Dystopian Fictions As a Function of Their Times

Ever since dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction became genres, both readers and critics alike have debated the predictive qualities of such texts. In hindsight, they sometimes seem to prophesy the future with eerie accuracy, like the “parlor walls” from Fahrenheit 451, which are oddly similar to today’s ever-present televisions. However, while it’s certainly tempting to draw parallels between past dystopias and present reality, the fact is that such fiction can only really offer commentary and critiques on its own time.

This becomes readily apparent if you compare different works of dystopian fiction to the times they were written in. Throughout the semester we’ve read several works of dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic fiction written during different eras. For example, Brave New World, which was originally published in 1932, reflects the concerns of the time. The novel followed on the heels of the rise of the middle class and the emergence of leisure time in the United States and explores how these changes could affect society. Obviously, in contemporary society we still have differentiated social classes and a plenty of leisure time (more, in fact, then they had “back in the day”). As a result, it can seem like Aldous Huxley was speaking to our time as well as his own, and make it easy to forget that he was not trying to predict the future in his seminal dystopian work.

To demonstrate how dystopian fictions are products of their time, consider two more recent works: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, published in 2003, and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, published in 2010. While Oryx and Crake seems like a relatively recent book in comparison to Brave New World, it went to print before many technological changes rocked the modern world. For instance, Facebook wasn’t founded until the next year in 2004, and social media in general had yet to become a cultural phenomenon. Instead, Atwood’s work focuses on the perils of genetically modifying organisms. Given that there were several big developments in the U.S. in genetically modified organisms in the 1990s and early 2000s, it makes sense that Atwood chose to explore this in her dystopia. Likewise, coming in 2010 — long after social media had become popular and technology had become integrated into our everyday lives — it was logical for Super Sad True Love Story to be a futuristic satire exploring the effects such advancements could have.

However, this does not mean that in a couple decades American society will suddenly turn into that of Oryx and Crake or Super Sad True Love Story (or a mash-up of both). Dystopian fictions extrapolate from their own times into the future in order to offer commentary on what is, not necessarily what might be. While they fictional world they create may seem to match the real-world future, all too often this a case of seeing what you’re looking for, rather than what’s actually there.

— Kara Sherrer


~ by ksherrer on April 13, 2014.

One Response to “Dystopian Fictions As a Function of Their Times”

  1. I slightly disagree with your statement, “However, while it’s certainly tempting to draw parallels between past dystopias and present reality, the fact is that such fiction can only really offer commentary and critiques on its own time.” Although you’re slightly correct, I believe despite being written in critique of a different time period, dystopias can have a lot to add to a dialogue about a current time period outside of the one it was written addressing. I believe dystopias in a sense are timeless, because they focus on “what if?” and that question is never answered.

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