What is the purpose of dystopian fiction?
I’ve been reading some fiction in the category of “dystopian.” It is the opposite of “utopia,” and is usually associated with a future that is grim, violent, and repressive. You can find the chaos of this genre in books such as Hunger Games, more recently, and more famously, George Orwell’s 1984. The book that I’m currently (finally?) making my way through, is Fahrenheit 451.
The story is right up my alley, and was extremely controversial in its time. Frankly I’m not sure it should be less controversial now. Perhaps it suffers from the same disease of all the classics: the years have made them acceptable. But even today, I’m surprised when folks do not pick up on the obvious jabs at thoughtless culture that this book posits as the result of a world out of touch with the knowledge of herself and her own literature. A culture that doesn’t read the great books is no longer a culture able to give us a pure democracy, or perfect our common life together, i.e. the best of western civilization. No. The world of Fahrenheit 451 resembles our world, but it can never be the best of what western civilization is anymore, because the spark of the written world is no longer there.
For example, the wife of the main character is introduced after having made an attempt on her own life through sleeping pills. The main character is shocked even more that his wife refuses to admit this simple traumatic fact. We go on to see her personify the way the main character used to be, while he is in the midst of waking up after one abrupt conversation with a 17-year old free spirit in the street. His wife is given over to watching what is similar to a television all day long, with a constant loop on what the author almost defines as reality television, except an entire wall of the house is given to its pixelation.
But what I find most fascinating is based on a debate between whether or not Brave New World and 1984 were more correct in predicting the future. If that is the question, and those were the necessary factors at work in Huxley and Orwell, then the verdict is clear: Huxley was correct about the future, and Orwell was a little too harsh. What if the prediction was not the point?
I think Orwell was more interested in speaking to the culture he was living in, not in 1984, but in 1948. And dystopian fiction is good like that. They tell us something true about ourselves in the here and now, colored in dramatic fashion. We stand in awe of Winston Smith’s world, and the terror of Big Brother, and still, we marvel at the fact that concepts of alienation and real love in a world of soul-crushing newspeak is the world we live in. When I read Ray Bradbury’s novel, I’m filled with a sense of loss that I have every time I turn to the cheap meaning of technology, and away from the more difficult, and ultimately satisfying, work of reading the written world, and all the worlds it is capable of opening me up into. And I lament about the thin nature of my relationships, and the need that I have to strengthen my marriage and stop treating my wife like a roommate. It is these kinds of thoughts which spring to mine. Not, what if we didn’t have books? I suppose the real question Bradbury is asking is this: what becomes of our human nature once we create a technology that alienates us from real meaning and experience, and what kind of choices will we need to make in the future?
Ah, I see. I’m in the future again, when I should be in the moment.