Anthony Burgess

Twentieth Century Dystopian Fiction

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Twentieth Century Dystopian Fiction:

The term ‘utopia’, literally meaning ‘no place’, was coined by Thomas More in his book of the same title. Utopia (1516) describes a fictional island in the Atlantic ocean and is a satire on the state of England. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill coined ‘Dystopia’, meaning ‘bad place’, in 1868 as he was denouncing the government’s Irish land policy. He was inspired by More’s writing on utopia.

Dystopian fiction of the twentieth century has its beginnings in the utopian fiction of authors such as H.G. Wells and William Morris. Wells called himself a ‘utopiographer’ and believed that scientific advancements would outlaw war and poverty, as he fictionalised in his novel Men Like Gods (1923). This utopian ideal was also described in Morris, who wrote about the perfect socialist society in News From Nowhere (1890). This novel, less famous than Well’s The Time Machine (1895), tells the story of William Guest, a Socialist Party member who falls asleep and wakes up in a utopian future society based on common ownership and idealistic libertarian socialist tenets such as a lack of big cities; no authority; no monetary system; and no class systems. In showing the perfect future society, Morris is defending what he believed to be the only way to live without divisions between art, life and work, but also criticising State-socialism which is counter to the beliefs of libertarian socialists.

As the twentieth century dawned, authors were less convinced about this brand of scientific and political improvement. Aldous Huxley, with his novel Brave New World (1932), started to criticise the utopian values of science and the domineering political ideals of novelists such as Wells and Morris. Brave New World is set in a future society, and takes Well’s idea that scientific advancement will improve every aspect of life as its foundation. In Huxley’s vision, children are artificially bred in test tubes, and are content to accept whatever the domineering State bestows on them. The class system in this future world is based on intelligence: the ‘Alphas’ undertaking jobs that require brains, the ‘Deltas’ undertaking more menial tasks. The scientific advances mean there is no crime, and sex is a consequence-free recreation. Then there is the hero, John, born in the natural way and brought up among tribal peoples (or ‘savages’ as they are labelled) outside of the dominant society. It is through this character that Huxley criticises the notion of the conditioned subject. A man ceases to be a man when he is incapable of squalor, shame, guilt and suffering. The utopian society, in essence, seems like a cage to John.

Much of the inspiration for Brave New World comes from an earlier novel that scrutinises a futuristic utopia in a similar way. We by the Russian writer E.I. Zamyatin was published in English in 1924 and has a similar plot to Huxley’s novel: that of the individualistic human up against the homogenised utopian State. George Orwell also noticed the debt that Brave New World owes to We in his review of Zamyatin’s novel:

‘Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence. The atmosphere of the two books is similar, and it is roughly speaking the same kind of society that is being described, though Huxley’s book shows less political awareness and is more influenced by recent biological and psychological theories.’

As the Second World War dawned, writers were less interested in depicting utopian societies founded on scientific advancements. The political dystopia, perhaps inspired by the tumultuous European politics of the late-1930s and early-1940s, began to flourish. Novels such as Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome (1941) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) where about societies run by totalitarian governments and, while set in the future, they reflect worries over the rising power of fascism and communism.

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps the best-known dystopia of the twentieth century. The future world has been divided into three super-states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia all of which are embroiled in a perpetual war. In Orwell’s world, the governments use a manipulative form of language called ‘Newspeak’, which states ‘War is Peace’ and is able to convince anyone that ‘2 + 2 = 5’. Britain has been designated ‘Airstrip One’ and monitors its citizens for the Hitler-esque leader, Big Brother. The novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is the last man to possess any concept of freedom and futilely attempts to rebel against Big Brother only to be arrested and ‘rehabilitated’ by the State. Orwell’s novel inspired many other post-war dystopias, including Anthony Burgess’s 1985 (1978).

In 1958, Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited, a reassessment of his most famous novel and a furthering of many of its themes. The central concerns of this non-fiction book are to do with the deterioration of free society and the subjects under discussion range from overpopulation to propaganda, brainwashing to ‘the Arts of Selling’, morality and education. Huxley’s thinking is influenced by the politically chaotic mid-century. He writes, ‘The chapters that follow should be read against a background of thoughts about the Hungarian uprising and its repression, about H-bombs, about the cost of what every nation refers to as ‘defence’, about those endless columns of uniformed boys, white, black, brown, yellow, marching obediently towards the common grave’.

Brave New World Revisited is an important text in the development of post-war dystopias.  From his reading of this text, Anthony Burgess produced two novels that dealt with future worlds where freedoms are challenged: The Wanting Seed and A Clockwork Orange, both published in 1962.

A Clockwork Orange, Burgess’s first attempt at a dystopia, deals with ideas of brainwashing and state control as the teenage protagonist is stripped of his freedoms after he is arrested for violent and murderous behaviour. Much more can be read about A Clockwork Orange in the International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s dedicated online resource.

In The Wanting Seed, Burgess tackles overpopulation. Set in a future London that sprawls from the south coast to Birmingham, the novel depicts a society in which reproduction is brutally policed by the Ministry of Infertility and homosexuality is actively encourage by the State. The story follows the plight of teacher Tristram Foxe as he witnesses the dissolution of civilisation. With reports of mass famine, people begin turning to cannibalism, leading to chaos and war.

Both the dystopias that Burgess wrote in the 1960s follow the convention of the individual against the monolithic and dastardly State and take their inspiration from both Huxley and Orwell. Yet, as the twentieth century progressed the dystopian novel evolved. Novels such as High Rise by J.G. Ballard (1975) presented modern, consumerist society as intrinsically dystopian. In Ballard’s novel, the residents of an ultra-modern high-rise apartment block are so isolated from the outside world by their luxurious surroundings that they abandon their sense of society and morality. In 1985, Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that subverts the conventions of political dystopia to explore feminism, racism, Christian fundamentalism and sexuality. Narrated by ‘Offred’, the story details a fictional state in which the elite classes own ‘handmaids’ like Offred, unwilling concubines and reproductive vessels. Atwood’s novel is a critique of the extremist views of groups within the United States, and shows that a society based on religious fundamentalism and sexual and racial oppression will eventually founder.

Dystopian fiction is rarely about the future. It always reflects the time in which it is written. For the authors of Burgess’s generation, their writing was connected with their experiences of military life and events surrounding the Second World War, but as the twentieth century progressed, grand political narratives such as fascism and communism ceased to be relevant. Dystopias began to reflect dominant concerns such as consumerism and equality, and the ever-present technological world.

More recently, literary dystopias have returned to the idea of the conflict between scientific advancement and human freedom. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) is about a near-future boarding school for clones that provide donations of vital organs for ‘normals’, or the regular population. Recent dystopias also deal with the idea of class and freedom. Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008), a novel for young adults, pitches teenagers against each other in a battle to the death in a futuristic arena, overseen by the elite sections of society. There has also been the development of technological dystopias, especially in film and television. Charlie Brooker’s series Black Mirror (2011-2013) depict ‘how we might live in ten minutes time if we are clumsy’, and show the possible effects of smart phones, reality television and social networking.