Share This Article
Emily Hewitt-Park explains how the two sides of the dystopian fiction continuum aren’t that disparate after all.
When considering the realms of literature, theatre and film, it is commonplace to encounter a moral dichotomy with stories situated on two ends of a fictional continuum.
On one side we have narratives with affirming, positive anecdotes which convey the best of humanity: gentle fairy tales or light-hearted ‘rom-coms’. On the opposing side, however, we are faced with dark dystopian constructs; cautionary tales with perplexing allegories that depict the darkest version of our society with malformed social structures, misery and suffering.
Dystopian constructs create a dark backdrop, in front of which protagonists can shine, values prevail and justice takes its course. Against that obsidian darkness, small acts of humanity have a contrasting glow. Empathy and emotions are amplified. Though bleak, literary dystopias are a device for exploring our common humanity, and its potential for unity and restoration.
But what is it that makes this form of storytelling so addictive?
To unpack this, we should reflect on the history of dystopias as a genre. Unbeknown to most, the dystopian genre is less than one hundred years old, born under the pen of Yevgeny Zamyatin in his 1920 novel We, in which individual D-503 retaliates but ultimately submits to the control of ‘One State’, a relentless authoritarian civilisation.
If you’re a dystopian fanatic yourself, or just took HSC English Advanced, this plotline may sound strikingly familiar. Sure enough, We provided strong inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it also motivated many other artists who were witnessing an era of remarkable social discord. Extrapolating oppressive military or political ideologies, writers followed Zamyatin’s lead, addressing issues such as freedom of expression and human rights as they sought to highlight the shortcomings of Marxism, fascism and, later, capitalism.
However, as we reached the early 20th century, the world began to mirror dystopia, collapsing into physical incarnations of dystopian states where civil societies endured transformation into ones of unimaginable horror.
Prior to the 1940’s and World War II, even dystopian fiction had failed to predict the atrocities the human race would face. This new era had created a means of mass destruction that had only previously been alluded to on the page. Widespread communication and the use of propaganda easily manipulated the population; radical, but untested political ideologies offered simple solutions to complex problems. No work of fiction anticipated the capacity for evil in these regimes and the extent to which humanity would be debased.
This tumultuous period in world history meant real-world precedents had provided a new frame of reference. The heights and depths of human nature, as reflected on our continuum, had been redefined by reality rather than fiction.
The effect on the portrayal of dystopian societies would be profound. There was now a new ‘gold-standard’ for evil and depictions of oppressive societies in the post-war, nuclear age would often invoke Nazi or Soviet imagery, such as Samuel Beckett’s theatric Waiting For Godot or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Fictional dystopias were no longer commentaries on the shortcomings of society, and had begun simply drawing from the diabolical and wicked qualities of their real-world counterparts.
And audiences loved it.
Dystopian fiction evolved rapidly as a genre, with international audiences becoming hooked on unorthodox and grisly diegeses. Many of these early, seminal texts remain pertinent today, whereby Penguin Random House has seen a 9,500 percent sales increase for Orwell’s aforementioned Nineteen Eighty-Four since Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, enough to propel the book to the top spot on Amazon’s bestseller list.
This demonstrates that gruesome plotlines of dystopias did, and continue to, parallel the gratuitous violence and sadism of our reality. And despite the insightful utility of dystopias, there is also an element of voyeurism.
This raises an interesting question: whilst people find stories of human endeavour and success uplifting, is there a corresponding appetite for the darkness and evil on the opposite end of our axis?
It seems that the answer is yes. History has systematically desensitised audiences to the violence of the human race and as a consequence, sordid storylines have become both more plausible and more palatable.
The term ‘torture-porn’, coined by film critic David Edelstein, encapsulates this well. Used in this context it describes the emphasis on suffering and violence, not as a direct accessory to a story, but rather for the purpose of generating a compulsive interest in an audience. An example of this is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, criticised for needless sexual and psychological violence peripheral to the storyline. Flesh is burned, tongues cut out, spirits broken. The novel revels in keeping its protagonists alive, but only just.
That being said, there are examples of dystopias that do not mimic dark historical precedents or employ blunt, ‘torture-porn’ to engage audiences. The rise of technology and subtle social shifts have been cleverly exploited in many works to illustrate how only a slight shift could convert our existing society into a dystopia. Our dependence on technology, the absence of privacy in digital data, corporate reach and the limitations or overreach of powers of nation states, are all examples of fertile ground in which conspiracies can be raised that suggest we are close to, or already in a state of dystopia. A prime example is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, an anthology television series examining modern society and the unanticipated consequences of technology. While littered with provoking themes, violence, gore and sex, the series tactfully harnesses these elements to tap into a collective unease and questioning of our contemporary world.
So maybe these two sides of our fictional continuum are not as disparate as we originally thought, and the dystopian continuum is not so much a continuum as it is one big paradox
The purpose of all great literature is to confront the human subconscious by challenging us to question our humanity, strengthen our values and seek moral virtue. And while the allegories of dystopian fiction is harder to translate than that of more rose-tinted fiction, undoubtedly the messages are strong and the conclusions uplifting. To reuse the example of the Handmaid’s Tale, while the cruelty is cynical, readers are offered glimpses of salvation in the final pages as protagonist June is bundled into a van, possibly on her way to a new and better life.
Perhaps people indulge in dystopian fiction not just to mimic dark historical precedents or wallow in violence. Maybe it is the restoration of hope and peace that makes them more addictive than any other genre. In an epoch where the future of our climate, the future of our health, and the future of Western stability seems so uncertain, sometimes neat dystopias are a more satisfying panacea than a complicated truth. While we cannot be sure of the fate of our constantly oscillating society, we can continue to reach out to the pages of dystopian fiction to make sense of our unrecognisable world.