The History of Dystopia

by Jamie Mollart, plus James Bradley talks about his new book Ghost Species

Dystopian fiction in its current form has been around for a long time. It’s been a prominent escape route from our daily life and has been a reflection of our collective fears and concerns for a couple of hundred years.

Since the events of 2020, and now 2021, have begun to make it look as if we’re actually living in a Dystopia, I’ve begun questioning what the place of Dystopian fiction is in our consciousness and whether it’s possible to cover new ground in a genre that increasingly looks like a mirror to the world, rather than a flight of fantasy.

I have a vested interest to declare here. I have a Dystopian fiction novel due to be published this summer, Kings of a Dead World, and as I’ve gone through the editing process it’s seemed more and more horribly prescient.

To understand Dystopian fiction, we need to understand its roots. Utopia, the perfect state, came before Dystopia, Sir Thomas More invented the term in 1516 and it took us quite a long time to come up with the flipside. We had to look forward to imagine a good future before our pessimism could imagine it’s opposite.

Dystopia literally means ‘unhappy country’ and was born purely to be the negative reflection of Utopia. The first recorded public usage of the word was in the House of Commons in 1868, when John Stuart Mill said, ‘it is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians.

The truth is people like the black and white of extremes, think right back to the Garden of Eden and Hell, so we needed to build a Utopia in order to define a Dystopia.

It was, however, authors who took control of the word and rooted it in our lexicon. Jack London’s Iron Heel’ and Yevgeny Zamyatins ‘We’ were front runners and there’s no coincidence that they book-ended the First World War.

Dystopian fiction is almost always fired by global events - World Wars, Pandemics, the War on Terror -  all of them have seen a boom in popularity of stories about the end of the world.

So, what is it that makes people enjoy Dystopia from a psychological point of view?

Some of it can be put down to simple Schadenfreude; the sense of taking pleasure from other people’s misfortune. In a very unpleasant, basic way human beings are wired to find satisfaction in other people’s problems, if it’s happening to them it’s not happening to us.

But we also have a morbid fascination in disaster. We see it in the slowing of traffic on a motorway to view a crash, in the obsession with reality TV shows and in the obsessive hitting of the refresh button on news about Covid-19. It’s a kind of group rubbernecking, and if it’s at a distance and removed we can observe it and take lessons without suffering the pain.

There’s no doubt people like to psychologically prepare for real disasters by taking a dry run and Dystopian fiction plays into this beautifully. It acts as a dress rehearsal for potential horrors.

We live in a world, which pandemic excluded, is the safest it’s ever been. Max Roser, an economist at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford University says “We live in a much more peaceful and inclusive world than our ancestors of the past. The news is very much focused on singular events. All of these trends that I’m looking at are slow changes that happen over decades, or sometimes even centuries. These developments never have a ‘now’ moment that would make them interesting for news that is following current events.’

Murder rates are down globally, poverty is down globally, there is more readily available democracy than ever before, people are working less hard than ever before, there is more economic success and education than at any point in our history, technological advances are happening at an unprecedented rate.

And yet all of this comes at a price.

For a lot of people, myself included, awareness of the Climate Crisis is a constant chatter in their subconscious, and with it a sense of an impending reckoning where we will be faced with the consequences of the way we’ve played fast and loose with the world.

One of the problems with understanding Climate Change is that it can easily be seen as an issue that is too big for one person to have an impact on and so a modern Dystopia serves as a clean slate, wiping away everything that we’ve done to the world without having to imagine the steps in between. It is a shorthand way of jumping to the end of the story and enabling us to consider consequences without having to live through the horror that will get us there.

Equally an imagined Dystopian world can help us cope with a perceived stressful reality in the same way that horror movies do. It enables us to explore our worst fears in a way that isn’t immediately threatening, and this is exciting. It engages our fight and flight mechanism, kicks in the adrenaline, but in a controlled way. We can walk away from it safely and then consider what we’ve seen. It’s part of our way of coping with the rigours of the world.

