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Read 'Em And Weep: The Rise Of Dystopian Fiction

Posted 07.11.16  - Culture

Turnbull & Asser's Artist and Architect AW16 collection tells of an alternative past in the fictional land of Mundania, a place where all forms of individual expression are closely monitored and conformity is seen as the key element to maintaining law and order. In keeping with the season's relationship with dystopia, George Pendle explores where apocalyptic literature first began.

Fictional posters for T&A's AW16 collection, 'The Artist and the Architect', depicting the make-believe land of Mundania.

In 1516, Sir Thomas More published a book entitled Utopia. It told the story of a perfect imaginary island on which there is no crime or poverty. Such an island was not meant to be believable - the book's Latin title literally means 'no place' - but, exactly 500 years later, such utopias are rarely found in literature - let alone in real life. By contrast, their opposites - dystopias - seem to be everywhere.

Besant’s The Revolt of Man told of the disastrous consequences should women ever rule over men… it was written when the suffragettes were fighting for women's right to vote.

Dystopian tales began to appear in magazines at the end of the 19th century, when writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells countered their popular visions of man's scientific accomplishments - trips to the moon, aerial flight - with darker, more ambiguous tales. It was an era of great technological and social upheaval, and the first dystopian stories often dealt with very specific fears. One of the first dystopias ever created was in The Revolt of Man by Walter Besant in 1882. It told of the disastrous consequences should women ever rule over men. It was no coincidence that the book was written at the same time that suffragettes were fighting for women's right to vote.

The trend continued. Worries about overpopulation led to a surge of stories about cannibalism, such as in Well’s novel, The Time Machine. This depicted a future in which humanity split into two groups: the refined and weak Eloi, and the subterranean race of Morlocks who prey on them. Fears of pollution and environmental collapse inspired stories about ruined and deserted cities such as Richard Jeffries 1885 classic, After London, one of the earliest examples of post-apocalyptic fiction, in which nature has reclaimed the empty Victorian metropolis. The rise of divorce led to stories foretelling the eradication of the family unit, with Wells again leading the way with The Sleeper Awakes, in which he tells of a society in which adults are hooked to “babble machines” and children are raised apart from them in giant soulless institutions.

Dystopian fiction still acts as a warning, reflecting and magnifying present worries and drawing them out to their logical, or illogical, conclusions.

However it was the rise of fascism and communism in the early 20th century that saw dystopian fiction soar in popularity. Stories such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World told of the oppression of the majority by a ruling elite and the suffocating regimentation of society. The defeat of the Axis powers in the Second World War didn't reverse this trend - in fact it seemed to spur on a new special strain of dystopian story, books such as Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle that asked 'What if Hitler had won?' But it was George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four that most perfectly distilled the essence of dystopian fiction as it exists to this day: a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, public manipulation and the persecution of independent thinking.

Why do we like to torture ourselves with these images of the world gone wrong? Why do we like to see the world tipped upside down so that, as in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, firemen do not put out fires but set fire to books? In some ways, dystopian fiction still acts as a warning, reflecting and magnifying present worries and drawing them out to their logical, or illogical, conclusions. Yet there is always a kernel of hope in these stories. No matter how grim a dystopia appears to be, it is never so bad that a rebellion cannot be attempted. And while these rebellions may be only partially successful - as in The Hunger Games- or fail miserably - as in Nineteen Eighty-Four - they suggest that, even in extremis, the human spirit will always strive to be free.

George Pendle - Writer for the Economist

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