Sabin, Paul. The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future. Yale University Press, 2013.
During the research process, I managed to come across an article that was published on January 27th by the New York Times. It is called “Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics”. This article should be a good resource for some of my peers who are interested in drawing parallels between real-life and fictional dystopias.
The article begins by talking about the recent Women’s March on Washington, which took place on January 21. Thousands upon thousands of people rallied in Washington to express their feelings about the recent presidential inauguration. According to the article, some of the protestors held up signs that expressed concerns about the United States becoming an actual dystopia. In protest primarily for women’s rights, some of these signs alluded to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.
The article argues that an increasing number of US citizens are growing uneasy about the current state of the country, and are turning to dystopian literature in response to find frightening similarities. This is evidenced by the sharp spike in book sales just after the election of Donald Trump. According to the article, books like 1984 by George Orwell and It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis gained popularity on several bestsellers’ lists. The author of the article makes use of statistics (logos) to indicate this trend.
For the next few paragraphs, the article incorporates brief snippets from several sources. These sources include reader reviews, interviews with English professors, news hosts, and novelists. By explaining the recent surge in sales and increasing interest in dystopian literature, they add credibility (ethos) to the article’s central argument.
The article also claims that “these [dystopian] stories offer moral clarity at a time when it can be difficult to keep up with… the firehouse of information and disinformation on social media” (Alter). In short, people do not know what to make of the news that is perpetuated by media outlets, and the conflicting news that is being perpetuated by the President himself.
This article could be used to enhance the argument that we are not far away from becoming a dystopia in real life. The fact that books like 1984 are seeing rises in readership is indicative of an eerie trend: that elements of a fictional dystopia have already manifested or are starting to manifest in the United States.
The article is also important to my own research project, since it reaffirms that many elements we see in dystopian literature (stratification based on race, gender, and economic status) are already reflected in society today and might only get worse.
Alter, Alexandra. “Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics”. The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 27 Jan. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/business/media/dystopian-classics-1984-animal-farm-the-handmaids-tale.html?_r=0.
For the upcoming presentation, I will be discussing the negative consequences of systemic oppression on individuals in YA dystopias. My paper is called Race, Gender, and Oppression: How Invisible Forces Affect Individual Experiences in Dystopias.
I will begin by giving a brief explanation of the term, oppression, and the argument that oppression should not be perceived as a uniform force that affects everyone in the same way. In my research, I have come up with logical and sound evidence that uniform oppression is impossible in societies that are hierarchal by nature. Throughout my presentation, I hope to topple the common misperception that everyone suffers to the same extent in dystopias.
To provide evidence for my claim, I will be analyzing several characters to demonstrate the effects of race and gender on individual experiences. I will explore how race and gender can affect a person’s standing in society and how oppression is not only a byproduct of totalitarian rule, but also a byproduct of an ingrained social hierarchy – based on race, gender, and other factors.
Specifically, for this presentation, I will draw examples from Legend, Little Brother, and The Handmaid’s Tale to examine the lives of characters who are disadvantaged by systemic oppression. In each dystopian novel, there are characters who are oppressed in different ways, depending on his or her background. For example, in Little Brother, some characters are disadvantaged by their race/ethnicity, while in The Handmaid’s Tale, female characters are subordinated and live in a society controlled by men. Legend is a foray into another type of oppression that divides characters by socioeconomic status.
After analyzing characters individually, I will then analyze characters as a group. In the second half of my presentation, I will be comparing and/or contrasting the experiences of privileged characters to those of characters who are less fortunate. I will explain why characters think and behave the way they do, and why some characters cannot afford to act as rashly as other characters. To end my presentation, I will reiterate the main points of my argument and (hopefully) leave the audience convinced.
While dystopian literature is a criticism of society, sociology is the study of society. Specifically, sociology is the study of individual experiences in relation to broader issues in society. It can be used as a tool to help us understand why dystopias are inherently problematic.
I am interested in examining dystopian fiction through a sociological perspective. I would like to explore how characters in dystopias have been molded by society, and how their actions and thoughts are driven by their experiences in predetermined (and often inflexible) social structures. I am also interested in analyzing the interactions between characters, and how those interactions might reflect norms and values of that particular society.
In my independent reading book, Legend, for example, there are divisions between the wealthy and poor, very few opportunities for economic mobility, and conflicting interests between different groups of people. The two protagonists (June and Day) are closely matched in intelligence and physical ability. However, both are positioned very differently in a society that is hierarchal and stratified. While June was sent to a prestigious college and trained under the best minds, Day was separated from his family and sent to a labor camp. In the Republic, the dystopian society in Legend, a person’s whole life is determined not by merit, but by a biased system that favors those who were born a certain way. I am interested in researching how such a system would affect characters differently, and the importance of these effects in shaping the trajectories of their lives and their views of the world.
