Today’s society within Western cultures is plagued by choice, freedom and opportunity. We live in an age of instant gratification, technology helps us to live our lives with ease. People are free to worship any god, sports team, or tv series they please. Food is plentiful, every corner Golden Arches glow, or a red rooster, or sometimes green… Not to mention 24hr service and all day breakfast menus. How can people not be happy when chicken nuggets and ice cream at midnight is just a few minutes down the road?
However we do live in a time where the majority of the population is overweight, but if you aren’t fat maybe you’re anorexic or bulimic. Body image is quite an issue too, every TV advertisement, magazine cover, billboard or glass screen we see perfect toned skinny models laughing and eating a Big Mac on the beach with her equally skinny tanned friends like this is their great everyday life. Meanwhile my jeans which I saw Kylie Jenner wearing are about to pop at the seam, life is unfair. Then there’s all the diseases, illnesses, allergies, and of course the terrible C word that we all try to avoid but one day or another it will tear us or somebody else apart. So actually how can we really be happy? Depression effects over 20% of teens and suicide takes more lives annually than car accidents. How could we fix this? What’s causing it?..
BAM the dystopian or ‘speculative’ fiction was born. For as long as people have lived they’ve wondered, ‘what if this happened?’, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence they say, but is it really? Do we live in a utopia or dystopia? Writers for decades have been harnessing this natural human speculation and creating societies which challenge and provoke us. Books such as Margaret Atwood’s, ‘The Handmaids Tale‘(1985) and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ (1932) are some older classic texts which shaped the genre to what it is now. Now in a later society, younger writers are following these writers tracks and bringing back the popularity of the dystopian texts especially in young adults, with The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008) and Divergent by Veronica Roth (2011). The dystopian genre in now aimed at the younger generation, the new leaders of tomorrow, the people who will soak up the warnings and the messages to hopefully create a world which doesn’t make the same mistakes. Or they’ll just retweet their favourite parts and buy millions of dollars worth of merchandise until the trilogy is produced into a movie which then allows the writer, director and actors to live a fantastic life of fame and fortune.
One of the earlier books of the dystopian genre was Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. His text portrayed a controversial and highly exaggerated society which was based upon genetic engineering and sex. He used satire and hyperbole to criticise the society he depicted and the ideologies that is was based upon.The world state motto being ‘Community, Identity, Stability’, and ‘everybody belongs to everybody else’. People were no longer born, the idea its self of a mother and father described as pornographic. Instead people were mass produced in test tubes and conditioned from birth to be happy and serve purposeful lives in the society. Much like Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood, and again seen in modern dystopian texts such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. The citizens of the societies are categorised often using colour symbolically, into different groups which serve different purposes, either to work on farms or factories or live a higher lifestyle in a more privileged way. The system in Brave New World is the same, highly classed and moderated. Based on physical and mental ability (which is determined before creation) people are categorised into Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons. Each conditioned to their jobs and lifestyles they will live.
“They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides, they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta” – The Elementary Class Conditioning
Huxley’s world he created was one which shocked people of this time and criticised many scientist and psychologist who were working on similar theories, such as Freud, Pavlov and Marx, who he alluded to through the manipulation of names in the characters. Sexuality and the advancement of technology are concepts which are evidently still issues present in our society today and modern dystopian fiction acknowledge this too. As readers from over 50 years later the ideas that then seemed absolutely ridiculous and impossible and now closer to plausible. Genetic engineering has created clones and god knows what else behind the locked doors and security passes, without the ethics regulations in place would this society be a reality? Sex is another concept that in our society today is so prominent, monogamy is a belief held still by only a few. Divorced and remarried with children to another lover has become a norm. Tv has naturalised sexuality and every song on the radio is describing sex, are we really that different to Bernard or Lenina ?, The two main characters of Brave New World, neither antagonist nor protagonists; they merely exist in the world. Maybe Huxley was onto something after all.
So then there’s Atwoods Handmaids Tale, set in an ‘alternate’ 1980s. Here woman are marginalised and objectified for their ability to reproduce. Men hold all power in a totalitarian style patriarchy society, based upon the extreme teachings of the bible.
” Behold my maid Bilhah, go in into her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her”
This is what the whole book is based upon, extreme Christian teachings of the bible act as laws, these religious undertones and allusions continue throughout the novel. Imagine guys in uniform standing around with guns watching the Handmaids or ‘commanders sex slaves’ dressed in their red full length dresses with big white collars, as to see any skin or face would be a terribly atrocious thing to do. The women are constantly being dehumanised through physical and emotional violence, treated like animals and objects even the name being objectifying, ‘Offed’ a name recognising their belonging not self identity. Again colour being a motif that identifies and characterises the people like in Divergent and Brave New World.
