Bad lands: Fahrenheit 451 and other fiery dystopias
Ray Bradbury’s great dystopian vision is 60. Thankfully the book-burning world it depicts has not yet come to pass, so we can still read it and other dark visions
The best dystopian novels are really about the societies in which they are written and not exercises in futurology
The 1966 film of Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper spontaneously ignites. It inspired the title of Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future in which firemen burn forbidden books. The novel is about state censorship, the rise of television, the dumbing-down of culture and the death of literacy.
Thankfully, this fiery dystopia hasn’t yet come to pass, so we can still read Fahrenheit 451. And Bradbury would surely be pleased to know that, 60 years later, dystopian fiction is still popular.
Utopias on the other hand? Not so much. They had a golden run from Plato’s Republic, through Thomas More’s island (where the word “utopia” originated) and on to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliverian adventures, then peaked in the 19th and early 20th century, an era of high-minded polymaths who believed in the perfectibility of mankind and wrote many fantastical novels about ideal societies. Standouts from this era include News from Nowhere, an agrarian idyll by William Morris, and Herland, a proto- feminist utopia by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
It was difficult for such fiction to survive the horrible excesses of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which showed that one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. So the dystopian novel emerged, driven by industrial hangovers and socialist disappointments.
In the earliest examples, these strange allegorical polities were found on undiscovered islands. But now, with the world being pretty-thoroughly mapped, they were situated on faraway planets, in the distant future or in alternative realities.
There’s a whole subgenre of excellent “what if the Nazis won the war” dystopias, including Robert Harris’s Fatherland, CJ Sansom’s Dominion and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (Republican presidential wannabe Newt Gingrich even wrote one of these. It’s called 1945).
Rage against the machine
Dystopian stories usually pit a timid free-thinker against an overwhelming system. Acclaimed novels of the genre worry about the role of the state (1984 by George Orwell), the subjugation of women (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood), inequality (The Iron Heel by Jack London and The Time Machine by HG Wells) and the politics of pleasure (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley).
The best of these books do not foretell the future. While they have prescient things to say (about genetic engineering in Brave New World, for example), they are really about the societies in which they are written and not exercises in futurology. Of her own dystopic writing, Margaret Atwood said: “I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, some time, or for which it did not already have the tools.”
These works are not designed as predictions, but rather warnings. For a reader, the pleasure of dystopian fiction comes from exploring the primordial tension between individual freedom and societal control, and the relief that you feel when you put the book down.