The History Of Literature II

September 29, 2020 Category: History

Dystopias & Utopias:

A story needn’t explicitly promote a moral message to be effective; it can simply serve as a warning…by painting an ominous picture of what MIGHT be.  This is sometimes done via speculations about a dystopian future.  During the 20th century, the genre became one of the primary ways to convey a vital message, make an important point, or teach a valuable lesson.  As with any well-crafted parable, the aim of a dystopian tale is to provoke critical thought.  Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-four”–one of the most powerful and important cautionary tales of all time (with the oft-used narrative device: “Big Brother”).

Dystopias have often been fashioned as an implicit warning: “This is what COULD happen if we’re not careful” or “This is how things will turn out if we continue down the present road.” {3}

The portrayal of a dystopian future is an admonishment in the form of parable.  Most post-apocalyptic stories serve as cautionary tales (which illustrate the consequences of imprudence).  In 1897, H.G. Wells’ inaugurated the genre with “A Story of the Days To Come”.  Since then there have been thirty dystopian novels (in English) worth noting:

  • H.G. Wells’ “When the Sleeper Wakes” (1899)
  • Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” (1907)
  • E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909)
  • Rudyard Kipling’s “As Easy As ABC” (1912)
  • Owen Gregory’s “Meccania: The Super-State” (1918)
  • Olaf Stapledon’s “Last And First Men” (1930)
  • Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1931)
  • Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935)
  • Aldous Huxley’s “Ape And Essence” (1948)
  • George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-four” (1949)
  • Isaac Asimov’s sci-fit epic “Foundation” series (starting in 1951)
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano” (1952)
  • Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man” (1953)
  • John Wyndham’s “The Chrysalids” (1955)
  • Michael Young’s tongue-in-cheek “The Rise Of The Meritocracy” (1958)
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Sirens of Titan” (1959)
  • Robert M. Miller’s “A Canticle For Leibowitz” (1960)
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” (1961)
  • Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (1965)
  • Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (1966)
  • Roger Zelazny’s “Lord of Light” (1967)
  • Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968)
  • Walker Percy’s “Love In The Ruins” (1971)
  • Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War” (1974)
  • Stephen King’s “The Lawnmower Man” (1975) {6}
  • Tanith Lee’s “Don’t Bite the Sun” (1976)
  • Stephen King’s “The Running Man” (1982)
  • Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985) {7}
  • Stephen R. Donaldson’s “The Gap Cycle” (starting in 1991)
  • Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” (1993)

More recently was Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” (2003); as well as its sequels, “The Year Of The Flood” and “MaddAddam”.  In regards to the United States, there is Omar El-Akkad’s brilliant cautionary tale, “American War” (2017). During the past generation, there has been a spate of young adult fiction based on dystopian worlds–as with “The Giver” as well as the blockbuster “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” series.

In the cyber-punk genre, there was William Gibson’s ouvre; as well as Neal Stephenson’s classic works like “Snow Crash” (1992) and “The Diamond Age” (1995). {6}

In cinema, dystopian futures have made for captivating narratives.  Notable are films like “Logan’s Run”, “Total Recall”, “Gattaca”, “Minority Report”, “In Time”, “Equilibrium”, “Elysium”, and Disney’s “WALL-E”.

Dystopian novels have not been quite as popular in other language. Already mentioned is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We”, written in 1921 (Russian). Other notable works include Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” in 1943 (German) and José Saramago’s “Blindness” in 1995 (Portuguese).

Sometimes, tales dealing with hypothetical futures don’t quite rise to the level of dystopian, yet serve as cautionary tales–as with, say, Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother” / “Homeland”.   A cautionary tale doesn’t even have to regard a possible future; it can be a satirical retrospective–as with, say, Bret Easton Ellis’ “Glamorama”. {8}

One can make a point via a utopian vision as well.  Utopias–by definition–do not exist.  They are UN-real, and so inherently allegorical.  (After all “utopia” literally means “no place”.)  The tradition emerged during the Renaissance–starting in 1516 with Thomas More’s “Utopia”.  Thereafter three notable works were published:

  • Tommaso Campanella’s “The City of the Sun” (1602)
  • Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis” (1627)
  • James Harrington’s “The Commonwealth of Oceana” (1656)

This compelling narrative strategy continued into the modern era.  Prior to the Second World War, it’s worth noting a dozen effective uses of utopia as a didactic tool:

  • Robert Owen’s “A New View Of Society” [more expository than allegorical] (1813)
  • Mary Griffith’s “Three Hundred Years Hence” (1836)
  • Étienne Cabet’s “The Voyage to Icaria” (1840)
  • Edward Bellamy’s “Equality” (1897)
  • Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s “New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future” (1889)
  • William Dean Howells’ “A Traveler from Altruria” (1892-94)
  • Alexander Bogdanov’s “Red Star” (1908)
  • Edward Mandell House’s “Philip Dru: Administrator: A Story of Tomorrow” (1912)
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Moving The Mountain” (1911) and “Herland” (1915)
  • H.G. Wells’ “Men Like Gods” (1923) and “The Shape Of Things To Come” (1933)

