Thursday, October 18, 2012

What I learned from dystopian fiction

So The Hunger Games has given me a taste for dystopias.  I've read a few before; they can be dark, but I love what they say about human nature, politics, and the dangers for humanity on every side.  Each creates a universe where the bad guys, as the author conceives of them, have won -- and so they show who those bad guys are, how they might win, and what we had better be very careful not to give up.

My examples are 1984, Brave New World, The Giver, The Hunger Games, Matched, and A Handmaid's Tale.

1.  You can make a dystopia out of almost any philosophy.  You can make communist ones (1984) or consumerist ones (Brave New World, The Hunger Games).  Utilitarianism, a fairly harmless-seeming ethical system, gives rise to The Giver and Matched.  And A Handmaid's Tale is fundamentalist Christian.  (Not very good Christians, you discover eventually.)  I am not sure you could manage a libertarian dystopia, since after all freedom is the one thing you can't allow in a dystopia.

I think the thing to remember here is that anything, if forced on the unwilling, could become a nightmare.

2.  As inconvenient and full of pitfalls as the family is, there just is no other good basis for society than marriage, marriage which is contracted freely, involves love, and begets children.  The dystopias where this ideal is strayed from are the most frightening ones.

3.  We are never more than a few steps from dystopia ourselves.  This bit from A Handmaid's Tale made me stop dead:

You had to take those pieces of paper [paper money] with you when you went shopping, though by the time I was nine or ten most people used plastic cards. . . . I guess that was how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand.  If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency.  They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television.  Everything is under control. . . .

That was when they suspended the Constitution.  They said it would be temporary.  There wasn't even any rioting in the streets.  People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.  There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on. . . . Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said.  The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses.  Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn't be too careful.

Can you believe that was written in 1986?

4.  A person is a person is a person.  Any philosophy that tries to get around this, to suggest that some persons aren't really persons, or that some persons must be sacrificed for the good of other persons, ought to be highly suspect.

5.  Freedom is absolutely necessary to our nature.  Without freedom, nothing we do is meaningful.  Freedom includes the ability to make mistakes.  Any free society will have flaws and even crimes; any system that attempts to rid us of any flaws will end up infringing inexcusably on freedom.

6.  It is frighteningly easy to subvert a democracy.  It is incredibly difficult to overthrow tyranny.

7.  A tyrannical government need not monitor every aspect of your life (though of course it's scarier if they do).  All they have to do is motivate you, either with love or with fear.  If you love your family, you won't want to make a fuss for fear the rulers will take it out on them.  And if there is something you fear, you won't take the slightest risk.  They don't need a camera on every street corner, if they can give you the idea that anyone you talk to might be a mole.

Or there are drugs and hypnosis.  They can do that, too.

8.  Growing your own food is incredibly subversive.  In at least two of these books, growing your own food is explicitly banned.  Why?  Matched explains, "It's forbidden to grow food unless the Government has specifically requested it.  They control the food; they control us.  Some people know how to grow food, some know how to harvest it, some now how to process it; others know how to cook it.  But none of us know how to do all of it.  We could never survive on our own."

That makes me feel even prouder of my bedraggled tomatoes.

9.  There is no such thing as a perfect society.  Every single society you could create, even if you had the freedom to build one absolutely from scratch, would have problems.  "The greatest good for the greatest number" is pretty impossible.  On the one hand, humans are too limited to figure out what this would be; and on the other, the only way to do it would involve cruelty or injustice to some segment of the population.  Our political philosophy must always keep this fact in mind: the best we can do is give people the ability to pursue their happiness.  There is absolutely no way we can guarantee that everyone will achieve it.

10.  There is something indomitable about the human spirit.  Suppress it in one area; it pops up somewhere else.  Deprive it of freedom; it will fight until it regains it.  Even if tyranny is never overthrown, people discover that they are still free if they can make even the tiniest choices, even just thinking subversive thoughts is enough to maintain their dignity.  And that is what people everywhere have done, in the face of overwhelming force: they keep their hearts and minds free.


Anodos said...

"I am not sure you could manage a libertarian dystopia, since after all freedom is the one thing you can't allow in a dystopia."

Ah, you should have been more confident in the universal. Science fiction and "cyberpunk" seem pretty interested in exploring libertarianism / anarcho-capitalism, pushed to an extreme. I've read... hm, soem Heinlein, and also Stephenson.

Now, some of these are dystopian, and some are more utopian, depending on whom you ask. (Oh, or you could check out Freedom (tm) (the "tm" is part of the name) by Suarez... which is a sequel to Daemon, by the same. I'm not sure if these are the best instances of anarcho-capitalism, though, as part of the two books involves the (violent and forceful) destruction of the prior world, and the later world isn't... exactly anarcho-capitalist.) actually gives a small list in the fiction section.

I like dystopias as well, though. Fun stuff.

Enbrethiliel said...


I came over merely to pass on a friend's recommendation, The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin, and to hint that Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy (YA Dystopia) might be worth checking out, too . . . but now that "we" seem to be discussing Libertarian dystopias, I find that I have something else to say! =)

What came to mind immediately was The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith. It's actually a Libertarian utopia: a parallel universe in which an unfettered free market has made the world a happier place to live. I bring it up because although I like the parallel US history of Smith's world (Washington is shot for treason, Jefferson abolishes slavery, Lincoln assassinates Booth--LOL!), it has always seemed like a dystopia to me. It's one big paradise of political and individual liberty, but the catch is that everyone thinks in lockstep anyway. (Well, except for the villains . . .) I guess it's that dogmatic acceptance of any political ideology that makes a dystopia to me.

Sheila said...

Anodos, I guess I'd have to read those, but you're right about the question: WOULD that really be a dystopia? Now, mind you, I am not an anarcho-capitalist. I worry that without the government as an arbiter to prevent fraud and manipulation by some against others (particularly by corporations against individuals), you'd end up with less liberty than you started out with.

And that's the issue, isn't it, Enbrethiliel ... how CAN you have a completely free society? Won't some people try to oppress others? Unless, of course, everyone thinks the same. I guess that would a cure, but not very realistic! I'd like to read that book though.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, I hope you don't mind my leaving links in your combox. (And if you do, I won't mind if you delete this!) But I immediately thought of your request for Dystopian novel recommendations when I saw this giveaway hop. Whether you enter to win some books or just look for titles that may be interesting, I'm sure you'll find it informative!

Sheila said...

I don't mind at all!

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