15 April 2015

The ‘Good’, ‘Bad’ & ‘Ugly’ in Dystopian Fiction

The popularity of dystopian fiction has of late generated a lot of interest in cataloguing together novels that present a disturbing vision of the future. But without differentiating them by their political intent, which is the essence of the dystopian genre, their significance simply cannot be appreciated.

From a progressive perspective, the dystopian structure can be deployed to depict three very different types of societal future. These may be termed ‘The Good’, ‘The Bad’, and ‘The Ugly’, corresponding as they do to the three political scenarios of: ‘progressive aims being fulfilled’; ‘progressive aims being thwarted’; and ‘progressive aims being pursued by anti-progressive means with disastrous consequences’.

So to kick off, who would present ‘The Good’ outcome of a progressive future in undesirable dystopian terms? Who but the regressive-minded desperate to preserve oppressive customs or exploitative arrangements regardless of the harm they bring to countless people. For them, attempts to cut back discrimination and inequalities are tantamount to destroying all that is decent in society. This can be found in the dystopian works of writers such as Jerome B. Holgate (whose 1835 ‘A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation’ depicted the ending of slavery and the occurrence of interracial marriage in purely negative terms); Anna Bowman Dodd (whose 1887 ‘The Republic of the Future’ attacked the emergence of socialist and feminist ideas as ruining the lives of people); and Ayn Rand (whose 1957 ‘Atlas Shrugged’ foretold the ‘disaster’ when rich ‘entrepreneurs’ were deprived of their freedom to act as they pleased).

Let us turn to ‘The Bad’ scenario of a future dominated by a self-absorbed elite, rampant consumerism, and deepening social divisions. H.G. Wells’ ‘Time Machine’ gave us a terrifying glimpse of the human race split into the Eloi and the Morlocks; Jack London’s ‘The Iron Heel’ warned us how the corporate elite would end up trampling over anyone who stood in their way; Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ showed how the class system would become entrenched even at the level of our DNA; Stephen King (aka Richard Bachman)’s ‘The Running Man’ depicted how corporate hegemony would strip away human sympathy and leave everyone in the moral gutter. And my own dystopian novels follow this tradition in exposing the nasty effects of corrosive inequalities.

Then there is ‘The Ugly’ situation wherein zealots seek to bring about justice and harmony by the most anti-progressive means. Whereas progressive reformists want to see a more open, inclusive society where the democratic cooperation of citizens is everywhere the norm, some radical revolutionaries have claimed that a powerful, unquestionable ruling regime could bring about the best of all possible societies by imposing some form of rigid uniformity from above. To show how these utopian dreams are in fact precursors to unrelenting nightmares is what characterises the third group of dystopian writings. George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (and in allegorical form, ‘Animal Farm’) presented us with a preview of all totalitarian regimes claiming to act for the common good; Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ‘We’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ opened the reader’s eyes to what such regimes would do in practice irrespective of their official proclamations; and John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ depicted vividly how self-justification would go side-by-side with the unjustifiable ruthlessness when anyone were handed such power.

There are many ways to look at dystopian writings, but a politically illuminating way is to explore if they actually take aim at the Good, the Bad, or the Ugly of what our society may become.