Dystopia and Dystopian Literature

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

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I. Dystopia and utopia

A utopia is an imagined social order in which human flourishing has either been perfected or realised to an exceptionally high degree. A dystopia, by contrast, is a radically dysfunctional society in which the lives of the inhabitants are significantly impaired, damaged, or otherwise undesirable. Despite being defined as opposites, however, these two terms can be seen to stand in a complex, historically variable relationship to one another. The term “dystopia”, it is important to note, is derivative of the term “utopia”, both conceptually and historically. “Utopia” was first used by Thomas More in his influential political satire Utopia (1516), a foundational text for modern utopian thought. “Utopia” constitutes a deliberate play on words, meaning both “no place” as a result of its Greek derivation (“ou”-”topos”-”ia”) and “good place” (“eu”-”topos”-”ia) through being indistinguishable from the word “Eutopia” when spoken aloud. This initial irony is compounded by the fact that, as many scholars have noted, the society depicted in More’s book, while clearly utopian in some respects – the absence of private property, a generous welfare state, religious toleration – is nevertheless decidedly dystopian in others. The institution of slavery, for instance, is an integral and unquestioned feature of Utopian society, while the strict control exerted by the state over its citizens, combined with a complete lack of privacy, draw comparison with the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

A second key moment in the history of utopian literature which follows More in placing utopia and dystopia in close proximity to each other is Jonathan Swift’s popular novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726). The novel describes the voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, the protagonist and narrator of the story, as he visits eight foreign lands, each marked by its radical departure from the customs and conventions of the English society with which he is familiar. These range from the country of Lilliput – where a major political schism results from a disagreement over which end of an egg ought to be cracked prior to eating – to the kingdom of Balnibarbi – a society where the people live in poverty while immense resources are invested in absurd pseudo-scientific projects such as the extraction of sunbeams from cucumbers and the softening of marble for use in pillows.

Some of the societies Swift depicts are explicitly utopian in their orientation, as in the case of the flying island of Laputa, the inhabitants of which are devoted exclusively to the pursuit of the arts and sciences, or the Land of the Houyhnhnms, where a race of talking horses lives according to what it holds to be purely rational principles. None of the societies Swift depicts is in fact a utopia, however, as each is compromised through being one-sided or incomplete in some way, leading to grotesque and irrational outcomes. In this way, Swift arguably departs from the more ambivalent stance taken by More and inaugurates a line of avowedly anti-utopian thought which constitutes one of the key influences on the subsequent dystopian tradition.

Despite the term “utopia” having been coined by More in 1516, it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that a use of its contrary, “dystopia”, was first recorded. In a speech addressed to the British House of Commons given in 1868, John Stuart Mill labelled the ministers of the incumbent Conservative government as “dys-topians, or caco-topians” on account of their failed political and economic policies in Ireland (Trahair 110). This remark was itself an allusion to the labelling of Mill and his parliamentary allies as “utopians” in previous debates for having proposed schemes for social improvement which were deemed impractical or idealistic. As in the case of More’s “utopia”, Mill’s “dystopia” and “cacotopia” were of Greek derivation: “dys” from the Greek “dus” meaning bad, diseased, or dysfunctional, and “caco” from the Greek “kakos” meaning wretched, hideous, or vile.

“Cacotopia” fell rapidly into disuse, although it was briefly revived a century later by Anthony Burgess in his dystopian social satire 1985 (1978). By contrast, within thirty years of Mill’s speech, “dystopia” had begun to appear, albeit infrequently, in books and periodicals. By the early years of the twentieth century, it was a part of the public lexicon, though its use was still by no means commonplace. It was not until the 1950s, as awareness of the extent of the crimes perpetrated by totalitarian regimes became more widespread in the West, that dystopia entered into popular usage.

II. Totalitarianism and authoritarianism

Hannah Arendt’s groundbreaking study The Origins of Totalitarianism was published in 1951. In the wake of this book, totalitarianism was adopted as a family resemblance concept used to pick out a number of overlapping features identifiable to a varying extent across a range of modern political regimes. The features identified by Arendt include: the formation and reinforcement of an undifferentiated mass consciousness; the strategic and extensive use of propaganda; the domination of civic and private life; the enforced isolation and atomisation of the citizenry; intense secrecy and seclusion from the outside world; a heavy reliance on modern bureaucratic processes; the use of pseudo-science, including bogus racial science; and an imperialistic drive to world domination. Among the books which came to be associated with this totalitarian hypothesis, prominent titles include such major works as Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (1930), Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940), Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and, somewhat later, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973–1976). Although their author did not live to see the rise of totalitarianism, the stories and novels of Franz Kafka – in particular “In the Penal Colony” (1919), The Trial (1925), and The Castle (1926) – have likewise been read as exploring aspects of a condition not unlike that of life under a totalitarian government, although in Kafka this is represented more obliquely and symbolically than it is in the work of authors like Koestler or Orwell.

Dystopias which treat of totalitarianism can generally be classified as anti-utopias in the sense that they depict the failure of an attempt to realise a utopian society and the human costs of its implementation. To this extent, for all their manifest differences, a novel like Koestler’s Darkness at Noon may be compared with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in that both are concerned with the extreme disparity between utopian ideals and recalcitrant reality. Where twentieth-century anti-utopias differ from those envisaged by Swift, however, is in the historical specificity of their opposition to utopianism. Whereas Gulliver’s Travels seems to undermine all ideals equally and resigns itself to a markedly pessimistic view of human nature, the critique put forward in Darkness at Noon is directed specifically at authoritarian state socialism as a path to human betterment, meaning it arguably leaves open the question of what an authentic utopia might look like.

Orwell’s popular novella Animal Farm (1945) – an allegorical treatment of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Soviet Stalinist era – and final novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – the single most influential dystopian fiction of the twentieth century – have by now secured their positions as literary classics. The well-known slogan associated with the former – “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” – and the most readily recalled features of the latter – Ingsoc, Big Brother, Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, telescreens, the memory hole, the two-minutes hate – have likewise become virtual clichés in contemporary culture, often appearing in newspaper articles, TV bulletins, and online commentary. Whatever its inherent limitations, Nineteen Eighty-Four is likely to remain the definitive fictional statement on totalitarianism for the foreseeable future.

There are, however, other dimensions to Orwell’s novel not easily captured by the vocabulary of totalitarianism. The glimpses of utopian possibility which arise at points – such as the entrancing glass paperweight left over from the world before the revolution, or some of Winston and Julia’s more tender exchanges, for instance – provide vital intimations of a world free of domination. Another indication that Nineteen Eighty-Four is more than just a novel of totalitarianism comes when O’Brien, a member of the inner Party elite, explains the long-term objectives of the Party to Winston. During his speech, O’Brien distances the Party from the earlier German Nazi and Russian Communist regimes in a speech couched in a register which is as much metaphysical as it is political:

They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. (Orwell 301–302)

O’Brien’s espousal of a doctrine of the will to power as a justification for the Party’s existence, combined with some of the highly suggestive passages on the Party’s belief in the malleability of reality scattered throughout the novel, enable Nineteen Eighty-Four to function simultaneously as a comment on the historical reality of totalitarianism and as an exploration of the more philosophical question of the understanding of power which totalitarianism presupposes. This question is taken up and considered further in another important dystopian novel, one plainly indebted to Nineteen Eighty-Four: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962).

A seminal example of the alternative history subgenre as well as a popular dystopia, The Man in the High Castle projects a world in which the Allies have been defeated in the Second World War and the United States is divided between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, a popular writer within the novel has himself written a bestselling novel which imagines a world not unlike the reader’s own, in which the Allies were victorious and history has unfolded largely (though not entirely) as it in fact did. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Man in the High Castle is concerned with the relationship between the totalitarian ethos – embodied in this case by the Nazi empire – and the nature of power, though Dick’s approach to the latter is less political and more explicitly philosophical than Orwells. As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dick’s dystopia incorporates a number of utopian possibilities, though these are more central to the narrative than in the case of the former. There are three main sources of utopian hope in the novel, each of which is associated with freedom, growth, and possibility – everything that the totalitarian ethos, in Dick’s view, inevitably tries to eliminate. The first of these sources is art, the second is the faculty of the imagination, and the third is the ancient Chinese religion of Daoism. As in the neo-Daoist fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin published during the following decade (Le Guin 1969; 1974), this opposition between the utopian and dystopian poles resolves itself at a higher level into a struggle between mysticism and nihilism, with Daoism serving as the vehicle for the mystical impulse and Nazism standing for the purest expression of the nihilistic principle of the will to power.

III. Science and technology

Nineteen Eighty-Four was heavily influenced by an earlier work written by a firsthand observer of life under Stalinism: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s pioneering novel We (1924). As well as providing part of the inspiration for Orwell’s great novel of totalitarianism, We was a key reference point for authors of dystopian fiction throughout the century, including Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Believed to be the first work of literature banned by the Soviet censorship board, We extrapolates from Zamyatin’s own observations of Russia in the aftermath of 1917 in order to imagine a world in which a successor regime to the Soviet Union has conquered the planet and maintained its global dominance into the distant future. In the totalitarian One State, ruled over by the implacable Benefactor and his Bureau of Guardians, all names have been replaced with numbers and mathematics has been elevated to a religious status, with every facet of life rendered transparent and predictable. In this respect, We exhibits the influence of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s philosophical novella Notes from Underground (1864), itself a polemical response to the utopian doctrine espoused by the revolutionary social critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky in his novel What Is to Be Done? (1863). As in the case of Dostoevsky’s novella, We articulates an anxiety about the implications of the ideology of scientism for human freedom. Where Dostoevsky treats this anxiety in a more existential mode, however, Zamyatin, drawing on his experience of Stalinism, seeks to embed it in a social and political, albeit largely allegorical, context. The One State, we are informed in the novel’s opening pages, is committed to a Promethean programme of mathematising the whole of reality:

Yes: to integrate completely the colossal equation of the universe. Yes: to unbend the wild curve, to straighten it tangentially, asymptotically, to flatten it to an undeviating line. Because the line of OneState is a straight line. The great, divine, precise, wise straight line – the wisest of all lines... . (Zamyatin, 4)

As in the envisaged scientistic utopia railed against by Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, the purpose of reducing all phenomena to mathematics is to eliminate irregularity in order to subject nature, including human nature, to flawless manipulation and control. The novel culminates with the formerly rebellious protagonist undergoing a procedure known as the Great Operation, whereby his capacities for imagination and emotion are suspended, leaving him docile and compliant.

The fate of Zamyatin’s protagonist is mirrored in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), a dystopian novel set in a near-future Britain, in which Alex, an alienated young offender, has his behaviour reprogrammed via the controversial Ludovico Technique, an extreme form of aversion therapy. After his treatment, Alex is unable to contemplate violence without being overcome with disabling nausea. One thing that sets Burgess’s novel apart from other major works of dystopian literature is its overtly Christian frame of reference. For Burgess, a self-defined Catholic writer, A Clockwork Orange was “an allegory of Christian free will” (Burgess xxiii) – a viewpoint articulated by the prison chaplain in the novel when he protests against the violation of Alex’s moral autonomy and the barrier the Ludovico Technique presents to spiritual growth. Somewhat abruptly, the novel ends with Alex’s entry into adulthood and his decision to renounce violence, though this episode was dropped for Stanley Kubrick’s controversial 1971 film adaptation, lending the story a more pessimistic tenor.

Dystopias which foreground concerns about science and technology are invariably indebted to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). While not a work of dystopian fiction in the narrow sense, Frankenstein gives voice to a profound awareness of the fateful human encounter with technology in the modern world in a way which has reverberated throughout the literature of the last two centuries. The stories and novels of H. G. Wells, published in the final years of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, are among the best-known and most influential examples here. As a warning about the disastrous consequences of an uncritical application of scientific techniques, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is a clear descendent of Frankenstein, though the utopian rhetoric of its titular antagonist and its remote island setting also maintain a link with More’s Utopia, evidencing the way in which dystopias remain in dialogue with the utopian tradition.

