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).