“If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are non-existent.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Dystopias have always had a fascination for readers and writers (just look at the detailed and passionate comments on my last post!). They are, in their way, a perfect place for fiction. They are places where conflict, and thus a dramatic story, is inevitable. Even if, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, failure is inevitable, the urge to break free and escape this hellish place creates instant sympathy. We don’t mind that Winston Smith is a rather unlikely revolutionary—in his horrendous world, anyone might become a hero.
But to qualify as a dystopia, a place must be more than simply terrible. Mordor, of The Lord of the Rings, is not first on anyone’s holiday list; a country dominated by a disembodied force of evil was never going to be a recipe for success. And yet Mordor, though a horrifying and iconic place, does not have the same kind of chill as Airstrip One (formerly the UK) of Nineteen Eighty-Four, because Mordor’s evil is corrupting and savage, inspiring the holders of the rings to act on base instincts, rather than rational thought.
A true dystopia has to be something more insidious—a place which is just as ideal-driven as the brightest utopia.
Look at the broken society of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. If this were just a future where books had been superseded by huge, interactive screens and chattering “earpods,” (and goodness me but wasn’t he prophetic!) then it might be a grim social satire. But this is a place where the policy of the state is to burn all books, whatever their subject, for being dangerously subversive. And to the firemen, those who burn the books, it all makes perfect ideological sense:
We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it.
Because a dystopia is an ideal corrupted—a utopia taken beyond all bounds of sense and moderation. And it is perhaps not surprising that the classic western vision of hell is populated, not by creatures wholly evil, but beings of goodness that have fallen from grace. There is nothing worse, in our eyes, than good purposes that have become corrupt, through overreaching their ideals. Ray Bradbury’s firemen wanted people to be equal and safe, but found that this would be impossible if people were allowed to have other ideas. In the same way that any totalitarian state sees spies everywhere, because even to think differently is to disturb harmony.
After all, if everyone believes in one thing, anything, it does create a kind of peace. Plato argued this thousands of years ago in his Republic, where he suggested a “golden lie” to keep people contented. The imagined philosopher-kings of the Republic would spread the belief that individuals were born with different metals mixed into their bodies—gold, silver, copper etc. which would determine their place in life. Plato freely admitted that this was not fair, but with a stroke it would destroy ambition and conflict. It is notable that he also insisted that all storytellers and playwrights would be exiled. He claimed that it was because their fictional “lies” would corrupt people’s spirits, but it isn’t hard to see that they would also bring back a dangerous level of debate.
Perfection, then, is a dangerous concept indeed. It can create the best of worlds, and the most barbaric cruelty. It is bad enough in fiction, but when people try to make a “perfect state” a reality, we all know the results.
Is this then the fate of all those who strive for perfection—either to fail, or to create something which corrupts everything they stood for?
Perhaps. But I suspect that Thomas More, the creator of the most famous Utopia/Dystopia, would disagree. For he didn’t write Utopia in his own voice, but instead created a narrator called Raphael Hythloday. More was very fond of word-play. Roughly translated from Latin and Hebrew, this name means “God heals through divine nonsense.”
Our own world is too complicated to understand all at once. No one mind could ever hold all of its intricacies, so we hold up these utopias and dystopias, these ideal-driven mirrors. By depicting lands dominated by one or two ideas to an insane extent, they show both how far these ideas can go, and the dangers of letting this ever happen. More’s “divine nonsense” is not an end in itself, but a tool, and one which can warn us of the folly of putting too much faith in single, all-encompassing ideals.
And there are still people who say speculative fiction is just escapism…
David Whitley is British, and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford. His first novel is The Midnight Charter, a fantasy adventure for young adults which, to his complete astonishment, has sold on five continents in thirteen languages. The first of a trilogy, it will be published in the US by Roaring Brook in September.