Home > Apocalypse, Film/Literature, Politico > DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: 1984 and the Literature of Future Doom

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: 1984 and the Literature of Future Doom


Dystopia and Escape

Some science fiction writers would argue that humankind in the future is far more likely to destroy itself altogether than it is to colonize the solar system, much less the stars. Problems such as nuclear warfare, overpopulation, and pollution of the environment are much closer to the reality of the future than a technology that will take us away from earth. They would further argue that humankind, unable to solve its problems on earth, would have no better chance of solving them in another star system.

In short, not all SF writers are scientific optimists, and their pessimism shows up in many forms, the best established being the dystopia.

The dystopia is the opposite of the utopia. The term utopia (which, in Latin, means “nowhere”) comes from Sir (and now Saint) Thomas More’s work of that title, Utopia (1516). His fictional land of Utopia, set on an island far removed from his native England, is an ideally organized society that allows for maximum human happiness. The point of his story, though, isn’t to suggest that humankind can build that perfect world. He makes, instead, a critical point. By comparing his world of sixteenth century England to an ideal one, readers become aware of ways in which they could improve their world. This is the general pattern of utopian literature written before and after More’s work.

Dystopia As Prophecy

The dystopia (sometimes called “anti-utopia”) is the worst possible world humankind can envision, and typically it is set in the future. It has the same critical intent of the utopia. By looking at how bad things can become, we look to the present to take corrective action in order to prevent those projected ills from coming about.

The dystopian mode is often considered the most prestigious form of SF, probably because its ideas are, in the opinion of some readers, more serious and relevant than the ideas in the usual run of SF. It is certainly the case that mainstream talents, when they write SF, most often chose the dystopian mode in which to work. For example, neither George Orwell (author of 1984) nor Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World) is considered an SF writer (at least they didn’t consider themselves SF writers), but each wrote a dystopian work. Although mainstream talents tend to write dystopias when they chose to write SF, standard SF writers also write dystopian literature. C. M. Kornbluth“s “The Marching Morons” (1951), Fritz Leiber‘s “Coming Attractions” (1950), and Harlan Ellison‘s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967) are excellent exercises in the dystopian mode.

ORWELL’S 1984 Dystopia

The “worst possible world” that we have chosen to concentrate on here is Orwell’s 1984. An interesting side issue concerning 1984 is the fact that mainstream critics are reluctant to place it in the category of SF. They point out that Orwell drew on only a few of the SF conventions in order to build his story, and had little interest in SF as such. (1984 is, in fact, one of the rare instances in which Orwell used SF conventions. Although Animal Farm has a displaced setting, Orwell does not attempt to make the story scientifically plausible.) SF fans, though, suspect that mainstream critics consider 1984 too good to be SF.

Whatever, 1984 doesn’t bank much on technological hardware. The one technological innovation that is in the novel–the telescreens—aren’t necessary for the premise of the story. That is, 1984 as a vision of a totalitarian future could have been worked out without a technological premise. If it is SF, it isn’t hard SF of the Vernian kind.

Instead, Orwell deals with social and behavioral sciences, sciences that are human- centered. Orwell shows us the people of the future in their social, psychological, linguistic, and political dimensions. We see people forced into new social relationships, psychologically conditioned to think differently, taught a new use of the language (Newspeak), and controlled by an evolved form of totalitarian government. Finally, the novel is about the use of political power, and the threat that the misuse of power holds for the individual.

A social pyramid of the book Nineteen Eighty-F...

In focusing on human-centered issues, Orwell shows us a new perspective on the technological applications of science (at least science as we’ve seen it in SF). That is, optimistic SF has shown science leading the way as humankind conquers the galaxy. In 1984, we see that science is in the hands of the people who hold political power. “Science” does not save Winston Smith; It is just one more tool that the Party can use to mold him to its will.

1984 has come and gone, and Orwell’s projections have not literally happened. Others argue that Orwell’s projections have come about, but in a figurative sense rather than a literal sense. Orwell himself probably had no precise timetable for his projections. He came by the title by transposing the last two numbers of 1948, the year during which he worked on the novel.

