Tuesday 4 October 2016

Utopia Lost

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 climate.

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 character is.

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.

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