I have heard and read more about Utopia and Dystopia lately. Before I begin on that, I would like to ask a question: What is Dystopia? The reason I ask is that the terms Dystopia (or dystopia) and dystopian are thrown around pretty readily these days. There isn't any precision in their use. It seems to me that too many people call any unpleasant future a dystopia. If Utopia is a perfectly good society, then it seems to me that Dystopia is a perfectly bad one, where there is complete order and control. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921, 1924), Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949), and the movies THX 1138 (1971) and Logan's Run (1976) are dystopian. Mad Max (1979) and The Walking Dead depict unpleasant futures, but they are not dystopian. In the futures they postulate, there is only disorder. People's lives are not controlled by an overarching State. Mad Max, The Walking Dead, and stories like them are instead post-apocalyptic. That's not to say that a post-apocalyptic story cannot also be dystopian, but if there is no order and no control, there is no dystopia. Perfect order requires a totalitarian State. Where there is no State, there can be no dystopia, unless individual people themselves impose order upon themselves and upon each other, something they are unlikely to do given that we are by our very nature free and resistant to impositions of order or attempts to control us. The current trend towards political correctness is an attempt at control of people's thoughts, words, and actions. It is essentially a movement towards totalitarianism, i.e., dystopia. It has also shown signs of succeeding.
Utopia came first of course. Although the word itself means essentially no place, utopia has come to mean a place of perfection or where government and society match some lofty ideal of what is good. The term dystopia is used in reaction to that. It's a place where government and society are perfectly bad. (As a parallel, a functional family is a good one. A dysfunctional family is a bad one.) Alternative terms for dystopia are cacotopia, kakotopia, and anti-utopia. Kakos is from the Greek, meaning bad or wicked. In Italian and in English, we have the word caca, meaning to defecate or excrement. I don't know what etymological relationship those words--kakos and caca--might have, but it brings new meaning to Robert De Niro's character Harry Tuttle in the movie Brazil (1985). Harry is a sort of ninja heating engineer who works outside the law and wastes (rim shot) two functionaries of the State by drowning them in sewage. One, played by Bob Hoskins, is named Spoor, which is of course another word for scat or droppings.
So, let's call things what they are. An unpleasant future is not necessarily dystopian. It might just be unpleasant. And, as the meaning of the word implies, Utopia does not exist. There is no such thing and there can be no such thing. (I would add, as a message to anybody who carries around in his little brain any kind of utopian scheme: quit trying to bring it about.) Utopia cannot exist for the simple reason that a perfect government or society requires that the people composing it or instituting it be perfect. How do you expect to make a perfect thing out of imperfect parts? Alternatively, Utopia imposes perfection upon imperfect people, making them, in essence, no longer human. In short, every Utopia is a Dystopia, and every person in pursuit of Utopia is, whether he realizes it or not, an incipient tyrant.
So, in 2015, the French publishing house Flammarion issued Soumission, a novel of the near future by Michel Houellebecq. Soumission may not be exactly dystopian, but it describes the run-up to what must be a dystopian society, an Islamic State that requires, by its very name, submission (the meaning of the title and roughly the meaning of the word Islam, i.e., surrender). I have written about Soumission before. Now there is a novel by a Muslim Arabic writer to match it. The novel is 2084: La fin du monde and the writer is Algerian Boualem Sansal. Mr. Sansal's book is set in a more distant future, in an overtly dystopian religious society. I have not read this book, but I'd like to give it a try. The title refers to George Orwell's dystopian novel of the twentieth century. The plot, summarized in several reviews, makes me think of Planet of the Apes (1968), a story that is definitely post-apocalyptic and vaguely dystopian.
Finally, I just happened to hear part of Science Friday today. For those who haven't heard it, Science Friday is a weekly show on public radio in which the host, Ira Flatow, discusses science, technology, and, I have to point out, merely pseudoscientific or science-like topics. (If Ira Flatow is not an atheist, he at least tolerates atheistic malarkey from his guests. He's also an unquestioning adherent to the cult of global warming. Now I find out that he is, like "Bill Nye the Science Guy," not a scientist at all but an engineer.) Today (August 26, 2016), Mr. Flatow and his guests discussed Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake as part of their SciFri Book Club series. They used the words dystopia or dystopian several times in reference to Ms. Atwood's book. I haven't read it so I can't say for sure, but Oryx and Crake sounds to me more post-apocalyptic than dystopian. I should point out that her novel from 1985, The Handmaid's Tale, is in fact dystopian, and like Boualem Sansal's book, set in a totalitarian religious society, in this case a Christian rather than a disguised Islamic society. In its form, The Handmaid's Tale is something like The Iron Heel by Jack London (1908). I should also point out that one of Ira Flatow's guests today was Annalee Newitz, who is also about to have her own dystopian novel, Autonomous, published by Tor Books.
I guess there is some irony in calling for precision (i.e., order) in the use of the term dystopian. Then again, imprecision in language, or to change the meanings of words, is one of the goals of the mind reaching for totalitarian control over people's lives. In any case, again, let's call things what they are, and let's have more dystopian fiction.
Copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley