by Caroline Edwards
Birkbeck's Centre for Contemporary Literature recently organised a one-day conference titled 'Dystopia Now,' held at the School of Arts on 26 May 2017. I was really thrilled to be asked to deliver the opening keynote for the conference, alongside Dr Mark Bould who gave the closing keynote to round off the day's talks.
My talk was titled 'Techno-modernity: how we love it, how we fear it' and considered the way in which ‘techno-modernity’ inspires a double-sided speculative response among writers: firstly, giving concrete form to our fear of the loss of modernity and/or civilisation that we find in so many post-apocalyptic narratives (like dystopias, these are enjoying an impressive renaissance just now) – this is why we love it; and, secondly, also inspires our fear of the kind of future modernity will deliver in its final, perfected incarnation – and this is why we hate it. In the spirit of Gregory Claeys’ authoritative new book, Dystopia: A Natural History (2017), I focussed on a few aspects of literary dystopianism that we can chart through some of the indicative early texts of the genre. These texts comprise what Tom Moylan and Rafaella Baccolini would term ‘the classical, or canonical, form of dystopia’ (Moylan and Baccolini 1) – as described in their influential edited collection, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination (2003) – including the utopian problem of labour (who will do the drudgery/menial work in the good society) and the solution of automation; the question of designing the good society (in techno-modernity, read here, the good city) and architectural visions of the future; the relationship between the individual subject and the utopian collective (what happens when collectivisation or community is forced or imposed upon you? What happens to privacy and individual space in these techno-modern cities? How are social units organised (families, childbearing etc.).
In the talk, I considered canonical early and proto-dystopian texts, such as E. M. Forster’s 1909 novella 'The Machine Stops,' novels that challenged late nineteenth-century monopoly capitalism, including Émile Souvestre’s The World as It Will Be ('Le monde tel qu’il sera,' 1846), Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890), and Frank Norris’ anti-railroad novel, The Octopus (1901) – which I argued might be considered proto-dystopian in their visions of oligopolistic capitalism, which offer a striking relevance for our own contemporary era of unfettered neoliberal globalisation – and more orthodox dystopias such as Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel We ('My'), Valery Bryusov’s overlooked symbolist short story 'The Republic of the Southern Cross' (Respublika iuzhnogo kresta) (1907), and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). I briefly discussed feminist anti-fascist dystopian texts of the 1930s, such as Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935), Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937). Finally, the talk concluded with a discussion of formal complexity focussing on the Appendix to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Margaret Atwood’s 'Historical Notes' at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), asking whether we might consider such narratorial frames as positing post-dystopian future times that hint at utopian optimism.
The research that informed much of the talk is based on a chapter on 'Utopian Prospects: 1900-1949' that I wrote, which is being published in Science Fiction: A Literary History, ed. Roger Luckhurst and forthcoming in August 2017 with the British Library Press.
Click below to listen to a recording of the talk:
Here are the PowerPoint slides that accompanied the keynote talk:
Click here to view the programme and speakers' abstracts from the conference.
Featured image by James Vaughan under a CC BY-NC-SA license.