Whose Dystopia Is It Anyway?

We throw the word around a lot, but the dystopic is in the eye of the beholder.

Collage of dystopian novels: 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Brave New World.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Dystopia is everywhere. No longer just a narrative form in the vein of 1984 or Soylent Green, the very word is seeping into our daily news and culture, invoked as readily in the pubs of London as the checkpoints of Gaza. Far from “an imagined … society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic,” dystopia is now used to describe Facebook, Brexit, biometric data, militancy, antibiotic resistance, and HQ Trivia.

A 2017 article in the Nation summed up a great deal of liberal feelings about the current political climate: “With the election of an uber-narcissist incapable of distinguishing between fact and fantasy, all the dystopian nightmares that had gathered like storm clouds on the horizon—nuclear war, climate change, a clash of civilizations—suddenly moved overhead.”

Of course, the Western political and economic upheavals of the past few years are about as dystopian as a party balloon next to the reality of life in, say, North Korea, whose government sums up the rights of its citizens with a simple phrase—“One for all and all for one”—better known in the West for a book that is probably not discussed much in Pyongyang. Like Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany before it, the totalitarian oppression of the DPRK feels so remote that it becomes almost pantomime. The hysterical weeping of party officials at the death of Kim Jong-il and the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s defector brother, with the killers allegedly told it was part of a “prank” show, feel closer to fiction than fact—stories to be marvelled at, rather than profound human truths. Propaganda and history collide, blurring the lines between fiction and reality; as these lines move, so does our cultural understanding of dystopia.

Perhaps the sci-fi anthology show Black Mirror has been a catalyst for shifting the definition of dystopia away from Mad Max–esque cannibals and dehydration to a new conversation of insecurity, intrusiveness, horror, and internalized, personal calamity. Here, dystopia becomes an everyday experience in which the promises of freedom, equality, and basic human rights are corrupted by the very structures we have built to empower us. Your digital assistant is a torture device; your aspirations to be a good parent destroy lives; your cartoonish satire is the tyranny of tomorrow.

Yet historically speaking, we’ve never had it so good. We beat smallpox and polio is on the verge of eradication, solar power grows in leaps and bounds, and humans have never been richer or lived longer. As for the internet! The advent of mobile data gives us more knowledge and power in our hand than the crew of the Enterprise could have dreamed of. The world is awesome.

Why, then, has dystopia started to drift from the cataclysmic into the discourse of our daily lives?

Key to this conversation is a look at the meaning of dystopia’s glowing opposite, utopia. Books such as Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (an adaptation of which is now in its second season on Hulu) don’t build worlds of dust storms or bloodsucking fiends. The violence of Atwood’s Gilead happens on our cultural doorstep, and both the victims and the perpetrators are human beings with human needs. Gilead is a utopia to its male masters—the culmination of a biblical dream. From the Soviet revolution of 1917—which gave women the vote three years before the USA, and 27 years before France—to the cultural subversion of communes into cults, the only thing more sinister than dystopia is the utopia that becomes something else.

The 21st century didn’t promise us roses and sunflowers, but it began on a wave of optimism verging on hubris. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, written just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, captured a sense of where the future lay—in liberal democracy, peace, and wealth. Nearly 30 years later, both it and other works glorifying Western triumph, such as the deeply flawed Why the West Has Won by Victor Davis Hanson, look almost as strange to a modern eye as weeping North Korean politniks do. Whatever great leaps forward we’ve had, the cultural perception of the 21st century has been less of the triumph of technology than one of war and global stagnation—with recent psychology suggesting we are drawn to negative news.

Yet this is the decade where we lowered the Curiosity Rover onto Mars using a goddamn rocket ship suspended above a world 34 million miles away. We can communicate with people on the other side of the world, yet now we also find ourselves struggling to answer the question: Whose utopia are we aspiring to? The rise of the alt-right has led to a sudden roar of racism and sexism, both the U.S. and globally. The future its followers dream of seems a nightmare to the rest of us. The Wakandan utopia of Marvel’s Black Panther is, if box-office figures may be a judge, appealing to millions, but to some its celebration of a futurist Africa is a cultural threat. In my utopia, women are free to make their own choices. Yet the freedom to do this is restricted across the world by people with convictions as passionate as my own.

Animal Farm is one of the few novels that explores how the final tyranny of its world is created, from the subversion of a utopian ideal into a dystopia that favors the select few. Black Mirror picks up on this theme and asks, What if through our utopian ideas and technologies we are creating the very opposite?

In his book Ordinary Men, the historian Christopher Browning examined how men from across 1930s Germany were transformed from harmless next-door neighbors into the Einsatzgruppen, working behind Nazi lines to murder approximately 2 million people. The conclusion he reached was depressing in its universality. These were not special men with violent tendencies. They were told that Jews were less than human, other, but more importantly, they were commanded by authority figures and pressured by the camaraderie of the unit, to kill. Our moral compass collapses with devastating speed, and it is easy to obey, and to walk into darkness.

Personal stories are always easier to grapple with than big ideas. Stalin, who arguably created one of the most dystopian societies in human history, nailed the point: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.” Genuinely alarming global trends thread through our daily lives; mass arrests of journalists and opposition activists in Turkey, the authoritarian rule of Xi Jinping, the growth of corporate power that is entirely capable of avoiding international law, the creeping disenfranchisement of voters in the U.K. and U.S.—but these trends do not make good stories. Nor do their solutions conform to the hero narrative that has come to dominate so much of early 21st-century storytelling and culture. Katniss Everdeen cannot fix shrinking ice caps with a bow and arrow; Captain America does not have a solution for obscene global inequality.

Rather than slow social slog, individualism is the rallying cry of the day, used as easily to justify racism as for any actual respect for humanity. And as we celebrate the power of lone heroes saving the day, our storytellers also give us personal, intimate tales of individuals making their own damnations. Like marketing for a charity, we don’t see the bigger picture or harsh statistics of a broken society—instead, we zoom in on the face of a single, lost child.

And of course, it works. That is the power of story, and as a new wave of dystopian narrative emerges, the individual is at the center. No longer is dystopia a hellish society, but rather a curtailing of individual agency, in which our personal utopias are denied. Big data sets us free, and damns us. Medicine empowers us, and destroys us. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Our dystopias are zooming in, told as complex, personal tales, riddled with private confusion, rather than big stories of a broken world.

This is not new. Storytelling has always drawn its power from intimacy. But perhaps, in this global age, it is important to remember that bad news is bigger than our personal, quiet dystopias. In our lives, and our stories, it can be hard to find an emotional connection to the vast, interconnected world we live in; but that imaginative leap is perhaps more important today than ever before.