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.