23 August 2015

Triffids, High-Rise, & Lord of the Flies

Dystopian literature is often regarded as being preoccupied with an overbearing authority imposing unreasonable rules on people. While that is a central theme in novels such as ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’, and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, that is only one aspect of dysfunctional governance to be exposed. Another, equally important, warning concerns the total breakdown of governance.

Let us take three novels that may serve as an antidote for anyone who thinks the best way to keep oppressive governments at bay is to do away with government altogether. Anarchists, libertarians, anti-government militias, have for their different reasons considered the disappearance of government controls as inherently preferable. But however appealing a utopia of diverse individuals living happily with no enforceable rule to bind them may seem, the actual consequences may be highly disturbing.

In John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of The Triffids’ (1951), an unforeseeable natural disaster combined with an unfortunate accident of genetic plant engineering had left the vast majority of people blind while flesh-eating plants stalked and killed sightless people wandering around in a confused state. The pervasive blindness and deadly triffids are Wyndham’s symbols of forces that could rip society apart and render every individual vulnerable at all times. No heroic person could single-handedly save the day. Instead Wydham skilfully showed that amidst the chaos, there would be gangs out to rob others, fools who would risk their own and others’ lives pointlessly, and even militaristic groups imposing “neo-feudal” order on the defenceless. The only hope came with the beginning of a new democratic community rebuilding itself over at the Isle of Wight with fair rules and effective enforcement to protect their members.

In William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1954), there was no inexplicable ailment or mutated predators, but what was at first sight an idyllic island on which a group of school children had been marooned, quickly became a terrifying battleground. In the beginning, when the residual sense of respect for law and order still held sway, Ralph was able to organise activities to some extent for their common good. Yet when the infrastructure for ensuring compliance vanished totally, the unreasonable and the uncaring had no compunction about trampling over others. Thus Jack took advantage of the anarchic state to wreak havoc. Two boys were killed, and the island was left to burn. The survivors were finally rescued by the arrival of the naval officer who would connect them back to a world governed by the rule of law.

Without the successful attempt to re-introduce democratic governance, chaos would just keep proliferating. This was most dramatically illustrated by J. G. Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’ (1975). From Wydham’s world, through Golding’s island, we’re now down to Ballard’s block of high-rise in London. The people who lived in this residential building were not under any external threats, but they were fuelled by internal tensions that were symbolic of wider social class differences – the superrich looking down from the top floors, the frowned-upon stuck on the lower floors, and the middle sections feeling squeezed by the others. Ballard depicted how negative emotions, left unchecked by any objective system of governance, would boil over to the point that the people caught up in them would rather push the rule of law away (as when some of the residents deliberately kept the police away by pretending everything was find in the high-rise) than to end their escalating feuds.

These three dystopian novels make a powerful case in telling us that dystopian failure of governance may not just take the form of an all-controlling authoritarian state, but it can also come from the state being pushed aside, leaving the irrational and aggressive to ruin everyone’s lives. The threat of oppressive governance must be tackled by replacing it by good governance, and not by the elimination of governance itself.

Whitehall through the Looking Glass’: a satirical dystopian novel about a Consortium that comes to take charge of both Britain and America.
Kuan’s Wonderland’: an allegorical dystopian novel about how wealth and dogmas rule in the surreal world of Shiyan.

No comments: