Dystopia: the abyss gazes back


“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

– Big Brother, 1984 

(Contains Spoilers)

It’s not hard to imagine a dystopian setting since, to some extent, we all live in one. Be it the persecution of the Uighur Muslims in China, the curbing of women’s rights in Poland or the current global pandemic, it is easy to spot the fault lines in our system. Dystopian novels delve into these cracks as they blend reality and fiction together, forming a simulacrum of our daily lives whilst giving us the distance from which we can objectively assess them. I would describe this phenomenon as “dystopian-realism”, as these stories are all grounded in a reality of sorts.

Dystopian novels are examinations of the human soul, or in a grander sense, human society and its capacity for error. Creating and writing a dystopian setting is a game of variables and constants: the world can change, but human nature stays the same. I would like to take you on a sight-seeing tour as I discuss three of my favourite dystopian novels. 

we are drawn into how this world can function, and how it will inevitably collapse

My friends and I saw the first Hunger Games film in the cinema for my 12th birthday party. Many of us were curious as to how a book about children butchering their peers had been adapted to a film with a PG-13 rating. The answer was that our imagination did most of the legwork. The premise behind Suzanne Collin’s the Hunger Games is grisly: each year, 24 children between the ages of 12 to 18 are selected to fight to the death in an arena for the amusement of the ruling classes, and as punishment for their forefathers turning against the Capital. Revolution inevitably occurs, small-scale at first, but we see it evolve into total war by the last book in the trilogy.

It’s easy to trace the story’s Marxist roots, as the disenfranchised masses rise up against their bourgeoisie oppressors. Yet the novel is more than just a sci-fi interpretation of David versus Goliath. Collins mentioned in an interview that whilst browsing TV channels, she was struck how reality tv appeared to be mixed seamlessly with footage from the invasion of Iraq. She wanted to recreate this uncomfortable dichotomy between cruelty and amusement that exists within our media. As such, the novel’s setting of Panem is darkly fascinating, as reality television is interwoven with politics and bloody violence. We are drawn into how this world can function, and how it will inevitably collapse. 

The book also focuses on human nature. Teenage romance, altruism and the psychological horrors of violence are just some of the themes which Suzanne Collins explores. The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale is not easily forgotten. Nor is Hamish’s retreat into alcoholism as everyone he cares about is stripped away from him. Homicidal teenagers aside, the novel is a neat reflection of the human psyche in times of trouble and offers us characters with whom we can all identify. 

despite the fictional setting, there is something very recognisable about the world Orwell created

An article about dystopian novels wouldn’t be complete without George Orwell’s literary masterpiece, 1984. Following the footsteps of Animal Farm, the book scrutinises authoritarianism in all of its ugliness. Orwell depicts an alternate reality where the state is all-pervading, spying from every conceivable angle, be it from cameras or your neighbours’ children. It’s a harrowing tale, with family members turning against each other and the individual all but eradicated. I wouldn’t say I exactly “enjoyed” 1984 but just like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or P. D. James’s Children of Men, you’re not really supposed to. Instead, we bathe in the author’s vision, watching the problems in our own world amplify themselves to a breaking point. 

1984 is grounded in the very real tyranny of the Stalinist regime and is a warning about the perils of dictatorships and authoritarianism. The book’s omnipresent antagonist Big Brother is rooted in the personas of Stalin and Hitler, even sporting the former’s brush-like moustache. The protagonist’s comically British name, Winston, is also Orwell’s personal warning that authoritarian values aren’t restricted to the East and could seize western Europe too. Despite the fictional setting, there is something very recognisable about the world Orwell created (or perhaps anticipated). 

The novel, published long before the digital age, made some uncomfortable predictions about technology. It is easy to spot a symmetry between the invasiveness of Big Brother into the personal lives of his citizens, and our own acquiescence to technology firms such as Facebook and Google. The book was equally prescient of ‘fake news’, as reality is bent to the will of the state in the form of doublespeak. Perhaps these last points are why 1984 remains relevant over seventy years later.

Entertaining a far more niche audience, Carbone et Silicum is a French graphic novel written by Mathieu Bablet. It was published last year and is at this point “inspired by” rather than necessarily “inspiring”. Yet, its dystopian vision struck a chord with me. Its setting is far more insidious and subtle than those found in the previous examples – gone are the gulag archipelagos of George Orwell or Suzanne Collins. Through the watching eyes of two androids, named Carbone and Silicum, we follow the slow disintegration of human society over several centuries after the technological revolution of synthetic intelligence. Indeed, it would be difficult to call the graphic novel dystopian at the start, as humans reap the benefits that scientific development can bring; cognitive degeneration disorders are cured, and collective knowledge illuminates even the darkest recesses of society. But what goes up must inevitably come down, and overpopulation, war and anti-android pogroms plague humanity, destroying the Utopia that so many people had sought to build. 

my favourite dystopian novels are those which feel just around the corner

The relationship between our two android protagonists is poignantly human, as they gaze in childlike awe and wonder when first led out into the world. They embrace fashion, pet dogs and travel the globe like ticking off a bucket-list. They also fall prey to vice; arguing with one another and becoming dependent on dopamine enhancing experiences. They are far more human than their robotic interiors would first suggest. My favourite moment is when one of the androids observes how humans have done everything to forget their status as animals but have not yet been able to surpass it. Sometimes it takes a little bit of distance to realise the truth. It’s a powerful story. 

Establishing a Utopia is impossible, since we can never reach perfection. On the contrary, the suffering of those living in dystopias is very achievable. These stories offer bleak visions, where we find comfort only in the embers of humanity that remain. Yet still we turn the pages, transfixed by the spectacles they offer. My favourite dystopian novels are those which feel just around the corner, as if a slip of the tongue from a politician could set them into motion, bringing the words on paper to agonising life.  

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