The age of utopia — or dystopia

The age of utopia — or dystopia
Dystopian works are simply canaries in the global coal mine we ignore at our peril, says the writer. (Illustration: Adobestock)

The tradition of the dystopian novel forces us to consider the disasters coming at us as things go on. More recently, the novels are joined by film treatments that are more graphic still. Should we heed them — and what if we don’t?

The sun’ll come out Tomorrow 

Bet your bottom dollar 

That tomorrow 

There’ll be sun!  

Just thinkin’ about Tomorrow 

Clears away the cobwebs 

And the sorrow 

‘Til there’s none!  

When I’m stuck with a day 

That’s grey 

And lonely 

I just stick out my chin 

And grin 

And say 


The sun’ll come out 


So ya gotta hang on…


Tomorrow from Annie. Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin

 It is common, at the beginning of a new year, for analysts, commentators, and columnists to offer some predictions and possibilities for the future (sometimes paired with dire warnings as well as a jeremiad or two), as the old year becomes history. Given what seem to be the increasingly dire circumstances of our globe — both in political and environmental terms — the writer’s thoughts have turned to more dystopic visions of our collective future. 

More than 500 years ago, English writer Thomas More came up with the idea of a worldly heaven on Earth. He called his imaginary land a utopia, thus coining the very idea of an imagined future. 

As Terry Eagelton wrote in The Guardian on the 500th anniversary of More’s work, “More’s book, in some ways a work of early science fiction, gave rise to a whole new genre of writing. Judging from that literature, there are really two kinds of utopia. There are carnivalesque societies in which, instead of working, everyone will drink, feast and copulate from dawn to dusk. In one such 18th-century fantasy, men and women bereft of all body hair leap naked into fountains, while the progressively minded narrator watches on. Whether his pleasure is entirely theoretical remains unclear.

“There are also more austere utopias, in which everything is odourless and antiseptic, intolerably streamlined and sensible. In these meticulously planned countries of the mind, the natives tend to jaw on for hours about the efficiency of their sanitary arrangements, or the ingenuity of their electoral system. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is in some ways an exercise of this kind, as Crusoe, marooned on a desert island, potters about, chopping wood and staking out his enclosure as if he were in the home counties. It is reassuring to see him practising a very English rationality in such exotically unfamiliar circumstances. More’s fantasy is an odd mixture of both visions, rational and libidinal. On the one hand, his ideal society is a high-minded, fairly puritanical place, one likely to appeal to the stereotypical Hampstead vegetarian; on the other hand, its inhabitants are genial, laid-back and agreeably disinclined to do much work.”

While utopian visions (often drawing on socialist ideals and political urges), have inspired many, as with William Bellamy’s very influential, but naively optimistic tract, Looking Backward, it has become the dystopian vision that has captivated us — and terrified us — even more. Much more. 

In Britain, America and the Soviet Union, a clutch of visionary, but very dark novels — beginning with Jack London’s The Iron Heel, and on to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, BF Skinner’s Walden 2, George Orwell’s 1984, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America — have posited a world where various tendencies already in evidence have shaped a nightmarish landscape, if such trends continue unabated. 

Mostly, these novels have relied on insights into human nature and developments in social control, rather than powerful, extraordinary scientific advancements, as might be the case with the usual run of much science fiction. Although Brave New World makes use of a psychotropic drug, Soma, to regulate emotions and control society, in Walden 2, the author’s insights into psychological experimentation such as operant conditioning, keeps everyone “happily” in line. Such projections could easily fit in sync with contemporary headlines. 

1984, meanwhile, sets out a totalitarian surveillance state of Big Brother, but one set in a world of food and consumer goods scarcities, worn-out, rundown infrastructure, a world of grittiness and decrepitude, and, of course, permanent warfare. And it all takes place in a world of ominous conspiracy theories, alternative facts and the infamous memory hole. We had deeply influenced Orwell when he first read and reviewed it, most especially in the way We created a world where human individuality had been totally erased, right up to the point where numbers replaced individual names.

Meanwhile, Jack London’s The Iron Heel portrayed an America under a classic dictatorship, relentlessly pursuing the working class. Then, in It Can’t Happen Here and The Plot Against America, domestic and global turmoil leads to populist demagogues taking control of the US legally, but with catastrophic consequences. In Lewis’ 1938 novel, the newly elected, populist president (a man with appetites and little learning), becomes an increasingly authoritarian president (not totally unlike the populist governor of Louisiana, Huey Long, also fictionally portrayed by Robert Penn Warren in All The King’s Men). And Lewis’ president eventually generates a counter-revolutionary revolt as a result of his repressive policies. Meanwhile, Roth’s more recent book offers raw ethnic populism in the service of an increasingly dictatorial, erratic president (in the lightly fictionalised version of hero-aviator Charles Lindbergh). This Lindbergh, like the real one, is given to an “America First”, rhetoric that seems startlingly current, given the times in which we live.

