Saturday, October 25, 2014

Utopias and Dystopias in Fiction

We seem to go through waves where several works of utopian fiction are published in succession, and then waves where dystopian visions prevail in literature. Sometimes these waves overlap, like when a retreating wave in the ocean slides under a new breaker, and their ripples interweave.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about utopias and dystopias in fiction—I’ve been listening during my commute to David Lodge’s book A Man of Parts, about H.G. Wells, a biographical novel about that English writer. Wells wrote several books that could be considered both utopian and dystopian, but he was essentially an optimist. One of his novels, in fact, is called A Modern Utopia, published in 1905.

The other reason that these ideas have been crossing my mind regularly is that my son is deeply involved in reading contemporary bestsellers that take place in dystopian worlds, such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. He can’t read those books fast enough—and all their sequels.

H. G. Wells came of age with the generation that grew up before World War I started in 1914 and before the Russian Revolution took place in 1917. Several writers of those pre-war years were drawn to writing utopian fiction. In addition to Wells’s novel, there was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian fiction, Herland, published in 1915. Not too long before that, William Morris’s book News from Nowhere appeared in 1890 (the word “utopia” means “nowhere” in ancient Greek).

William Morris, illustration from News from Nowhere
Utopian visions might have been particularly appealing to those generations because they were formed by a period in history that saw the beginnings of modern technology and the rise of many progressive movements. It was the era of the airplane and motorcars, and the hope that electrical appliances might reduce the drudgery of daily life (which they have, to quite a degree!). The spread of socialism and feminism seemed to promise the overthrow of some of the most entrenched forms of human oppression.

Following the rise of communism and fascism in the mid-twentieth century, though, utopian visions became suspect. Communism and fascism, were, after all, misguided utopian projects, or more accurately dystopian projects masquerading as utopian movements. Not only that, but the promise of the new technology was soured by the use of aerial bombing and other modern weapons in World War I, when so many millions died in the trenches, and the invention of atomic weapons during World War II. The middle of the twentieth century gave rise to two of the most dystopian novels ever written, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1948). Not long before that, in 1920, Karel Čapek’s dystopian play, R.U.R. (which stood for Rossum’s Universal Robots) showed the nightmarish side of modern technology in its depiction of a robot mutiny that wipes out humanity.

That midcentury gloom changed, though, with the rise of the New Left in the 1960s, and the rebirth of feminism and the growth of the ecology movement in the 1970s. Once again utopian visions overtook dystopian, closely linked to the global rebellions of that time. That period witnessed the green paradise of Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (published in 1975), where the Northwest coast of the United States becomes an ecological haven, but pitted against a dystopian remnant of much of the rest of the country. That period also gave rise to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), another novel that contrasted a simpler, utopian society with a hostile, neighboring dystopia.

That same year another favorite of mine among utopian novels was published, Dorothy Bryant’s The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You. This book’s main character is a material guy who is transported by an auto accident to an alternate world where the goal of life is to act in such a way that one has good dreams. Each morning, the members of a cohort recount their dreams to one another to see how well their conscious life is in harmony with their subconscious. 

One could also mention Ursula LeGuin’s sci-fi The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), with its utopian look at gender roles, portraying a world where no one is either male or female, but everyone becomes both at different times, unpredictably, depending on hormonal and seasonal fluctuations.

That wave of optimistic utopian visions, sparked by the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s has given way to an unrelenting series of dystopias in the present day, from the potboilers I mentioned earlier, such as The Hunger Games, to the more literary Cloud Atlas of David Mitchell, a book I very much enjoyed. In Cloud Atlas there are two different dystopian futures. One is highly technological, where clones are slaves to humans, but begin to rebel, to no avail. Another is a post-nuclear-war society in which modern technology has mainly been lost, and large areas of the planet have become dead zones. Tribes of survivors in Hawaii live on subsistence agriculture, victimized by whatever vicious marauders are in the ascendancy at the moment.  

Why this current wave of dystopian fictions? It’s partly that the political movements of the 1960s and 70s have run their course, either making reforms that have been absorbed by the existing political systems, or failing to make really substantive changes to daily life. In this time when the headlines are dominated by the almost inevitable momentum of global warming, by the War on Terror, and by a reawakened Russia encroaching again on its neighbors, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which there will ever be an end to armed conflicts, or a world in which a truly sustainable economy could be a reality.

I can imagine that eventually global realities will again give rise to mass movements for change. And those movements will have their dreams, and their utopias. The pendulum will swing back.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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