The Dystopian Novel

by daniel-p 11 Replies latest jw friends

  • daniel-p

    Dystopia : 1) An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.

    2) A work describing such a place or state.

    During the past couple of months I have been reading a series of dystopian novels in which a carefully manufactured society is portrayed through the eyes of a protagonist who becomes increasingly aware of what is wrong. Through the reading of these few books I have drawn many parallels with growing up and/or living in the Jehovah's Witness faith. I hope you enjoy this essay of sorts and maybe learn about some books you would enjoy. This is by no means an exhaustive list or comprehensive overview of the Dystopian novel, but merely an introduction for someone who might want to relate the Dystopian experience with what they have experienced in the WT organization. I am only listing three novels due to time constraints. There are many others, but these are some of the most acclaimed and I believe to be the most important. George Orwell's 1984 is obviously missing, but most people have read that in high school, and it is too familiar to be exciting for me. The books below would make a great summer reading series. They are all easy to read and easy to obtain on Amazon. Hope you enjoy.

    The Dystopian Novel - an Introduction

    The Dystopian novel typically portrays the breakdown of Utopia - asking and answering the question of what happens when Utopia fails. Dystopian novels are popular during times of chaos and unrest, and are constructed as a response to the rise of totalitarianism. Circumstances are taken to their extremes, but, as some people would know, extremes are easily achieved when people are worried about their personal safety. The Individual must be subdued: independent thinking becomes an act of treason. Self-fulfillment is out of the question, since this would render the system incapable of satisfying the needs and desires of the individual. As long as they can be fulfilled by the system or machine of progress (many times in the form of consumer goods) there is nothing but the Group, with its inherent group-think mentality reflected in the minds of every person.

    The preservation of order inevitably becomes the fabrication of reality. The individual becomes responsible for any failure, and the group-entity receives the rewards for all successes. Ironically, in the reality of Dystopia, there is no collective power: individuals matter only at the highest levels of administration. But even then, they take on a god-like persona, unreachable in the height of their supposed magnanimity. Through all of this a war inevitably develops in the hearts of subjects. They must constantly quell their emotions and independent thoughts in order for the external world to continue to make sense. Most come to the conclusion that it must be their own weakness and inadequacy that tears their heart in two: the pitiful, base, animalistic, irrational side, and opposite, the normal, assured, robotic, rational. Defiance against chaos wins out, and the individual once again is united with that which is familiar. As ever more resources are devoted to the control and preservation of the status quo, the intellectual progress of civilization comes to a halt. The collective assets of individual creativity represent a source of change and chaos. A battle for the mind is won rather easily, but conquering the heart becomes an entrapment the authoritarian rulers cannot resist.

    Utopia and Dystopia are two sides of the same coin - not opposites, but components of the same ideal; the control and subjugation of the hearts of men and women. Utopia is not self-sustaining. It must be imposed on the hearts that cannot be converted, thus engaging in the most futile struggle of all, the struggle against human will.

    Daniel-p's Dystopian Booklist

    WE (1924) by Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (sometimes Eugene Zamiatin)

    Zamyatin is credited with writing the first Dystopian novel. It was written just after the Russian revolution, of which Zamyatin was an advocate of. He was a member of the Bolsheviks, but was soon dissilusioned when his fears were realized and manifested in an increasingly totalitarian state. He becace a dissident, was not allowed to publish any more of his work, and soon became destitute. He later wrote a letter to Stalin requesting an extended leave, basically voluntary exile. He lived out the remainder of his life in Paris. His book was banned from the Soviet Union, but became heavily influential on the circle of socially-conscious writers of the time. Orwell in particular was influenced by it, and also wrote a review of the French translation. If you have read 1984, you need to read WE, the original Dystopian novel.

    WE portrays a state hundreds of years in the future where the primal forces of life are brought under control. It is one of the most extreme portrayals of Dystopia. Hunger is controlled by the use of carefully-calculated prescriptions that fulfill the exact needs of human bodies. Sex is controlled by measuring sex hormones in the blood and making a table of "sex days" where anyone can fill out a piece of paper and "request" the sexual companionship of anyone else. The two persons (Numbers) retire to one of their rooms, which have see-through walls, the curtains come down at the push of a button, and the couple have fifteen minutes to have sex. In the words of the protagonist: "It is clear that under such circumstances there is no need for envy or jealousy. The donominator of the fraction of happiness is reduced to zero and the whole fraction is thus converted into a magnificent infiniteness."

    The protagonist is a naval engineer (as was Zamyatin in real life) who is in charge of building a rocket that will be the first of many crusades into outer space, subjugating alien civilizations. His labor of love, however, is recording a daily log of his thoughts, thinking it would be a great glorification of One-State. But along the way he discovers irrational emotions and uncontrolable thoughts, as he also discovers the friendship of a woman who is involved in an underground rebellion. This is definitely the book to begin learning about Dystopia, as it was the first one, and also written by someone actually living in a Dystopia of sorts.

    Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley

    Huxley said he never read Zamyatin's novel WE, although George Orwell, who reviewed the French translation of WE, insisted that Huxley was lying. The similarities are almost impossible to disregard as pure chance, but in any case, Brave New World stands on its own as powerful portrayal of Dystopia. Huxley's repeating theme throughout most of his books is that of moral regress. His argument was that as our society progresses in technological acheivement, consumerism takes an ever-stronger hold on our way of life. He saw how pure science is increasingly overshadowed by applied science and the application of technology to develop more efficient means of producing consumer goods. He saw the perfection of capitalism as gross materialism; that the ultimate goal of the average citizen would become the satisfying of all hedonistic desires.

    In Brave New World, the reader is given a vivid image of an immense factory where humans are manufactured like goods. Embryos are nurtured to become Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, or Epsilons. Alphas are nurtered to be the most intelligent, while Epsilons are injected with alcohol and other nerve-supressants to stunt their mental growth. This is because everyone has their place in society, and must carry out a set of prescribed functions in order for everyone to have equal happiness. Sex, unlike in WE, is not regulated except for the use of contraceptives on the part of the female. Promiscuity is seen as normal and healthy, while any hint of monogamy is abnormal and scandalous. Children are trained from a young age to engage in sexual play in order to remove any inherent inhibitions. Sex becomes like any other social mechanism; a mildly entertaining game, or a conversation, devoid of deep passion.

    Brave New World is set in a time about a couple hundred years into the future. For us now, it would be about a hundred years into the future, if Huxley could ever see the state of the world in our present day. Henry Ford is the God of Brave New World, as efficiency of the whole is everything, as it is in WE. The protagonist for the first half of the book is a man named Bernard who is disenfranchised about the state of things, more because of his own physical differences than anything else. He is an Alpha, but is a couple inches below the standard height for Alphas, leading some to gossip that he had alchohol accidentally infused into his embryo when he was on the human-making assembly line. Because he is treated differently, he becomes a loner, sometimes bordering as an outcast. A woman, however, becomes intrigued with him and seeks him out for some sexual association. When they take a holiday to a remote Indian reservation (preserved as a sort of zoo display) they come across a man who has a weird connection to both of them. They bring him back, John, "The Savage," to civilization and then things get really interesting.

    What I find very intriguing about BNW is how isolation is heavily discouraged. Everyone must constantly be distracted from what's really going on. This resembles so much of our world today, where we have so many electronic gadjets to take with us everywhere, along with TV, radio, Internet, all competing for our attention. Original thoughts eventually go out the window as we become a black box of varied cunsumptions, digesting processed ideas just as easily and meaninglessly as we digest processed food. If consumerism as a worrisome state to you, you will greatly enjoy Brave New World.

    The Handmaid's Tale (1986) by Margaret Atwood

    Atwood is a living Canadian writer who has been a longtime observer of American culture. She studied at Harvard, learning much about the beginings of America, and in particular, the Puritans. In the 1980's a backlash against the Feminist movement was being carried on by the Religious Right. The Feminists were blamed for everything wrong with the state of the world, including the increasing divorce rate and increasing consumer prices. Atwood was concerned about this backlash, as it reflected an archaic set of values about women and their place in society. The Religious Right embarked on a decades-long crusade to return things to a simpler, patriarchal time. In 1978 Iran became a theocracy, which up until that time was almost unheard of in the modern world. Atwood saw this as a worrisome trend, foreseeing a time when openly evangelical Christianity would run politics in America. Atwood took this to a logical extreme in writing The Handmaid's Tail.

    Unlike Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tail is an intimate, close account of a woman and her struggle for mental freedom and hope in a patriarchal society. The protagonist is a woman who is forced into the place of a child-bearer to an upper class couple. There are a lot of extremely disturbing parallels between her experiences and that of Rachel's maidservant Bilbah, which will definitley change the way you read the Old Testament. It makes the experiences of thousands of female lives real - as female slavery and oppression has been present for thousands of years and still is today (i.e. Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc).

