Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Books

The end is nigh? What our future looks like ... according to dystopian fiction

The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, is the latest in a long line of dystopian fiction, but how often have we heeded the dire warnings of these writers, asks David Barnett - and how often have we found ourselves within the nightmarish visions they have predicted?

No control: A scene from TV's The Handmaid’s Tale
No control: A scene from TV's The Handmaid’s Tale
John Hurt in Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell (1948) . The classic piece of dystopian fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four has become a watchword for the all-powerful, omniscient surveillance state envisaged as Airstrip One by Orwell in the years after the Second World War. Its ever-present leader, Big Brother, gave his name to a voyeuristic TV show where the masses watched disparate individuals incarcerated together and only released at the whim of the public who tuned in to watch them every day. That sounds like something from the novel, but obviously it's real life.

Nineteen Eighty-Four's totalitarian state controlled everything down to people's thoughts, where history is constantly revised to reflect ever-changing politics and diplomacy; where war is constantly waged - by the Ministry of Peace - against and beside constantly shifting allies and enemies; where grim, mass-market pornography is churned out to keep the workers mollified; where everyone is constantly watched by a network of screens and cameras and nothing is ever private. It's a place where if you bombard someone with enough propaganda - and, failing that, torture them - then they will believe anything, even that two plus two equals five.

The parallels with our lives are so obvious as to hardly require explanation. We are watched wherever we go by CCTV cameras. Reading this on a phone or laptop? Someone might well be watching you through the camera. And how much information does Facebook hold on you, exactly?

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins (2008)

Two sequels followed, and, of course, a massive movie franchise which veered towards action, thrills and adventure. But there's a lot in the original book to pick through as America becomes a deeply divided nation, with the downtrodden proles of the outer districts digging coal and growing food to service the louche, rich, metropolitan elite in the Capitol.

Plenty there to provide relevance for modern times, but the central concept of The Hunger Games, in which unwilling participants have to fight to the death to win a life of luxury and comfort, all before the greedy gaze of the Capitol's denizens, conflates the last days of Rome with our contemporary obsession with increasingly cruel and emotionally brutal reality TV game shows.

The Drowned World - JG Ballard (1962)

You'd think when a literary giant of the quality of JG Ballard was writing about climate change almost 60 years ago, we might have taken it a bit more seriously before now. Ballard's future world posited an America dotted with tropical lagoons and a flooded, abandoned London.

It might be said that The Drowned World is more apocalyptic fiction than dystopian - dystopia suggests a totalitarian society like Orwell's, sections of society beaten down and oppressed. But The Drowned World is no Mad Max wasteland; there is nominal society, still. Society that allowed the cataclysm to happen, just as we appear to be allowing it to happen to us right now.

Last year the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a stark warning: we have 12 years to save the planet. A dozen years to ensure that global warming does not rise about 1.5C. Beyond that, even half a degree, and we'll see widespread flooding, droughts, poverty, extremes of heat and cold, and massive displacement of people.

Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood (2003)

The Handmaid's Tale author turned her attention in the years after the millennium to a different sort of future, one that examined our relationship with science, what we could do with it, and just how far we were prepared to go.

Oryx and Crake is about what happens when science is not only unfettered by human conscience, but driven by profit-hungry corporations, specifically in the fields of genetic modification. Why have a chicken that runs around being stupid when you can breed one with no brain and lots and lots of breast meat? What would happen if all those old jokes were brought to life and you crossed a wolf with a dog? What if you spliced a pig and a human so you could have an endless supply of spare organs such as hearts and kidneys?

It's a complex novel, that deals with complex issues. Science is indeed making great strides today towards those very goals. Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, for example, 'grew' a heart from stem cells - which, we would think, is a good thing. But as Atwood tells us, what hurtling scientific progress needs is someone to look up from the microscope now and again and say, "Yes, we can do this... but should we?"

The Death of Grass - John Christopher (1956)

Christopher was an English science fiction author who went on to write the young adult series The Tripods, but The Death of Grass (adapted for film as No Blade of Grass) was a much darker affair.

Again, it's more apocalyptic than straight dystopian, but does offer us some interesting parallels with modern life. A virus that attacks rice crops devastates east Asia, causing a huge famine. When a strain of it is found in the UK, the government develops and deploys a new pesticide, which has the unfortunate result of mutating the virus and causes it to destroy not just rice crops but also barley and wheat, plunging the country into anarchy.

There are some interesting and quite terrifying scenarios within the book. One is how governments take a sledgehammer to crack a nut - rather than breeding virus-resistant crops, they make a pesticide that worsens the situation. And as society gets out of control and the virus rages across the country, the officials draw up plans to drop hydrogen bombs on the major cities. Fanciful beyond belief, of course ... until you remember it was just last week that Trump was talking about throwing nukes at hurricanes.

Also chilling is the speed with which the country devolves into savagery as the government's lack of preparedness means food, water and power rapidly run out.

The Children of Men - PD James (1992)

In the middle of the 20th century, science fiction envisaged a future where the world was plagued by overpopulation, no doubt as a result of the post-Second World War baby boom.

More famous as a crime writer, PD James delved into dystopian fiction in 1992 by going in the other direction and envisaging not a populating boom but a 'baby bust' as rampaging infertility means the human race will probably die out not with a bang, but a whimper.

Last year, The Lancet published its annual Global Burden of Disease study which showed that out of 195 nations across the world, 91 of them now have fertility rates "below replacement levels" - which means that more people are dying than are being born. The 2018 worldwide fertility rate was 2.4 births per woman, down from around five in the 1960s.

The Machine Stops - EM Forster (1909)

A rare excursion into dystopian fiction from the author of A Room with a View and Howard's End. Some unspecified disaster means humanity has taken to living below the surface of the Earth. They live largely alone, in tiny apartments, and all their physical needs are met by the Machine, which provides food and water and keeps the lights on. Humanity's social needs are met by the Machine as well, in a rather astonishing prediction of the internet and social media.

Each human is connected via the Machine and encouraged to discuss and promote "ideas", none of them the result of original thinking. Eventually, the humans forget they were the ones who created the Machine, and venerate it as a god.

They become fearful of those who are still interested to go outside and investigate the Earth's surface, suspicious of those who talk of connecting with nature. Anyone who questions or distrusts the Machine is threatened with "homelessness" - expulsion from the network.

And just in case those parallels aren't enough for you, the people are strongly encouraged to "like" what the strangers they connect with say to them on the system. Tweet that, why don't you.

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

The children of an isolated boarding school learn that they are clones, bred purely to be farmed for organs for sick 'real' humans, ultimately dying young as their bodies are harvested to the point of exhaustion.

Clones have been a staple of science fiction for decades, but have never been as close to reality as they are now. In October 2018, it was announced that twin girls born in China were thought to be the world's first gene-edited babies.

The girls were born via IVF but the embryos' DNA was genetically manipulated via the use of Crispr technology - in this case, to modify genes to give resistance to the HIV virus.

There has been widespread international disquiet and criticism of the process, with doubt cast on whether the experiment was actually carried out or, conversely, suspicions that more modification might have been made in other tests.

Either way, that particular genie is either out of the bottle, or very close to it, which could bring Ishiguro's vision of bodies custom-bred to provide spare organs much nearer reality.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph