24 January 2015

Contesting Dystopian Visions

Dystopian stories in novels, films and TV drama, have become fashionable of late. But while they compete in painting nightmarish scenarios of our future, they do not provide a shared vision of what the source of the imminent threat is. That is to be expected if one looks back on the history of dystopian writing. Some have focused on the restrictions placed on individuals – e.g., nameless subjects of a totalitarian state in the case of Zamyatin, or wealthy business executives in the case of Rand. Others have presented a dire fate for humanity resulting from some unexpected disaster – e.g., the arrival of the new-born in Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, or what preceded the journey recounted in McCarthy’s ‘The Road’.

However, one strand that runs from Wells’ ‘Time Machine’, through London’s ‘The Iron Heel’, Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, Lewis’ ‘It Can’t Happen Here’, King’s ‘The Running Man’, to Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’, shows that there is a core theme that many dystopian writers are concerned with – namely, the ruthless demarcation of society into the wealthy elite and the vulnerable masses. Of course they weave their contrasting accounts of how the pervasive divisiveness give rise to different kinds of problem – self doubt or even self loathing; starvation; resentment and hatred; environmental destruction; ending of the rule of law. And they come up with strikingly diverse responses – armed rebellion; drug-induced contentment; socio-biological transformation; and suicidal retaliation.

The reason why dystopias about wealth-driven fissures in society resonates with me most is that at the dawn of the 21st century, the inexorable expansion of corporate power is simply the biggest threat to our wellbeing. It is already pushing people into self-numbing consumerism, soul-crushing poverty, or in other cases, seething anger against the prevailing order. It is also fuelling unprecedented profit-led environmental destruction, and paving the way for plutocratic governments that will exclusively serve the rich and impose stringent controls over the rest. Unless writers and activists rouse the public to reverse its hegemony, the worst of all possible dystopias will be upon us soon.