Whatever Happened to Dystopia?

The evocation of H. G. Wells’s 1895 dystopian novel, The Time Machine, in comments yesterday made me start thinking: why didn’t the predictions of life in the future turn out the way Wells and others worried that it might?

You can’t write intelligently about dystopian (from dys-, bad, plus topos, place) without mentioning Utopia (from ou-, no, or eu-, good, plus topos, place). Utopia was a novel written by Thomas More in 1516 (1516!) about an imaginary country, a marked contrast to the contentious and oppressive Europe of the time. In More’s Utopia property was held in common, men and women were treated and educated equally, and there was a high level of religious tolerance (albeit not for atheists). The term “dystopia”, generally the opposite of a good place, was apparently coined by John Stuart Mill in 1868.

The earliest dystopian novel that I’ve ever read was Anna Dodd’s 1887 novella, The Republic of the Future. Dodd’s future New York was a place of rigid, boring, enforced conformity. Although its people only worked two hours a day, their lives were tedious and empty. There was no art, literature, scientific research, or romantic love. Dodd’s story was a reaction to the idyllic portrayals of the future painted by her contemporary supporters of socialism, feminism, and technological progress.

George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution (1893) and its sequel, Olga Romanoff (1894), are the story of a group of terrorists employing air warfare to bring an end to a society of oppression and misery in the near future, just ten years ahead.

In H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine the humanity of the distant future has divided into two subspecies: the Eloi, descendants of the elite leisured classes, and the Morlocks, the underground-dwelling descendants of the downtrodden workers. In an ironic turnabout the Eloi have become the prey of the brutish, carnivorous Morlocks.

George Allan England’s The Air Trust (1915) is the story of a billionaire’s attempt to control the very air the people breathe.

Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie, Metropolis, based on his wife, Thea von Harbou’s 1925 novella, is a sort of prequel to the world portrayed in The Time Machine. The elite technocrats live in the world above; the pathetic downtrodden workers in the undercity below. I have very little knowledge of continental science fiction and fantasy so I can’t point to any possible central European antecedents for Metropolis.

My point here is that there’s a sort of pattern to the dystopic visions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A cruelly rapacious or indifferent elite on the one hand, frequently living in splendor, and a poor, downtrodden, increasingly brutish proletariat on the other, living lives of oppression and subterranean misery.

Is this the world we are living in now? Is the world moving in that direction? Or are we who actually live in the future that the late 19th and early 20th century writers speculated about taking a very different path? I think the latter but I’d like to hear other people’s opinions on the subject.

17 comments… add one
  • Brett

    I’m skeptical of the old vision, too. Living standards for humanity as a whole seem to be rising, and I think that Future Humans will be better off than present humans even in a highly unequal society where most people are in the larger “bottom” group.

    That said, they might have point in thinking of the larger group as a proletariat (albeit not an industrial one). I believe that advancement in the use of artificial intelligence (particularly personal AI like Siri) is going to outpace widespread implementation of robotics to replace human labor, so you might end up with most of humanity working in labor-intensive jobs while the skull sweat is largely done by computers.

  • TastyBits


    … artificial intelligence (particularly personal AI like Siri) …

    Siri is a Google search with voice recognition and speech synthesis. It may be an impressive application of several technologies, but it is still an elaborate parlor trick.

    “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

  • I vote different (better) path.

    The 19th century authors you cite were correctly panning the utopian vision of their progressive contemporaries. Now it was the 19th century after all … so they employed many of the same assumptions underlying the vision of the utopians … rigid class structures, a kind of mechanical / industrial quality of existence, command and control on massive scales.

    But, in actuality, we have specifically different conditions that create an overall environment completely hostile to these assumptions. We live in an information age where virtually anyone can communicate effectively with virtually anyone else. Like we’re doing now. Thus, the modern Morlock is essentially on an even keel with the modern Eloi. Today’s are Morlocks are eating today’s Eloi for lunch, but not literally as Wells projected.

    Today’s Eloi are Dodd’s brain dead liberal cultural elite huddled together in the major city centers – killing each other intellectually with the conformity virus – locked into the industrial / statist assumptions handed to them by the 19th century progressives. The rest of us are Morlocks – except a lot smarter, with better tools, largely working with information instead of doing physical labor, and living above ground keeping things running. And Morlocks know nothing is ‘too big to fail.’ Nothing.

    d(^_^)b
    http://libertyatstake.blogspot.com/
    “Because the Only Good Progressive is a Failed Progressive”

  • PD Shaw

    I’ve not read many of those selections (as opposed to later ones like Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451), but the common elements usually appear to be some topical concern like industrialism that is extended to an extreme level in the future, Malthusian limits being reached (can a dysopian story truly be post-scarcity?), and the rise of strong state power to resolve the conflict.