The story is written from the point of view of Offred, a woman who once had a husband, a child, a house and freedom. Everything has been a taken from her and all she seeks is real love, affection and her old life. A technique which is common in dystopian fictions is the catastrophe that begun them, although allusive a civil war which leads to a new government leader is the event that causes this society. It also alludes to the issues of infertility and women choosing to pursue careers instead of pop out babies. Atwood’s book challenges the idea of what if women become too independent and choose to not have families. The novel was written in a time where feminism was on the rise, the baby boom was over and people (mainly men) were panicked that the population would drop. In reality that was never going to happen, but the idea sparked a creative imagination and here we are with Handmaids Tale. The female protagonist is a technique which has also become popular in the modern fictions of The Hunger Games and Divergent, reflecting the way that woman now hold power in society. And everyone loves an underdog and unexpected hero, especially us teenagers who are going through our rebellious years where we hate adults telling us what to do all the time.
The Hunger Games reflects many ideas evident in both Handmaids Tale and Brave New World such as the strong class system and the violent totalitarian style government. The Hunger Games is set in district 12 the last on the 12 districts which surround the capitol, which is the elaborate plentiful home of the President Snow. Technology is highly advanced in the text as well as advertisement and consumerist ideas. Similar to Brave New World the class system is strict and each group serves a particular purpose. For example the main protagonist Katniss lives in the mining district 12. This is a poor and dangerous area where food is scarce and living standards are low. Katniss as we all probably are aware of through the multi million dollar movie, volunteers for her sister in the annual fight to the death or ‘Hunger Games’ which is a widely broadcasted game where teens from each district fight to the death in a symbolic act to the capitol.
The purpose is to show loyalty to the government and to honour the sacrifices that were made to create the society. As mentioned before there is usually a great war and this is no exception. Similarly to The Handmaids Tale Katniss is a resistant female hero, as is Triss from Divergent. The book in fact uses many similar techniques to The Hunger Games such as the categorisation of the society, however in Divergent it is done by personality traits, based on the idea we are all ruled by one main trait. These groups or ‘factions’ are chosen over family, “faction before blood” is an important motto in the society and binds the people to the expectations of their chosen factions. This concept of distancing the people from their families is a technique also present in Brave New World, where by scientific means of reproduction the traditional sense of family is lost, through this the government is therefore able to have more power and control of beliefs and behaviours of its citizens. This is seen most dominantly in the leading faction Erudite, which is blue and stands for the pursuit of knowledge and logic, these people run the government and include scientists or politicians basically. Next is Amity which is kindness and concentrate on agricultural pursuits, they all wear orange and reds, colours of the earth. Abnegation is the faction of selflessness and the one which Tris or Beatrice originates, this faction cares for the faction less or people who do not conform to the society and act as political aids, they wear grey clothing which is modest reflecting their role. “But she must hide that beauty in Abnegation” Another faction which promotes honesty, is Candor who wear black and white. This faction acts as lawyers and mediators for law enforcement. The final faction is dauntless, this faction wears black and includes the soldiers of the society, this is the faction which Tris chooses to move into, they stand for bravery and recklessness. This class system divided by purpose and identified by colour is very similar to Brave New
Also mimicking Huxleys work ( SPOILER ALERT) Tris dies tragically in the final book as does John the Savage in the end, where he takes his own life. A strong comparison between modern dystopias and the ones of the past are firstly they are generally in a trilogy, but also The Hunger Games and Divergent both fight the system in rebellion to change their situations, but in both Brave New World and The Handmaids Tale the characters live passive lives of unhappiness in a society they feel wrong in and the endings are left to the imagination, neither societies are changed due to the heroic acts of the characters, unlike newer texts.
In all these novels there is themes evident in our society and can be related to our everyday lives as readers of today’s society. The genre itself demonstrates an important part of human nature, our ability to wonder what if, and continue to develop and expand. Our systems of government, religion, individual roles and identity are all basic themes which create a dystopia and reoccur in each one of these texts. We can all go to the movies now and drool over Four taking off his shirt or cry when Peeta almost dies. But we don’t always see the original stories for the messages they are portraying, the issues present in our society now or in the time of publishment that the authors are warning us about. Even when looking at the older novels and recognising why they were written, the influences of then and comparing them to the ones we face now. Dystopias are a genre that will continue to develop and be rewritten over and over to continuously criticise and challenge the societies which we live in. So before you buy your Hunger Games bed sheets and watch the movies on repeat with your hair in a side braid, read the book and see what the writer is trying to challenge, its not always government control and morals, it might just be the consumerist ideas and lack of individuality you just bought into.
Overview on Handmaids Tale
Overview on Divergent
Overview on Hunger Games
Overview on Brave New World