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DYSTOPIAN BOOKS FILM & CULTURE ON WRITING

What is Dystopian Fiction? Five Characteristics and their Importance

Dystopian fiction offers a speculative glimpse of the future, one often of a cataclysmic decline with characters battling their way through environmental ruin, technological control, and government oppression. As a sub-genre of science fiction, the popular dystopian novel can challenge readers’ views of current social and political climates, offer warnings, and in some instances, inspire action. But how is dystopian fiction determined? First, let’s define the difference between a utopian and a dystopian world.

What’s the Difference Between Utopia and Dystopia?

When Sir Thomas More coined the term “utopia” in his 1516 book Utopia, he was inadvertently shaping centuries of genre. With the advent of Utopia, which was about an ideal society on a fictional island, the dystopia concept was born.

Unlike utopian literature, dystopian literature explores and warns of the dangerous effects of created political and social structures on humanity (Hugh Howey’s Wool Trilogy), what leads society to its totalitarian outcomes, and the difficulty of correcting the situation. Often there’s no way back, and the character’s needs are stripped down to their basic elements of survival (Aral Bereux’s J Rae Books (Watcher Series)).

Utopian literature, on the other hand, often focuses on the individual and societal cost of maintaining a perfect world. Usually, one individual’s sacrifice is necessary for the utilitarian society to flourish (Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas), or there may be a hidden secret that must never be revealed (Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars and Childhood’s End).

What Is the Significance of Dystopian Fiction?

Margaret Atwood once said, “If you’re interested in writing speculative fiction, one way to generate a plot is to take an idea from current society and move it a little further down the road. Even if humans are short-term thinkers, fiction can anticipate and extrapolate into multiple versions of the future.”

The significance of dystopian fiction in literature can vary from educating and warning humanity about current social and political structures, to reflecting an author’s beliefs on the pitfalls of society (H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine), to critiquing behaviorism (Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) and cautioning on oppressive regimes (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Orwell’s 1984).

5 Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction

Oftentimes, dystopian novels focus on central themes that generally fall under these categories:

1. Government control

Specifically, there is either an authoritarian ruling body or simply no government. The most obvious contemporary portrayal of the government control feature is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

Collins’ The Hunger Games takes place in a future nation built on the ruins of North America. The fictional Panem is ruled by President Snow’s totalitarian government, the Capitol. Just as our own society amasses vast amounts of wealth into the top one percent, Collins’ Capitol holds most of Panem’s wealth and uses this to control its citizens.

Each year, two children from Panem’s 12 poverty-stricken districts are mandatorily selected to participate in a televised death match called the Hunger Games.

George Orwell’s 1984 also presents the reader with a world under complete government control, known as the omnipresent surveillance of Big Brother, which enforces complete control over the citizens of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia – the three inter-continental superstates remaining after a world war.

2. Loss of individualism

The dangers of conformity are often written into classic dystopias such as 1984. How should the needs of society as a whole compare to individual needs? Authors writing in the dystopian genre will need to keep this question in mind.

Two examples are Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, written in 1953, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.

Artist: Mike Winkelmann

Fahrenheit 451 explores the censorship of books in a future society where increased technology and mindless entertainment dominate. The idea? To save the citizen from the misery of thinking freely, critiquing life, or being creative.

We, written in 1920, follows a spacecraft engineer living in One State. The citizens of One State wear uniforms and are referred to by number and are forever refused privacy or individual belief.

3. Environmental destruction

Often set in places that are inhabitable, the dystopian environmental story documents a warning of impending doom and destruction.

The one dystopian novel that comes to mind when discussing this characteristic, is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Written in 2006, the post-apocalyptic tale documents a father and son’s journey of survival to a more hospitable environment in which to live after an extinction-level event wipes out their old life.

James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series also chronicles the events of how a world is destroyed by solar flares and coronal mass ejections. In the first book, a group of teenage boys are stuck in The Glade and have to find their way out of an ever-changing maze.

4. Technological control

In a dystopian novel, the advancement of science and technology goes far beyond providing tools for improving everyday life. In this particular take on dystopia, technology is depicted as a controlling, ubiquitous, and inescapable force that creates fear-mongering tactics and a subservient culture. Oftentimes, the government can be seen herding the people like sheep.

Two standout authors capture this terrifying characteristic in the form of authoritarian bureaucracy: Huxley and Philip K. Dick.

Philip K. Dick’s 1968 short novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco where android robots are indistinguishable from humans, and mass extinction has led to artificial animals. Although it is supposed that the main character hunts down rogue AI before they can assimilate into society, the novel leaves the reader wondering if the protagonist is himself a sophisticated android hunting down the lesser AI and if humanity was in fact driven to extinction.

Philip K. Dick also warned of artificial intelligence advancements in Minority Report, where the Department of Precrime looks into the future to arrest potential criminals before they actually commit a crime.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was written in 1932 and explores the dangers of advancing technology too quickly. In the novel, the ruling World State uses powerful artificial reproduction conditioning technologies to control its citizen classes and their actions.

All three books have since been adapted to film and streaming services.

5. Survival

Dystopian and even utopian worlds require some level of survival to be built into the narrative in order to resonate with their audiences. Innate to the dystopian world are its inhabitants fending for themselves after a complete or almost complete destruction and devastation of their world.

One instance of survival is found in the pages of an early Stephen King novel, The Running Man. Written and first published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1982, the novel takes place in 2025 and follows the story of an impoverished man living under an oppressive government. The protagonist is to compete on a life-threatening game show to earn money to care for his family.

In the renowned Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a group of schoolboys finds themselves abandoned on a tropical island after their plane is shot down. Conflicts naturally emerge between the boys as they struggle to build a civilization and fight for survival. This dystopian novel has been widely distributed among literature programs for decades.

The warnings that dystopian fiction provides are the ultimate What Ifs of literature and narrative. The speculative glimpses of futures down the road, as Atwood explained, are a reflection of centuries of storytelling, often encompassing myth and morals to serve as a warning. As a sub-genre of science fiction, the challenge to a reader’s self-reflection is obvious and should inspire action, or at least, some level of growth as we question our own ability to survive while maintaining our integrity and more importantly, our humanity.

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FILM & CULTURE

DOES IT MATTER THAT FILM DISTORTS HISTORY: A STUDY OF 300

The movie 300 situates the telling of a story in a world where historical narratives are less likely to appeal without the embellishment of contemporary values. The fight between the Spartans and Persians recreates a world all too familiar with those living in a post 9/11 society. By distorting the accounts of the events at Thermopylae, the film 300 skews ideologies—history is made to fit into a contemporary narrative that violates and fabricates the past in the pursuit of domestic and foreign policy through propaganda. The film medium creates a different history, one that captures a large audience’s attention, resulting in a blurred line between fact and fiction, and acts as a tool to shape contemporary memories and opinion. Zack Snyder’s 300 both distorts and omits elements of the Battle of Thermopylae while strengthening contemporary moral and political divisions not dissimilar from the Spartan as a ‘free man’ (found in modern Western democracies) and the tyrannical Persians (representing today’s Iran and the Middle East). Although it can be argued that historical accounts on film provide a multi-layered approach away from the linear accounts found in textbooks, the distorting of historical events within a film risks losing the objectivity required to analyse history. The film 300 spoon feeds a glorified history to the audience without providing a true account of the Spartan civilisation as a pariah state. Instead, it glosses over such facts by mocking the Athenians and emphasising the Spartan fight for individual freedom instead. As the movie documents at length the negligible autonomy a Spartan has, Gerard Butler’s character King Leonidas concerns himself with ‘What must a king do to save his world’ to which his wife responds, ‘Instead ask yourself, what should a free man do?’  This hijacking of the historical account negates the film’s events as factual, but rather, it places a political propagandistic spin that enables pro-war themes to become established in the modern psyche.

The film medium creates a new history that, as Nietzsche puts it, allows for the hero to be ‘fetishised’ and is ‘neither innocent nor objective.’ King Leonidas’ portrayal as a hero leading Sparta and uniting city-state armies to the ‘Hot Gates’ to defeat the tyrannical Persians, though based in historical fact, frames the hero to minimise his true nature as a benevolent ruler that has subverted democracy rather than salvage it from corruption. Though Snyder has proclaimed the movie to be more entertainment than historical, the film’s portrayal of Leonidas as infallible and incorruptible leaves little option to side with the Persians, skewing history and ill-informing ideological bias in front of captive world-wide audiences. The historical grey areas of the classical past are omitted for a decisive black and white, good versus evil bloody battle, narrated by Dilios to an army at the start of the movie to set the tone:

‘Now, as then, a beast approaches,’ Dilios refers to the Persians and continues, ‘Patient and confident. Savouring the meal to come. The beast is made of men and horses, swords and spears. An army of slaves vast beyond imagining, ready to devour tiny Greece. Ready to snuff out the world’s one hope of reason and justice. A beast approaches. It was King Leonidas himself who provoked it.’

The narration therefore raises Spartans to hero status while trapping the Persians into a tyrannical identity that the movie’s narrator Dilios confirms as those who come from ‘the darkest corners of Persia,’ and is verified by a child dying in Leonidas’ arms who whispers ‘they came from the darkness.’ Dilios’ narration constructs a reverse racism, stereotyping the Persian as the Other to maintain an ‘us versus them’ agenda. The ideology reflects the time in which the film 300 was produced, where a post September eleven political agenda rendered a Middle East incapable of freedom and democracy.

The film is peppered with historical inaccuracies that transform the meaning of the past, all the while soliciting historical empathy for a culture fighting its enemy. Political agendas, ideology and propaganda are offered, and the political consequences that Scriver describes in the analysis of 300’s subtext reflect current cultural attitudes that justify conflict. By using “historical empathy” for a nation of people fighting against a massive army, and encouraging the historical imaginations of many—which 300 does—perception can be distorted to justify modern-day military and political actions.

The blurring of fact and fictional lines throughout 300 allows for the elevation of Leonidas to Godlike hero status, despite the irony of the Spartans’ reproach of Xerxes’ claim to superhuman abilities. Again, the subtext in 300 hijacks the historical context of the Battle of Thermopylae, offering the audience with a distinction between both sides where only the Spartans who hold Western values at heart are worthy of divine status. Dilios’ narrative of events as the Persian’s naval fleet is swallowed into the sea boosts this characterisation of King Leonidas, propping up his intelligence and charisma as a Spartan warrior king, adding that ‘only one among us keeps his Spartan reserve. Only He. Only our King.’ These characterisations cement the ideological undertones of the movie that encourage an apathy against the (East) Persians by dehumanising them as the corruptible Other who is undeserving of humane treatment.

The movie is more about the divide between the Persians and Spartans in a 21st century context rather than the historic battle that actually occurred in 480 BC. The film 300’s representations of the East and West help to ‘construct particular representations of the world,’ depicting the dark-skinned Persians as indulgent, barbaric, and uncivilised ‘beasts,’ intolerable by the white Spartans who refuse to identify with them. The similarities of a United States acting as Sparta become even more striking, situating the West as the irreproachable nation fighting for freedom and justice.

The ancient narrative is commandeered to promote Western values during a period where President Bush declared a War on Terror, and for every account where the Persians are delegitimised in the movie, Western violence is legitimised in the real world. The uncompromising aggression reiterated in the movie with cries to ‘Never retreat. Never surrender’ identifies with the American way of life as much as it does with the ancient Spartans and rationalises indoctrination. Murat explains that ‘300 is a representative … that fictionalises historically grounded events and heroes from the time of ancient Greece and Rome; the privileged, self-attributed cultural ancestors of Western civilization.’ For if the Other is depicted as a primitive and cruel institution, the distorted account of events only aids in sustaining a hierarchy of racial power that privileges the Western ethos, and maintains the East versus West divide.

The ‘ill-timed’ release of the movie has been criticised as ‘peddling propaganda for George W. Bush’s ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ and is accused of tampering with history to make a film where ‘Iran’s image looks savage.’ Henry Giroux argues that the representations of violence and racism in film can have subversive effects on society and are interconnected with the violence and racism in the world. Few mediums, he argues, can change the way in which society thinks about cultural politics, identity, and values. The dangers inflicted by 300’s portrayal of the Persians as the barbaric enemy that cannot be reasoned with justifies the Spartan’s extreme violence used to defeat them, and in turn, justifies and reinforces Western violence against modern day Iran. The omitting of ancient historical fact, where Greece joined in a revolt to plunder the Persian capital of Sardis and where they enjoyed defeating Persia frequently prior to the Battle of Thermopylae, distorts the public perception through a linear narrative that Persia was strictly the suppressor and only permits one side of the story to prevail. Again, the hijacking of the historical narrative maximises the reasoning for violence against the East and normalises this volatile relationship with minority groups.

