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dystopian literatureThis short series on dystopian literature has been a guide and little more. A longer analysis would do justice to a number of authors who deserve to be studied. The great Kurt Vonnegut offered the darkest of satire when exploring governments gone terribly wrong in Player Piano (1952), Mother Night (1961), Cat’s Cradle (1963), and Slaughter House Five (1969). Horror author Stephen King has written two apocalyptic dystopias: The Stand (1978) and Under the Dome (2009). Another horror writer, Ira Levin, wrote That Perfect Day (1970), a fair but not excellent novel generally beloved by libertarians because of its plot. In his 1979 novel, J. Neil Schulman considers how an actual fall might happen in his captivating Alongside Night. Murray Constantine’s Swastika Night (1937), Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), and Brad Linaweather’s Moon of Ice (1988) each consider the depravity as well as the pagan theology of the Nazis, especially as such things might be applied toward a larger society, perhaps even extending into the United States. David Brin, a Hugo Award and Nebula Award-winning author, wrote The Postman (1985), a tale of patriotism and the rebuilding of society after its collapse.1 Five years later, a man equally famous in science fiction circles, Gordon R. Dickson, produced a very similar novel, Wolf and Iron. Each is worth reading. S.M. Stirling has written a masterful and mystical—sometimes verging on fantasy—series, The Emberverse, about Oregon after the laws of physics warp, preventing all chemical and electrical reactions, thus rendering all modern technology obsolete… paladins and wiccans side together against a would-be Napoleon.2

Somewhat related to King’s The Stand and with many allusions to Tolkien’s Middle-earth works, though written from the perspective of orthodox Roman Catholicism, is Canadian Michael O’Brien’s “Children of the Last Days” series.3 Over six books, O’Brien explores the twentieth century and the rise of a soft, democratic despotism through the teaching of the Revelation of St. John. After a gut-wrenching novel of state-sponsored murder, eugenics, and genocide in modern-day Canada, Eclipse of the Sun, O’Brien explains his choices of events and plot points:

Although they compose a significant part of the fabric of the current social situation, we do not yet know if they are symptomatic of a larger and possibly terminal illness. Only by hindsight will we be able to know how serious a threat they posed to the right order of society, to our freedom and responsibilities. If this literary speculation is proved wrong, there will not one happier about it than I. If it is proved right, there will be no history to account what happened, to tell us who we were and what we might have been.4

In particular, he traces the life of young Jewish convert to Catholicism, Father Elijah. Elijah is rabbi, prophet, mystic, saint, and, ultimately, a man to end all men. Though many might disagree with O’Brien’s strict Catholic views on the world, it would be impossible to fault his writing abilities. He tells a gripping tale, but never by compromising his rather serious literary skills.

As of this writing, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has introduced an entirely new generation of young readers to the delightful horrors of dystopia. Indeed, Collins’s books have done for Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury what J.K. Rowling did for Tolkien and Lewis with the Harry Potter books. Collins and Rowling even share a common publisher in the U.S.: Scholastic. Just as Rowling lacks the depth of Tolkien, so Collins lacks that of Orwell. Still, her books offer a vital opening to the rising generation to experience many wonders.

It is quite amazing to see how the genre has developed. To imagine in the late 1940s that few even possessed a concept of dystopia, let alone a word to explain it, is somewhat astounding. To see how all-pervasive the term and idea became over the next seven decades is equally astonishing. It is no longer surprising to see large segments of popular culture casually discuss the notion of dystopia or to present dystopian ideas without the need to explain why or how. In motion pictures, as mentioned at the beginning of this short series, one can find movies as diverse as Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes, Dark City, The Matrix, Brazil, The Island, Batman Begins, 9, Equilibrium, Gattaca, and Children of Men; as well as TV shows such as Blake’s 7, Batman Begins, Stargate Universe, X-Files, Babylon 5, The Dead Zone, Fringe, Fast Forward and a multitude of others directly or indirectly referencing and employing the genre.

In graphic novels, Alan Moore, Frank Knight, and Paul Pope revolutionized the medium through very powerful stories such as The Dark Knight Returns (1986), The Watchmen (1986-1987), V For Vendetta (1989-1990), and Batman: Year 100 (2006).5 In the world of rock music, the rather stunning Dutch composer, Arjen Anthony Lucassen, has created an entire story—still incomplete—of a character from King Arthur’s Court: a blind minstrel, Ayreon, who travels through the universe of space and time. Thus far, Lucassen, as versatile and gifted as energetic, the Ayreon story has developed through seven rather staggering rock operas, The Final Experiment (1995), Actual Fantasy (1996), Into the Electric Castle (1998), Universal Migrator I and II (2000), The Human Equation (2004), 01011001 (2008), and The Theory of Everything (2013). The story has become so complex that Lucassen included a full-sized poster, mapping out dates and events, in his 2008 retrospective, Timeline. Throughout the course of the operas, the Dutch author comes back to the most essential questions about the nature of humanity, community, and God. Canadian rockers, Rush, have also dealt with dystopian themes in a number of their highly popular albums, including 2112 (1976), Grace Under Pressure (1984); and Clockwork Angels (2012). Indeed, 2112 has become such an important album that the very number and year 2112 is used ubiquitously (if sometimes cryptically) in almost any modern dystopia.

At their best, dystopias allow us—through the faculty of imagination—to see not only inhumanity, but the motives behind inhumanity. They allow us to understand, analyze, and warn the world of nightmares, deaths, grit, ideologies, and fundamentalisms. Through their own horrors, they might very well allow us to hold off the abyss for another generation or more.

1 As noted several times in this brief series, apocalyptic stories share much in common with dystopias, as almost every story of the apocalypse explores what happens between the fall and the end. For a series of stories by contemporary authors, see John Joseph Adams, Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse (2008; San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2012).

2 The first of the series is Dies the Fire (Roc Books, 2004).

3 O’Brien published all six books with Ignatius Press: Strangers and Sojourners; Sophia House; A Cry of Stone; Father Elijah; Plague Journal; and Eclipse of the Sun.

4 O’Brien, Eclipse of the Sun (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1998), 856.

5 Since Frank Miller’s gritty and disturbing The Dark Knight Returns (New York: DC Comics, 1986), many authors have portrayed Bruce Wayne as a conservative or libertarian bulwark against a rising Leviathan. Tellingly, in The Dark Knight Returns, an aged Clark Kent (Superman) has dedicated himself completely to protecting the interests of the United States government while Wayne has attempted to maintain order through private means only, fully embracing the role of vigilante. In a battle to the death, Wayne and Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) take on Superman. During the fight, Wayne screams at Kent: “You sold us out Clark. You gave them–the power—that should have been ours.” A few frames later, Queen shoots a kryptonite arrow into Kent, yelling, “God-d— fascist sons of bitches.”

This essay is part of a series on dystopian literature. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Nicely argued. After all, good literature should diagnose and advise. Like you, I see Young Adult literature warning of that which might be inspiring thought and a love of reading.

  2. “This short series on dystopian literature has been a guide and little more. A longer analysis would do justice to a number of authors who deserve to be studied.”

    Brad, PLEASE, do the longer. Make it a book.

  3. You have an interesting point about dystopian literature only emerging in the ash heap of the Great Depression and multiplying after WW2 and the A-Bomb. It seems there are horrors that are unimaginable– until they are at our doorstep.

    Doesn’t our present society borrow and readily pass off some of the outrageous super-alienations, from Huxley and Orwell?

  4. David, over time, I certainly will! Thank you. At the moment, I’m starting a longish piece on the Catholic Apocalypse of Justin Cronin’s THE PASSAGE. Tom and Mike. Thanks for the good words!

  5. Ya missed the entire cyberpunk genre made famous by William Gibson. None darker or grittier, I’d say, and drenched in near-future technology as well as near-future misery.

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