Deconstructing Dystopias

A dystopia is often defined as a community or society that is undesirable or frightening, a definition which fails to encapsulate its simultaneously compelling and fascinating nature whose lure is evident through the dystopian novel’s increased popularity with younger readers. Packed with adventure and a strong protagonist, its overarching ideological purpose is not always explicitly explored, with a surface of speculation concealing a very concrete conclusion regarding political paths. Indeed, just look past Jennifer Lawrence’s skintight black leggings and obligatory-archery-pout and you’ll find the twisted, densely political and totalitarian dystopia of Panem. But long before gawping on screen at army-clad Hollywood, dystopias have been wreaking political and psychological havoc as a genre since the 20th century, opening our eyes to the importance of liberty. Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We is considered to have inspired, if not suffered a pretty hefty artistic robbery at the hands of, Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1949 classic of the genre, 1984.

Zamyatin’s Russian language work We may not be as familiar to us as Huxley’s and Orwell’s distinctive dystopias, however the work is arguably as deserving of the canonical space these authors inhabit. Zamyatin bases his dystopian ‘One State’ on his own experiences of imprisonment during the Russian Revolution as well as his work for a Newcastle shipyard in the early 20th century. One State’s completely glass design is eerily reflective of the Panopticon prison design, which allows the oppressive state to observe and control everyone. Zamyatin’s work holds a particularly special place amongst the tradition of banning dystopian novels for their polemic political content, as We was one of the first work to be banned by the Soviet censorship board.

Reminders of his disillusionment with dystopian society are littered in his frustrated yet hopeful narrative

Both Huxley’s and Orwell’s dystopian characters are influenced heavily by We. Protagonists tend to be, these classics being no exception, individuals who through their conscious ‘rebel’ status are immediately identifiable to the reader. Orwell’s Winston Smith, with his conveniently typical surname, feels out of place and disgusted by the general conformity to restrictive dystopian standards. Smith could easily have been plucked straight from our own society and thrown amidst the cattle crowd of ‘Airstrip One’. Reminders of his disillusionment with dystopian society are littered in his frustrated yet hopeful narrative. For Huxley’s Bernard Marx, Hemholtz Watson and John, all yearn for the freedoms of a past society, which would have allowed them to travel, write and have romantic relationships.

Female writers have also weighed in on what has historically been a ‘boys club’ genre. For example, Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale exemplifies the sheer terror of a society where women are reduced to vessels for reproduction. Our protagonist has lived through the transition into a dystopia and her identity is so redundant in the Republic of Gilead, or as we know it, Northern America, that she no longer even remembers her name. It simply isn’t relevant any more. More recently, author Lois Lowry’s dystopian children’s novel The Giver has offered a dystopian vision through a childlike narrative, showing a complete ignorance of any form of society pre-dystopia. Lowry’s novel plays interestingly with concepts of knowledge and understanding, in a society where everyday liberties such as colour and memory are only granted to few members of a vast society.

This is a genre rife with inventive naming, and nowhere more so than in the monikers of these totalitarian leaders

As much as personal dystopias may vary, the big players of the genre all feature the same aspects of political corruption, which dismantle what would be a ‘normal’ society. For Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell (and even teen fiction writer Suzanne Collins), a dystopian vision all revolves around an idolized cult-of-personality figure. This is a genre rife with inventive naming, and nowhere more so than in the monikers of these totalitarian leaders. Huxley’s ‘Mustapha Mond’ calls to mind global domination through his Latin-root surname and Orwell’s ominous political leader ‘Big Brother’ has become synonymous in popular culture with surveillance, invasion of privacy and trashy, washed up celebrities.

The enduring popularity of the dystopian novel, a genre bursting with what we recognise as nightmarish visions, is a testament to their ability to reflect our most basic freedoms and individual rights. Personal or political, dystopian novels are fundamentally an exercise of our liberties as humans in a social and political structure which can so easily be toppled into totalitarianism. This precarious topic matter is attested by the genre’s consistent adulteration. In fact Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell have all been subjected to censorship and bans in the publication of their works. Dystopian novels across time, languages and cultures affirm the same freedoms we all feel are worth protecting and nothing shows us the value of these than a literary vision in which they become redundant.

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