In Four Voyages, published in 1507, Amerigo Vespucci reported that, on one of his voyages to the New World, he had left 24 men at a fort on Cape Frio. One of those men, Raphael Hythloday, set out from Cape Frio on a journey south through various curious and unknown countries, until he reached an island separated from the mainland by a man-made canal. This island was a realm called Utopia, after its founder, King Utopus. Raphael spent some time in a country that seemed to him most excellent in its organisation, until, after a few years, he reluctantly decided it was time to return to Europe. There, in July 1515 in Antwerp, he was introduced by the noted scholar Peter Giles to a visiting Englishman who was taking a break from a diplomatic mission. This Englishman, Thomas More, spent time talking with Raphael about his journeys and afterwards wrote it up in a book he called Utopia.
There had been perfect places before, of course. Heaven was the most widely known, the aspiration towards which all Christians (which at the time was assumed to mean all Europeans) yearned. But there were more secular versions, places like Hy Brasil or the Land of Cockaigne, places in which rivers flowed with wine, in which meats and fine food hung plentifully from the trees. A version of Cockaigne became the Big Rock Candy Mountain, known to American hoboes of the Great Depression. They were places of sensual pleasure and repletion, lands marked out by being the diametric opposite of the hard life of famine and disease that was the daily lot of those who dreamed of these places. And they knew they were dreams, they knew they were forever out of reach, that was part of the attraction.
What marked Utopia out from these fantasies of plenty was that it could be reached, and reached in two ways. Reached physically: there was a long, arduous but supposedly practicable journey that could get you from here to there. It was a journey beyond the abilities and wishes of most people, but the idea was established that perfection did not exist only in dreams or upon death, but here in the everyday world we all inhabited. And it could be reached structurally: this perfection was not the province of god or of fairies or some supernatural inversion of the natural world, this perfection was achieved by rational men. If a safe, secure, happy existence could be achieved by sensible human organisation in Utopia, then sensible, rational men could achieve the same here.
Thomas More had been born in a time of war, and had been raised amid the fears and disruptions caused by that war. When he was seven years old he was part of the crowd watching as the new king, Henry VII, rode into London fresh from his victory at Bosworth. At that point, within his short lifetime, two Kings of England had died violent deaths. For More, therefore, perfection was always equated with order. After the disorder of war, the order of peace was desirable; and within any society, order was what brought happiness. He went to his death because Henry VIII’s repudiation of the Catholic Church was, to More, a repudiation of the natural and proper order of society. Unsurprisingly, therefore, More’s perfect society was an ordered society, modelled at least in part on monastical life.
But this was the Renaissance. Printed books, the rediscovery of ancient scholarship either rescued from the fall of Constantinople or found lost amid the stacks of monastery libraries, new technologies, all contributed to the rapid spread of ideas. Utopia was printed and reprinted at an incredible rate, mostly in Latin but also in a multitude of other languages, it was read by scholars the length and breadth of Europe, its ideas were discussed, taken up, developed. Utopia entered the language. And writers across Europe produced their own utopias, restructured to reflect their own ideas of perfection or notions of rationality. In an age of religious turmoil – Luther nailed up his 95 theses the year after Utopia was first published and thus ushered in nearly two centuries of almost constant religious wars – there were religious utopias (The City of the Sun by Thomas Campanella); in an age of scientific observation and experiment, there were scientific utopias (New Atlantis by Francis Bacon); in an age beset by plague there were medical utopias (A Godly Regiment against the Fever Pestilence by William Bullein); in an age of agricultural reform there were utopias advocating for precisely such reforms (Macaria by Gabriel Plattes).
Utopia was, to this extent at least, a flexible thing, its character ever changing. As the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries began to change in character around the middle of the 17th century, becoming more political, so utopias became political. There were, of course, fictional political utopias, as in Oceana by James Harrington, but more and more works of overt political philosophy were taking on a utopian aspect, from Thomas Floyd’s The Picture of a Perfit Commonwealth to Gerard Winstanley’s The Law of Freedom in a Platform. The dominant form that utopian writing would now take was political, influencing in particular those writers calling for radical or revolutionary change, from Thomas Hobbes to Karl Marx.
