By Kim Nursall
“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
This is the understated opening sentence of J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, a horrific look at a society gone wrong. High Rise is one in a long line of dystopian novels, sharing shelf space with bleak stories of harvested babies, totalitarian rule, technology run amok and the complete loss of human identity.
A subsection in the world of science fiction and speculative fiction, dystopia is one of the medium’s most enduring and influential forms. Along with post-apocalyptic and last-person-on-earth stories, dystopian fiction emerged from the industrial revolution- providing a dark glimpse of a possible future and warning what may lead us down that path.
Dystopia first stemmed from the idea of the utopia. The Ancient Greeks described a perfect, ideal society, where human effort is directed towards justice.
However, utopia is directly translated as “no-place.”
“You cannot have utopia in a society where you have humans because there is always somebody greedy, somebody who is immoral, who wants to dominate the world,” says University of Calgary English professor Ruby Ramraj. “Utopia is an idea, an imagined place, and really I don’t think you can find utopia on earth ever, no matter how many idealists we have, how many visionaries we have.”
As such, dystopia emerged as a way to criticize the impossibility of the utopia, presenting a darker, more plausible picture of world order.
“What you find here is that you have a society that is totally unequal. You have nightmare scenarios where one group is trying to dominate the other group,” says Ramraj. “There is war, there is violence, there is poverty, there is destruction. And you get this sort of fiction where it is the end of the world.”
“I think dystopian fiction really caters to our fears. We fear some of this might happen and some of it is actually happening today. And because of that, we fear that this scenario might actually come to pass, not just in fiction, but in fact.”
Dystopian fiction carries common characteristics and themes that classify it as such.
“Characters in dystopian fiction live lives which are very restricted in some way or another, either by the government or by people in their own society,” says Ramraj.
George Orwell’s totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four is constantly under surveillance by its dictator, Big Brother. Additionally, fellow citizens- or “comrades”- are encouraged to report any non-conformist attitudes, should the authorities miss them.
Dystopian fiction also lacks social mobility.
“If you are in this class, then you are never going to get out of [it],” says Ramraj, drawing parallels to India’s caste system where individuals are doomed to live in the class in which they are born.
Ballard’s High Rise focuses entirely on the class system. Set in a luxurious futuristic high-rise building where all conveniences and amenities are provided for, residents live their lives contentedly indoors. However, small disagreements and crimes begin dividing the lower, middle and upper floors and their respective classes. Without a proper police presence, the entire building descends into an all-out war of savagery, tribalism, rape and cannibalism.
Dystopian societies also view families, emotions and non-conformity as unstable, and thus undesirable. As a result, babies are harvested rather than born, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and literature and free-thinking are banished, as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Ayn Rand’s Anthem takes place in a society of absolute brotherhood and collectivism where non-conformity is impossible. Individuality has been suppressed to the point where the word “I” has disappeared from the language, thus making the novel’s first-person usage of “we” throughout a disorienting first read.
“Often when these writers show you a world or scenario where such horrible things happen, I think they just want to wake your conscience up a little. They want you to stop and think, ‘Look, this is happening in our society [. . .] surely we should be doing something.’ ”
“It really shakes you up, it makes you think. And I think that’s one of the things dystopian writers do. They don’t provide solutions at the end of this,” adds Ramraj. “It just shows you what happens when you take advantage of human beings.”
The themes of dystopian fiction are criticized by scholars and casual readers for being excessively bleak and pessimistic. Protagonists often accept their fate when they are unable to shake up the system or make a difference. But Ramraj believes that it is especially true in today’s information age, when the entire world’s suffering is accessible and available to us, yet we are nowhere closer to a solution.
“Because of that, pessimism is almost realism today,” said Ramraj.
English professor Stefania Forlini sees this pessimism as a shortcoming of the genre.
“I think if we are attached to more dystopic narratives, it’s great in terms of being able to criticize what’s going on, but it can lead to greater apathy and just a sense of despair and that immobilizes people.”
“I think that because we are inundated with so many possible apocalyptic scenarios, that it’s important to have a sense that you can still do something, you don’t just passively wait for whatever end might be coming,” says Forlini. “But it’s believing in these small daily practices as having political impact and as having value that I think is really what [matters].”
Forlini offered steampunk fiction, such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, as a way to point out dystopian fiction’s shortcomings. Steampunk fiction re-evaluates people’s relationship with technology. By taking back control of technology from companies, the characters reclaim their places as makers instead of consumers and are thus better equipped for future eventualities.
“It’s bringing to our awareness that technology is always necessarily political because it shapes people in society in certain ways,” says Forlini. “It’s about labour, it’s about who controls knowledge and technology. It’s a call for renewed creativity in the process of making things.”
“If you think of dystopia in general, it comes from, on some level at least, a desire for something better. [Steampunk’s] desire for something better is just more explicit. So instead of stopping the apocalypse, they’re going to give you a guide to surviving the apocalypse and not focus so much on brooding.”
As such, Forlini sees dystopian fiction as an incomplete picture.
“Life is not that simple. An ending is never just an ending. And if you look at any disaster, real or imagined, the aftermath is sometimes more challenging than the disaster itself.”
“This is not the end of the story. There may be an apocalypse, there may be a final disaster or catastrophe, but it won’t be the end. And I think that’s a very interesting perspective, and one we might actually need to seriously think about,” says Forlini. “If pessimism today is realism, then don’t we need to go a step further than just saying this is how it’s going to end? The challenge is going to be, ‘Well, how do we rebuild and how do we understand that ending and not repeat that?’ ”
Still, dystopian fiction continues to be written and hold steady appeal. Indigo Books & Music manager Lisa Huie states that it “remains a strong fiction category with sales and volume of books remaining constant year over year.”
Canadian dystopian fiction in particular is much more contemporary- they do not have as broad a canvas, and are more rooted in place, says Pages Books on Kensington manager Simone Lee.
“There are a lot of dystopian books being done about the here and now, that are just showing a different side of the reality we face,” says Lee.
“But they’re just as depressing.”
In Forlini’s words, we read dystopian fiction because people “like to see our anxieties played out, in order to calm them.”
Its relevance in today’s society cannot be understated and its comments cannot be more timely.
In assessing Pages’ customers, Lee says, “it’s kind of balanced, but it’s quite clear that some people come in and say, ‘I want a book that’s not depressing.’ ”
Some people need happy endings. Dystopian fiction is not for them.