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Dystopia - Twentieth-century Dystopias

orwell nineteen societies eighty

The twentieth century itself lent strength and scope to the development of dystopian fiction, as horrific events and movements rendered the utopian ideal increasingly absurd and made it possible for dystopias to posit terrible fictive societies. The most powerful dystopias from this period firmly cemented the genre as independent from utopia and remain relevant to the present day: Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1920), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). All three of these novels present totalitarian oligarchies (Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-four) or dictatorships (We). Other dystopias appearing at this time include Wells's The Shape of Things to Come, one of the first dystopias to be filmed, as Things to Come (1936). Writing as Murray Constantine, Katharine Burdekin published Swastika Night, which was based on the premise of the Nazis taking over the world, in 1937. Cyril Connolly's dystopian short story "Year Nine" appeared in 1938 and seems to prefigure some of the same approaches Orwell explored at greater length in Nineteen Eighty-four (although Connolly's story, unlike Orwell's novel, is mordantly funny).

At midcentury, dystopia crossed the Atlantic—or rather, reemerged in the United States nearly fifty years after Jack London's The Iron Heel (1907). Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), David Karp's One (1953), and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) all took the dystopia in different directions, primarily away from the focus on repressive totalitarian societies that dominates the earlier British dystopias. Bradbury's and Vonnegut's dystopias focus on the impact of the repressive culture on the individual protagonists (Montag the Fireman in Fahrenheit 451, Paul Proteus in Player Piano) rather than on the horrific sweep of the entire society; both also foreground human dependence on machines as contributing factors in the creation of repressive societies. Britain did not abandon the dystopia. While Erika Gottlieb opens her recent study with the assertion that "[d]ystopian fiction is a post-Christian genre" (p. 3), Anthony Burgess recasts an explicitly Christian conflict in A Clockwork Orange (1962, filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971): in Alex's struggle against state-imposed behavioral conditioning, Burgess recasts the opposing views of mankind argued in the fifth century between St. Augustine of Hippo (who held that humanity is permanently stained by original sin) and the heretical British monk Pelagius (who denied original sin and argued that humans can create perfect societies). Writ large, the utopist's perspective is Pelagian, while the dystopist's is Augustinian (Kumar, p. 100). Burgess went on to publish a second dystopia, which grew out of an appreciation of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four published in that year—the first half of 1985 comments on Orwell's fiction, while the second shows a dystopian society in which trade unions have become the rulers of England (now TUCland, after the Trade Union Council that holds all real power).

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