But, naturally, given South Africa’s volatile racial landscape, this country has had its very own stream of extraordinarily sharp, dystopic visions seized by the always-impending communal violence. 

First was Witwatersrand University historian Arthur Keppel-Jones’ When Smuts Goes, published in 1947. The author, increasingly appalled by the country’s seemingly inevitable future, had written a dark, partially prophetic tale. It told of a National Party electoral victory in 1952, the subsequent imposition of full-scale apartheid, the ensuing violent civil conflicts, a mass migration of Afrikaners to Argentina in extremis, a UN peacekeeping intervention, and finally, the sad circumstances of a devastated nation, ruled by a poorly educated black leader nicknamed “Six Pence”. Keppel-Jones finally so despaired of the country’s future that he decamped to Canada.

Then, in response to the rising violence and increasingly harsh repression of black hopes, in the late 1970s and early 80s, three of the country’s most important voices, Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee and Karel Schoeman, wrote their respective prophecies of a possible doom of the old order. Gordimer’s book, July’s People, provoked an angry response from many sides, given its apparent expectation of a violent revolution against white rule. JM Coetzee, meanwhile, had written Waiting for the Barbarians in 1980 and The Life and Times of Michael K three years later. Schoeman’s novel, Promised Land, had come out even earlier, in 1972.

Gordimer’s book has a good, liberal, white family suddenly fleeing the chaos of the civil war washing over their city. Roles are reversed as they flee the destruction in the care of their black houseman, July, to sanctuary in his — presumably — more peaceful rural homestead. 

In Coetzee’s two books, meanwhile, one profiles the world of a military man posted in the vastness of the frontier region of an imaginary land, waiting for the inevitable invasion by “the barbarians”. They are, he knows, coming to invade, pillage and destroy. By contrast, Coetzee’s second book is a harshly unblinking portrayal of a mentally handicapped young man, cast adrift in a Cape Town already caught up in chaos of civil conflict, with fighting everywhere. Metaphor is everywhere.

Schoeman’s book, out several years earlier than the other three, follows a young man, the son of exiled diplomats from the old apartheid regime, who has come back to a post-revolution South Africa to sort out the inheritance of a now-ruined homestead. He comes face to face with the presence of the country’s revolutionary black government and army — as well as a shadowy white resistance.

South African dystopic literature has focused, not surprisingly, on the apparent intractability of the country’s racial divide, and resistance to its iniquities. In all five of these South African books, the inevitability and destructiveness of a black revolution is either an implied or explicit driver of the tale. And there has also been the description of the parallel societal and economic trajectory of a South Africa that seemed inexorably headed towards its collapse.

This stands in an interesting contrast to those American, British, or even Russian dystopian classics. Those have largely focused on the growing impact of the surveillance state, increasingly pervasive social control mechanisms, the use of international conflict as a tool for concentrating power and the abuse of populism as a way to draw political control into the hands of ruthless leaders.

But in our current circumstances, there is yet another strand of dystopic literature — the cataclysm that destroys human society, either by an atomic holocaust, environmental disaster, or catastrophic climate change. Here the traditions of science fiction are important, and now, most often, are seen via film and television screens — in original productions or through powerful adaptations of earlier novels. 

Obvious examples of the first catastrophe could include the various film versions of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, as well as the near-twins, Failsafe and Dr Strangelove. And JG Ballard’s novel, Drowned World, and films like The Day After Tomorrow, Interstellar, Deep Impact, or even sillier ones like 2012 and Waterworld that have all focused attention on the ultimate dystopia, either man-made or inflicted from above. 

Meanwhile, documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and a growing tide of newer works are adding to the dystopic visual literature. Their impact now combines with real online and broadcast reportage on vast continental fires, frightening rises in ocean and land temperatures, along with the destruction of major forests, species extermination, and the impact of yet broader climate change.

And so, Annie and Daddy Warbucks, in the show, Annie, can sing The sun’ll come out Tomorrow, Bet your bottom dollar, That tomorrow, There’ll be sun! and in the end, it will always be a better day out there. But what if, as with the messages and prophecies of dystopic novel and film traditions, the equivalents of Miss Hannigan and her evil accomplices in Annie are in charge instead — and thus these dystopian works are simply canaries in the global coal mine we ignore at our peril. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options