Dystopian novels can highlight the problems within society and make you more aware of them. Often after finishing the novel, you feel glad that you don’t live in that particular dystopia. As exciting as the Hunger Games sound, I think most of us are happy that it is not our reality. The religious extremism of Atwood’s Gilead or the Big Brother-like surveillance from Orwell’s 1984 are iconic staples of dystopian literature. Elements of our lives may incorporate items from these novels, but our lives still have a degree of normalcy.
Both Atwood and Orwell are writing from the twentieth century and have managed to find problems that when pushed to the extreme, can have severe consequences on society. Atwood focused on how religion can be used to limit a woman’s freedom, and subsequently Handmaids becoming symbols of protest against more stringent government control on women’s reproductive rights in most recent years. When she was writing, the Republican Party was gaining support amongst evangelicals, and the rise of a religious conservatism may have served as inspiration and a potential area of harm towards women. Orwell wrote 1984 after World War Two, which was started in response to the rise of fascism in Europe and during which the largest technological advancement occurred. Propaganda and state media have been used for centuries to influence the public mind, and 1984 is an example of how such methods can be pushed to the extreme. Surveillance has increased across the globe, making it easier to track individuals and to learn more about them through their internet history and movements on surveillance cameras. We have seen a rise in techno-autocratic governments such as Singapore and China, that use technology to track their citizens and to control what they see. Even Western governments have used technology to influence their citizens, for example Cambridge Analytica which was hired by the Leave campaign during Brexit and used targeted ads on Facebook to influence voters. Whilst neither of these books have been played out to the full extent in reality, they have predicted problems that can be detrimental to society and individuals’ freedom if pushed further.
Whilst things seem bad, they can get a whole lot worse. These books serve as a warning, but in the end, they are just a work of fiction. Some of the best dystopian novels that exist take an existing problem and push it to the extreme, which makes it harder to challenge the system. Dystopian novels have highlighted problems in our society before many were perhaps aware of them, but in the end they did not completely predict the future. We are still at a point where we can do something to change the course we’re on, and therefore comparing our situation to a dystopian novel is like giving up and accepting whatever happens next.
The main characteristics that unite novels across the genre are suppression and complete government control which can be described as dictatorial. The absence of freedom and the difficulty that protagonists have when challenging the status quo is the one thing that is present in most, if not all, dystopian novels. True, in some countries basic liberties such as freedom of speech and organisation is limited or non-existent, but largely people do have the ability to express themselves, something that characters in dystopian novels do not have. If the absence of freedom is one of the main characteristics of a dystopian world, then the presence of freedom would suggest that currently we do not live in a dystopia because we still have various freedoms that allow us to challenge our governments and to change the system. Whilst this is not universal, the presence of democracy in different parts of the world makes it easier to spread it to countries that do not have it. In a dystopian world, this would not be possible.
From a Western perspective, we have privileges and abilities that are not the same in other countries, and so the characteristics of dystopia above can apply to various situations. This is why saying we live or do not live in a dystopia is a generalisation. It’s because we cannot fully know what the situation may look like in other countries and we do not know exactly what a dystopia is. But looking specifically at Western countries and referencing various dystopian novels, the absence of freedom is the most distinctive and unifying characteristic. We still have a lot of freedoms. If anything, we’re in the time before the dystopian novel is set, where things just keep getting worse until an autocratic-minded government steps in. We still have the option of speaking out when we’re unhappy, of saying and believing whatever we want. We still have the ability to try and change the way things are going because we are heading towards a world where we don’t have the luxury of these freedoms. Nobody wants to live in a world or a country where freedom is absent, and that would be the real dystopia.
[Katerina P. Schwartz – she/her – @katpschwartz]
[Image Credit: Kell Kitsch, Deakin University]