Dystopia and Changing Society
Dystopia, represented by the political and philosophy outlooks of the texts, differs and evolves across the century, alongside the various methods of control. In the earliest text, The Iron Heel, society is ruled by violence and force with rioting and conflict occurring on the streets. Fahrenheit 451 occurs within a police (or rather than ‘fireman’) state but televisual distraction acts a reward for the population to remain apolitical and ignorant. Collusive rule is fully in action in The Circle, when the population collaborate in their own oppression, and by selling every aspect of their lives on social media, abolish their own freedom and privacy in favour of the illusion of the connectedness. With the development of consumerism, the means of control change. Overt oppression and tyranny is phased out in favour of a covert system where fascist rules masquerade as social aspirations. The population no longer fears their oppressors, or is even aware of the dystopian agenda, but colludes in their oppression under the guise of the greater good.
Juvenal’s Satires, a collection of socially satirical poetry from the first and second centuries. Here, Juvenal mocks the attitude of the idle Roman public who exchange their democratic engagement for food and entertainment, “The public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands… meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things — Bread and Games!”
It is important to note that the resolutions the texts to note the trajectory from relative optimism in 20th Century, to the pessimistic outcome of The Circle. While both Fahrenheit 451 and The Circle are ambiguous, though likely have negative outcomes for their societies.
The Iron Heel has a rather optimistic ending with socialist revolution, though the journey towards peace is a long and bloody one. Fahrenheit 451 has a largely ambiguous ending, though while the book-memorising is a symbolic and rebellious act, it is likely an unsuccessful long-term resolution to undermine the larger power structures. In fact, Bradbury seems convinced of the self-immolation of society, however the symbol of the phoenix brings hope that humankind may be able to resurrect from its ashes and learn from its past errors. The Circle has the bleakest ending: Mae becomes indoctrinated into the false ideology believing society is entering into a utopia, rather than a dystopia. Mae’s indoctrination culminates in her desire to break into the mind of her friend and colleague Annie, who had been driven into a coma due to the psychological stress of working for The Circle. Rather than responding to her friend’s hospitalisation with upset or fear, Mae perceives the fact that she cannot access Annie’s thoughts as “an affront, a deprivation, to herself and the rest of the world.” Her entitlement and determination to Annie’s inner consciousness is so strong she resolves to “bring this up with Stenton and Bailey…at the earliest opportunity”, seeking to use advanced technology on Annie’s brain to force entry into her thoughts. The value is no longer placed upon Annie’s life or quality of life, but on the data and information in her mind. Mae’s intrusive urges are microcosmic of the damaging and invasive dogma of the Circle: psychopathic, rapacious corporatism masquerading as inquisitive altruism.
This trajectory suggests that the stronger and more positive the ideology, the stronger the longevity of the movement. Fahrenheit 451 was ruled by apathy and distraction, whereas in The Circle people believed it was for the greater good. People were willing to give up their lives for the cause. The worst is yet to come in the novel, as the ending suggests that ‘Completion’, the point in which the power of the Circle is all-pervasive and monocratic, would lead to a totalitarian dystopia. It could be argued that the Circle is a warning against real-world possibilities. With advancing technology and increasingly centralising power over data, the exploitation of the public is a very real danger.
Over all, as the modern landscape has become exponentially futuristic in its technologies, the dystopian genre appears less fantastical and more identifiable to the reading public. Politically, the assisting ideologies for control have changed from the unquestioning rule of the Iron Heel, to the adoption and manipulation of liberal values in the later texts, such as the supposed egalitarianism of The Circle and the false-utilitarianism of Fahrenheit 451’s government. In the 21st Century, governing forces become less forceful and more ideological, applying dogma to justify their maintenance of control. For instance, after 9/11 the Patriot Act was introduced which gave the government power to carry out both physical searches, like home raids, and cyber searches on their citizens computers, without evidence of wrongdoing. Terrorism was used to justify the oppression. With the development of cheaper and more advanced technology, flashing screens and gadgets distract the population from their collusion with potentially oppressive powers. It might be argued that access to distracting technologies are a payment for our collusion in modern oppression: the vast majority of people gladly give up their privacy for the ease of owning the latest smartphone. It is no wonder that the conclusions to the texts have become increasingly pessimistic, as American society becomes more and more confused, nullified, apathetic.
While the differences between the texts must be acknowledged — the differences between London’s 1907 socialist text and Egger’s technological text seem stark — the unchanging aspects are also evident. Over time, the essence of dystopia has remained largely the same. At the heart of the genre lies a fear of control, exploitation and helplessness. It is not only a fear of the uncompromising oppressor (the Iron Heel and its Mercenary), but also a fear of the oppressed, and a fear of the disinterested and distracted masses of Fahrenheit 451 and the naive utopians such as Mae in The Circle. Perhaps, more centrally still, is the fear of humanity itself, indicated by the genre’s manifestation of the worst atrocities humankind imaginable, and more worrying the abuse and oppression humankind is willing to withstand, or bystand, in exchange for distraction.