Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Villain Week: Day Two (prescheduled)

Welcome to day two of Villain Week! Today's topic is:

David and Goliath: The State as the Villain in Dystopian Literature

During the month of March, I dedicated most of my reading time to books that were dystopian, apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic. This post explains my fascination for books of this nature. Today's post will discuss how I feel about the use of the state as a villain in these types of books and why it is so interesting that the heroes of these novels barely ever defeat this formidable enemy.

But first, a quote:

"'I don't talk to The Man,' Finbar scowled. 'The Man keeps me down.'
'In what way?' asked Valkyrie, genuinely puzzled.
Finbar hesitated. 'General ways,' he said at last. 'Just...general ways, keeping me down, oppressing me.'" (Skulduggery Pleasant: Dark Days by Derek Landy, p. 153)

"The Man," "G-Men," the government, the state: whatever you call it, literature really likes to make villains out of powerful leadership. Part of this is because there is a sense of inherent distrust among many people regarding their government, regardless of what country they are from. Democracies, tyrannies, oligarchies, monarchies, none are free from scrutiny and none are considered as being wholly for the people. Because of the secrecy that goes on behind closed doors and because many people do not understand how their government is run (quick, Americans, name the three branches of government and their functions), governments are seen as shadowy, corrupt places where powerful men make decisions that affect entire populations, seemingly without taking those populations into consideration.

Books like 1984, Brave New World, V for Vendetta, and countless other narratives use this fear and distrust to create what every freedom-loving person fears: states with total control that restrict freedom, limit rights, and bring their countries to the brink of ruin (or all the way in some cases) through fascist regimes that spring out of people's desire for protection and a sense of well-being. In a way, it is not the governments that are the villain; instead, it is the people who allowed those governments to take power out of fear for their safety. Once they were in control, these governments used the new-found total power invested in them by a war-weary or terrorism-wracked people to implement strict and irreversible changes that forever plunged the country into a totalitarian nightmare.

After the events of 9/11, the American people felt afraid and were willing to give up freedoms in order to ensure their protection against foreign terrorism--hence, the Patriot Act. Similarly, after Pearl Harbor, many Americans were more than willing to give up other people's freedoms (namely, Japanese-Americans who were placed in ungodly internment camps) in order to sleep more soundly at night. Due to IRA attacks in the UK, the people of England allowed countless cameras to be placed in public areas all in the hopes that their families would be protected. And in Afghanistan, after years of violence and turmoil, the Taliban was ushered into power by fearful Afghanis who desired security and stability and put all of their hopes into an organized regime that could make these things a reality. As we've seen, not all of these security measures have worked out and some of them cause more problems than they solve. This, however, is the lens through which to view the use of the state as the enemy in dystopian literature.

Arguably, the most well-known and widely-read dystopian novel is 1984. George Orwell's terrifying novel of misinformation, constant war, double-speak, and a public no better than a flock of sheep was born out of the horrors of the First and Second World Wars. Big Brother, the Party Leader of Oceania, is derived from the fascist and totalitarian leaders, such as Hitler and Mussolini, that terrorized the world of the early 20th century. Orwell played upon the fears that many people had that these types of regimes could be implemented in their own countries if they weren't ever-vigilant, a fear that politicians in the United States (namely, Joseph McCarthy) played upon in order to push the agenda of anti-Communism and to legitimize the Red Scare being propagated in the West.

The world of 1984 is one in which war is a constant factor in people's lives. Unfortunately, the enemy nation seems to always be changing as alliances shift. No one seems to realize this because the government hires people to work in the Ministry of Truth, an organization whose sole purpose is to create propaganda and to rewrite history in order to misinform the public and keep them under the thumb of Big Brother. Our hero, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth and one day his support of the regime begins to unravel, plunging him into a world where things aren't as they seem and where ideas like love and freedom abide. His journey through the revolutionary underbelly of Oceania changes him, creates in him an enemy of the state. He and his lover, Julia, try to break out of the state's control...and are cut down and re-socialized in the attempt.

Another well-known dystopian novel, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, shows us a different sort of world, one in which rampant consumerism and a desire to create a world in which people do not try to rise above their station has created a nightmare. Of course, the people living in this world don't realize that it's a nightmare. In fact, they are programmed from birth to believe that there is nothing wrong at all in their society. One of the most shocking scenes in the entire novel comes near the beginning during a tour of one of the government's facilities in which babies are created in bottles and then conditioned to live as either the elite or the proletariat. In this scene, infants from the lower classes are shown books and flowers and are encouraged to crawl towards them as fast as their little knees can carry them. When they reach out to touch the objects, however, loud alarms ring and an electric shock pulses through the floor, scaring them and making them cry. The point, we are told, is to make sure that those who are destined to be working class schmucks are supposed to be conditioned to hate literature and nature because they are not to be allowed leisure time. Instead, they are supposed to break their backs working so that those who are lucky enough to have been born into the higher classes can spend all of their time doing pretty much nothing.

