R. (2018). Inverted totalitarianism in (post) postnormal accelerated dystopia: The arrival of Brave New World and 1984 in the twenty-first century. Foresight, 20(3), 221-236. Web.

Orwell, G. (1949). 1984. Web.

Resch, R. P. (1997). Utopia, dystopia, and the middle class in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Boundary 2, 24(1), 137-176. Web.

Schaeffer, U. (2015). From beast folk to great apes. About the significance of animal others in dystopian literature. Berlin, Germany: GRIN Verlag.

Scott, C. E., & Taylor, F. F. (2014). Totalitarianism on screen: The art and politics of the lives of others. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

Sims, M. (2017). Frankenstein dreams: A connoisseur’s collection of Victorian science fiction. New York City, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Stock, A. (2016). The future-as-past in dystopian fiction. Poetics Today, 37(3), 415-442. Web.

Syvertsen, T. (2017) Evil media in dystopian fiction. In Media resistance (pp. 35-53). London, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

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