‘Purgatory surpasses heaven and hell in poetry, because it represents a future and the others do not.’ ― Chateaubriand.
I. It begins with an allegory
Modern publishing is ironically dystopian given the current preponderance of the genre. There are all the hallmarks. For example, a huge divide between the tiny minority of rich, bestselling writers, and the vast swathes of unwashed self-published authors, some of whom nonetheless manage to rise-up and challenge the system. Or what about the fact that published books often fits a very narrow band of what is acceptable, so much so that group think is rife in the literary world. This would be obvious to anyone who has attended a writers festival where the guests and the audience are almost always in lockstep. In addition the Cathedral operates in publishing just as in other media, the few right-wing titles either an exception or controlled opposition. The masses of readers are plied with trends and fads – what the gatekeepers decide is worthy – and the elusive word-of-mouth spreads ‘good’ books through mimetic desire. Finally, the reader is stuck on a treadmill, every month bringing another couple thousand new books, but always the nightmare of what to read. It is like some sort of absurd purgatory where no matter what you do there is no escape.
This pitiful condition of the publishing industry is reflected in the state of the dystopian fiction that is published in the current year. In the past if you picked up a dystopian novel, you could be confident that it would be a sound social critique, but the word has now become little more than a marketing term. When genre pioneers like Yevgeny Zamyatin or Jack London created their hopeless futures they synthesized a real possibility from the ugly trends around them. The 21st century, on the other hand, began with a spate of fiction aimed at teens, and now even Joyce Carol Oates is writing literary dystopian stories. That said, there is little point in writing a warning if no one listens to it. For example, many late 19th and early 20th century dystopias brought up the fear of the communal raising of children, and today we pass our offspring to daycare centres without a second thought. Current writers inject moralising and doomsaying as is a genre staple, but they also cry-wolf as they hunt for imaginary social ills.
II. Definitions are hard
The word utopia is derived from ou-topos, meaning ‘not a place’. It is homophonous with eutopia, which would mean ‘good place’, a possible influence on its contemporary denotation of paradise. The juxtaposition of these two meanings should be clear: the ‘good place’ is nowhere to be found and creating the perfect society is impossible (Samuel Butler’s utopian satire Erewhon is the word “nowhere” scrambled). Commentators inherently understand this as when the socialist utopia of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 was published it provoked a vast number of dystopias that attempted to disprove or satirize it. Thomas More’s pioneering Utopia was an earlier attempt at imagining paradise, but even in that adventure the distinction between Heaven and Hell is negligible and the line between utopia and dystopia becomes apparent. Huxley, in the new introduction to Brave New World written after World War 2, says, ‘…it looks as though Utopia were far closer to us than anyone, only fifteen years ago, could have imagined.’ Utopia in this context is not a good place and what he is referring to is a theme of many utopian visions: societal trade-offs. As the protagonist in Zamyatin’s We puts it: ‘There were two in paradise and the choice was offered to them: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness.’ You cannot reach perfection without sacrificing something, and it was the encroachment on human freedom that inspired most dystopias. A dystopia by its very nature is not something to be escaped, but is an endless future, a purgatory after civilization has died. It is with this in mind that we can start exploring the poetry of dystopian fiction.
So what makes a good dystopian novel? The magisterial Dystopia: A Natural History offers us some clues, but makes it clear that the definitions shifted over time. Drawing on this book and close readings of specific texts some common threads become apparent. Dystopias often have the technological elements of science fiction or the collapse of a post-apocalyptic novel, but differ in that they are always, in some way, political. The most vital part of a dystopia is that it extrapolates events into the future. Early dystopian books attacked Jacobinism and Enlightenment ideals, such as Publicola and The Vagabond, and were a precursor for the classics like 1984 in the same way that the Reign of Terror was a precursor for the Holocaust and the communist slaughters of the 20th century. Claeys in his book also says that, ‘”Dystopianism”, in the sense of a “popular discourse about fear”, is sometimes used to describe “anti-Jacobin” (radical) literary efforts of this type.’ It wasn’t just political events that authors tried to speculate on but also technological advances and their consequences. Take E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops. It features a rudimentary Internet where civilians are cocooned in their rooms and only able to interact virtually, a precursor for our current age of the web and atomisation. The subterranean world was also run by the Machine, a mechanical overlord that was no doubt one of the earliest fictional descriptions of the Singularity. Thanks to the author’s uncanny perception the book is more relevant today than when it was published. These early books also relied on ideas of group psychology such as Gustave Le Bon’s theory of the crowd, and the most frightening element of the nightmare worlds was the fact that so many people went along with the affronts to human dignity, which came to real-life fruition in Nazi Germany. Often the tyrannical world of the dystopia springs up after a disaster, such as in We where the world’s population is homogenized at the conclusion of a two-hundred year long war. What is obvious when reading many books in this genre is that if you truly want a dystopia you have to revel in the idea of no exit. Think of the Savage’s suicide in Brave New World or Winston’s submission in 1984, or even the endings of earlier stories such as Paris in the Twentieth Century and The Machine Stops. As Atwood puts it, ‘Forced re-education, exile and execution are the usual choices on offer, in utopias, for any who oppose the powers that be.’ Finally, it was the contrast of the perfect society with obvious faults and degradation that was the key, and at the very heart of the genre is the idea that when looking for perfection you will always be met by tyranny. Many of these books are still discussed, studied and enjoyed today because not only were they well-written adventures, but they wrestled with difficult questions that unfortunately manifested themselves in history.
