Reflections on Dystopia Now

by Amy Butt

I must confess to a certain trepidation in the run-up to the Dystopia Now symposium at the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck. When so much of my real and virtual life seems dominated by voices keen to correlate the current political state of the world with the darkest moments of dystopian fiction, dwelling in the ‘now’ of dystopia felt like an all too common occurrence. But stepping into the sunlight-strewn Keynes Library seemed to have generated an atmosphere of renewed resolve in those attending: a desire to create a space outside of those immediate and all too pressing concerns, to step back momentarily and re-appraise the critical and constructive potential within dystopian visions, before rejoining the fray. You may have to forgive my professional bias as an architect, but this theme of a place for dystopia, both within genre studies or in wider political discourse, appeared to be a critical point of reflection for many of the speakers.

Caroline Edwards' keynote talk which commenced the day steadfastly dismissed this siren call of the ‘Now’, to situate our consideration of techno-modernity and the apparent dystopias therein in the wider historical context of dystopian and utopian fiction. Edwards demonstrated, by tracing the attitude towards of techno-modernity from Wells to Atwood, that just as the word ‘utopia’ was coined as a term of criticism in parliamentary debate, the role of dystopian literature is as an ongoing process of critique. As Edwards drew on H.G. Wells’ reference to dystopia as ‘shadows of light thrown by darkness’ [i], the importance of contextual framing came to the fore. This framing was considered both within the literary text and within the spaces of dystopia in the novels, drawing on Moylan and Baccolini’s definitions of dystopia [ii] to identify how the appendices of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Iron Heel and Nineteen Eighty-Four transform the reading of these apparently foreclosed dystopian visions. Within the novels themselves, Edwards noted that while the dystopian visions of mathematical progress as realized in the panopticism of Zamyatin’s glass walled One State or the breeding vats of Brave New World seem to foreclose any alternative outcomes for purely technological development, these are not reasons to dismiss techno-modernity. As Edwards stated, there may be ’room to live inside that set of visions’, if these novels are considered as a set of boundaries, a framing device which defines the edges of dystopia from all sides.

This appreciation of the framing of the text was also dwelt upon by Nick Hubble when considering Iain M. Banks’ novella State of The Art in relation to the narrative of Use of Weapons. Part of Hubble’s consideration of patriarchy in the work of Orwell, Banks and Alderman, this framing established the work of Banks' fictional Special Circumstances unit as ‘Culture fairytales’, a means to engage with repressed violent tendencies and traumatic memory in a way which can be repacked as useful to social progress. Thus, Banks’ Culture safely contains the dystopian horror by subsuming it, bounding it on all sides with the perfection of a post-scarcity society. Conversely, the dystopia of The Sea and the Summer, as addressed by Hollie Johnson in her paper on anthropocentric hubris, attempts to convey the notion of dystopia without bounds. In The Drowning Towers, as it was known on publication in the US, the value of freedom is set against the social demand for awareness of climate change. Johnson’s analysis of the polyphonic narrative techniques employed within the novel charted the challenge of expressing a pervasive issue such as climate change within the framing of first-person narrative. Here the critical impact of climate change fiction necessitated a form of writing which conveyed the boundless scale of the dystopian vision.

This concern for the edges of dystopia was continued in the paper by Sarah Lohmann. Her consideration of novels such as Les Guerilleres, Herland, The Female Man and The Wanderground traced the different approaches towards violence in feminist science fiction through its deployment as an inherently masculine trait. The utopian potential of a boundary condition was identified though the segregationist communities of The Wanderground and Herland, which rely upon a physical separation and isolation from men to establish a non-violent space. As Lohmann pointed out, these novels were not advocating such separation, rather they were creating a clear space within which they could explore alternative forms of power relations. Thus, the mountain ranges of Herland allow Gilman to put the issues of violence to one side along with the rest of the world, to focus on what is left in its absence, while in The Wanderground this segregation is enforced by the land itself, which dampens the impulse and ability to commit acts of violence in any form outside the City. These are utopias which are spatially defined and discretely bounded, albeit incarcerated by the existence of the framing reality. The relationship to the boundary was also a critical focus of my own paper, which considered the depiction of high-rise towers in both J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. In the face of the rapid proliferation of vertical urbanism the close reading of these novels together allows for the re-appraisal of the social impact of high-rise towers. Rather than focusing on height, it is the ability of a tower to integrate and connect to its context which emerges as the critical factor. By looking closely at the wall of the tower of 2140, the continual maintenance work which is required to hold back the rising sea level becomes apparent and establishes this boundary as a site of mutual intersection between the built and the environmental, rather than a site of division.