Unlike 1984, there is no real impetus to create such a society. Or, at least, there's no external force working against the state. In other words, this society was created not out of fear or war but, instead, out of sheer laziness and a desire for a well-defined and unbreakable class structure. I'm reminded of the film Wall-E, which is also dystopian in nature. There's no class or racial issue at play in the film, but there is rampant consumerism to the point where everyone becomes fat and lazy and rides around a space ship all day in chairs that can barely hold their girth. While the people in Brave New World are supposed to stay fit and healthy, they are also supposed to consume...a lot. The state creates hypnotic recordings that are played for children while they sleep that imprint the society's tenets on their little malleable minds. As we see with the character of Linda, being removed from this world of new clothes, feely movies, and polygamous sexuality can be devastating to the mind. She goes practically insane on the Native reservation where she was accidentally left behind and only becomes whole again once she is returned to the "real world". The state, the society, therefore, is like a drug from which people can suffer withdrawal.

One final example of the types of villainous societies created for dystopian literature is the Madd Adam trilogy by Margaret Atwood (to date there are only two novels in the trilogy: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood). Atwood's eerily possible world of genetic engineering and rigid social segregation brings to light the faults within our own modern society. These novels are contemporary dystopias which the reader can identify with in some ways. Every day technology moves ahead, every day media (specifically the internet) becomes a bigger force in our day-to-day lives. It is not that hard to imagine a world in which people watch executions online or in which the rich, educated minority segregates themselves from the unwashed masses behind the walls of gleaming, technologically advanced citadels.

The state's real crime in these books--and there are several--is creating a world dependent on new medications, surgeries, and other medical treatments. Taking our modern over-medicated and plastic-surgery-obsessed society and placing it further in the future where genetic manipulation and modification are real and prevalent everyday occurrences, Atwood seeks to point out our own flaws and to warn against creating an age in which a virus can run rampant throughout the world simply because we have become dependent upon youth-creating and disease-preventing medicines.

All three states have populations beneath them that are dependent on them for one reason or another. The way to write a good dystopian novel is to create an all-encompassing, overarching power structure that is seemingly unbeatable and then prove to the readers that it is, in fact, unbeatable. Were heroes in dystopian novels able to overthrow these corrupt and evil governments, the messages in these novels would not be as significant...or as horrifying. How would 1984 have affected you if Winston and Julia had succeeded instead of being caught? What impact would Brave New World have had if John had not been destroyed by the corrupt society into which he was unceremoniously thrown? And would Atwood's Madd Adam novels have caused so many people to consider planting survival gardens and stocking up on needed supplies if they hadn't been scared by the possibility of global destruction at our own hands?

Heroes in dystopian novels are not meant to succeed. Rarely, in fact, are they even meant to survive. To further illustrate this point, let's look at Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Guy Montag goes from being a fireman, a book-burner, to being a reader trying to memorize books in order to preserve them for a day sometime in the future when all of this madness will end and people will once again want to derive pleasure from the written word. What happens to him? Presumably, he is killed in a giant nuclear explosion. The novel implies that a new society will be built from the ashes of the old, but Montag is killed and with him and his friends goes much of the literature of the old world. It is a grim thought and, because it is an ambiguous ending, it leaves the reader wondering if the new society will be any better than the one that was just destroyed.

These novels, of course, are influenced and inspired by the problems facing the societies in which they are written. Orwell had the World Wars, Bradbury had the Cold War, Atwood has the current War on Terror and the technological storm that is sweeping this country. Evil regimes in dystopian novels are not created in the author's imagination but are, instead, reflections of leaders and policies and issues that are present at the time the author is writing. Unlike solitary villains--the Iagos, the Voldemorts, the Uriah Heeps of the literary world--dystopian governments are meant to teach a lesson about letting governments get too powerful and about curbing society's demise through cutting back on consumerism, unchecked technological advancement, and tenuous political relationships that could lead to all-out war.

The heroes, the everymen who attempt to fight these states, are representative of the people who put them in power only to regret their actions later. They are failures in the end because if a hero in a dystopian novel wins there is nothing to deter people from letting their freedoms go. "Ah," they'd say, "good old Winston saved the day. Even in the worst of times there's always hope of a better tomorrow. Let's give this crazy lunatic a chance to rule the world. If we don't like him, we can just get rid of him." By letting the hero fail, authors are telling their readers that it will not do them any good to try to fight. Instead, they should try to prevent things like this from happening in the first place. Stand up for what you believe in, have a voice in your government, and don't allow yourselves to be herded like lemmings off of a cliff by the Disney filmmaker that is a repressive government. (Little-known fact: lemmings don't actually go off cliffs by themselves. The only reason that myth surfaced was because the man doing a documentary on them for Disney realized that they were rather boring and decided to spice the whole thing up by chasing a whole bunch of them off a cliff. True. Story.)

Some dystopian novels have a central figure, like Big Brother, who is the source of the government's villainy; others have a government which is evil in and of itself and not because of one man. Either way, the state as the villain is a chilling and effective way for authors of dystopian novels to explore the themes of freedom, loss of the individual, and man's helplessness against forces bigger than himself.



  1. Fantastic post, very interesting. I'm not sure what it is about dystopian books that fascinates me so much. Brave New World was the first one I read and was actually recommended by that much hated teacher. I always meant to read Brave New World revisited but never quite got around to it.

  2. I think you should read Out of The Silent Planet (C.S. Lewis). I just finished reading it and really liked it.

    I think it's dystopian.

  3. I've never even heard of it but I might check it out. I've already got a couple of book recommendations from you so I'll try to get through those first. :)

  4. Karen: Thanks! I'm fascinated by them too. In addition to all the other reasons, I think I like them because they scare me. I don't really like horror but dystopian novels give me that same uneasy feeling that I'm guessing horror gives people who like that genre.