    I think the problems are that Malthusian limits are repeatedly not reached, and one suspsects that they are not realistic restraints. The other is that I tend to think state power is entering a period of decline. More Blade Runner than Matrix. Potentially more chaotic.

  • ponce

    The Middle Class seems to be missing from those examples.

  • PD Shaw

    I recently read Robert Chambers’ _The Repairer of Reputations_ (1895) which is set in a dystopian future that depicts a New York City in a rather (Prussian) and imperialistic state. The story appears to contain the first mention of “Suicide Booths,” installed by the government throughout the city to allow people the convenience of ending their existence if it ever comes intolerable.

  • Ah, yes. The King in Yellow. It’s been forty years since I read that.

  • Icepick

    Depends on the distopian stories one reads. Brunner’s “Stand on Zanzibar” seems fairly relevant (as I recall it, I haven’t read it in ages) except that our terrorists aren’t as smart. Nor are the government agencies. (Through the years I’ve know several brilliant people who would have made great “self-employed dilettantes” for the government (or someone) and only one of them ever got hired for a job that was even close to what Donald Hogan did.)

    The problems with most utopian and dystopian stories is that people just aren’t as smart in real life as they are in fiction, especially not the “elites”/leadership-class. Such fictions seem to ignore the Peter Principle, and of course predate the even more useful Dilbert Prinicple.

    Speaking of Scott Adam’s thoughts, I recall he once made the point* the modern world was so complex that regardless of who you were (no matter how intelligent or educated) your were guaranteed to do or think several completely stupid things a day.

    * He may have been quoting someone else. Again, it’s been a long time since I read his book.

  • Icepick

    Brunner was really good at capturing the feel of the internet even if his numbers are somewhat laughable. I remember reading one story of his in which the heroes decide to crash the electronic computer system that runs everything. They decide to do so by introducing a worm or virus that would eat all the data in the system – totaling an unimaginable sum of 40 gigabytes! It’s always hard to get the scales right….

  • michael reynolds

    I hadn’t thought of the word “dystopia” in years and years until I found myself at a NYC Barnes and Noble with three other writers being introduced as part of the new wave of YA dystopian writing. The four of us looked at each other and thought, “Um, what?”

    Only one of the four of us (James Dashner) had written anything that qualified as dystopian. Westerfeld was there for his steam-punk alternate history, Carrie Ryan with some excellent zombie action, and me with a sci fi/horror. But hey, who doesn’t want to be part of a wave?

    I think of dystopias as a finger-wagging, “If you kids keep this up. . .” kind of thing. They tend to be focused on the present, really, extrapolations of current trends. (The cost of housing keeps going up so in the year 2100 we’ll all have to live in billion dollar closets!) The results are usually kind of eye-roll inducing because they generally lack imagination or lack depth of field. I kind of hate morality tales so I avoid that stuff.

    Altered Carbon was an example for me of interesting dystopian. Less lecturing, more noir goodness. It’s the future but it’s still all about violence, betrayal and beautiful dames.

  • PD Shaw

    Perhaps my favorite dystopian novel is the YA novel, The Giver, which my wife introduced me to when we were first dating. It has something that I’m not sure the others have: the seduction. You are attracted to the society that they’ve created. It’s not all cinder blocks and despair.

  • Ben Wolf

    “Today’s Eloi are Dodd’s brain dead liberal cultural elite huddled together in the major city centers – killing each other intellectually with the conformity virus – locked into the industrial / statist assumptions handed to them by the 19th century progressives.”

    Wow. If all those liberals who say you can’t reason with conservatives and libertarians saw this, boy they’d eat their words.

  • michael reynolds

    PD:

    That is a very good observation about THE GIVER.

  • sam

    the seduction. You are attracted to the society that they’ve created.

    Maybe the finest exemplar is Ursula LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. A utopian paradise revealed as a profound moral dystopia.

  • “Today’s Eloi are Dodd’s brain dead liberal cultural elite huddled together in the major city centers – killing each other intellectually with the conformity virus – locked into the industrial / statist assumptions handed to them by the 19th century progressives.”

    Wow. If all those liberals who say you can’t reason with conservatives and libertarians saw this, boy they’d eat their words.

    Oh the irony here….

  • Ben Wolf

    @Steve

    “Oh the irony here….”

    You’re right. Liberals will often make caricatures of conservatives and libertarians too. But no matter who does it, it isn’t helpful.

  • Random Blowhard

    Where’s dystopia?

    Vote for a second Obama administration and you’ll get to experience it first hand.

    The United States of Argentina – Change…

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