Friday, October 21, 2022

Utopian and Dystopian Fiction

The September/October issue of StAR (Saint Austin Review) contains a short article by Manuel Alfonseca on two genres of fiction - "Utopias and Dystopias."

Alfonseca defines "utopias" as "descriptions of fictitious perfect societies," and he notes that the name comes from St. Thomas More's 1516 Utopia - a title that means "nowhere." He lists a number of works as utopian:

Republic - Plato
The City of the Sun (1602) -  Tomasso Campanella 
New Atlantis (1627) - Francis Bacon 
The Coming Race (1871) - Bulwer Lytton
Looking Backward (1888) - Edward Bellamy 
News from Nowhere (1890) - William Morris
Lost Horizon (1933) - James Hilton
Island (1962) - Aldous Huxley  

To be honest, I have only read two of these works - Utopia and Lost Horizon, I have heard of Look Backward, though I haven't read it. I haven't heard of any of the rest. But that's not surprising given that I am of a more dystopian bent.

Alfonseca actually only devotes the first paragraph to utopias; the bulk of the article deals with dystopias.   He defines "dystopias" as describing "imperfect societies that allow their author to criticize the society to which he belongs, or to predict future trends that are undesirable or frankly horrible." He notes that dystopias are more modern than utopias, and linked the proliferation of such works to a number of unsettling events in the 20th Century, specifically the global discontentment following the First World War, the communist revolution in Russia, and the Second World War. 

He lists a number of dystopias he has read, sharing observations about them:

Erewhon (1872) - Samuel Butler
Lord of the World (1907) - Robert Hugh benson
We (1921) - Yevgueni Zamyatin
Brave New World (1932) - Aldous Huxley
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) - George Orwell
One (or Escape to Nowhere) (1953 - David Karp
Fahrenheit 451 (1953) 0 Ray Bradbury
A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) - Walter M. miller Jr.
A Clockwork Orange (1962) - Anthony Burgess
Do androids dream of electric sheep? (1968) Philip K. Dick 
I am Margaret (2014) - Corinna Turner

I have read most of these dystopian works - though, I admit, I am Margaret is new to me. Indeed, in the lead up to the dystopian 2020 election I read or reread a number of them -  Lord of the World, Brave New World, Nineteen Eight-Four, Fahrenheit 451, and A Canticle for Leibowitz. 

They prepared me for what was to come!

I also agree with Alfonseca that the movie Blade Runner, based on Do androids dream of electric sheep?, is far better than the novel. 

There are many other dystopias that did not make his list in the article, which, as he noted, consisted of works that he had actually read. (The article is based on a chapter from a book he wrote, so many others may have been mentioned in the book.) The Hunger Games books by Collins, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton, and That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis come to mind. And I'm glad he left The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood off the list as it has been so twisted for political/social purposes these days.

Alfonseca observes that some people are speculating that we are getting closer to the worlds created by Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four - I would be among them. But he offers a more optimistic spin - one of which I'm sure Chesterton would approve.

"But I prefer to remember what Jesus Christ said about this: The gates of hell shall not prevail against my Church (Mt 16:18). Neither utopias nor dystopias will prevail, because man is free and can fall in sin and be redeemed."

Side note: If you have not discovered StAR yet, do check it out. It offers great, in-depth discussions of literature, art, the culture, etc., all from a classical and very Catholic perspective.

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