As should be clear, the traditional dystopian novel was written to explore larger problems in society and as a warning against fear, groupthink and progress for progress’ sake. It was at times of the most upheaval when the genre flourished: it started properly with the French revolution; then there was a flurry during the 19th century revolutions (1848 and the Industrial); and finally a world at war produced the 20th century classics as the boundaries of both human depravity and of the genre were achieved . As civilization was turned upside down, authors looked for new ways to express this turmoil. Darkness at Noon and 1984 were explorations of totalitarianism and the police state, while Brave New World discussed the progress of technology cutting us off from our humanity as a result of ‘the inevitable acceleration of American world domination.’ There were also anti-fascist novels like Swastika Night, It Can’t Happen Here and In the Second Year showing that there were prescient warnings against every nascent mass ideology (all of which, let us not forget, were a result of the Enlightenment, liberalism and democratization). These were genuine worries of a world upended by Nazism, Stalinism and genocidal technology (including, for later dystopias, the bomb), and the reason these books have managed to become lasting classics is because the concerns have never gone away. Every other week some new technology or regime is called ‘Orwellian’ and Huxley’s soma-induced dream state isn’t dissimilar to our dopamine-filled lives. In contrast to these, modern dystopian novels explore facile subject matter that do not warrant book length treatments, except possibly as a way for readers to remind themselves that they live in the best of all possible worlds.
III. Did Satan Spend a Time in Purgatory?
While there was a sense of purpose in early dystopias and utopias, modern dystopian fiction does not hold true to many of the tropes discussed above. For a long time we were fed with the dystopias of the Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent which are all aimed at teens and offer an escape from the oppressive social systems. These young adult books are pure fantasy, not conjecture, with crazy systems like fights to the death and giant mazes that have zero semblance to anything in the real world. They are examples of Hell, not Purgatory, imagined realms of torture that can be avoided if you are virtuous enough. If you read them literally they appear as Purgatory, and yet all they do is flip from Hell to Heaven and do not remain as a warning to struggle against. They paint pictures of resistance, of the power of youth and the conservative folly of adults, and this mentality has crept into adult fiction.
As our political dialogue degraded and our living standards increased, our ability to write believable dystopias waned and many books are no more than one-note talking points. On the technological side of things a book like The Growing Season – where artificial wombs mean that men, too, can bear children – is unable to go beyond the premise of the technology, and the book can’t maintain itself with a real plot. Some books don’t even bother with an interesting technological projection, such as Perfidious Albion which is a post-Brexit novel that could basically happen today, leading to a lazy statement about the ‘future’ of Britain. When it comes to the gloomy endings even the Resistance Bible The Handmaid’s Tale is guilty of not being pessimistic enough, the postscript of the book stating that the horror is a blip when it comes to the long arc of history. Rather than go into the future, some books posit alternative histories. Recent books like The Underground Railroad and Underground Airlines explore worlds where slavery never went away. These are books built on fear, a liberal fear that slavery will rear its ugly head again. Could there be anything more dystopian than the publication of texts that stoke unfounded alarm among the reading public? What is the purpose of these books but to allow an upper middle-class reader to nod their heads in agreement as they discuss things-that-never-happened in phony horror over a glass of pinot at their monthly book club? As Gregory Claeys discusses in Dystopia: A Natural History, a climate of fear is one necessary element of a true dystopia. It helps if it is a substantiated fear.
The inherent problem, I think, lies in what Northrop Frye calls ‘naive allegory’. This is ‘educational literature on an elementary level: schoolroom moralities, devotional exempla, local pageants, and the like.’ Our dystopias today are washed down and extremely literal, and they have a tendency to date in their efficacy. What they are is ‘transient spectacle’ and as such they are published simply because someone, with or without ability, has a grievance to express, and publishers are always looking for that publicity angle. The following two recent publications are great examples.
In a world where the Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in as US Supreme Court justice, a very clear trend right now is publishing female phobias. Here is just a short list of feminist dystopias released in recent years: Future Home of the Living God, When She Woke, Gather the Daughters, Red Clocks, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, The Water Cure and Vox. What they all have in common is that they portray the projection of a woman’s neuroses when it comes to reproduction. In particular, Vox, an obvious The Handmaid’s Tale rip-off, imagines a world where hard-right Christians come to power in America and immediately set about undoing decades of liberalism and social justice, the crux being that women are not allowed to speak more than 100 words per day without being electrocuted. From a genre point-of-view there are many issues. There’s no technology element aside from the ability to torture women. The idea of a male-dominated society being voted in is not a legitimate forecast, but a hysterical projection. The events of the book all take place in the space of a year, and magically our protagonist manages to save the day and everything goes back to normal, a far cry from the depressing conclusions to older dystopias. Yes, it tries to make a statement on American politics but the author is woefully ill-equipped to deal with the issues and puts too much of herself into the story. There are multiple segments where the Mary Sue hero grinds her teeth as her son eats everything in their home. She also leaves her insipid American husband for a sexy Italian linguist. The book is full of deep philosophical questions and appeals to resistance, and the resentment towards men oozes off every page. The writing is haphazard at best, a great example being when our protagonist is attacked by a caged chimpanzee for apparently no better reason than to make the plot a little more exciting. What is very clear from reading this book is that it was plucked out of the slush pile because it is political. There is little originality and a lot of stolen, stale ideas. While the marketing department will insist it says something important, how likely are we to consider this book in ten years time?
Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk is another take on current events, focusing more on identity politics. On Twitter the book was picked out by a few on the Right saying Chuck is /ourguy/. Nothing could be further from the truth. Chuck is a charlatan and this book is merely a way to make a quick buck. If you listen to his recent interview on the Joe Rogan podcast this becomes apparent. First, he recently had a lot of money embezzled, so writing the literary equivalent of clickbait to get an advance seems like a smart option. Second, his entire career is based on ripping off other people’s stories (he openly admits to this on the podcast), and this is no different, only he is pillaging an entire ideology. He admits to browsing Stormfront as entertainment and it becomes very clear that Adjustment Day is nothing more than a caricature of Alt Right fantasies and anything that sounds like it has a grain of truth to it is actually making fun of them (yes, even as he satirizes journalists). On the surface it appears to be making a profound statement on the USA as it heads towards civil war. In this world, men rise up on ‘Adjustment Day’ by killing politicians and other people with clout, and splitting the USA into three territories: Gaysia, Blacktopia and Caucasia. This quickly turns into farce as the residents of Blacktopia suddenly regain the ability to build flying pyramids and cure cancer, and the Caucasian population return to their way of life of wheat fields, baby-making and ye olde English. Chuck is the epitome of the postmodernist writer, the novel so packed with pastiche and self-references it becomes grating. Anyone who writes lines like ‘poop-raped’ or ‘Foiled had been any attempt at castration’ has to be having a laugh. This novel paints dystopia as a joke, as something unworthy of the beauty of collapse and control. Very serious writers have turned their hand at dystopia, and it does them a disservice to have Adjustment Day under the same label.
Is this all publishing has to offer? Projection and perfidy? Purgatory is poetical because it allows for some future, and yet these two examples are hollow, ugly stories that depict impossible Hellscapes. Any point the books try to make are lost because the scenarios are credulous, lost in post-ironical malarkey. As Frye says, ‘The basis of poetic expression is the metaphor, and the basis of naive allegory is the mixed metaphor’. The writers stumble on their own literalness.
IV. When Does Cthulhu Make an Appearance?
It is curious that the first dystopias and the classics that have lasted remain relevant in their attacks on the Enlightenment and the tyranny of the invisibly totalitarian state, where citizens breathe in propaganda like fish swimming in the sea, and yet these modern dystopias explore disasters that will never happen and attack crude dogmas and strawmen. What does it say that old books lambasted socialism and technology, and yet we now live in a more socialist and technologically driven world than ever before? What does it say that often the novels of today look to the past and backward ideas in order to create their ordeals? George Orwell actually fought fascists and travelled to India. Today’s writers weave their books from the same mainstream news headlines as everyone else. In Antifragile, Taleb laments the ‘modern disease of touristification’ which is ‘the systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness of things, trying to make matters highly predictable in their smallest matters’ and it is difficult to think of a better summary of modern dystopias as neatly packaged tourist destinations that appeal to our sensibilities and don’t explore to any depth. We are only allowed to discuss Heaven and Hell, not Purgatory, because the former two don’t require imagination, only fantasy.
The purpose of a dystopia is to not escape it, because only when the worst is unnavigable is the reader able to be actively work against the forces arrayed against them. As civilization succumbed to these forces, the possibility space for good dystopian novels shrank considerably. Chesterton, notable stalwart of civilization, says of Wells that, ‘the weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man [original sin] and assume it to be overcome.’ The original dystopias challenged this, but we have come full, perverse circle. Now dystopian fiction is the realm of leftists who, while living in comfort, pretend that there are monsters on their doorstep while ignoring the reality of original sin. The scariest idea of all is that we very well may already be living in a dystopia without our knowledge, but leftists attack easy, ‘lesser’ sins such as the patriarchy. What should be encouraged are dystopias that will last. The classic dystopias don’t have a get-out-of-jail-free card for a reason: so that we might be shocked into action, not given false hope.