By this time, fiction was becoming less studiedly utopian. Utopias shifted away from unexplored corners of our own world to the moon (The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin), to a parallel Earth accessible at the poles (The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish), into a future in which the Jews have recognised the true nature of Christ thus signalling the Second Coming (Nova Solyma by Samuel Gott). But inevitably the nature of these other locations, or the means of getting there, became more interesting to both writer and reader than the utopian situation found on arrival. As the Abbé Raguet observed in 1702, utopias are inherently static because having achieved perfection there is no change either possible or desirable, and hence utopias are boring. Utopias would, of course, continue to be written throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and well into the 20th century, but few writers solved the problem of boredom. Indeed, most of these utopias were polemical in nature, advocating for a particular cause, and these writers weren’t particularly interested in solving the problem of boredom since they felt that the cause was of more than sufficient interest for anyone.
But almost as soon as there were utopias heralding the achievement of rational humanity, there were anti-utopias that celebrated irrationality. One of the earliest of these anti-utopias, and therefore a work that can be said to provide a template for the form, was Mundus Alter et Idem (Another World and Yet the Same) by Bishop Joseph Hall. Published in 1605, it took its protagonist through the grotesque lands of Terra Australis: Crapulia, a land of gross physical indulgence; Viraginia, ruled by unruly women; Moronia, where the institutions of the Catholic Church are imitated; and Lavernia, a land of thieves.
More’s original Utopia had been intended, at least in part, as satire, but in fact the form was not well suited to satire. An ideal society can be held us as a contrast to the disorder of quotidian existence, but it is not so easy to shape it into a weapon attacking that disorder. To that end, the absurd and grotesque caricature of the anti-utopia is a far more effective mode for satire. Thus the great satires of the 18th century, such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal”, were anti-utopian in character.
Utopias continued to be written, of course, usually to advocate for some particular ideal. For instance, the rise of feminist and suffragist movements towards the end of the 19th century produced a rash of stories about female-run societies that were invariable utopian in character, such as Legions of the Dawn by “Allan Reeth” and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Similarly, the varieties of socialist thought that arose during the latter part of the 19th century each produced their own notions of utopia, from William Morris’s bucolic News from Nowhere to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a work that was so successful that it spawned hundreds of Bellamy Clubs to discuss the utopian ideas it contained. But though forward looking in their aspirations, these were all old fashioned in their approach, and despite the few that have survived (Gilman, Morris, Bellamy) the vast majority of the utopias written at this time sank without trace. Meanwhile anti-utopias continued to be deployed satirically, though their excess grotesquerie tended to detach them from reality and from their utopian wellspring.
It wasn’t until the early years of the 20th century that utopian fiction was given a new lease of life. In fact there were two changes that happened just a few years apart, one was a reinvention of straightforward utopian fiction, and the other was a remaking of the anti-utopia into something very different, the dystopia. Both these changes stem, I think, from an encounter with the modern, both the literary modernism of Henry James and Virginia Woolf and their confreres, and the technological modernism that wrought devastating changes upon war and politics.
I should point out that if the reinvention of utopia seems to come largely from literary modernism, it was not without an acute awareness of the effects of war and politics on the modern world. And if the emergence of the dystopia seems to emerge out of the horrors of warfare and totalitarianism, the influence of literary modernism can still be traced through its course.
Let me first and briefly look at the emergence of the modern utopia, before turning to spend a little longer considering the creation of the dystopia.
The reinvention of utopian fiction at the beginning of the 20th century is down to one man: H.G. Wells. A decade before his famous split with Henry James, Wells was a close friend of James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford and other writers intimately involved with the new literary movements of the age. He was an advocate of Darwinian ideas of evolution, as filtered through his one-time tutor, T.H. Huxley, and therefore believed that all things change. Similarly, the ideas of Freud, which had already informed the fiction of his circle of friends, suggested notions of impermanence. Thus, although Wells was a utopian, the utopia he envisaged could not be the static and absolute structure it had been in previous centuries. Much of his fiction had utopian overtones, but his first major work on the theme was the novel A Modern Utopia in which he began to explore the idea that utopia was not a place, not a destination, but a process. The ideal, the perfect state, is almost certainly unattainable, but utopia is the process of striving towards that ideal.
The horrors of the First World War, the mechanised warfare he had already partly foreseen in “The Land Ironclads” and The War in the Air, and the rise of totalitarianism, all fed into the mix from which any future utopia must grow. But again and again throughout the rest of his career Wells would return to the image of utopia as process rather than achievement. It was there in fiction such as The Shape of Things to Come as much as it was in his non-fiction, such as his advocacy for the League of Nations.
More importantly, all subsequent utopian fictions, up to and including more ambiguous works like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed or Samuel R. Delany’s Triton, reflect the idea that utopia is not a final achievement, but a process of trial and error, a striving towards a goal that is forever retreating from us.
But although utopia was reinvigorated by this new sense of movement, by the notion that utopia was not an unchanging monolith about which all the author could ever do was provide a guided tour, but rather something fluid and changeable into which plot and story could be woven, utopia in the 20th century was still overshadowed by its upstart twin, the dystopia.
If dystopia emerged from the horror of modern war and the threat of totalitarianism, then we first have to consider its absence.
The first modern war was the American Civil War, which saw mass slaughter on an industrial scale. In one day at Antietam, more Americans were killed in battle than in all future wars up to and including D-Day combined. There was trench warfare, there were battling ironclads, there was the precursor of the machine gun; yet the Civil War produced no dystopian fiction. Why this might be is not altogether clear, but my feeling is that America was not philosophically prepared for the patterns of thought that produced dystopias. What underlies most dystopias is the idea of an authoritarian body – the state, the military, a corporation – conspiring to rob the individual of rights, of identity or of worth. But in America at the time of the Civil War transcendentalism still held sway, a philosophy that proclaimed the inherent goodness of people and of nature, and that the institution could not long stand in majesty over the self-reliance of the individual. The popular response to the Civil War, therefore, was largely sentimental: shock at the scale of the slaughter, mourning for the individuals lost, a rash of ghost stories in which those individuals returned. But though the war was seen as an aberration in the natural goodness of the world, there was no perception of the state as a giant machine crushing the individual.
Five years after the end of the Civil War another war in Europe produced another shock to the system. The Franco-Prussian War, and the events of the Paris Commune that followed it, changed the world order. The unification of Germany under the imperial rule of Prussia ushered a new military power onto the world stage, threatening the existing Great Powers of Britain, France and Russia that had maintained the peace in Europe since the defeat of Napoleon. And the German Kaiser was portrayed as exactly the sort of autocrat whose inhuman monstrosity spelled doom for the individual. Allied propaganda during the First World War, which showed German soldiers bayonetting babies, for instance, made Germany out to be the soul-crushing military machine typically found in dystopias. Yet, again, there were no dystopias.
This case is actually more subtle and more interesting than the American Civil War, because what German unification did result in was a mass of invasion stories, typified by George T. Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking. Such stories remained immensely popular right up to the First World War (When William Came by Saki appeared in November 1913). And their popularity was not confined to Britain; variations on the invasion story appeared in France, America (where the threat was sometimes of British invasion), and even in Germany. Such stories are not strictly speaking dystopias, though they might be considered precursors to dystopias, or at least to that branch of dystopia in which Hitler won the Second World War. What they are, rather, is propaganda, a sustained call for increased military spending, for compulsory military service, for rearmament, or for any other plan the author might have to increase readiness for a war that would in time come to seem inevitable. As such they play a small but not insignificant part in the arms race that characterised the years leading up to the First World War.
Such invasion stories fed directly into both science fiction and spy fiction; The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells and The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers both emerged from and in response to the invasion story. Their part in the development of the dystopia is less immediate and less overt.
Two further events were needed for the emergence of the dystopia: the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
The First World War destroyed faith in a way that the American Civil War did not. Yes, there was an explosion in spiritualism immediately after the war, a hunger for contact with the dead, but this was not a spiritual renewal. Every family in Britain, France, Germany and much of the rest of Europe had been directly affected by the war. So many men were killed that the old social order could not be restored. The First World War put women into the workforce, and gave them the vote; it ended the power of the landed gentry, since there was no longer the workforce available to sustain their estates; it generated discontent with the political system that had resulted in the war, and hence gave rise other political forces, notably fascism and communism. The breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires brought disorder and unrest to Central Europe and the Middle East, storing up conflicts that would not be long in emerging. In the immediate aftermath of the war there was an economic boom that made the 1920s into a decade-long party; but the economic consequences of the war festered long and resulted in the collapse of the 1930s.
The First World War was not an aberration in the natural world order, it was an evil, a moral, political and social wrong, and someone had to be to blame. Everyone laid the blame on a different group: Jews or bankers, governments or the people, aristocrats or hidden conspiracies. How the blame was apportioned didn’t matter, what mattered was that people were now able to think in terms of powerful secretive cabals running the world according to some hidden agenda, while you and I and everyone else was simply a cog in their machine. When you remember that this image found direct expression in such dystopian films as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis it is clear that somewhere in the aftermath of the war and the revolution the impression had arisen that the worth of the working man had been devalued by those in power. They had been fed into the machine of war, and now they were being fed into the machine of industry.
Anti-utopias had used grotesque images to poke fun at the world, but now the world itself had become grotesque and it was not fun any more. The response, perhaps the only possible response, was to transform the anti-utopia into a form that reflected the sense of helplessness in the face of the horrors unleashed by the modern world.
The second and more immediate trigger of dystopias was the Russian Revolution, out of which emerged the first significant dystopia: We by Yevgeny Zamiatin. The Revolution was itself a response to the chaos of the First World War, but the nobility of its stated aims, equality for all, was belied by its use of civil war and terror. Moreover, it did not take long before it was apparent that equality was to be achieved not by elevating the individual, but by crushing individuality into a dull uniformity. This is reflected in Zamiatin’s novel, in which the protagonist, a number not a name, is subjected to constant state surveillance, and when the power of love generates some individuality in him it is forcibly removed by the greater power of the state.
That We was the model for all future dystopias is almost literally the case. When the manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West, one of the first reviews of the book was written by George Orwell. And he, of course, re-used the plot of We in his own dystopian novel about the power of the state to crush the individual, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Echoes of We resurface also in the great American dystopia of the same period, One by David Karp.
The all-powerful state was not necessarily communist, of course. Another version of the soul-crushing faceless state is encountered, for instance, in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which perhaps stands as a hybrid between dystopia and absurdist anti-utopia. Nevertheless, the all-powerful and dehumanising state, characterised in Orwell’s terms as a boot stamping on a human face forever, did tend to reflect a fear of and antipathy towards communism in many of the dystopias from the middle years of the 20th century. Later, in the same way that utopian fiction came to serve as a platform for particular ideas and movements, so dystopias were adapted for specific causes, the feminist dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance. Even so, the model adopted by these later dystopias is recogniseably the same one we have found in We and Nineteen Eighty-Four, so I tend to identify them as part of the same branch of dystopia.
In contrast there is another branch of dystopian literature that started to appear a little later. The Soviet Union established a totalitarian regime of the left, one that Western governments , particularly after the Second World War, viewed with alarm. It was a world order that, if it got its way, would be all-encompassing and leave the individual no way out of its Kafkaesque coils. So this branch of dystopia tended to emphasise the helplessness of the individual in the face of the all-powerful institution. But for a while the more successful totalitarian regimes in Europe were on the right: the fascists in Italy, the Nazis in Germany, the falangists in Spain. And since the atrocities of Nazi Germany in particular were more quickly and more widely known than the Gulags of the Soviet Union, this generated its own form of dystopian fiction.
