There are several great novels associated with the dystopic utopia tradition, but without a doubt four of the most notable are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Such novels distinguish themselves from both fantasy and science fiction. In an interview, Atwood stated that she prefers the name “speculative fiction,” a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein, to describe A Handmaid’s Tale (NY: First Anchor Books Edition, 1998): “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships. Speculative fiction could really happen.” (“Aliens have taken the place of angels: Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction,” The Guardian, June 2005). Speculative fiction has become an umbrella term that includes utopian and dystopic fiction as well as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, some of which may also be considered to be science fiction or fantasy. The best speculative fiction, I believe, reveals what has already begun to happen and extrapolates with amazing lucidity how social and political ideals can turn into our worst nightmares. Every utopic ideology, from Marxism to eugenics and from primitivism to technocracy, has within it the seeds of its own dystopic undoing. Each one shows part of what has happened in our cultures and how things could get a lot worse.
Margaret Atwood’s novel illustrates what could take place in any culture or society where the women’s movement joins forces with the radical right to create a “purer” society. In such a world, “freedom to” (dress as one wants, choose one’s profession and life partner) becomes “freedom from” (being a sex object, having too many choices of partners, location or profession). But “freedom from” is only a euphemism for lack of civil rights, for constraint, for invisibility itself (as women are enshrouded in a veil and even wear blinders on top of their heads, so they can’t see or be seen). It is a dystopic utopia; a contradiction in terms. Some societies have already implemented such a “freedom from” in the name of various religious or political ideologies. However, as Atwood underscores, no society—even the most seemingly open-minded and liberal–is immune to it. Totalitarian constraints can happen anywhere, even in the U.S, which, in fact, is the setting for her novel.
While Margaret Atwood envisions a danger that could happen, George Orwell describes a social experiment that did happen. To many who have lived through the totalitarian phase of communism in Eastern Europe, as I have, Orwell’s 1984 is, in many respects, a historical novel: one that goes hand in hand with Robert Conquest’s monumental history, The Great Terror. Newspeak, thought police, brainwashing; the physical and psychological torture of political prisoners to confess to nonexistent crimes and the show trials were all part and parcel of how the NKVD and other Secret Police organizations ruled with an iron fist during communist dictatorships. O’Brien, the Thought Police agent in the novel, states the open secret of totalitarian regimes: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” (1984, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949, p. 272)
Perhaps the only speculative aspect of Orwell’s utopic dystopia is, as O’Brien himself points out, that those put on show trials die purified of their thought crimes and convinced of the righteousness of the new regime. They often are not, as were the victims of Stalinist purges, the embittered martyrs of a lost freedom. O’Brien promises Winston: “I shall save you, I shall make you perfect” (251). Perfection in 1984 is a world with no objective parameters of truth and falsehood or of right and wrong. It is a world in which the past is a convenient fiction for the present; a world where the difference between fear and blind trust is obliterated. The Thought Police aims not merely to oppress man, but also to gaslight him: to get him to accept relativism without question. “We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him,” states O’Brian (263). He pursues: “We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him…. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him… Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation” (263).
By their very nature, utopias are ideological and dogmatic. They often represent a reaction to one form of constraint or dogmatism with an equally strong reaction in the opposite direction. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (NY: HarperCollins, 1932) probes another aspect of ideological dreams that could easily turn into nightmares: the social experiments of eugenics and the supposed biological justifications for social hierarchies and castes. Written during a time when the Nazi party was already starting to implement eugenic policies—described, in some ways, in the novel–Brave New World doesn’t spare democratic societies its sharp social critiques either. Huxley describes the dangers that capitalism and industrialization, if left unchecked, can pose for humanity. Human beings are reduced to little more than automatons, consuming mood altering drugs and engaging in ritualistic sexual activities to compensate for lack of thought and the superficial and impersonal nature of their emotional ties.
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (NY: Random House, 1953) issues a powerful warning against censorship: books are burned because of their dangerous, potentially conflagrating ideological effects. However, as the author states in an interview in the late 1950’s, the novel also touches upon the alienation among people caused by an excess of information and too much exposure to the mass media: “But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog… The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. … There she was, oblivious to the man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction” (quoted by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, NY: Ayer Co. Publishing, 1975). Obviously, the author’s critique can be exponentially multiplied today, when most of our human contacts are mediated by ipods, computers, twittering, Facebook and other technological gadgets and social/mass media networks. The future is already here. Each of these speculative novels not only predicted it, but also critiqued it in a way that remains very current.
Why are these speculative novels still relevant and important today? I’d like to explore this question by using as my point of departure a few famous quotes by leading writers and intellectuals.
1.“Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world.” H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia
Any society is flawed; any political institution, no matter how inclusive or democratic, has some corruption, inequality and unfairness in it. Utopian visions hone in on those weaknesses and injustices to imagine a better world, a world without these flaws. They function, in some ways, as a magnifying glass that allows us to see better the problems with our societies and institutions and as a mirror to imagine their obverse side.
2. “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Almost every speculative novel is, in many respects, more multidimensional and more lucid than any political ideology was or ever could be. It captures both sides of the coin: the utopic vision and its dystopic, more realistic downsides. As Hawthorne puts it: both the ground you build a better society upon and the place you segregate its outlaws and its casualties.
3. “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Toni Morrison, Online NewsHour interview, March 9, 1998
Utopic visions offer the best vantage point for social critiques. As Morrison points out, they are almost always correctives for hierarchies and injustices in the real world of the have’s from the perspective of the have not’s. Since each society has so many distinctions and hierarchies, the have’s and the have not’s are not a binary dichotomy (between races or classes), but more of a fractal of many social and cultural dichotomies.
4. “Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache… Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” George Orwell, Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun
Utopic visions will always exist because nothing in our world can ever be perfect. We will always suffer from the “toothaches” Orwell alludes to. There will always be something wrong with our social and political institutions, no matter what they are. The need to imagine a world without whatever specific flaws we choose to focus on in our societies is therefore also inevitable. We will temporarily see in those utopic visions a better society. However, as Orwell points out, in reality, we might only be exchanging a toothache for a headache, or one problem for another.
5. “In the next few years the struggle will not be between utopia and reality, but between different utopias, each trying to impose itself on reality… We can no longer hope to save everything, but… we can at least try to save lives, so that some kind of future, if perhaps not the ideal one, will remain possible.” (Albert Camus, Between Hell and Reason)
As a counterpoint to Orwell’s cynicism, we can safely say that not all utopias (or dystopias, depending upon your perspective) are equal. Some hells are hotter than others; some political and social structures worse than the next. Utopic visions offer a horizon of possibility. They enable human beings to at least try to aspire to creating better social institutions and governments.
6. “Life without utopia is suffocating, for the multitude at least: threatened otherwise with petrifaction, the world must have a new madness.” E. M. Cioran, History and Utopia
A world without utopic visions is a world deprived of imagination, where one only sees what is and remains blind to what could be. Utopias enable us to dream and envision another way of life, perhaps a better world. They are healthy fantasies and necessary regulative ideals: as long as we remember their dangers and undersides, as each of these great writers reminds us.
Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon