So are we living in a literary dystopia?


To the chagrin of many (and the surprise of few) it turns out that the National Security Agency is keeping an eye on us. If you’ve been sending tongue-in-cheek missives to your UK friends about “blowing up all of the buses because ughhh,” now might be the time to stop.

With this week’s revelations—brought to you by patriot/traitor/poor man’s Alexander Skarsgard Edward Snowden—Americans are understandably displeased. And, it would seem, anxious: Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked on Amazon.

But are we really so close to the worlds envisioned by authors like Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood? Let’s take a look.

Short answer: No, but maybe someday?

A central tenet of 1984, thoughtcrime is the act of holding beliefs that contradict those of the ruling party, even if you never speak those beliefs out loud (which you wouldn’t, because Big Brother is watching). In Orwell’s book, those who engage in thoughtcrime (or “crimethink”) are left to the devices of the Ministry of Love (maybe the best-named future/faux governmental organization ever), where their ill-advised beliefs are tortured out of them by the Thought Police. The gist of thoughtcrime also shows up in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—though BNW’s government wards off dissent by distributing a Xanax-like pharmaceutical—and in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question.”) In today’s real-world America, thoughtcrime is one of the nuggets around which our Big Brother fears revolve, and fairly so: Guantanamo Bay is nothing if not a Ministry of Love for suspected terrorists.

Short answer: Yes, but it’s okay because democracy 

In 1984’s Oceana, “war had been literally continuous,” though the enemy alternates between Eurasia and Eastasia, a flip-flopping that goes intentionally unmentioned in public. Residents of Oceana, expected to be as ideologically opposed to their current nemesis as the government demands, are even required to endure a daily Two Minutes Hate. To say nothing of the Eurasia/Eastasia/Iraq/Afghanistan parallels, this particular brand of xenophobia shows up elsewhere in the dystopian genre (Ender’s Game and A Canticle for Leibowitz come to mind). And why not? Corralling a population into conflict requires a certain je ne sais quoi, a pillar of fear and hate around which people can gather to justify their actions (or lack of opposition to the actions of others). Today, America’s Eurasia (or Eastasia, depending) is Islam, and Two Minutes Hate with Hannity! would probably get stellar ratings on Fox News.

Short answer: Depends on who you ask

Many a dystopian government is too focused on conformity to bother segregating women; in Brave New World, the very concept of motherhood has become laughable, and in books like 1984, Never Let Me Go and The Hunger Games, the top-down oppression appears to be gender-agnostic (additionally, most of the above have strong female characters). But then you have The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women are kept as concubines-slash-surrogates, and The Giver (wonder of 5th-grade required reading!) where being assigned the job of “birthmother” entitles one to years of, well, birthing. This fractured vision of women’s role in future society is intriguing, and also feels accurate. Here in 2013 America, we believe in gender equality, or at least don’t believe in enslaving women for their uteri. But we are still arguing over abortion, and women’s role in the workplace, and women’s right to not get sexually assaulted in the military. We have our our heroines, our exalted HBICs (Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen; discuss) but we haven’t quite won the gender war.

Short answer: No, but ….just hypothetically, how many children?

We have a good sense of how adults navigate literary totalitarianism (be oppressed or be the opressor) but it’s always interesting to see how things play out for the kids. In The Hunger Games….not so well. Same with the Gone series, Ender’s Game and Lord of the Flies. (That said, kids do make for plucky dystopian protagonists: Ender Wiggin, Katniss Everdeen, Sam Temple, Jonas, Ralph.) And today? No, I suppose we don’t yet draft our children into the service of war games, let alone air those games on television, but I bet that’s only because ABC is still working out the legal issues.

Short answer: No, but we’re not not glorifying it

As a lover/hoarder of books, I am drawn to novels whose plots involve the restriction of ideas, particularly through the restriction of reading. Fahrenheit 451 (my favorite book) goes so far as to create a scary needle-wielding mechanical hound, used by the fire department to enforce strict anti-book rules. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, a post-nuclear-war society shuns literacy entirely, and in 1984, our main man Winston’s actual job is falsifying news reports. Here, I think the present day has more in common with Literary Dystopia than we’d like to admit. We don’t shun knowledge, but things do get murky when you ask people to agree on what’s true.

Short answer: Yes. Yesyesyesyesyes. 

It’s fun to think of dystopian novels as hypotheticals, indulgent voyeuristic “what if”s of how the world might be if the government really lost its shit, or reality television jumped an incredibly large shark. But a central tenet of most dystopian literature is exploring what happens when power and wealth are concentrated among a small group of people, whose rules are opaque and incontrovertible. In most of these books — 1984, BNW, The Giver, F451, Hunger Games, Ender’s Game — this central power is the government, or some governmental/militaristic body. It’s not without reason that the NSA disclosures bring to mind such novels, stories of central authorities with misguided intentions shirking civil liberties in the interest of “safety” or “stability.”

But it’s important not to discount the role of station in Literary Dystopia, and the hopelessness that comes with having a predetermined existence. Winston works in the veritable Office Space of Oceana, kids are assigned careers in The Giver, people are created to be organ donors in Never Let Me Go, young women are used as sex slaves in Handmaid’s Tale, and the entire plot of Brave New World is predicated on a society whose castes are permanently settled before birth. In all of these books, there is a clear line between the Haves and the Have-Nots, whether the possession is of money or power or freedoms. “The optimum population is modeled on the iceberg,” the Controller explains in Brave New World. “Eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.” A disconcerting visual, the 11.1% still looks better than this.

So are we there yet? Have we fallen down the rabbit hole? Nahhhhh. Not quite. Despite its overuse in the political vernacular, “freedom” is what saves America from the totalitarian pitfalls described above, even when we do wade into Lake Dystopia. We’re obsessed with freedom here; we use it to justify everything we do (or don’t feel like doing), and we’re indignant at the possibility of even a tiny bit of it being taken away from us. “This is America,” we huff. “It’s my right to ____ (drink an 8-gallon soda/own a semi-automatic/deny evolution/hate Muslims) if I want!” Freedom is our battle cry, our panacea, our “Hodor.” We’d die before letting the government take it away from us. Or at the very least, we’d write a series of outraged tweets.

And that’s good. However often it’s used to justify something hateful — whatup Westboro Baptist Church — our hootin’ and hollerin’ over the American right to do whateverthefuck is preferable to the alternative: not caring. From Fahrenheit 451, on the disavowal of books:

“It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick.”

In Bradbury’s future, the vilification of knowledge originated with the people, and was spurred on by technology, apathy, and capitulation to the lowest common denominator of discourse. In our present, one needn’t look far to unearth examples of polarization, of close-mindedness and disinterest and No. 1-rated shows about opening briefcases filled with varying amounts of cash. We cling to — and shout about — our particular notions of The Right Way To Do Stuff, and take for granted our still very American freedom to disagree intelligently, to read and learn anything we want, to engage in politics productively, to freaking vote.

The government does have the potential to play as large a role in society’s collapse as its advancement, and there’s an understandable compulsion to place any political administration on that spectrum, and to decry movement in the wrong direction. But it’s crucial that we not forget our own role in the future of America, and our own power to effect change. Complacency, not treachery, is the real thoughtcrime.

Reviews for books mentioned above:

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7 thoughts on “So are we living in a literary dystopia?”

  1. My take on child death matches: 20 years ago, we had WWF, with loud, absurd looking middle aged men alternating between pretending to pound on each other and pantomiming “Are you not entertained!?” Now, we have MMA, with younger men severely damaging their opponent’ joints and facial features. We’re well on our way.

  2. This is a brilliant and thought-provoking post.
    I a agree with you that, if we were to live in a dystopia, it would be created by the people, much like it was in Fahrenheit 451. It is a frightening concept, that all we need is an unwitting thirst for our own destruction and a couple of compliant politicians.

  3. Reblogged this on And What? and commented:
    Agreed, we’re basically there with the whole pain for pleasure situation. I’ve read all those too and thought the same thing, especially concerning Orwell’s theme of Big Brother and thoughtcrime, have you ever thought horrid things when walking past someone and been like, oh crap, I look guilty, stop thinking it! It sucks. But great post!

  4. Reblogged this on From The Hip and commented:
    Very well-crafted and thought provoking post about the NSA news that has caused such a firestorm over the last several weeks. I guess 2013 isn’t quite as bad as Orwell’s 1984, but it certainly is within shouting (or shall we say, whispering) distance.

  5. Great how you break this down, comparing the classic dystopias to what is happening today. Love it! I also agree with your final conclusion that complacency by the masses is the ultimate thoughtcrime. I’m glad I found your blog and am now following it!

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