Adam Welstead’s reflection on Rupert Thomson’s Divided Kingdom also centered on the boundary condition, considering the social role of divisions established in the novel on the basis of the four ‘humours’ of Hippocrates. These are deployed to instill a sense of identity and establish peace in a divided future UK, and the social divisiveness created by these boundaries diffuses wider social or political activism. But, Welstead noted, there are those ‘marooned between the old kingdom and the new’, unable to ascertain their singular identity and thus forced to wander in-between. While this reading of Divided Kingdom addresses the role of the inhabitants who exist between dystopian states, Christina Brennan’s analysis of Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles looked at the novel’s exclusion of sub-prime mortgage holders from dystopian finance fiction. In tracing dystopian narratives which center on mass foreclosure, Brennan demonstrated the omission of the predominant victims of the financial downturn and the implicit discrimination in identifying the middle-class as the dispossessed. Between them, these papers questioned what it is to be ‘at home’ in dystopia, to be represented and recognized and for that recognition to be reflected in the landscape or architecture of society.

This association between identity and place was further developed in Fiona Martinez’s paper on love in The Stone Gods. Martinez outlined the overlapping narrative techniques of the novel, one of which is the spatial conflation of a new love and a new planet so that the discussions of a tryst are interwoven with the details of terraforming. This need to establish a new home in order to establish or validate identity was discussed in relation to segregationist utopias presented by Lohmann, as absconding from dystopian reality into a the space of a new future. Asami Nakamura’s paper on the politics of nostalgia also confronted this notion of ‘home’. As part of a wider appraisal of the gendering of loss and lack, Nakamura discussed how the term ‘nostalgia’ had originally referred to the loss of home, before being transformed into a reference to the past as a place that cannot be visited. Between them, these papers reframed the space of home as something perennially out of reach, either as a new planet or a lost moment, and in doing so they highlighted the risk that the novels' protagonists continually face outwards and fail to redress the continuing spatial inequalities of the societies they currently inhabit.

This dulling of dystopian critique was addressed by Sean Donnelly in his paper on Young Adult post-feminist utopias. He examined how the trilogies of The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Uglies, present societies where the absence of discourse about gender equality and the apparently powerful role of female characters without explicit reference to their femaleness is taken as evidence that gender issues have been overcome. This critique of apparently post-feminist fiction was further developed by Heather McKnight in her paper on narratives of motherhood where the roles of leading women across a broad range of TV sf were examined through the distinct roles of the mother, martyr or cyborg. While ongoing feminist struggles are obscured by these apparently post-feminist dystopias, such thoughtful readings of roles and contextual framing serves to draw out previously obscured social commentary. In The Hunger Games for example Donnelly noted that the districts can be read as a social hierarchy, from the plantation-proxy of District 11 to the excesses of the Capitol. In this way, the spatial configuration undercuts the worker/elite dichotomy presented in the narrative, and hints at a more nuanced appreciation of spatial privilege.

Mark Bould’s concluding keynote dwelt directly with this critical question of dystopia's utility in prompting social transformation. Firstly, Bould asked whether the visions depicted in contemporary dystopian fiction and film are different enough from our own present to prompt the juxtaposition that is so critical to Suvin’s definition of sf as a literature of cognitive estrangement [iii]. Bould then examined District 9 as an example of blockbuster dystopian sf, following Hannah Arendt’s indictment of everyday thoughtlessness [iv] to critique the inability of this film to produce anything significantly different to our existing present, and certainly far from the alternative future its premise suggested. This was situated in a wider analysis of the blockbuster dystopia as a product and the framing of dystopia as a commodity, drawing on Jameson to ask whether dystopia as a consumer good isolates us from the more agonizing dilemmas posed by every concrete existence of the other [v]. In the face of this all-pervasive vision of free-market totalitarianism, Bould drew on the hopeful reflections of Fisher, and the potential for thoughtful engagement with dystopia to disrupt the everyday. Fisher’s statement that emancipatory politics ‘must always destroy the appearance of a “natural order”’ [vi] was appropriately illustrated in Bould’s presentation by this quote stencilled onto a brick wall. Wherever that wall is, these words provide an intervention in the everyday built reality; publicly visible and radically accessible they act to undermine the natural order of thoughtlessness. It demonstrated the potential for critical engagement even in overlooked spaces, a call to radicalise even these apparently blank spaces of thought.

As I stepped out into the warm evening, the concerns of reality rapidly reasserted themselves with a chorus of email alerts and overheard debates on pub corners, and the tone of quiet yet determined reflection of Dystopia Now seemed already distant. But throughout the day, the critical concern for the edges of our dystopian visions had reasserted the potential that these visions hold. They offer the hope that by thoughtfully and resolutely examining the boundaries of dystopian fiction, we can carve out an emancipatory space within our own built reality.



[i] H.G Wells, ‘Utopias’, Science Fiction Studies 9, Part 2, no. 27 (July 1982)

[ii] Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination (London: Routledge, 2003)

[iii] Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979)

[iv] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963)

[v] Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2016)

[vi] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009)


Amy Butt is an architect and lecturer.


high rise dystopia

Image by Andy Cull, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 licence.

Author: CCL

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