Another branch of dystopian fiction expresses a concern about our growing dependency on machines. E. M. Forster’s prophetic short story “The Machine Stops” (1909) depicts a distant future society in which humanity lives underground in isolated cells and all needs are administered by an omnipotent computer known simply as the Machine. Direct human interaction has meanwhile virtually disappeared, with most contact taking place via a combination of instant messaging and video conferencing. In depicting a world where human beings have come to wholly depend on the machines which had once been their tools, Forster provided the paradigm for a long line of twentieth-century dystopias, including the popular Matrix franchise. Written and directed by the Wachowskis, The Matrix (1999) depicts a society in which, in the aftermath of a catastrophic global conflict, artificial intelligence controls the world and humanity has been enslaved by its own technology. In an echo of Forster’s vision of technologically administered conformism, humanity in this scenario is permanently immersed in a virtual dreamworld known as the Matrix which is used to prevent it from becoming aware of the truth: that human beings are born and grown in pods on immense industrial farms, where their bodies supply the energy required for the maintenance of the machine civilisation.

As well as tracing a line of descent from Forster, the Matrix films are also indebted to another strand of the dystopian tradition, namely cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is a form of science fiction set amidst the (“punk”) counter-culture of an alienating future society dominated by computer (“cyber”) technology. Recurrent tropes include the urban environment, crime and social disorder, computer hacking, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Although its roots reach right back to Shelley’s Frankenstein, the key forerunner of the genre is arguably Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), later adapted into the cult film Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott. It was William Gibson’s visionary novel Neuromancer (1984), however, which inaugurated cyberpunk as a clearly demarcated literary genre. As well as writing presciently about the social implications of digital technologies and anticipating elements of what later commentators would call the postmodern condition, Neuromancer supplied the vocabulary for a large part of the popular science fiction of the ensuing decades – including the core concept and visual imagery of The Matrix: “still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void...” (Gibson, 5).

IV. Consumerism and the culture industry

Another notable aspect of the dystopia depicted in Forster’s “The Machine Stops” is the way in which, as in Orwell’s Oceania, culture and the symbolic resources it makes available have been greatly impoverished, meaning only clichés and conformist mass opinion permitted by the Machine can be exchanged. Another classic dystopian fiction in which mass culture serves to enforce conformism and eliminate dissent is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) – perhaps the second most influential text of its kind after Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Huxley’s World State – sometimes regarded as a “dystopian utopia” – all basic human needs are met, scarcity has given way to material abundance, and pain and suffering are no more. Social harmony has been realised and unhappiness in all its most familiar forms has all but vanished. This painless and frictionless existence comes, however, at an extremely high price for the World State’s inhabitants. In Huxley’s dystopia, the administration of everyday life partially achieved under totalitarianism has been realised to an unprecedented extent, not through violence and coercion of the kind described by Arendt or Orwell, but through a seductive blend of consumerism, leisure pursuits, and unrestricted hedonism. Human beings in the World State are genetically engineered and assigned to specific classes and professions, ruling out social advancement or any kind of challenge to the existing hierarchy. At the same time, a combination of socially enforced drug addiction, brainwashing techniques, and senseless mass entertainment serve to foreclose critical reflection. In another trope which recurs throughout twentieth-century dystopian fiction, books have ceased to be written and produced in the World State and all traces of the literature of the past have been erased (with the exception of the personal library retained for sentimental reasons by the World Controller, Mustapha Mond).

Like a futuristic realisation of the medieval Land of Cockayne – a fantasy land of surfeit and unrestricted consumption – the World State is a place where all desires are fulfilled and all struggle and conflict have been suspended. Yet the lives of its population are shown to be empty and purposeless, with human existence reduced to a mere quantitative factor within a vast efficiency management system of inputs and outputs designed according to Fordist manufacturing principles. In this respect, Huxley’s forebodings about the future of mass consumer societies echo those of Nietzsche in his own prophecy of the rise of the so-called last men: “‘What is love? What is creation? What is yearning? What is a star?’ – thus asks the last man and blinks” (Nietzsche 15–16). For Nietzsche, as for the Huxley of Brave New World, dissatisfaction with life is one of the essential features of the human species and a necessary impetus if culture and society are to remain dynamic, open, self-critical ventures. This concern with the social and cultural effects of consumerism is shared by many dystopian novels and films, including the Pixar children’s film, WALL-E (2008), which paints a bleak picture of high-tech conformist consumerism clearly indebted to that of Huxley.

