By: Philip Harker
“Dystopia.” It’s such a common trope that it’s almost become part of our news cycle. It seems like the press, political commentators, and even our beloved social media influencers are quick to drop the D-word whenever something abnormal happens in the world:
“Have you seen what [insert person, organization, or scapegoat here] is doing? This is so DYSTOPIAN!”
It’s cringeworthy, even to me, an uncultured STEM major. For one, repetition wears out the meaning of words (which, fun fact, is a phenomenon called “semantic satiation”), and second, it’s used in a way broader scope than writers ever intended dystopia to be.
To solve this crisis in communication, I’d like to present the Trinity Times’ guide to the various forms of dystopian fiction. Use it as you will; whether it’s for Twitter discourse or as a reference for your next ENG140 paper.
In the COVID-19 era, anyone can picture it:
A video goes viral online. A man attempts to board a streetcar, but he’s stopped. He’s not wearing a mask, and he refuses to put one on. He throws a fit. The police are called, and the man is escorted off of the vehicle. Anti-maskers and conspiracists flood the comments: “this is literally 1984.”
I think that a lot of people would benefit from actually reading Nineteen Eighty-Four—yes, that’s how the title is actually spelt—and understanding the fiction and worldbuilding that George Orwell paints. Throughout all of his work, Orwell creates settings in which the leadership brainwashes people. Not just with love for leadership, but love for some kind of far-flung and seemingly unattainable goal—if you identify one of those, you might be living in an Orwellian dystopia.
Are you spending every second of your ever-shortening life building a windmill? Sure, if they say that it will make your society better. Should you be forced to shave with dull razors and drink nothing but bitter gin? Of course, if it helps to win the war. Wait, who are you at war with again?
If you’re unsure whether a dystopia is truly Orwellian, keep an eye out for surveillance. Seeing how brutal the conditions are, you might feel every desire to complain about how uncomfortable your state-provided outfit is, or why you haven’t heard from your friend Boxer in a long time, but be careful. Any talk of dissent, conspiracy, or even dissatisfaction might be picked up by your in-home surveillance camera/television.
Polarization isn’t something new. Pretty much any time you see or hear or read about a new issue, extreme division sets in. You’d best pick the right side; one of them is the side of justice and what is good while the other is the devil incarnate. But which side is the right one? How do you make sure your side is the one that wins? And what happens if the other side has the chance to destroy you?
These are the serious (and often absurd) questions that define a class dystopia. This type of dystopia has been explored in many different ways by many different authors. It’s also a very popular type in pop culture: The Hunger Games, Divergent, these are all settings that are built upon division of the people into strict and arbitrary groups.
Why do this? If a leader wants the most power possible, wouldn’t uniting the people make them stronger? Yes, but a strong population could possibly challenge the government. It’s safer for them to harness as much power as possible by dividing the population against each other. This way, their desire for freedom will be overcome by something much more powerful: fear.
Leaders love it when we are afraid. We turn to our governments when something is uncertain, whether that be in times of war or during grocery store supply chain issues. You can identify a class dystopia through its clear, officially mandated division lines. You may think that your problems and misery are due to the “other people,” but remember that they’re just as miserable as you.
Of course, you don’t need to be miserable to be living in a dystopia. Quite the opposite, in fact. Want to become dependent on a seemingly harmless yet high addicting and pleasurable drug? Go right ahead. And because mostly everyone in the world is infertile, casual sex is completely unrestricted (assuming that it’s consensual, heterosexual, and no-strings-attached).
In a dystopia like that of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, endless hedonism is the order of the day. Everyone belongs to everyone, and things that are annoying or hard to understand, like religion, are done away with. Great! Why worry about your rights, freedoms, or the state of the world when you can simply spend every free second you have indulging in life’s simplest pleasures?
Because that’s exactly what your leaders want you to do. Settings like Brave New World are almost opposite to Orwellian settings. Instead of being brainwashed into compliance by fear and propaganda, compliance just naturally comes about as the oppressors funnel simple pleasure into the population, utterly destroying any possible desire for resistance.
It’s been argued that dumber people are happier. For a government that is interested in maximizing the happiness of the population, it is incredibly important to limit intellectualism. Huxleyan settings are agnostic. Those who value religion and art are social outcasts, whether ostracized within society or forced to live outside of it entirely.
The Measure of a Word
Maybe the western world in 2021 is a dystopia. There are many other types of dystopia, such as Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmares and worlds of technological control like The Matrix, so perhaps our world fits some other dystopian definition that hasn’t become mainstream enough for us to be writing fiction about it.
Regardless, it’s important to remember that words are what we make them. So if we decide to bust out the D-word whenever we see something that we disagree with, we may be actively changing the definition. So who knows? Perhaps anthropologists and historians thousands of years in the future will assume that “dystopia” refers exclusively to societies just like ours, where misinformation is commonplace, pandemics and climate disasters are actively ignored, and no one can agree on a damn thing.