Because we’re human beings though, forewarned is not always forearmed. We have a collective self destructive nature, an ability to ignore the bigger picture, and politically we work in a cyclical nature, you just need to look at American President’s approach to climate change to see this on a relatively short time scale.

Writing in the Guardian, Obama said ‘During the course of my presidency, I made climate change a top priority, because I believe that, for all the challenges that we face, this is the one that will define the contours of this century more dramatically perhaps than the others. No nation, whether it’s large or small, rich or poor, will be immune from the impacts of climate change. We are already experiencing it in America, where some cities are seeing floods on sunny days, where wildfire seasons are longer and more dangerous, where in our arctic state, Alaska, we’re seeing rapidly eroding shorelines, and glaciers receding at a pace unseen in modern times.’

Trump’s attitude to Climate Change is the opposite, at once extreme and startling: “Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee - I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!” and “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Then, four years later I’m writing this as Biden is about to be inaugurated, and the news is reporting that he will undo up to 17 of Trump's executive orders on day one of his presidency.

According to Paul Bledsoe, climate adviser to Bill Clinton’s White House, “Day one, Biden will rejoin Paris, regulate methane emissions and continue taking many other aggressive executive climate actions in the opening days and weeks of his presidency.’

There’s a microcosm of human behaviour here playing out in the role of the leader of the world’s biggest polluter. Human attitudes change in a cyclical nature and Dystopian fiction by necessity changes with them. In its role to discuss our worst fears it changes along with the geopolitical and socio economic landscape it reflects.

Here and now in 2021 we’re faced with the worst health crisis in a century, huge swathes of the globe are in lockdown, hospitals are filling up and economic disaster is piling up around the world. To all intents and purposes we feel like we could be living out the plot of a Dystopian novel. If anyone has watched Twelve Monkeys recently it suddenly doesn’t seem so fantastical. What has personally surprised me is that even in the midst of all this horror, our desire to delve into Dystopia hasn’t waned. For weeks at the start of the first lockdown Outbreak was trending on Netflix.

If Dystopian fiction is a mirror to our current concerns and a practice run for imagined horrors, then Covid-19 has served to bring our long standing relationship with the genre into sharp focus. Waterstones have reported a surge of sales of The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984 and Brave New World during lockdown, whilst online sales of Stephen King’s The Stand increased by 163% in the first week of March last year.

So are we living in a Dystopia now? The answer is no and the reason being a subtle but important distinction.

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Margaret Attwood, the grand dame of modern Dystopia and author of The Handmaid’s Tale, said “a Dystopia, technically, is an arranged unpleasant society that you don’t want to be living in. This one was not arranged. So people may be making arrangements that aren’t too pleasant, but it’s not a deliberate totalitarianism. It’s not a deliberate arrangement.”

What we are doing though is living through a time when we are as close in living memory to something that reminds us of the potential of Dystopian fiction and this affects us on a deep level.

The last living UK veteran of World War 1 died in 2009, The Spanish Flu and World War 2 will soon be out of living memory, Covid-19 is a worldwide trauma which is forcing us to look again at our collective fears, and with that comes a desire to delve back into Dystopia.

Speaking more broadly you have to ask is Covid-19 going to help us learn our lessons and lead to a more Utopian culture?

I truly hope so, but history tells us this hope is unfortunately probably unfounded. As discussed, Dystopia is a mirror to our fears, so it will always hold an important place in our culture until we agree on Utopia. (An aim which appears contrary to human nature.)

Dystopia holds a unique position in the literary canon because it speaks to us on a primal level and answers deep needs within the human psyche.

As the challenges the human race faces change so too will the Dystopian fiction that it consumes.

And this is why it will always be relevant. Until we fix the flaws in our species’s nature there will always be new ground for Dystopian fiction to cover.

You can learn more about Kings of a Dead World here.

Jamie Mollart runs his own advertising company, and has won awards for marketing. Over the years he has been widely published in magazines, been a guest on some well-respected podcasts and blogs, and Patrick Neate called him ‘quite a writer’ on the Book Slam podcast. He is married and lives in Leicestershire with his family. His debut novel, The Zoo, was on the Amazon Rising Stars 2015 list. His second novel, Kings of a Dead World will be published on June 10 2021.