The earliest of these fascist dystopias appeared even before the Second World War, perhaps the most notable of them being Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin (originally published as by Murray Constantine). While Western governments had identified the Soviet Union as an enemy state from the moment of its inception, those same governments were still trying to appease Nazi Germany, despite Germany’s aggression, Hitler’s violent rhetoric and his overt anti-semitic attacks. In common with a number of other anti-fascist dystopias that appeared in the late-1930s, however, Swastika Night argued that Nazi Germany could not be normalised by taking Hitler at his word when he spoke of a thousand-year Reich. This dystopian state is shown to be ruthless, violent, vile in its treatment of women and minorities, but it is also shown to be crumbling from within due to its own contradictions.
Some of the communist dystopias and their ilk, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale, include suggestions that the regime within the body of the novel has subsequently collapsed. But that collapse happens outside the timespan covered by the novel; within that focus the regime is invariably monolithic, unchallenged and unchallengeable. The stories tell us about the tragedy of the individual caught within this trap; and the stories are invariably tragedies, for the individual there is no escape. The fascist dystopias, on the other hand, tend to concentrate on the fragility of the state, and though the individual caught up in it may go through torments, there is always the prospect of redemption, renewal, escape.
This distinct path in dystopian fiction became more obvious after the Second World War, when Nazi Germany had in fact been defeated, and fascist dystopias transmogrified into a form of alternate history in which Hitler won. The known interest of the Nazi High Command in the supernatural has allowed authors to make extravagant rituals central to their dystopias, the hunting of humans in The Sound of His Horn by Sarban, the terrifying Christmas ritual played out in “Weinachtsabend” by Keith Roberts, so that here an element of absurdist anti-utopia creeps back into the dystopia.
In the main what we take away from this branch of dystopian literature is how easily the Second World War might have turned out otherwise, or (in “Weinachtsabend” or in Farthing by Jo Walton) how readily British politicians would have accepted Nazi rule. But no matter how cruel and authoritarian the regime might be, it is patently not the monolith we encounter in the communist dystopias. And where there is fragility there is an opportunity for the hero, who is often portrayed as that symbol of integrity a detective, as in Farthing, SS-GB by Len Deighton, or Fatherland by Robert Harris, to uncover the secret that could bring down the whole regime, or at least rescue one person from the horrors.
What I am proposing, therefore, is that since dystopia emerged early in the 20th century as a counter-argument to utopia, two main strands of dystopian literature have developed. There are, undoubtedly, other individual dystopias that do not fit fully or easily into either of these patterns, but for now I think that the two strands I have identified are dominant.
In the one that I have characterised as “communist dystopia” the focus is upon the tragedy of the helpless individual in the face of an all-powerful entity. This entity may be, and usually is, a government, though it could as easily be a corporation, as in The Circle by Dave Eggers. Generally, though not always, there is no way out for the individual, to be an individual is to be a victim in the face of what the modern world has wrought.
The other strand, which I have characterised as “fascist dystopia”, offers the hope of heroism, the chance of escape, because what we see here is that the institution is never as all-powerful as it pretends to be. The very brutality of the regime is liable to be exaggerated simply because it is disguising a fatal flaw, as for instance in Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood, and those who survive the brutality, or find a way to circumvent it, may also find a way to exploit the weakness. Inevitably, as dystopian scenarios have been adopted for Young Adult fiction such as The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, it is this strand of dystopia that has been chosen, because it allows the focus to be not on the horrors of the regime but on the heroism of those who find a way to subvert or escape it. Where, in communist dystopias, to be an individual is to be hopeless, in fascist dystopias, and particularly in the YA variants on the theme, to be an individual is to represent hope.