Just as the distortion of the history in 300 antagonises the already prevalent racism, it also depicts the patriarchal society seen to repress another minority group, the women. Although depicting ancient Sparta and Persia as patriarchal societies is accurate, the power of film, in the instance of 300, is used to normalise the patriarchal attitude of dominance. Zack Snyder’s movie is saturated with visual content that places the woman as an object with little relevance, despite the first notable words in the film of King Leonidas’ Queen, Gorgo declaring a historically correct ‘Only Spartan women can give birth to real men.’ If anything, 300 downplays the strength of the Spartan women documented in history to engage with familiar attitudes of modern indifference, perpetuating, in Giroux’s observation, a darkened discourse in society.

The distorting of historical facts to aid the advancement of contemporary values violates the audience’s trust as much as it does the historical account. Zack Snyder’s 300 takes the Battle of Thermopylae and shapes it into a contemporary war between the United States and Iran without apology and frames it as ‘entertainment.’ The fight between the Spartans and Persians recreates a world of division between the East and the West. By distorting the accounts of Thermopylae, the film 300 promotes Western political ideologies that easily distort public perception and shift contemporary memories and opinion. The glorification of these ideologies endangers the future perceptions that one day may inspire peace.

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FILM & CULTURE

PLATOON, A FORGOTTEN WAR MOVIE IN A TIME OF CHAOS

Much debate has surrounded Oliver Stone’s Platoon since its 1986 release. Depicting the Vietnam War from the soldier’s perspective, Platoon has become iconic for its commentary on the era it represented, receiving both criticism for being based solely on a personal survivor’s account of the war, and praise for its historical authenticity. Oliver Stone, being a Vietnam Veteran and survivor of war, offers the movie a moral weight that previous movies lacked. However, Stone has also been accused of dramatically reshaping a historical narrative’s events through the ‘prism’ of twentieth century paranoia to suit his own reproach of the American government. But to criticise Stone for producing a personal account of the Vietnam War is to reject the humanity of a soldier detailing the brutality of war. Rejecting Stone’s perspective as paranoia means disregarding the other Veterans who related to the film and thus cannot acknowledge the importance of the human experience formulating a historical account of a moment in time. Instead, the film becomes a social commentary of the 1960s and forms a small but critical part of the history surrounding the Vietnam War. Stone’s Platoon becomes a documentation of a history rife with social upheaval and political uncertainty and engages with the collective memory of turmoil, becoming a microcosm of a larger world outside of the Vietnam War. Despite criticism that Stone’s Platoon positions the standard good versus evil Hollywood model in the film’s two main characters, Elias and Barnes, the film nevertheless delivers on its historical authenticity and realism.

Oliver Stone presents a historically realistic film based on one man’s personal experience as a soldier. Yet, despite the mostly one-person point of view in Platoon, critics have censured Stone’s work, claiming that ‘realism’ is best captured when the organisation of a ‘narrative around a group’ forms a historical story, rather than around that of the individual. According to this assumption, history’s reality is hindered in a movie like Platoon because of a bias—Stone’s bias—in depicting a personal representation of the Vietnam War. But this criticism is flawed. The film Platoon was created by a person who saw active duty. It fails to acknowledge the fact that Oliver Stone was himself a Vietnam Veteran and that his real-war experience lends Platoon a legitimacy. By supplying a personal first-hand account based on Stone’s experiences with the war, the film conveys a personal depth otherwise lacking in films directed by those who never saw active duty. The individual point of view seen through the eyes of the character Chris does not lessen the impact of a single man’s story on history, rather, it enhances it. Throughout the movie, Stone constructs a realism through Chris, where if the Vietcong are not seen on camera, then the characters are potentially being watched by them. Likewise, when Stone’s ability as a director garnishes multiple awards for Platoon, and international recognition from both the public and from peers like Steven Spielberg for the historical authenticity of the movie, Platoon’s achievement to document one of history’s most controversial wars is validated.

