The History of Dystopia

American literature can act as an interdisciplinary apparatus to gain understanding of history, politics and philosophy. More specifically, dystopian fiction can blueprint and diagnose socio-political fears and anxieties of both the past and the present. To illustrate this across history, I will compare The Iron Heel, Fahrenheit 451 and The Circle. Broadly, it functions by exaggerating the potentially dangerous conditions of contemporary events and leading the reader to consider the corollaries of following the present trajectory to their extreme potential outcomes. Utopian objectives are often very similar to dystopia in various ways, as they are both visionary conceptions of a future; the difference between the visions is often merely an individual value judgement.

Comparable to the aphorism ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, the notion that a society is inherently utopian or dystopian is flawed. While deemed as dystopian, the politics of the texts often have many utopian elements, and might even been seen as perfect to their creator. Utopian visions are often perceived dystopian in themselves, exhibiting an underlying desire to control human behaviour and punish behaviours which do not meet deemed as perfect, a mentality that can stray towards totalitarian police states. Both the political ideologies behind the utopian vision of the oppressors and the dystopian constructions of the authors themselves must be considered, along with the ways in which utopian philosophies are manipulated in the pursuit of power.

Jack London’s ‘The Iron Heel’

To understand the full impact of the dystopia it is essential to contextualise the work within a historical framework. Jack London’s novel, The Iron Heel was written during America’s Technological Revolution, or Second Industrial Revolution, a second technological innovation in industries such as steel production, petroleum and electricity. These technological innovations, however, came at human expense and detriment. In the early twentieth century, the workplace was a dangerous place for the working classes. At the turn of century, life expectancy for the average male was only forty-nine years old. From 1906 to 1907, 526 workers died in “work accidents”; 195 of whom were steelworkers in a single county, Allegheny, Pennsylvania. As a result, a proliferation of socialism occurred across Europe and the United States, an ideology which is unmistakable throughout his text.

Real-life historical ideas, events and movements are represented in London’s text through his use of faction, the blending of fact and fiction in literature. Many of the events mentioned dated before 1908, the time of The Iron Heel’s writing and publication are factual (though London’s interpretation places upon them subjective and political bias), providing the modern reader with a factual framework in which to contextualise the novel. For example, London cites Census figures from 1900 and references Robert Hunter’s book Poverty to evidence the poverty of 10 million people in America. London seeks to prove to the masses that the existing society already bears the dystopian tropes of mass poverty and life-threatening factory conditions.

By merging the imagined with the real, London intends to facilitate audience visualisation of a reality in which socialism is a workable, even utopian, alternative to the system.

In addition, through the foreword by fictional academic from the future: 2600 AD or 419 B.O.M., the Brotherhood of Man., Anthony Meredith, London provides a reflective insight into the purpose of his own text, “Especially valuable is [the Manuscript] in communicating the feel of those terrible times.” This suggests that, while indicating the facts of the dystopian society, he seeks to, more importantly, encourage audiences to empathise with the plight of the oppressed classes

Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’

In contrast to London’s solely socioeconomic themes, Fahrenheit 451 focuses on fascism, censorship and distraction as opposed to specifically capitalist oppression. Taking place after two enormously-destructive world wars and the rise of fascist dictators, Fahrenheit 451 fears intellectual and ideological oppression, rather than violent capitalist agendas. Prior to writing the text, Bradbury wrote two short stories that combined to form his novel: ‘Bright Phoenix’, written in 1948, in which a librarian confronts the chief in charge of burning books‘The Pedestrian’, published 1951, inspired by policeman harassment for walking at night.

Contextually, American and global history is aflame with censorship and persecution of rebellious artists particularly in Bradbury’s lifetime. His fears of intellectual destruction alongside restrictions of freedoms were influenced by the regimes of both Hitler and Stalin, who called used book-burning as a tool for silencing and controlling their populations. In his early life, Nazi book-burning ceremonies were held by German Student Union in which, in 1933, 35,000 books were destroyed, eradicating thoughts and expressions incompatible with Nazi ideology. Bradbury stated, “When Hitler burned a book, I felt as keenly, please forgive me, to killing a human, for in a long sum of history, they are one in the same.” [This perspective is dangerous, because information becomes equal to, or favoured over human life. Ray Bradbury’s utopia is perhaps shared by the vision of the three wise men.] In the same decade, across the Pacific, Stalin ordered the arrest and often execution of artists, writers and professionals who questioned his regime in an event known as The Great Purge. In his purge of opposing ideals, he destroyed hundreds of thousands of books that he deemed to attack his agenda. He ordered the destruction of books for the “ failure to promote the worker’s class consciousness and willingness to work hard, religious propaganda, pro-tsarist ideas, opposition to revolutionary class struggle, and promoting national hatred”

During Bradbury’s writing career, he witnessed the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee convened in the late 1930s as a witch hunt against communists in the United States. At the beginning of the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy began to gain traction in his anti-communist campaign, culminating in a speech in which he accused numerous public figures of communism, communist sympathies and even sex crimes, calling them to testify before the community for undergo vigorous questioning. Many artists were blacklisted and had their careers destroyed as a result. Bradbury’s work was clearly influenced by the censorship and persecution of artists and freedom of expression at the hands of the government. He writes that. firemen were responsible for the mindless destruction of history and literature, “to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history”. The book was written at a time where Hitler’s regime still resided in public memory, and while McCarthyism was a current reality.

