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In the 100 years since Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote the first draft of what is now considered dystopian literature's urtext, We, authors ranging from George Orwell to Anthony Burgess to Suzanne Collins have set moral tales, satires, and adventure stories in totalitarian — and often disturbingly familiar — fictional worlds.
Dystopian novels typically imagine societies of people living desperate, unjust, miserable lives, struggling against their oppressors. And though the last century has seen the most rapid and widespread democratization in human history, the stories have often been called prescient or even prophetic for the way they seemed to anticipate our current inequitable existence. But whether it be Zamyatin's We, Orwell's 1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World — the latter of which has been freshly adapted into a very worthwhile nine-episode series for the launch of NBC's Peacock, premiering today — such novels all seem to reach the same conclusion. A dystopia isn't so much a question of a miserable setting, an authoritarian regime, or a secret police force, but the way that its people treat each other.
Brave New World and 1984 are on opposite, illustrative ends of the genre. Orwell's novel was published in 1949 in the wake of World War II, when both fascism and socialism seemed to loom as threats to democracy, and it imagines a secretive regime that surveils its people and polices even their thoughts, disappearing anyone who rebels against the order. Brave New World, which was written almost two decades earlier, in the middle of the Great Depression in 1931, imagines instead a society so numbed by the hedonistic distractions of sex and drugs that its people don't bother questioning the order at all. As critic Neil Postman famously wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one."
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But what Orwell's Big Brother and Huxley's World Controller Mustapha Mond share is that they both maintain a society in which individuals are separated from having to ever consider others as fully human, which allows the governments to carry out atrocities un-criticized and reinforces the status quo, where the people in power get to remain in power. In Brave New World, New London is supposedly free of suffering and individuality, with citizens blocking out their negative emotions with the use of a mood-regulating drug called soma. Ultimately, though, without suffering there can also be no empathy for others; the higher classes that live like royalty are unable to fathom the suffering of lowly Epsilons, left to clean up after them, when everyone involved is conditioned to believe they're happy.
In 1984, by contrast, the alienation from others comes from living in a violent, bureaucratic, and paranoid propaganda state, where loyalty to the Party outweighs romantic, professional, and even familial relationships; children might even report their own parents for crimes. As in Brave New World, the society exists due to a massive worker class called the proles, who, like the Epsilons, are understood by the upper classes to enjoy their work. "Proles and animals are free," is one dehumanizing Party slogan. The protagonist Winston's epiphany, later in the book, comes in part from finally being able to empathize with the working class: "'The proles are human beings,' [Winston] said aloud. 'We are not human.'" As Lionel Trilling wrote for The New Yorker in his 1949 review of the novel, "Orwell agrees that the State of the future will establish its power by destroying souls. But he believes that men will be coerced, not cosseted, into soullessness. They will be dehumanized not by sex, massage, and private helicopters but by a marginal life of deprivation, dullness, and fear of pain." But they will be dehumanized all the same, unable in most circumstances to feel anything except possibly revulsion for their fellow citizen.
More modern explorations of dystopia also focus on how people take into account the others around them. The Handmaid's Tale, published in 1985 and subsequently adapted for the recent Hulu TV series, like its forbears, takes this question of compassion to an extreme. The fundamentalist and patriarchal nation of Gilead views women as subhuman, forbidden even from reading or writing, with fertile women being used as "two-legged wombs" for reproduction. (In a somewhat meta twist, the show's third season stirred up some controversy by inviting the audience's compassion not just for the victims but for their tormentors, a decision The Guardian claimed "goes too far.") Even HBO's Westworld, which shares many similarities with Peacock's Brave New World adaptation, is ultimately an experiment in the ability to empathize with the interior life of another being; and if you can't, then who's the real robot?
These explorations have never gone out of style, because the topic they're covering hasn't either. While there are plenty of commentators who'll excitedly call America a dystopia, when you consider our own crises of empathy, it gets harder to outright dismiss. Our leader refers to Mexicans as "rapists" rather than fellow humans; the Black Lives Matter movement has to assert what should be the self-evident value of Black American lives; refugees and asylum-seekers are met at our borders by closed doors, endangering the most vulnerable populations on the globe; trans Americans are cruelly denied recognition and equality. And now, a pandemic in which Latino and Black Americans are dying at the highest rates, in which low-paid service-industry workers are the most at-risk of being exposed, in which health care remains a privilege and not a right, in which the survival of the economy outweighs the survival of our elders, in which protective face masks — the most basic way to show you believe your fellow human has a life worthy of protecting — are openly mocked.
No, dystopias do not change. Governments, both fictional and not, merely get cleverer at hiding their real aims: to make their citizens care about nobody but themselves, to pass off exploitation as a necessary evil, to reassure that despite whatever suspicions you might have itching in the back of your head, you are living in the best of times. Dystopian literature isn't "still relevant" today because society has changed to match its visions, but because we've failed to rise above them.
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