Adair’s observation that ‘the atmosphere of Platoon is closer to that of, say, a prison drama than a traditional war movie,’ only improves on the argument that Oliver Stone provides Platoon a realism that otherwise would be difficult to achieve by a director not having served in the war. Stone’s ability to capture and articulate on film the claustrophobic social cage, where to abandon your comrades for the inescapable Vietnamese jungles would be to step into certain death, is a testament to Stone’s authority on the subject. The environment in which Platoon is filmed gives more than a portrayal of a war that Combs states has ‘more to do with the atmosphere than history or narrative.’ It also offers the fine details akin to a novel when recalling the American psyche of the time. The reality of war is brought to the foreground without apology through detailed personal interactions and commentary, negating Adair’s claim that Platoon is focused only on a single individual. Chris, Elias, Barnes, and the platoon of men all speak on the day-to-day politics of the situation throughout the film, and ‘what it is to be human’ in a moment of history.

Contrasting the criticisms such as those above, Judy Kinney describes Platoon as a war monument to Vietnam Veterans. The humanistic view versus the historical account found in Platoon provides the viewer with a realism as the film engages with an autobiographical account, a first-person perspective of a ‘grunt’ trying to survive a tour of duty rather than fight a war for America. But it is also Stone’s incorporation of scenes based on well-known images that fuse together the first person narrative and what we already know about the Vietnam War atrocities that gives the film a historical realism. The village scene, for example, re-enacts the 1968 massacre of civilians in My Lai, and incorporates a news report of marines burning down houses in Cam Ne by using Zippo lighters. Stone’s Platoon engages with the ‘moral paradoxes’ that only a first-hand survivor of Vietnam like Stone might be privy to, such as the children being carried to safety as the houses in the village burn down in the background. The humanistic side echoes the historical images brought to life on the screen as Stone accounts for the loss of innocence in the war. This primary point of loss propels Platoon forward not just with the suffering of the children in the village but Chris’ own coming of age as war hardens him to the realities of human nature. In this regard, the movie can be viewed very much as an autobiographical account of Stone’s experience and offers a valid insight into the realism of war and its atrocities.

Historical films can be a ‘powerful tool in the incitement of desire and the fantasy of history,’ inviting us to view the past from the safety of our living room. Stone offers a realistic historical account based on the intricacies of human behaviour, otherwise not seen in war movies prior to Platoon. The film’s enclosed atmosphere enables an emotive identification with the characters as they huddle in the jungle on the lookout for their enemies. The arguments between the sergeants about which team gets to go out on patrol early in the movie sets a tone that invites the viewer to engage with events as though they were there—Stone asks the unsaid question of what would you do? These cinematic representations develop the narrative and offer a realistic insight into the experience of the Vietnam War and its Veterans. And although critics accuse Stone of minimising the Vietnamese side of the story to focus on the American soldier’s psychology, and thus negating the historical accuracy of the film, Stone’s purpose was not to give a rounded view of both sides of the war. This does not imply Platoon’s inability to document a historically realistic account of the Vietnam War, as cultural commentary forms an important basis for historical navigation throughout devastating and culturally changing events such as a war. The re-enactment of a single soldier can also provide personal closure to the audience and is captured in Stone’s Platoon as a morality tale without devaluing the film. It also becomes a political critique against the West and the military industrial complex, acknowledging the American government as failing its citizens.

‘Oliver Stone is a primary cultural messenger about both our paranoia about history and about our historical paranoia . . .This accounts for the capacity of his films to inspire catharsis in their spectators. Everyone knows, of course, that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they are not out to get you.’

Sturken’s quote explains how Oliver Stone’s Platoon reflects paranoia in history. As a result, Stone is depicting certain elements of history correctly, albeit handpicking them to shape and provide a narrative of social and cultural fears, paranoia, and hope. The historical realism of Platoon becomes larger than life, but not more so than other Hollywood historical films, and Stone’s ability to articulate the naivety, grittiness, and dark side of the human spirit reaffirms that the historical realism in Platoon was a first of its kind. Oliver Stone’s Vietnam Veteran status does not give him authority on historical accounts in general, but it permits him an authority on the devastation that scars the individual. Platoon’s account of the Vietnam War is a personal one, and one that contributes another piece of the puzzle to the social commentary that, in turn, helps to inform history.