More than any other dystopia, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four concentrates on its hero’s psychological state and his efforts to reveal the truth of the superstate in which he lives. Orwell’s meticulous attention to the engineering of reality and the digesting of the individual into the political entity makes this the definitive dystopia of post-Stalinist authoritarian power. The novel is divided into three books that cover, respectively, Winston Smith’s rebellion under the grind of daily life in Oceania, his love affair with Julia, and his incarceration, torture and erasure. The story is basically a struggle for truth, love and liberty where these are criminal. Gradually, through reflection, experience, and a “successful love affair,” Winston discovers the nature of his oppressor and briefly steals the freedoms that make life worth living, acknowledging from his first crime against the state, writing in a journal, that he is a “dead man.”
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In 1950, when Fahrenheit 451 first appeared as “The Fireman” in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, television was fast becoming a ubiquitous feature of the American home. The big three commercial television networks (NBC, ABC, CBS) had just connected their cables coast to coast. Soap operas, talk shows, sitcoms and game shows were piped into nearly every household all day long. A country of postwar housewives did their ironing to As the World Turns, while their hubbies worked the white-collar jobs of the burgeoning middle class. The freeway network of Southern California, where Ray Bradbury lived, had commenced construction. And the Korean War, launched that year, was one in a series of wars of which most Americans were only dimly aware. Such was the present that Ray Bradbury logically extended into the “insane world” of this classic dystopia.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1947 novel Bend Sinister doesn’t focus on class war, a projected future or the awakening of an individual under authoritarian rule. It follows an exceptional man’s loss of all that makes his life worth living. Though the book’s protagonist, Adam Krug, is finally crushed by the stupidity and brutality of a police state, the narrative concentrates on his psychic condition, with little attention given to class or politics beyond a farcical sketch of the political ideology and rise to power of the dictator Paduk. If there is any dystopian element here, it’s the ultimate destruction of the hero, a profoundly intelligent, conscientious and cultivated man, under the barbarous and pseudo-efficient regime that seizes his nation.
Sinclair Lewis wrote this political satire of American exceptionalism in the early 1930s, when one in four Americans were out of work and the complacent assumptions he’d ridiculed in Babbitt were rasped away by real poverty. What most Americans assumed couldn’t happen on the economic front had happened, and even more had happened in Germany, Italy and Russia, with the rise of nationalist totalitarian regimes. So Lewis aimed his satire at the smug assumption of the American politician and parochial patriot that a despotic, militant, nationalist tyrant and, consequently, organized atrocity, were foreign, or only possible elsewhere.
H.G. Wells originally published When the Sleeper Awakes in 1898 as a serial in The Graphic, an illustrated London newspaper. In his preface to the 1910 edition, The Sleeper Awakes, he expressed disappointment with the book, claiming that it was hastily composed and overwrought and that he was badly in need of a vacation at the time. He also claimed that in editing the original he did not rewrite it, as what concerned him at the age of thirty-one no longer did at forty-three. So he cut out some of the fat and reworked the latter part of the book to give it more thoroughness and depth. What has come down to us in this 2003 Modern Library edition, When the Sleeper Wakes, is not one of Wells’ better novels but a template dystopia containing both accurate and inaccurate forecasts, as well as the fundamental dystopian elements of class war and awakening consciousness under authoritarian rule.
Jack London’s political dystopia, The Iron Heel, published in 1905, is not so fantastic as it is relevant, not so prophetic as it is cogent. The question the novel leaves you with, in this age of unprecedented income inequality, conservative-libertarian populism, corporate propaganda fronts and political puppetry, is why the country has not gone down the path that London took it almost a hundred years ago. Why, with our increasingly vast poverty, waning middle class, wealth stratification beyond levels since those seen before the Great Depression and legislators thrall to powerful corporate and industrial interests, hasn’t the republic degenerated into the modern oligarchy as portrayed in this book?
Yergeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We is not the first dystopian novel. There was The Iron Heel (1905) by Jack London and The Sleeper Awakes (1910) by H.G Wells, Russian translations of which Zamyatin edited. It is, however, regarded as “the archetype of the modern dystopia”—or so says the back cover of my Penguin Classics, 1993, Clarence Brown edition. We is fundamentally a political satire of the nightmare of total control. Its dreamlike scene shifts, fantastic imagery and atmosphere of confusion and apprehension set it apart from those earlier novels. And it introduces what have become standard dystopian themes: rule by authoritarian rationalism, hyperbolized technological advancement, love as a catalyst of dissidence, and, as a final outcome, the crushing of that dissidence, literally, under the cast-iron hand of authority.