20 November 2015

Dystopian Origins: how did we get here?

After Thomas More wrote ‘Utopia’ in the early 16th century, Europe was rapidly transformed, first by the major scientific breakthroughs in the 17th century, then by the political revolutions that shook the 18th. By the 19th century, there was widespread belief in the prospect of progress towards a world that could be perfected through science and democracy. Utopian writings proliferated about how such perfection could be achieved.

The outlook spread to the rest of the world as well, and in China, the reformists indeed referred to ‘Science’ and ‘Democracy’ as the twin teachers that would bring their country to a more enlightened and successful future. Kang Yu-Wei wrote his utopian masterpiece, ‘The Book of Great Unity’, setting out how universal harmony and cooperation could be secured.

But something around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century brought dark clouds to the horizon. Instead of mapping out more utopias, minds turned to the new genre of dystopia – writings that would focus on how dangerous trends, if unchecked, could ruin society in the worst possible terms.

Looking back on history, it’s not difficult to see what transformed the world’s zeitgeist. Industrialisation had led to an ever widening the gap between owners of capital and ordinary workers, produced vast pollution, and accelerated urbanisation that created overcrowding and public health hazards. The lopsided economic system, exacerbated by public policies that favoured the superrich even more at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, led to the Great Depression. Unemployment and marginalisation fuelled extremism, which paved the way for gross atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi, Italian Fascist, Japanese militarist, and Stalinist regimes. The tragedy of one world war erupting was repeated within merely two decades with a second world war causing even greater devastation. That was to end only with the use of nuclear weapons that demonstrated grotesquely their potential to wipe out humankind.

Within a single generation, writers such as H. G. Wells (1866-1946); Aldous Huxley (1894-1963); George Orwell (1903-1950); and John Wyndham (1903-1969); had produced dystopian masterpieces that depicted the threats posed by unregulated capitalism, totalitarianism, religious deception, the stoking of prejudice, unaccountable technological and military development, mass surveillance, and the widening gap between the powerful and ordinary people.

Science and democracy still provided invaluable support to improving human existence, but the focus had shifted to the dangers that might get in the way. Utopias might be built in the future, but today dystopian trends must be detected and halted fast if there is to be a future of free and constructive development.

In the 1950s and 1960s, steps were taken in the western world to constrain corporate excesses, erect a welfare safety net for all, tackle prejudices and discrimination, and reduce global conflicts through the European Community and the United Nations. But from the 1980s on, all these achievements have been rolled back by the champions of military jingoism, economic inequalities, and traditional prejudices.

It is not surprising that dystopian literature and drama are once again prominent in contemporary culture. The threats they seek to counter are sadly multiplying around us once again.