The Second World War was incredibly traumatic for America, and contributed to a culture of consumerism and hedonism as a coping mechanism to numb the collective trauma of war. Fahrenheit 451 reflects a society in which trauma is so deeply buried in their subconscious that many people genuinely believe they are happy. In order to counter the cultural numbness of a war-damaged generation, and demonstrate the dystopian past and present of American societies, Bradbury adopted dystopian methods allow readers to comprehend their historical and current realities. Science fiction technologies are used as unfamiliar metaphors to illustrate the spiritual and mental void in society, such the futuristic resuscitation machine used to pump Mildred’s stomach when she overdoses on sleeping tablets, which “slid into your stomach like a black cobra down an echoing well looking for all the old water and old time gathered there… It fed in silence with an occasional sound of inner suffocation and blind searching. It had an Eye. The impersonal operator of the machine could… gaze into the soul of the person he was pumping out.”

Bradbury adopts ostranenie or defamiliarisation to construct a reality that is not immediately recognisable for the 1950s readers as similar to their own society. Adopting a new perspective allows the 1950s readership enough time and critical space to comprehend Bradbury’s critique without rejecting his notions in defence of their lifestyles, or due to collective repression of their issues.

For instance, The Mechanical Hound (like the shark in The Circle), a robotic eight-legged killing machine in the shape of a dog. It represents the destructive nature of the unthinking and dehumanised State force absent of empathy, humanity or critical capacity.

The text’s setting is reminiscent of the 1950s culture of suburbia and consumerism. This is evidenced by the American Automobile Frenzy of the 1950s, in which people began to buy cars for fashion rather than functionality. Capitalism became the new religion: Christ becomes “part of the ‘family’… a regular peppermint stick…all sugar-crystal and saccharine when he isn’t making veiled references to certain commercial products every worshipper absolutely needs.” Whereas Fahrenheit 451 estranges its critique in order to enhance the similarities with 1950s society, Eggers ensures that the world of The Circle is a feasible and recognisable from the 21st Century ‘corporate/Google’ society.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle

2013 novel The Circle was written in an Age of Ambivalence, a division in opinion between the desire for and fear of technology. While popular culture pushed a consumerist agenda of the borderline-worship of Apple and other brands, the development of virtual reality and the rise of 3D printing and robotic inventions, the galloping pace of technological advancements began to scare many Americans. The Circle was published a decade after Facebook’s creation when the site reached 1.23 billion users worldwide. A central technology of control in the text is the centralisation of power and domination of social media. As powerful technology pervaded every aspect of daily life, many began to fear the intended and unintended consequences of mass surveillance and mass distraction.

Eggers wrote The Circle during meteoric rise of Facebook and with Google’s acquisition of Whatsapp, the merging of corporate entities into a fewer and fewer owners. Prophetically, Eggers predicted the future centralisation of corporate power with the founding of Alphabet Corporation, Google’s conglomeration of research, technology, science and investment companies. Sociologically, the novel was written against a background of debate surrounding privacy, accountability and corporate power. In early June 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked details about National Security Agency’s surveillance PRISM programme in which citizens’ internet communication were secretly collated from nine major American internet companies.

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is referenced, but his message of government accountability and transparency is reversed and manipulated to justify the expectation of disclosure of all information to citizens to the government.

Many people thought this was a serious breach of security and that it presented a clear and present danger to our men and women in uniform here and abroad. But do you remember if any of those soldiers were actually harmed by these documents being released?… None were. Not a one. Same thing happened in the seventies with the Pentagon Papers.”

The language of The Circle represents the simplistic, faux-friendly and utopian language of Apple and Google. Bailey uses rhetorical and leading questioning to manipulate Mae into believing she had come to similar conclusions. He uses inclusive personal pronouns to imply duality and unify the Circle and the citizens as “us” and the government as “them”.

“What if they did know our plans and we knew theirs? You’d be free of what they used to call mutually assured destruction, and instead you’d arrive at mutually assured trust.”

The manipulation of information of reminiscent of Orwell’s ideals of ‘double think’. Bailey leads the Mae and the watching audience that transparency of the people and of the government are equal and the same. He fails to acknowledge that the centralised holder of the information has the power and the ability to present a facade of transparency. The reality is that, granted the powers of information it asks for, the Circle will become the governing force and the people will be those victim to it.

Mae’s first person perspective is utilised as an exploration of the process of indoctrination and manipulation. It allows the reader to empathise with her plight in becoming progressively more brainwashed. By proxy, the audience begins to question their own credulity in assumed government narratives and ideologies.

The technological fears of Fahrenheit 451 are apparent in the novel, alongside the anxieties about monopoly and centralisation of power of The Iron Heel. With the advent of surveillance society and social media around the turn of the century, The Circle introduces new anxieties about both the forced and elected sharing of information in America.