In 1941, as the Second World War gathered steam, Sandor Szathmari published “Kazohinia”.  Then, in 1949, following the war, Robert Graves published “Seven Days In New Crete”.  Contemporary utopias include:

  • Sheri S. Tepper’s “The Gate To Women’s Country” (1988)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy (1990’s)
  • M.T. Anderson’s “Feed” (2002)
  • Cory Doctorow’s “Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom” (2003)

Sometimes, it is difficult to discern whether a futurist tale is dealing with a utopian or dystopian vision–as with:

  • Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” (1887)
  • William Morris’ “News From Nowhere” (1890)
  • Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” trilogy (starting in 1956)
  • Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” (1966)
  • Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (1973) and “The Dispossessed” (1974)
  • Alastair Reynolds’ “Revelation Space” series (2000)

Conjecturing an alternate history is yet another way to make a point–as with:

  • Castello Holford‘s “Aristopia”
  • Philip K. Dick’s “Man In A High Castle”
  • Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”
  • Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”
  • Ben Winters’ “Underground Airlines”
  • Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”

Alternate histories can, of course, be either dystopian (a cautionary tale) or utopian (an “if only” scenario), depending on the approach the author wants to take.

A compelling narrative does not always serve as a vehicle for something laudable.  Sometimes, novels offering grand visions can be used to promote odious ideologies.  Indeed, some have highly dubious messages–as illustrated by, say, John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678), or Bernard Mandeville’s “The Fable of the Bees” (1714).  In Pilgrim’s Progress, piety was the source of all righteousness.  In the Fable of the Bees, the message was that private vice can eventually lead to the public benefit (that is: when individuals are avaricious, it ultimately bolsters the general welfare).

Tales with odious themes go back to Abraham’s willingness to murder his own son (because he was following orders).  It then continued on, through the fetishization of propriety in Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded” and “Clarissa; or, The History Of A Young Lady” (in the 1740’s).  Here are a few more examples:

  • Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s (occult, Aryan Supremacist) “Vril, The Power of the Coming Race” (1871)
  • B. F. Skinner’s (behaviorist) “Walden Two” (1948)
  • Taylor Caldwell’s (hyper-capitalist) “Devil’s Advocate” (1952)
  • Ayn Rand’s (anarcho-capitalist) “Atlas Shrugged” (1957)

This can also be done by drumming up paranoia with dystopian visions:

  • Hal Lindsey’s (Christian Millenarianist) “The Late, Great Planet Earth” (1970)
  • Jean Raspail’s (nativist) “The Camp Of The Saints” (1972)
  • Gerald James McManus’ (Aryan supremacist) “Dark Millennium” (2001)

Virtually all cult activity involves some sort of contrived telos: “If only we play our cards right, THIS is what Providence holds in store for us!  But beware; if we fail to toe the line, peril awaits!”  This gimmick has been most blatant in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Allegory is a prime tool for persuasion.  So one must wonder: What knowledge one might glean from treating the Koran–or any part of it–as a parable?  Any at all?  This is an open question.  The closest we get to parable in the Koran are the tales of “Joseph” (Surah 12) and of “The Cave” (Surah 18)…which, if they WERE meant to be allegorical, are utterly inane.  The lesson to learn from either is anyone’s guess. {5} Are we really expected to believe that those are the two greatest parables ever devised?  The pithy stories recounted in the Koran all have a single theme (the same theme, it turns out, as the Koran itself): God is great and is to be worshipped and obeyed, praised and appeased…and, above all, FEARED.

In the end, we find that some literary works are better than others; and only some have something estimable to say. In order to tell the difference, the discerning reader must bring his own critical faculties to bear.


Humans covet meaning; and–being eminently pragmatic creatures–tend to do whatever seems to work.  Since humans are also inveterate story-tellers, typically what works best involves some sort of narrative structure that imbues life with meaning.  Such a narrative must answer many existential questions:  Why is the world the way it is?  What is our place in it?  What are we [not] SUPPOSED to do / believe?  Etc.  The most pressing question, though, is: Who are we and why are we here?  To answer this, the narrative needs to provide both a causal explanation (Where did we come from?) and teleological explanation (Where are we going?  What is our purpose?)  This invariably translates to an etiology (an origin story) and an eschatology (a destination story).

A CNV has an existential dimension (it gives my life meaning / purpose) and a practical dimension (it is useful for living my life), neither of which is necessarily apprehended by the adopter.  Indeed, nobody picks the parameters of their own affinities…any more than anybody picks their own comfort zones or sexual turn-ons or aesthetic tastes or culinary preferences.

Those who are adept at weaving an enthralling yarn can commandeer the attention of large audiences.  If people like a story, then it will tend to “catch”…and “stick”.  (Therein lies the ultimate appeal of any successful religion.  This innate human proclivity is why certain narratives “catch on” and spread.

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