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Dystopias for our Times

Authored By: 
Michelle Koza, English Teacher

Every so often, I find myself teaching novels that are incredibly timely. In a time when the basic humanity of various groups is being questioned or even outright ignored, we may turn to literature to discover the consequences of such ideologies. The following novels share a sense that a social plan that ignores the fundamental truth about human dignity is doomed. But which doom we end up with is up to us: will these dystopian societies fail against the glow of the human spirit, or will we bargain away our shot at fulfillment for mere contentment, or even base survival? These novels ask these deep questions for our times:

1984: In this classic dystopia, George Orwell warns us about tyrannical governments whose only purpose is to be a boot crushing a face for all of eternity. In this society, surveillance is universal through a two-way screen that is in every home. Today’s smartphones make for a startling update on the telescreens which, instead of being in everyone’s living rooms, are in all of our pockets, tracking our every move, and our every communication. Perhaps it is time to ask how much of our power we have given away for the sake of convenience. In these divisive times, when everything uttered on the Internet is never erased, how soon until the thought police come knocking on our doors?

Brave New World: At first, Aldous Huxley’s novel may seem less frightening than Orwell’s, but it is the anodyne nature of this society that makes it most chilling. This is a society of consumers who are used to instant gratification, who will pass up all manner of true fulfillment for the surface pleasures of soma and the feelies. There is no thought police here, but none is necessary. Most members of this society are incapable of dissent, as they have been so mollified by the comforts of a technologically advanced, industrialized culture. They wouldn’t want to trade their world of instant gratification for the existential crises that come with deep consideration of the human condition.

The Handmaid’s Tale: In a time when xenophobic remarks against religious and ethnic minorities are de rigueur in a presidential election, and when candidates pander to particularly stringent and fundamentalist versions of Christianity, this novel takes on a new sense of urgency. Published in the mid 1980’s, Margaret Atwood’s novel imagines a world where the “Children of Ham” have been shipped away from America proper, and marriage has become so traditional that we are sent back to the Old Testament, where barren wives are supplemented with fecund concubines. Importantly, the chain of events that leads to the establishment of the Gilead society begins with attacks blamed on “Islamic fanatics.”

Bonus round:

Idiocracy: This film by Mike Judge (of Beavis and Butthead fame, as well as the cult classic Office Space) wonders what happens when all human institutions are governed by idiots. In this bracing satire, the ignorant have out-reproduced the educated and have run roughshod over American society. New generations benefit from the technological advances of the past but are incapable of innovation themselves. They have become complacent. Like Idiocracy, our society is awash in advertising, and marketing slogans have become aphorisms. Are we, too, poised to elect a reality show star to the highest office in the land?

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