But if we take his title as a literal prediction, we might note that what he projected for 36 years into the future (from 1948 to 1984), when compared with what had happened in the previous 36 years (from 1948 to 1912), isn’t so far-fetched. In the 36 years between 1912 and 1948, the world had seen two global wars, the rise of three totalitarian systems (Russian Communism, German Nazism, and Chinese Communism), mass annihilation of civilian populations, formation of secret police organizations, and the mechanization of warfare—these just to name some major developments. With another 36 years comparable to those 36 years, the scenario depicted in 1984 doesn’t seem so unreasonable at all.

Actually, his working title for the novel was The Last Man in Europe (meaning, we assume, that Winston Smith was the end of the line for the humane traditions of western civilization), and the decision to publish the novel as 1984 was a late one. Although the first title is in many ways more descriptive of the theme, no reader will deny that the precision of the date on when these dire events were to come about give a special punch to the story. (Although the punch might have been stronger before 1984 than after.)

But we must realize that Orwell, finally, wasn’t making predictions so much as he was giving warnings. He saw how in the post-World War II years, the Eastern Bloc countries and the Western countries were settling down for the Cold War. War hysteria was on the rise in the late forties, and many feared that once again humankind would be plunged back into warfare. Orwell shows us a horrible world that he hopes we will never let happen. Such warnings are one of the uses of dystopian fiction.


Since the 1950s we’ve seen a growing number of stories about future disasters. In several cases, the disaster stories seem similar to the dystopian fiction. Some scholars, however, argue that disaster fiction represents a whole new type of SF, one that has largely replaced the dystopias.

Disaster fiction, which predicts some untimely end or (more usually) near-end of earth, has several major categories: over-population, post-nuclear war, and ecological disruption. The over-population stories include Harry Harrison’s Make Room. Make Room (1966), John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), C.M. Kornbluth and Frederick Pohl’s Space Merchants (1953), and J.G. Ballard’s “Billenium.”

The many well-written post-nuclear warfare stories include Russell Hobby’s Riddley Walker (1982) and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957).

image by Taichi Takeuchi

The stories concerning ecological disaster are more miscellaneous and varied, as they seem to cover a host of ills that beset earth (typically in the near future). A number of these stories show humanity, greatly reduced in numbers, attempting to live without the technology to which it is accustomed. In George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949), an unknown virus kills most of the world’s population. In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), a giant meteor does the same job. In Piers Anthony’s Rings of Ice (1974), perpetual rain and world-wide flooding wipes out humankind.

In many of these stories, the title alone gives us an idea of what goes wrong: John Christopher’s The Long Winter (1962) and No Blade of Grass (1956), Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967), J.G. Ballard’s Drought, The Drowned World (1963), and The Wind from Nowhere, and Philip Wylie’s When Worlds Collide (1932)

The Meaning of Dystopia Theories

The very large number of these future mishaps invites a consideration of their meaning. Scholars have, in general, speculated that all these visions of future disasters reveal the deep uneasiness that humankind feels in the modern world. But some of the more focused theories are as follows:

Fear of science and technology. If space fiction shows humankind a way out of its predicaments, the disaster stories tell us that there is no way out.Science and technology are, after all, a devil’s bargain, and the payment has come due.

Warning against humankind’s pride. Humankind assumes that it has mastered nature. Uncontrollable disasters show us that nature still has a few tricks up her sleeve.

Warning of class conflict. Bruce Franklin, a Marxist critic, says that disaster fiction reveals the fear that the capitalistic exploiters have of the underclasses. In this interpretation, the coming disaster is the end of capitalistic exploitation.

Depth psychology. Some readers speculate that the disaster stories reflect a species death wish, a desire to be punished for inborn guilt. Although this abstraction may strike us as far above the details of most disaster SF (and pretentious besides), we should not dismiss it too quickly. J. G. Ballard, a highly respected SF writer, has stories in which the inner torment of the central character becomes projected into planetary holocaust. The external world functions as metaphor for a character’s inner world of torment.

In general, the dystopian visions and future disasters stand in opposition to the optimism of the space fiction. They represent one more direction in which SF explores the issues of the modern imagination.

Steve Anderson


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