Back in July I celebrated the 500th anniversary of Utopia by looking at a handful of Utopian novels by lgbt authors. Today we look at the opposite, at what are called dystopian novels.
As soon as people began
thinking about an earthly paradise they have also thought about the end of
civilisation. Perhaps the greatest of all dystopian literature is the New
Testament Book of Revelations. Not all dystopian fiction is as apocalyptic but
features worlds where humanity is dominated by ruthless forces, or nature
itself has made life a challenge.
The novel “Erewhon” by
Samuel Butler which I mentioned in my Utopia article was also dystopian in some
respect. The novel describes how sick and ill people are treated as criminals
and how criminals are treated as if they were ill.
The current debate on the
global environment has provided many writers with a wealth of possible futures
to explore in their novels. The nuclear winter is one such concept that has
been widely used as a means to create a dystopian world. As I wrote in “Nuclear
Winters From Mars” it was a gay astrophysicist called James B. Pollack who
helped to alert the world to the effects a nuclear war might have on the
Quite often is it war and
politics that are the basis for dystopian fiction, and we’re going to have a
look at three of them written by lgbt authors.
Angus Wilson’s 1961 novel
“The Old Men at the Zoo” originated in his own fascination with zoos and the
events during World War II when most of the animals at London Zoo were
transferred to others. Wilson’s novel contains the descent into totalitarianism
resulting from a non-nuclear European war. The zoos of Wilson’s future become
prisons for criminals who are treated as Roman Christians in the animal arena.
A lot of the characters
were based on Wilson’s contemporaries and throughout the writing process he
toned down the similarities to distance his characters from the real people.
The novel received mixed reviews, many of them saying how unlikeable the main
A totalitarian state also
features in “Kallocain” by Karin Boye. This 1940 novel may have been influenced
by either the growing power of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, perhaps even
both. Rather than use armed force and imprisonment to subjugate its population
Boye’s novel uses fear around the state’s use of drugs. The regime she devised
used a fictional drug, one which gives it name to the novel, which is invented
to detect subconscious dissident thoughts – a sort of truth drug.
Both Angus Wilson and
Karin Boye created future worlds in which the dominant force for oppression was
human power. E. M. Forster wrote a short story in 1909 which foresaw a world
where humanity is ruled by technology and machines. “The Machine Stops” echoes
the more famous “The Time Machine” in that it depicts a future where the
descendants of humanity are split between those who live above and below
ground. The lives of those underground are controlled by the omnipotent
Machine. Everyone lives in their own cell and travel is discouraged. Very few
humans have dared to escape and live on the surface because humans have lost
the ability to live by their own wits and abilities. The Machine rules
everything. This is a complete opposite of what appears in Samuel Butler’s
“Erwhon” in which all machines have been consigned to museums.
The main protagonists in
“The Machine Stops” begin to realise that the Machine is breaking down. When
the Machine finally stops society collapses and only the surface dwellers
survive to carry on the species.
All three of these
dystopian novels have been turned into television dramas. What many novels set
in the future seem to achieve is a prediction of something which actually seems
to come true. “The Machine Stops” features a method of communication which is
very much like the internet and text messaging. Can we claim that E. M. Forster
predicted the internet in his 1909 short story?
Whatever future horrors
dystopian fiction can create there are some which offer hope in the form of
escape to another planet. If that should ever become a reality where would we
go? That’s a question I’ll try to answer next time when we go Star-Gayzing.