A similar set of concerns animates Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), which likewise portrays a consumer society in which books have been banned and literature and philosophy are regarded as threats to the status quo. While there is a degree of overlap with Brave New World, Bradbury’s novel is particularly concerned with the unique contribution made to society by the written word, and with the loss that its disappearance would entail. Another element of mass consumer society which the novel raises concern about is the ever-increasing acceleration of life, which Bradbury portrays as eroding people’s ability to notice the world around them and attend to things in their particularity. This point is made early in the novel by Clarissa, the young woman who convinces the protagonist, Guy Montag, to begin reading the books he has been ordered to destroy: “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly. If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! He’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur? That’s a rose-garden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows” (Bradbury 16). In these and other respects, Bradbury’s dystopian treatment of tendencies within late capitalist society parallels the social analysis put forward by the thinkers of the Frankfurt School in works such as “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) and, somewhat later, Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964). In the latter half of the century, related anxieties about consumerism would resurface in the provocative and sometimes controversial fiction of J. G. Ballard, although in Ballard’s work these dystopian prognostications tend to be blended with a perverse form of utopianism in which violence, psychosis, sexual transgression, and the collapse of society are seemingly affirmed and celebrated (Ballard 1973; 1975; 1996).

V. Sex and gender

Virtually all dystopias address the topics of sex and gender, whether implicitly or, as is far more often the case, explicitly. This is because dystopias imagine large-scale social transformations, including fundamental changes in the organisation of labour and reproduction, on the one hand, and the expression or curtailment of desire, on the other. The role and status of the family unit and of childrearing in particular are directly addressed in many of the major works of the utopian and dystopian traditions, including More’s Utopia, Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Though it is approached from a quite different perspective to these canonical works, the politics of reproduction is no less central to the tradition of utopian feminism, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) – which portrays a pacifist society populated exclusively by women, who reproduce asexually – to Shulamith Firestone’s utopian treatise The Dialectic of Sex (1970) – which calls for the implementation of a range of new technologies, such as synthetic wombs, in order to liberate women from their biology as a prelude to what Firestone calls, in a late-modern updating of Marx, cybernetic communism. Since Firestone’s important intervention, a series of overtly dystopian feminist texts have appeared, ranging from less well-known works like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (1977) to international bestsellers such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2016).

The Handmaid’s Tale is the most influential feminist dystopia yet written and an acknowledged classic of twentieth-century literature. Atwood’s novel is set in the Republic of Gilead, a Christian fundamentalist military dictatorship which has overthrown the United States government. In the aftermath of the revolution, religious law has been instituted, homosexuality has been outlawed, and women’s rights, including the right to own property, have been suspended. The protagonist and narrator of the story is Offred, whose name has been assigned to her by the regime to indicate that she is a possession of her master, Fred (“ofFred”). By narrating the experiences and flashbacks of a single inhabitant of Gilead, Atwood is able to provide a surprisingly complete picture of wider society and its evolution. In response to an unexplained infertility crisis, women able to bear children have been designated “handmaids” and are required to act as surrogates on behalf of the upper-class “Wives”. In this way, the handmaids are reduced to a mere reproductive technology at the beck and call of the ruling class, which maintains its dominance through an ideology combining a selective reading of the Old Testament, an aggressive reassertion of “traditional” American values, and the cultivation of a paranoid climate in which the threat posed by terrorists and outsiders is a constant preoccupation.

The success of the 2017 TV adaptation of Atwood’s novel and the adoption of slogans and imagery taken from the show by political movements for women’s rights worldwide is indicative of its ability to resonate with a twenty-first century audience, more than thirty years after it first appeared. This phenomenon can be related to Atwood’s suggestive observation that her novel contains nothing that has not already happened. Relevant here is an ongoing debate about the classification of dystopian literature (Rieder 2017). Dystopias are generally seen as falling into one of two literary categories: science fiction or speculative fiction. The definitions of these terms have been much disputed and there is widespread disagreement as to their utility and applicability. Prominent interlocutors in these debates include Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, J. G. Ballard, and William Gibson. Setting these controversies aside, however, and adopting for our purposes Atwood’s preferred means of classification, science fiction may be defined as a branch of literature in which things that do not yet exist or have yet to be encountered – such as new forms of society or new scientific developments – play a central role (Atwood 2011: 14). Speculative fiction, on the other hand, may be defined as literature in which existing realities are fictionalised, magnified, augmented, extrapolated from, or otherwise adapted. This distinction is worth mentioning here as it is of particular relevance to the treatment of both gender and, as we shall see in the next section, race in dystopian fiction. Clearly, the systematic oppression of women and black people is not something that needs to be invented. One reason, then, for Atwood’s insistence that The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of speculative fiction and not science fiction is that she wishes it to be read as a comment on the world we already inhabit and not as an imaginative departure from it – a reading which feminist activists have wholeheartedly adopted.

