John Stuart Mill first used the word ‘dystopia’ in 1868 in a House of Commons speech. The dictionary definition of ‘dystopia’ is given as: ‘An imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.’ Many authors and film-makers have imagined future dystopias, think for example, Brave New World, 1984, Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner and Robocop. In primary school we read a book called ‘Empty World’ in which a plague wipes out everybody but the three protagonists. Nuclear annihilation was also a favourite of science fiction authors though this has now been usurped by other pessimistic visions of dirty bombs or over-population or even under-population where reproduction is problematic.
It is strange how this genre of science fiction conveying a bleak and brutal future has remained so popular for so long. Writers tend to look to the past with rose-tinted glasses and loving nostalgia but nearly always present the future as a bleaker place than the present. In J G Ballard’s ‘The Drowned World,’ solar radiation has caused the polar ice-caps to melt and worldwide temperature to soar, leaving the cities of northern Europe and America submerged in beautiful and haunting tropical lagoons but in contrast to much post-apocalyptic fiction, the novel features a central character who, rather than being disturbed by the end of the old world, is enraptured by the chaotic reality that has come to replace it. He is very happy to forgo modern comforts for the peace and quiet that comes with the new world.
Dystopian fiction has a broad appeal as can be witnessed by the huge teenage interest in vampires and fallen angels. The Hunger Games, though also appealing to adults, was loved by teenagers. One theory is that books set in either chaotic or strictly controlled societies mirror a teenager’s life; at school, at home, with their peers and in the wider world. Other think it is much simpler and that the other-worldly setting makes for an exciting backdrop for a great read. Some view dystopias as warning for the future and there have been numerous references to George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in relation to many of the government’s new ‘snooping policies’ or any suspected control and intrusion by the state, but whether they were written as didactic texts or simply great works of fiction I am not sure.
Orwell believed that British democracy as it existed before 1939 would not survive the war but he later admitted that events proved him wrong. But it is still no bad thing to read 1984 from time to time as a reminder of what could happen. Modern authors like to tap into modern fears-in Adrian Barnes’ new Zombie novel ‘nod’ all but a few people lose the ability to sleep and the subsequent irritability leads to madness and aggression. It is good to immerse oneself in this type of literature occasionally but I treat it as entertainment rather than prediction of the future.