Dystopian Commonalities in SF

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…or why dystopian fiction is so common

We all know what the model dystopian novel is, since we had to read it in school. Some of us enjoyed it immensely; some of us hated it with a passion. In either case, we were presented with 1984 by George Orwell as the first true dystopian novel. Few of us probably questioned this, as many students seem apt to accept the almighty wisdom of their teachers. The truth of the matter is that dystopian fiction had already been invented before Orwell ever wrote 1984–a fact we have to accept because Orwell drew heavy influence from We by Zamyatin–and in a lot of ways, the idea of a dystopia is endlessly entwined into our literature no matter where we turn.
But, that aside, it has been an interesting phenomenon to watch as science fiction paved the way for grander concepts in dystopia. Many who read science fiction and understand what a dystopia is will say “that sounds like half of all the science fiction books I’ve ever read”, or at least something to that effect. Those who criticize science fiction, for whatever reason, might be apt to use the common placement of the dystopia as a means to hurt the credibility of science fiction as literature. All of us should take a step back, however, and not criticize science fiction writers, whoever they may be, for their supposed lack of new ideas, but commend them for unintentionally realizing that you can’t escape the dystopia.
Taking the definition of what a dystopia is–a work of fiction describing an imaginary place where life is extremely bad because of deprivation or oppression or terror–we have to come to the realization that we live in a dystopia. While some of us live in what we might call a utopia, or at least as close as we as a society could come to such a thing, great masses in the world are living in a dystopia. You could say, then, that science fiction writers are not writing some unimportant, overused idea, but rather taking something that is common place in normal society and stretching it into the vastness of technological advancement. Science fiction writers tackle issues that plague us in our everyday lives, some more so than others.
The fact of the matter is, if true literature must take from real life, must draw upon social or cultural issues of the times, then science fiction is doing this better than any other literature. Books like The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, while now considered a classic, took our world, flung it into the future, and showed us what could happen to a world subjected to militaristic capitalism and ultimately what a society could become if it succumbed to extremist genetic manipulation–a veritable utopia where war and hatred have been bred out of the human race. But, to add to the tension, to draw upon the idea that one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia, we get to see what happens to the poor individuals who aged mere years in their long, faster-than-light travels, while the rest of society grew by centuries. How would someone who grew up in a world not far from our own deal with returning to a place that no longer resembles home? And how would one react to knowing that you are a relic of a time when to think and
feel as an individual was common, a relic of a time long lost? How would you adapt? Certainly, the end of The Forever War presents a position we might consider utopian, but to look deeper into the position of the characters, which we followed from the start of the book, we have to agree that they are not living in a utopia. They can never live amongst what has now become ‘regular people’ because, in essence, they are the abnormal ones and to agree to sacrifice what makes you who you are seems an idea of lunacy to them. Thus, they are outcasts who know are outnumbered by a population of ‘humans’ who can easily replicate themselves as super soldiers many times faster than the significantly old-fashioned population.
Any time a character is placed in a position where things seem particularly bad, that is a dystopia. It doesn’t matter than the rest of world might be moving along normally, for that character normalcy no longer exists, only pain and suffering. One might look at Andorra by Max Frisch, a play written some years ago presenting a unique take on racism, anti-semitism, and anti-individualism (I made that one up). To live in a society where to be Jewish is cause for unnecessary stereotyping and maltreatment would be dystopian on both ends. The play begins simply as stereotyping, with the main character refusing to accept that he is different, but everyone else treating him as the adopted Jewish child. For the main character it becomes impossible to lead a normal life as the rest of society pressures him into certain life paths based on Jewish stereotypes–money, sensitivity, etc. For the main character, things seem rather dystopian, but it becomes clear that he is not the only one suffering this condition. The end of the play shows this perfectly when the “Blacks”–the people of a neighboring country that oddly feel like Nazis–invade, as feared, and take complete control. Only the main character seems solid in his attempts to maintain his individuality, while most everyone else has given in without a fight, despite their earlier claims to do otherwise, in one way or another. For the main character, a world that is slightly dystopic, comes fully into its own as a modern dystopia. For the others, their sacrifice of their individuality for social order brings them into an unimaginably strict and immoral society where the destruction of a people is accepted as a means to preserve the whole.
In essence, one must realize that the dystopia has always been there. Science fiction, while more flamboyant–for lack of a better word–in its endeavors, is, nonetheless, not outside of the norm of society. In many ways, science fiction is the only genre that can readdress the idea of dystopia without rehashing entirely overdone ideas. It’s that word ‘science’ in the name that does it. As our technology increases and changes, new stories can be written. Fifty years ago none of us would have thought we would be using laptop computers and surfing this thing they call the Internet. In fact, most of us probably would have laughed at the idea–I’m guessing here as I’m only twenty-four and obviously did not experience the world of fifty years ago. But science fiction writers had the luxury of simply making stuff up that sounded plausible. It’s no surprise then that science fiction writers could take the social values and concerns and weave them into complex plots about nuclear war, fallen societies, and interstellar wars with advanced alien species. Times were fertile as technology advanced. So too are the times of today. For us, we see the world moving slowly, because technology does not make massive leaps and bounds, but the reality is that technology is making massive changes. Science fiction writers can tap into this. Fifty years ago we would never have guessed we could cure cancer, although I’m sure someone fancied the idea without any basis in reality. Now, we’re inches away from doing it, and with that change in science will come a myriad of other advances. Genetic manipulation is almost a reality. Science fiction is the culmination of all these advancing ideas and technologies. It’s a gift of sorts and with that knowledge they can expand upon the repertoire of amazing works before them, drawing the dystopian ideology to a new height. Stories rooted in real physics show how humans on a dying Earth figure out ways to travel distances to other stars when Einstein has proven to us that FTL drives are impossible, while leaving doorways that are little understood into new avenues of space travel.
Is it any surprise that science fiction is filled with worlds gone wrong, technologies failing their masters, and societies crumbling under overprotective aristocracies? Is it a surprise that science fiction breaths the dystopic?

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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