As lock down continues and once bustling cities, streets and buildings empty – many European capitals resemble something out of a dystopian novel. Living under lock down in fear of a deadly virus, unaware if we are carriers, surely has the makings of the next dystopian Netflix series? The word “dystopia,” meaning “an unhappy country,” was coined in the seventeen-forties in opposition to the term ‘utopia’ which was first used by Thomas More to describe his ideal society. As celebrated Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, once wrote, ‘Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we’ve already had.’
Nevertheless many critics agree that utopias and dystopias are in fact intimately connected to one another. Many utopias contain their own dystopias. As John Joseph Adams points out, ‘Many societies in fiction are depicted as utopias when in fact they are dystopias; like angels and demons, the two are sides of the same coin.’ What is the price of achieving an apparently ‘perfect world’? This is what dystopian fiction often asks us, indirectly, to consider. In this sense, dystopian novels or stories are often cautionary tales. They warn us of the dangers of seeking a perfect society and of thinking that humanity can ever be moulded into a perfect shape.
Disease has been with us since mankind began. The Black Death, a multi-century pandemic that ravaged Europe and Asia from c.1340 onwards, killing tens of millions is infamous. But since then we have faced the Spanish Flu of 1918 in which an estimated 40 – 50 million people died in one year and more recently the AIDs epidemic that has claimed 25 – 35 million victims thus far. Perhaps unsurprisingly, dystopian fiction in which plagues, viruses and disease have wreaked havoc and destruction on the human race is plentiful. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, published in 1826, is one of the first such examples in English literature. The book tells of a future world, 2073, that has been ravaged by a plague. Ultimately only one man, Lionel Verney, is left – it is seen as a criticism of Enlightenment ideals of human progress and Romanticism.
Norman Spinrad’s Journal of the Plague Years’ (1995), the title of which seems inspired by Daniel Dafoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’, charts the consequences of a mysterious plague. These include quarantined cities, the outlawing of old fashioned love, safe-sex machines and even Sex Police. While Station Eleven (2015) by Emily St John Mandel, follows the lives of a small troupe of nomadic actors and musicians, led by a once-famous Hollywood star, who call themselves The Traveling Symphony. Dedicated to keeping art and humanity alive in the wake of a devastating swine flu pandemic that ends civilisation within weeks, this small band continues to tour the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region twenty years on. In Ling Ma’s award winning apocalyptic satire, Severence, (2018) Candace Chen is a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office block. She is initially unaware of a plague of biblical proportions that sweeps New York, leaving her alone but still unfevered, to photograph the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous NY Ghost blogger.
Harvard ethicist, Chris Robichaud argues that dystopias challenge us, more specifically, they challenge our values. They require us to reflect on what we have prioritised as a society. Covid 19 is certainly proving effective in this regard. Jill Lapore, writing in The New Yorker, argues that dystopian fiction was once ‘a fiction of resistance’. But in the twenty-first century it became one of submission. ‘The fiction of fake news and Infowars, of helplessness and hopelessness.’ It doesn’t call for courage, it finds that cowardice suffices, she laments. Perhaps it was, but something tells me, that’s going to change. Writer of dystopian fiction for young adults, Moira Young, wrote in The Guardian, ‘We create harsh, violent worlds … but that doesn’t mean they are hopeless. We always leave a candle burning in the darkness.’ If this pandemic encourages us to re-examine our values and reconnect with our humanity, on a global scale, then the story of Covid-19 surely has the makings of the next dystopian bestseller. Souwie Buis 3rd April 2020