New Release

James Bradley, author of the critically acclaimed climate fiction novel Clade, is publishing a new adult science fiction novel this week in the UK, Ghost Species. Lauren James talks to him about his career in climate fiction.

Tell us about Ghost Species.

Ghost Species begins with the creation of a Neanderthal child as part of a secret project in the Tasmanian wilderness, and then imagines the childhood and adolescence of the child – Eve – against the backdrop of hastening climate collapse. It’s about extinction and de-extinction, the boundaries between the human and the non-human, and what love means in the face of impossible grief.

How are the climate politics/science in this book different from your first climate fiction title, Clade, which was published 5 years ago? What drew you back to the topic?

In a lot of ways Ghost Species is a companion book to Clade, and shares many of its concerns. But it’s also a more intimate book, and in a lot of ways, both more despairing and more focussed on what it will take to survive coming decades and what that survival might mean. That’s partly because a result of what was going on in my life while I was writing it – I began it just after my father died, and my mother died just before it was published – but it’s also because I think the tenor of the conversation around the climate crisis has changed over recent years, and the knowledge we’re careening towards catastrophe has become harder to avoid. So in one sense the book is very much about that sense of imminent disaster, about trying to give shape to ideas of collapse and catastrophe and inevitability, and what it might be like to live through that. But it’s also about the bonds of love and care and communality that sustain us, the questions of justice that underpin them, and what we need to hold onto to survive in the world that’s bearing down on us.

What kind of research did you do when writing it, beyond knowledge you already had? How do you keep up to date on the latest climate news – do you subscribe to any specific media sources?

I suppose that like a lot of people who are interested in environmental questions I spend a lot of time reading news reports and articles in newspapers that take climate issues seriously, but because I write so much non-fiction I also often find myself talking to scientists  about their work (which is always a wonderful experience) and reading more technical material in scientific journals and various official reports. That tends to be a bit brain-breaking (and always makes me wish I had some formal scientific training) but it really does force you to get to grips with the research.

Obviously some of that sort of research went into Ghost Species – I read a lot about Neanderthals, for instance – but I always treat the science as a starting point rather than a straitjacket. That’s partly because I don’t think it’s what readers are there for – certainly in Ghost Species the de-extinction stuff is deliberately very lightly sketched – but it’s also because I don’t think fiction’s function is to lecture or educate, it’s to create worlds and ways of seeing and understanding. For me that usually means creating a version of the future that feels plausible, but isn’t necessarily entirely constrained by the facts (in Ghost Species, for instance, there’s an ice sheet collapse, but it happens much faster than that’s likely to be in the real world). And it also means I think there’s a place for work that inhabits every point on the spectrum between rigorous scientific accuracy and complete fantasy; what matters to me isn’t accuracy, it’s that the work feels real and true and necessary.

That said, one of the things I find most disturbing about writing in the climate space is the sense that reality keeps outpacing your predictions. The final chapter of Clade depends upon something that was pure science fiction at the time I wrote it, but has since begun to happen. Likewise Ghost Species is full of fire, and smoke, and I ended up editing it in a city choked with smoke from the bushfires last summer. That collapsing of present and future, reality and imagination is extremely unsettling and uncanny.

Ghost Species includes a lot of high-concept elements like resurrecting Neanderthals, as well as being set in a future time facing the climate crisis. Do you see the representation of climate trauma as an essential element of any book set in the near-future?

Absolutely. One of the things I very much wanted Ghost Species to do was to capture something of the sense of trauma and dislocation that’s so much a part of the experience of being alive right now. In order to do that I tried to write in a way that erased the boundary between me and the work, and between the work and the world, so it made the experience of environmental and social breakdown tangible. That meant processing a lot of very personal and very intimate stuff straight into the text, but it also let me make a whole lot of connections between very personal forms of grief and larger, more planetary forms of grief.

Are there any elements of the climate issue which you rarely see represented in the climate fiction you read, which you’d love to see discussed more?

