Dystopia

May 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

‘Dystopia’ according to Apple’s browser, Safari, is not a word. I beg to differ, in fact, it’s an entire genre of fiction. The word is best described as being the opposite of a ‘utopia’, and while plenty of novels have been written with horrible conditions for the protagonist, they are not always dystopic. There is a requirement that the society itself must be awful, not just the protagonist’s situation. Most of these books (as books are the original format) take place in the future, often technology is used as a means of control over the citizens residing in the society, and usually the protagonist ends up rising against the rules of the society. Besides that, the rest of the details can vary greatly, with creative methods for control, including drugs as a means of sedative, altering of history and so forth.

Probably the most famous dystopic novel would be George Orwell’s 1984, which I’m sure many people read in high school. Have you ever seen the awful film version they made? In second place for popularity would be Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Interestingly, Huxley later wrote a book called The Island, which is his opposing utopic novel, of course misery sells better than happiness, so no one ever talks about that book. For Huxley, drugs played a heavy role in society, in Brave New World, the people used them as a way to numb them from pain, to subdued and sedate, but in The Island, the people used them to emphasize pleasure, not to escape. Huxley in interviews was very outspoken about his approval of mind-altering drugs such as LSD, which at the time was still in its early testing stages.

My favourite dystopic novel would have to be Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written years before Brave New World, which at times is uncannily similar, although Huxley denied ever hearing of the book, much less reading it. The characters are well-developed, perhaps one of the weakest points of dystopic tales is a lack of deep character development, possibly because so much effort is focused on the description of the society, but this is not a problem at all in We, which balances all of the elements of a great story with ease and the urgency of Zamyatin’s predictions, some of which were disturbingly accurate.

In the realm of film, most dystopic features have grandiouse ideals and usually fall flat, but to their credit, how can you possibly visualize the physical elements of these societies? In a book the reader can imagine the buildings and machinery, but a movie requires a set and often these sets are cheesy (Logan’s Run, anyone?) What isn’t excusable is again, bad character development; you don’t need a great set for that. Blame the script. However, through the slog of sub-par films emerge a few greats. I give you Brazil! Terry Gilliam, best known as the animator of the giant foot for Monty Python and director of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in the 80s directed, over the course of a few rough years, this cinematic masterpiece, which balances humour, fantasy and horror. The Criterion Collection recently re-released the epic in all it’s glory. For an interesting read about the various versions and the studio battle Gilliam faced check that out here.

By the way, Dystopia is also the album title of Australian electro/new wave rockers, Midnight Juggernauts.

I know I’ve missed plenty of excellent books and films, steeped in the genre, but I can only cover so much here! It’s a decent start though… and with summer semester starting tomorrow somehow dystopia seemed like an appropriate subject to tackle

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