  • Kudra

    Neat synopsis d-p.
    I have never even heard of WE but enjoyed the other two. I am always trying to squeeze in a fictional book into the required readings I have to do. Although I hadn't heard of the descriptor "dystopia", that's one of my favorite literary genres. I am trying to think of some others ... have you read necromancer? I started it but it was a little too scifi for my tastes.
    A master of the humorous-semi-dystopia I think might be Kurt Vonnegut.
    thanks for your thoughts!


  • serendipity

    Very interesting, Daniel P. I actually never read 1984 in school, though my daughter did. I think she has it laying around somewhere.

  • daniel-p
    I am trying to think of some others ... have you read necromancer? I started it but it was a little too scifi for my tastes.

    Never heard of Necromancer. I've read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, but nothing else, sadly. I would like to, but you know how it goes - way, way too much to read. I always bite off more than I can chew when it comes to reading. WE is a harder read for some than 1984 or Brave New World because of not only the translation, but the style in which it's written. But I think its excellent, of course, and very important, being the first true dystopian novel.

  • Kudra

    I'd check out "Slapstick" for a more "dystopian" Vonnegut novel. Also, he has a selection of short stories titled "Welcome to the Monkeyhouse" that fits that description too. I like a good selection of short stories when I am running short on quality reading time. K.V. is one of my favorite authors, up there with Tom Robbins and Isabel Allende. Also, d-p have you read T. Coraghessian Boyle? He is a great author although a few of his books I have not liked or have had to struggle to get through. He writes on such a broooooaaaaad range of topics, it's hard to describe his genre.
    Aren't you thankful you don't have like a zillion magazines and bookstudy crap and talks to prepare for anymore though?!?!?!

  • New Worldly Translation
    New Worldly Translation
    have you read necromancer

    Did you mean Neuromancer by William Gibson? It's a good book but the narrative drifts at certain points making some parts a little confusing. It's probably better described as cyberpunk than dystopian as it concerns itself with the components, characters and motivations of the society it's based in rather than the environment and society itself.

    Just my opinion but I don't think Brave New World or We have aged very well. 1984 is still a powerful book though. I put off reading it for a while because it had become something of a cliché but I was pleasantly surprised how well written and visceral it was.

    I have a page with an ebook of it along with some others

  • daniel-p
    I don't think Brave New World or We have aged very well. 1984 is still a powerful book though.

    I don't understand how a book "ages." I think its just a matter of what your'e used to reading. There different translations of WE, so that migh be a problem, and Huxley isn't the best writer (not one of the greats), but what's important here are the ideas of dystopia. These books arn't for people who just want a good read. They are to make people think deeply about society and why they do what they do.

  • Seeker4

    Huxley was one of my favorite authors from high school days. He wrote another novel, Island, some years after Brave New World. Island is more utopian than dystopian, as it contains all of his ideas about what would make an ideal society.

    But being Huxley, if I remember correctly, it ends with the sounds of the machine guns from an invading army, come to destroy the ideal.

    Nice thread. Always looking for new writers with good ideas.


  • Kudra

    arr- Yeah Neuromancer... I always called it "Necromancer" and my BF (who gave it to me) would always get pissed off at that. And also at the fact that I didn't know what things like "deus ex machina" or the Gordian Knot referred to... Now I'm having feelings of "I am such a moron" deja vu...
    Aaaaanyway, I know what you mean about the difference between BNW and 1984- BNW does have sort of a feeling that is harder to visualize as real, while 1984, you're there instantaneously. Maybe some folks just respond better to one writer's style. After all, reading their books is like having a conversation with them and everyone has people that it is easier to converse with.
    I still plan on reading We, sometime in 2009 when I'm done with school... :(

  • New Worldly Translation
    New Worldly Translation


    Haha I do it all the time, getting book titles mixed up then I wonder why I can't find them on Amazon I was searching for a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book "The Time of the Patriarch" and couldn't find it. I was getting 'Love in the Time of Cholera' and 'Autumn of the Patriarch' mixed up!

    I think your right about BNW and 1984. 1984 just seems so much more real and Orwell was a better writer than Huxley also. I think when I said that it hadn't aged well that was a too simplistic assessment. What I felt when reading it was that it was of it's time and was more overtly commenting on communism, fascism etc than 1984 which is more timeless, although inspired by the politics of the time. I think Huxley, while having lots of good ideas and threads in BNW, falls into the trap of having too many ideas crammed into the book and the characters and narrative are lost in this sea of conceptions that Huxley is trying to get on the page.

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