I often worry about the fact writing about climate skews so White, Western and middle-class, especially when the worst impacts of climate crisis are going to be felt by poor people and people of colour. The solution to that is greater diversity at every level of the process, but we need to be reading more work by Indigenous writers, and writers from communities in the Global South and elsewhere who are on the forefront of both climate change and the fight against the forces driving it. I also want to see more work that inhabits the lived reality of climate crisis, and the way it touches our lives already, rather than treating it as a specific subject to be tackled: we’re way past the point where it should be regarded a trope or a genre; instead it’s a tangible condition, like modernity, and should be part of everything we write and think.

Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

“For months now the news has been about West Antarctica, the possibility the ice sheet has reached a critical point, but as she calls up the news she sees the story has moved rapidly in the hours she has been away, and the sheet really is collapsing. And when she sleeps she dreams of shifting ice, the yaw and tectonic creak of it, the way it slithers down into the waiting ocean, dark as grief.”

Can you talk a little about the differences between your climate fiction and non-fiction? How do you personally feel about the formats – and are you trying to achieve different things with them both? What message do you hope readers will take away from your work?

I think like a lot of people who write both fiction and non-fiction, the two processes are interconnected, so I often use non-fiction as a way to think through questions or ideas connected to the fiction I’m writing. But they’re also very different processes, and seem to me to come from quite different places. For me at least, fiction is a very intuitive process, a way of capturing and communicating emotion and certain kinds of awareness that aren’t easily expressed in other ways, and of making various sorts of connections. As a result it’s perfectly suited to capturing the feeling of being alive right now, the weirdness and dissonance and confusion of our moment, and of helping us approach and process grief and trauma.

Good non-fiction can do some of that as well, but it’s also better at argument and ideas and, because the timelines are so much shorter, tends to be more immediate in its concerns. For me that immediacy is definitely part of the appeal of non-fiction, because it allows you to actually intervene, by bringing some information or perspective to people in a very direct way. Write well about the plight of the oceans, or about the need to accept the reality of climate change, or the inner lives of fish, or Australia’s lost oyster reefs, and there’s a chance you might actually change people’s perspectives or behaviours. Obviously fiction can do those things as well, but it works differently, and at deeper levels, so its results are often slower and less tangible. But that’s also its strength, because it shows us things we can’t see any other way, and alters us in ways we can’t predict.

James Bradley is the author of four novels: the critically acclaimed climate change narrative, Clade (Hamish Hamilton 2015), The Resurrectionist (Picador 2006), which explores the murky world of underground anatomists in Victorian England and was featured as one of Richard and Judy’s Summer Reads in 2008; The Deep Field (Sceptre 1999), which is set in the near future and tells the story of a love affair between a photographer and a blind palaeontologist; and Wrack (Vintage 1997) about the search for a semi-mythical Portuguese wreck. He has also written a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus, the novella, Beauty’s Sister, and edited The Penguin Book of the Ocean and Blur, a collection of stories by young Australian writers.

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Climate News

Are you an educator, blogger or graphic designer? Would you like to get involved in climate activism as an online volunteer? The Climate Fiction Writers League is working with Jointly Earth to find activists who can volunteer some time to help the group develop further into a resource for teachers and librarians. If you would have a few hours to spare, you can help us with Outreach, Graphic and Web Design and Curriculum Development. There are lots of other opportunities on the website to work with other environmental groups if none of those are a fit for you.

How Biden is reversing Trump's assault on the environment [The Guardian]

Waiting to Address Climate Change Will Cost Trillions of Dollars [Gizmodo]

The Shift Toward Clean Cars [NY Times]

How to spot the tricks Big Oil uses to subvert action on climate change [Vox]

League member Laura Lam and University of Edinburgh evolutionary biologist Sinead Collins have launched C.Y.O.TOPIA, or Choose Your Own Topia, a YouTube series that investigates two different approaches to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to build these two versions of a future, and discover what we can do collectively to bring about a better world.

An extract from new book The New Climate War, where scientist Michael Mann explores the concept of 'soft doomism' and how it threatens vital action [Crikey]