VI. Race and colonialism

Like sex and gender, race and colonialism have often been addressed in dystopian fiction, even if they have tended to remain relegated to the background of such writing, at least until relatively recently. The inaugural text of the utopian tradition, More’s Utopia, it is worth recalling, is set in a New World colony and was composed at the very outset of the process of European colonial expansion which would reshape the world over the following four-hundred years. Nineteen Eighty-Four makes reference to ongoing imperial wars for control of territory and colonial subject populations in Africa and the Middle East, while The Man in the High Castle envisages the extension of the Nazi programme of genocide throughout the African continent. In Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, meanwhile, in an allusion to Apartheid South Africa, all African-American citizens – designated “the Children of Ham” – have been deported to National Homelands in the American Midwest away from white society.

In the twenty-first century, the role of race in speculative fiction and science fiction has started to receive more attention from academics and scholars. In addition to the heightened awareness of the politics of race attendant upon recent events in the U.S. – such as a series of widely reported unlawful police killings of African-American citizens and the rise of the radical protest movement Black Lives Matter – one explanation for this scholarly turn is the growing recognition of an important strand of contemporary culture which has come to be known as “Afrofuturism”. Afrofuturism is a term which has been retrospectively applied to a wide array of texts in virtually every artistic medium, from music and cinema to comic books and visual art. Although there is considerable variation within the Afrofuturist canon, Afrofuturism may tentatively be defined as a cultural movement which explores futuristic themes and developments in a speculative manner whilst foregrounding elements of black history, culture, and identity. Work in this area often critically reflects on the role and position of black people in science fiction and in the kind of futuristic scenarios developed in the utopian tradition. Key contributions to Afrofuturism to date include: the Marvel Black Panther (1966–) comic book series and blockbuster film adaptation (2018); the music of Sun Ra, Afrika Bambaataa, and Beyoncé; and the novels of Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, and Octavia E. Butler.

Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower (1993) was followed by Parable of the Talents (1998), and was intended to be the first of a trilogy, though the series remained incomplete upon Butler’s death in 2006. The Parable books are works of speculative fiction in Atwood’s sense of the term: they extrapolate in a plausible manner from existing realities rather than introducing any radically new developments. At the outset of the series, the United States is on the cusp of total collapse, with poverty, crime, gang violence, environmental degradation, and resource scarcity threatening to reduce society to a permanent war of all against all. Despite the extremity of Butler’s near-apocalyptic vision, however, what is perhaps most chilling about it are its clear precedents in late twentieth-century American attitudes towards class, race, gender, property, religion, gun control, and the environment. At the heart of the Parable series is the revival of the institution of slavery, this time built on neoliberal principles and serving the interests of corporations which have risen to positions of power far in excess of the U.S. government. Against this grim backdrop, Butler narrates the hopeful story of Lauren Olamina, a young African-American woman who, having fled her gated community after it is attacked by raiders, goes on to become the prophet of a new religion she calls Earthseed, a fusion of various spiritual traditions with an emphasis on practical wisdom and the acceptance of change. In the unwritten third novel in the series, Butler had intended for Olamina to lead her followers to a new planet where civilisation might begin again. Like the momentary intimations of utopia in Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Man in the High Castle, the teachings of Earthseed embody what Ernst Bloch calls the principle of hope – the utopian affirmation that a better world is possible.

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Citation: Seeger, Sean. "Dystopia and Dystopian Literature". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 21 May 2018 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=19513, accessed 18 July 2024.]

19513 Dystopia and Dystopian Literature 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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