Dystopian Fiction

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coverThis is the first of two blogs by our esteemed colleague, Gerard, on the subject of dystopia. The word “dystopia” denotes an imagined society considerably worse than our own. It is the antonym of “Utopia” (or more properly “Eutopia”, for Utopia originally meant ‘No-place’ as in Thomas More’s book of the same name) which is a hypothetical state of imagined perfection and harmony.

Considering that most perfect worlds would  be rather boring (to describe, at least, if not to inhabit) and  the dramatic potential of utopian societies are bound to be limited, it is not surprising that  most literature of speculation has tended to concentrate on the dystopian alternatives of the imagined futures.

Dystopian fiction became more popular as the nineteenth century advanced and as societal and technological change added to people’s anxieties, causing apprehension as well as hope for the future. Eventually it came to be expressed as the kind of literature that later came to be called ‘Science Fiction’. Most of these stories included ideas where extrapolated recent trends in science, culture or politics resulted in catastrophic outcomes and they stimulated fears that the fast-moving developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could-unchecked-bring disaster. In his book New Maps of Hell, Kinsley Amis argued that the dystopian tradition was the central one in the Science Fiction genre.

As the last century advanced increasing numbers of novelties in science and society became fodder for the insecurities or for the dramatic purposes of speculative fiction writers, from robotics-a perennial favourite-to genetic engineering and from travel and commerce to the changing roles of the sexes.

Later we will look at some of the most significant of these works, both in fiction and the cinema to see how these works of Science Fiction (also Sci-fi, or SF) to see how these works have been influenced  by modern developments in various areas and have perhaps had an influence on the direction of those changes in turn.

Economics, business, commerce….compared to the more sensational staples of much science-fiction like robots and aliens, these can seem, at first glance, to be tedious subjects, but several of the most interesting novels of speculative fiction have concerned themselves with these matters and have exploited the dramatic potential for business and trade, especially as they relate to issues such as social justice, the environment and class.

coverOne idea that has attracted the attention of many SF writers is the all-powerful company, the “Mega-corporation”, a corporate entity that has gone so far beyond even monopoly that it has entirely supplanted the functions and authority of governments. Infiltration, manipulation and bribery have been replaced by direct control with policy and decision-making in the hands of the CEOs. Considering the wealth, power and influence of many American companies, when the global reach of many of these companies almost approaches that of quasi-states, this topic has long been of interest to Sci-Fi writers in the United States and authors from Philip K. Dick to Kim Stanley Robinson to William Gibson have explored this theme.  In Britain, Henry Ford has an almost God-like stature in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as the prophet of the technocratic ideal on which the society of the novel is based.

coverOne of the first significant uses of the idea of a total corporate hegemony was in The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, published in 1953 and consistently praised as one of the best Science fiction novels in the genre. In ‘The Space Merchants’ states exist only to serve giant trans-national corporations, many of which are advertising agencies. The protagonist works for an advertising agency that owns India. Despite living in misery, due to overpopulation and environmental deterioration most of the population live in a fantasy of affluence fostered by the advertising corporations and ubiquitous advertising while in many cases being deliberately addicted to the products advertised.

coverOne of the more recent iterations of this theme is Max Barry’s book Jennifer Government. In this corporate dystopia, the corporations are effectively above the law, there is no taxation, all government services, including law enforcement, are privatized, the police-basically a mercenary army working with the NRA-only help those who can afford their services; people take the surname of the company for which they work (an important character is named ‘John Nike’) and children take the surnames of the company that sponsors their school. The titular character, who works as an agent for the vestigial government is engaged in investigating a conspiracy by one of the mega-corporations to eliminate the few remaining functions of government and transfer all power to the corporations.


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