“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
George Orwell, 1984
Fiction has always been a way to reflect the current state of the world back onto itself in a nice, digestible package. No genre does this more aggressively, or more politically, than the dystopia. Dystopian fiction lends itself particularly well to criticising the current world order because it acts as an exaggerated version of already existing ideas. Think: science-fiction with a socio-cultural agenda. Because of this, the very best dystopian fiction has stolen its horrific ideas from real world tragedies. Usually this means taking the trauma and history of people of colour, the subject of most of the atrocities perpetrated by the West, and repackaging them in a nice, squeaky clean, white protagonist. Having a look back at the history of dystopic fiction is like looking at a bulging, warped reflection of the history of the world. Writers create dystopias to shock people into realising what it could be like, if they continue down the slippery slope of the prevalent oppression happening at the time. The dystopia is what the world would look like if it was falling apart, and the powers that be kept peddling it to us as a ‘utopia’.
Utopia by Thomas More (1516) is the first recorded use of the word ‘utopia’ — a combination of the Greek ou- and topos, meaning ‘no-place’. This, like the incredibly long and epic novel based in a time when churches ruled the world, is meant to be satirical. This perfect world does not, and cannot exist. After this, the word was instead interpreted to come from eu- and topos, meaning ‘good place’. From here came the exponential growth of far-out dystopian texts. Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift, 1726) was a critique of extreme rationality and science, portraying it as a waste of manpower and the world’s natural resources. There’s also a particularly racist encounter with a ‘primitive’, ‘savage’ people that are a thinly-veiled mirror of the real-world native cultures undergoing rapid colonisation by England at the time. Then comes Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932) the seminal dystopian work. Brave New World operates in a world where cultural and financial stability is key, and commercial cheeriness and sexual promiscuity are rampant. People are given free recreational drugs and kept complacent. Written by a Briton in response to the Great Depression, it was a critique of the lavish American antics Huxley saw when he visited. Again, after a racist visit to a village eerily reminiscent of Native American peoples, the protagonist learns a life lesson and returns safely back to his ‘civilised’ world.
Around the time of World War II, unsurprisingly, there was a big influx of dystopian works. Nineteen Eighty-four (George Orwell, 1949) is probably the most famous, and most influential of these. It centres itself on a rebel against a totalitarian state, where propaganda and thought-control reign supreme. The torture devices used in the book are taken from tactics used in Soviet Russia at the time, and the Big Brother character, a leader whose unseen power subdues the masses, is very obviously based on Adolf Hitler. The real-world Nazi propaganda minister said, “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” This is almost identical to the mantra of the book. This propaganda-based communist fear is repeated again in Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1953).
Skipping forward a little closer to home, Tomorrow, When the War Began (John Marsden, 1993) and its subsequent series looks at a near-future Australia, which is invaded suddenly and overtaken by an unknown people who proceed to mindlessly destroy towns and cultures. The unknown invaders are never given a specific identity or language, and granted there is one person of colour in a main role, but the similarities to the colonisation of Australia and the erasure of our indigenous population are too much to overlook. Especially considering there are no Indigenous characters in the book.
Next up, the environmentalists. The Lorax (Dr. Seuss, 1971) is a children’s book, and not your usual candidate for a revolutionist agenda. The Lorax came after the ‘hippie’ wave hit America in the 60s and harshly critiqued the ever-expanding consumerist culture, at the cost of destroying the natural environment.
Then come the feminists. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) was the first dystopian novel to be considered a feminist work. It is based in a world where women are breeding stock, where only the rich, the powerful, and the white, had the ability to breed. It is brutal, and harshly critical of oppressive patriarchal structures, as well as extremism in religion. The punishments are taken from the Spanish inquisition, Nazi Germany, and imagery from the Salem witch trials. As a teen, I loved this book. I had found a smart, critical way of thinking about the world as it was, but by virtue of being young, naive, and white, it never occurred to me that there wasn’t a single person of colour in the entire book.
The Handmaid’s Tale has been recently remade into a television series by Hulu, to much critical acclaim. However, the writers of the show (including Atwood), made a major change to the script that hasn’t gone unnoticed. They included people of colour, namely in major roles. They explained this decision was in response to a changing world, and that it would have been jarring to see a world with only white people. In a world where fertility was the priority, it wouldn’t make sense to ‘waste’ fertile women of colour. So hooray! Representation! By including people of colour, we’ve managed to make this show less racially insensitive and we can move on with our feminist revolution. Right?
Well, no. Our main character is still white, and despite all her progressiveness, her Black lesbian best friend, and her Black husband and child, she is still white. We are seeing this oppressive world through the eyes of a white woman, and for the most part only being encouraged to empathise with this one white woman. This woman undergoes public lynching, is banned from reading, writing, or congregating, is raped and whipped, and for all intents and purposes, is a slave to her household. These are presented as horrors, as they should be, and we are encouraged to feel disgusted and angry on her behalf, at this extreme near-future. But you see, these were things that actually happened in slave-era America. These were things that happened to millions of Black people, the ramifications of which are still being felt today. Black women underwent this trauma where lives and cultures were destroyed and now we get to see and understand this trauma through the eyes of a white women, without any of the racial context.
This whitewashing of the trauma felt by people of colour, packaged up for the general public’s entertainment, is extremely problematic. The simple replacement of white characters with Black, without any change to the television script, is almost as problematic. The television series casts Black, and Latinx people in what were previously white roles, in an almost ‘colour-blind’ casting. Refusing to acknowledge the racial tensions of the current world, it is ‘post-racial’. The idea of post-racial texts is that we don’t need to address race, because we’ve already solved racism! Wahoo! This not only belittles the oppression and experiences of people of colour, but also implies that we don’t need to work harder at solving systemic racial issues, because they’ve already been solved.
Dystopian texts are revolutionary texts. They are usually written with an agenda, and that agenda is usually to challenge the current status quo. But in order to write and publish a revolutionary text, you need to have enough power to be publishing anything in the first place. So, these texts are almost exclusively written by white people. And up until the 1970s exclusively written by men. They are an incredible way of reflecting the world back onto itself and serving as a cautionary tale to the horrors of the current world trajectory. But by appropriating the trauma of marginalised ethnic groups, we are expecting the world to only care if the face is ‘inoffensive’, ‘relatable’, and most importantly, white. People of colour have experienced the history, so let them experience the revolution. If you’re going to address the horrors of the current world, address all of them. If you’re going to read these books, read critically.