Utopias and dystopias are reflections of their times (Iossifidis, 2017)
Utopian and dystopian fiction have a common ground in satire and that both criticize the injustice and irrationality of the existing social system. Utopia and dystopia reveal their significant difference in the relationship to the tragic vision and the divine justice that usually affects the righteous man, leaving the wicked unharmed. Why is there no justice? Why does the good man suffer? We hear the tragic hero cry as he struggles with his fate. Why are suffering and humiliation visited upon the righteous? Why is it not the wicked whom God chooses to punish or reprimand? (Gottlieb, 2001)
Acclaimed post-war dystopian realities like George Orwell’s 1984 can be summed up in the work of famous scholars like Erika Gottlieb, Raffaella Baccolini and Wong Kin Yuen. In “The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction” (2004), Baccolini advocates how utopia is maintained in dystopia, traditionally a bleak, depressing genre with no space for hope in the story, only outside the story. There is no learning, no escape. Only by considering dystopia as a warning can we as readers hope to escape such a dark future (Baccolini, 2004). In “On the edges of Spaces” (2007), Yuen proposes how dystopian novels and books functions to bring out a sense of “schizophrenic vertigo”, the setting in which the main characters are destined to seek in vain for the meaning of their lives (Yuen, 2007)
As shown, all of them, including Erika Gottlieb’s pessimistic vision, suggest how there is no escape for dystopias and even if there is, all attempts are futile.
Back in the seventies, after few decades that saw the rise of technological progress to an all-time high, a new class of dystopian fiction came into play. Ursula Le Guin, in her novel “The Dispossessed” (1974), coined the so-called ambiguous utopias. Worlds where utopia and dystopia co-existed at the same time, adding a twist on the usual and giving new life to a decaying genre. This may be seen as the first step towards more mature realities.
In addition to ambiguous dystopias, we can find examples of more sophisticated reality in critical dystopias, even though this includes a distorted, hopeful prospect rather than a no-escape scenario. Baccolini in her studies defines this form of dystopia as following: recent novels such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a world where readers and protagonists are allowed to hope: the ambiguous, open endings maintain the utopian impulse within the work. In fact, by rejecting the traditional subjugation of the individual at the end of the novel, the critical dystopia opens a space of contestation and opposition for those groups (Baccolini, 2004).
In conclusion, I want to linger on Yuen’s expression of schizophrenic vertigo back to the top of this blog post, in relation to dystopian worlds. I think this language fully encapsulates the essence of such distorted vision of such fictional universe.
Living in a vortex can easily help you lose your frivolous mind.
Baccolini, R. (2004). The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction. Modern Language Association.
Gottlieb, E. (2001). Dystopian Fiction East and West. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Iossifidis, M. (2017) Utopias and Utopianism [Contextual Studies to Imagined Worlds and Design Fiction], University of the Arts London. 16 October.
Le Guin, U. K. (1974). The dispossessed: an ambiguous Utopia. New York, Harper & Row.
Yuen, WK (2007) On the Edge of Spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and Hong Kong’s Cityscape. In Liquid Metal: the Science Fiction Film Reader.