The Ruby Sector (wealthy) vs. The Lake Sector (poverty-stricken) in Legend
Another potential area of interest is the discussion of diversity. Mainly, I am interested in exploring the roles of race, ethnicity, and gender in dystopias and how they might influence decision making. In Little Brother, the author did a good job of illustrating internal and external conflicts in relation to identity. In one chapter, the protagonist, Marcus, was upset and bewildered that his good friend, Jolu, decided to stop participating in the rebellious Xnet movement. Jolu then explained his decision as one not of cowardice, but of self-protection, one that results from being a minority. Ultimately, Marcus understood “what Jolu was saying. Whatever risk [he] ran, Jolu ran more. Whatever penalty [he’d] pay, Jolu would pay more” (Doctorow 160). I thought this was an important moment in the book that explains why certain characters behave the way they do. It also sheds light on engrained issues in society – the consequences of which are magnified and are especially prevalent in dystopias. Hopefully, after weeks of research, I can formulate a better answer to the question: What social issues are brought to the forefront through dystopian literature, and how are individual lives ultimately connected to these issues?
Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. Tor Books, 2008.
Lu, Marie. Legend. Penguin Books, 2011.
Propaganda is a powerful tool that can be used to control the populace and disseminate information. Legend (by Marie Lu) is set in the Republic, a future America that is at war with its neighbor, the Colonies. JumboTrons are a medium through which propaganda is fed to the minds of citizens. They are “scattered throughout downtown Los Angeles” and display commercials, anti-Colonies ideologies, broadcasts, and news (Lu 1).
June and Day – the two protagonists – are affected by the Republic’s dispersal of propaganda in different ways. Day is a high-profile criminal who has eluded capture for many years. One of the Republic’s top priorities is to track him down. Day is in trouble for disrupting the war effort and for exhausting the Republic’s military supplies. Although Day is “not the most dangerous criminal in the country”, he is – without question – “the most wanted” (Lu 2). For this reason, his criminal report is constantly displayed on the JumboTrons.
Day’s criminal report delivers a strong message to the people of the Republic. It is a reminder, a warning, that any act perceived to be a threat to the Republic is punishable by death. Day is living proof of what might happen to someone who rebels. Day, who is always on the run, must live in secrecy and be extra careful to hide his tracks.
Captured criminals are typically sentenced to death by firing squad. The entire execution takes place in Batalla Hall (a military stronghold) and is broadcasted live on the JumboTrons. Such broadcasts to the public are a form of mind control. They promote the belief that the aims of the Republic should align with the aims of the common people. Any dissent is immediately silenced. In this manner, individuality is lost, and perceptions of what is right and wrong are distorted.
While propaganda was used against Day, to incite action and turn the people against him, June – the heroine – is an example of a citizen who has been brainwashed by the propaganda itself. Having achieved full marks on her exams and been accepted to Drake University (an elite school) at a young age, June was indoctrinated from Day 1 that nothing is more important than national pride and winning the war.
Prior to meeting Day, June was someone who believed in the optimistic images on the JumboTrons, those that displayed “smiling children standing under a bright blue sky” and “tourists posing before the Golden Gate ruins” (Lu 1). Raised under the wing of the Republic, she was taught to support the anti-Colonies cause without ever questioning why. That is, June had been just another puppet of the Republic – but all that started to change when she began seeing through the propaganda she once believed in.
Lu, Marie. Legend. Penguin Books, 2011.
The term “dystopia” can be defined in 2 ways: as a genre and as a characterization of a fictional world. As a genre, dystopia is exploratory and speculative in nature. Hallmarks of dystopian fiction generally include the 2 R’s: Revelation and Revolt. As a characterization, dystopia has come to represent a purely imaginative world that is either 1) isolated from mainstream society, accessible by some form of travel, or 2) the actual society at large from which there is no escape.
In any literary work that has been labeled a dystopia, there are a few of the same defining qualities. The fictional world often operates under the guise of a high-functioning and orderly society. For example, in The Giver, written by Lois Lowry, there is the absence of argument, violence, conflict, and ultimately, individuality – the one characteristic that makes us inherently human. Such a society may appear to be ideal on the surface but eventually proves otherwise. Another trait of dystopian fiction is an overarching political system that exercises control and power over its inhabitants. This is especially evident in George Orwell’s 1984, which was written as a satire on the “colossal failures of totalitarian collectivism” (Claeys 108). Generally-speaking, I consider dystopian literature to be a critique on any such social, economic, or political injustice that, if not already true in some form, has the potential to become true.
As a genre, dystopia changes its meaning when combined with science fiction. Science fiction written with dystopian influences – or, another way of putting it, a dystopian novel written under the backdrop of science fiction – inherently becomes a brainchild of two genres, one that defies proper categorization. What utopia brings to science fiction is its “ability to reflect or express our hopes and fears” (Claeys 138). On a similar note, what science fiction lends to utopia “is an awareness of the effects and importance of science and technology” (Claeys 139). The two genres are not so similar as to be interchangeable, but they do share common elements, leading some books to be labeled as both.
The dystopian genre, when combined with Young Adult Literature, acquires themes familiar to a younger audience, such as love and identity. Y.A. dystopian fiction typically features adolescents navigating through the woes of growing up, while also coming to terms (or not) with the society in which they reside. Due to the harsh reality of the imperfect world they find themselves in, the characters in these novels are often exposed to violence and traumatic situations at an early age. Ultimately, a Y.A. dystopia is just as much an exploration of self as it is a critique of society – all through the lens of a coming-of-age individual.
Claeys, Gregory. “The origins of dystopia: Wells, Huxley, and Orwell.” The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 107-131. Print.
Claeys, Gregory. “Utopia, dystopia and science fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 135-153. Print.