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Dystopian fiction: comforting or terrifying?

George Adams explores the resonant legacy of dystopian literature.

On November 11, 1975, after thirteen years, two months, and three weeks of fighting, Portugal granted Angola independence. That evening Ludovica Fernandes Mano bricked herself into her apartment, where she remained in isolation for twenty-eight years. These are the real-life events behind José Eduardo Agualusa’s novel Teoria Geral do Esquecimento (A General Theory of Oblivion), published in Portuguese in 2012, and translated into English in 2015.

Though based upon Ludovica’s ten-volume diary (a first-hand account of the experience), Agualusa’s narrative is ‘pure fiction’. Although the novel is not a traditional dystopia, since the place is not imaginary, nor are the events set in the future, much of the story feels dystopian, largely taking place in Ludo’s mind. The novel’s dystopian elements – apocalypse, isolation, and political violence – are both uncomfortable and terrifying. The novel demonstrates how pervasive dystopian ideas have become in writings about the past as well as the future – histories of resistance, isolation, and friendship.

The origins of the dystopian genre can be traced back to Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) where Raphael tells Morus about his travels to island of Utopia in the New World, shaped like a ‘crescent moon’. ‘Utopia’, derived from Greek, simultaneously connotes the ‘good place’ and ‘no place’, suggesting that an ideal society may only exist in philosophies of the mind. This idea is connected to Socrates’s discussion of hypothetical city-states in Plato’s Republic, culminating in the ideal state of Kallipolis. The beginnings of the dystopian genre are linked to ideas of colonialism, conquest, and empire – Raphael’s journey was inspired by early sixteenth-century European voyages to the Americas. Though the island of Utopia is found in the distant and largely unknown provinces of the New World, the society on the island reflects many of the social, religious, and political concerns of sixteenth-century Europe. This is achieved using tools of irony and satire, highly important for another forerunner of the genre, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

Emerging out of a science fiction context, early twentieth-century writers of dystopia used the genre to deliver oblique social commentary on gender, race, the environment, and political oppression. Although these dystopias are often uncomfortable to read, they are very influential in fuelling political activism. Herland (1915) describes a peaceful society composed entirely of women, threatened by the sexual desire of three male visitors. Silent Spring (1962) greatly influenced the environmental movement and the banning of DDT in the United States (a cancerous insecticide used in agriculture). Costumes inspired by those described in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) are still used as powerful symbols in pro-choice rallies around the world. The rise of the genre in the twentieth century may be attributed to sociopolitical factors, including factors such as the devastating effects of World War I and II, post-war rebuilding, the Cold War, the rise of the nation-state, developments in technology, and a greater public awareness of the different methods by which governments, totalitarian or otherwise, incarcerate dissenting subjects.

In the cultural moment of the pandemic it may be an attractive idea to compare present society to fictional dystopias. The sense of fear, the limits imposed on people’s rights, the ubiquity of screens, widespread surveillance, the spin tactics of the press, and the hypocrisy of leading political figures are all features of a dystopia. In addition, many governments around the world espouse systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, implemented by the state through violent means of oppression and violence.

As narratives such as Nineteen-Eighty Four (1949) show, it is sometimes uncertain whether minority groups will overcome their oppressors and found a new social order upon a different set of moral values. The free will and self-determinism of individuals and minority groups is key to overcoming oppressive and violent political structures. In the twenty-first century, dystopias may be seen to empower minority individuals and communities to resist systemic violence.

There is no doubt that, in recent years, dystopias have become more inclusive, with more diverse and intersectional protagonists. The Young Adult series Noughts and Crosses (2001-2021), televised by the BBC in 2020, demonstrates the popularity of more diverse iterations of the genre. In particular, Young Adult dystopias with BAME or LGBTQ+ protagonists provide inspiring role models for young activists looking to undermine discriminatory and marginalizing societal structures. Despite the colonial beginnings of the genre, it has since developed into an inclusive and diverse space for empowerment. One of the reasons we continue to read dystopias is familiarity – the dystopian tropes, settings and narratives are well-known – a post-apocalyptic world, environmentally, politically and/or socially damaged, in which an individual or group attempts to survive and prosper despite the odds that are stacked against them. This narrative of struggle to emancipation/redemption is expected, and therefore offers a degree of comfort to the consumer of dystopia.

At the end of A General Theory of Oblivion, the protagonist Ludo eventually emerges, almost blind, from her twenty-eight-year isolation when Sabalu, a young boy, attempts to burgle her apartment which he presumes to be abandoned. They go on to form a close friendship. In a dream in the final chapter, Ludo imagines she is a little girl on a fictional beach – her personal utopia. The final paragraph is an overwhelmingly positive image of the value and power of human relationships. “The day is born, Ludo. Let’s go”, says Sabalu, “And they went, the two of them, towards the light, laughing and talking, like two people about to head out to sea.” And so, although their vision of the future is often terrifying, at the end of every dystopian narrative lies the comforting possibility of freedom.

Image Credit: Enokson CC BY 2.0 via flickr

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