‘A Boot Stamping on a Human Face’ – Why Do We Enjoy Dystopias?

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Dystopian Visions of the Future: A Discussion, International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Thursday, 27th June, 6:30pm

Words by Siobhán O’Toole

Despite the shoddiness of many modern filmic examples, we all love a good dystopian plot. Whether it be George Orwell’s classic, 1984, Anthony Burgess’, 1985 and A Clockwork Orange, or the countless American blockbusters that have us running to the cinema to watch its own shattering demise, we just love to experience devastation.
Academics, Dr Kaye Mitchell (University of Manchester), Dr Eleanor Byrne (Manchester Metropolitan University), and Dr Michael Sayeau (University College London), joined forces with avid readers and writers at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester last Thursday to discuss this fascination with dystopias, and delve into the murky depth that is the dystopian novel.
The event, organised in collaboration with The George Orwell Trust, offered three individual talks, followed by a group discussion between the three academics, stimulated by questions from the audience.
First up was Dr Kaye Mitchell, whose research focuses on contemporary literature and culture, with a particular focus on gender and sexuality, critical theory and narratology. It seemed right that Kaye speak first, seen as her talk concentrated on the meaning of the terms ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’, offering extremely insightful points to introduce guests to the world of the dystopian novel. Through revealing that the word utopia is a community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities, and the word dystopia being coined from this as simply the opposite, Kaye highlighted that the two terms are not as different as you would first assume. The terms are slippery and indeterminate; ‘one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia’.
Kaye also focused upon the political drive of dystopian novels such as 1984, and questioned whether authors still write politically when creating dystopias. Do such authors aim to send a message about the state of society, or are they simply following a winning formula? This is a question Kaye left unanswered, choosing to put it to the audience instead to discuss later on.
Next up was Dr Ellie Byrne, whose research includes postcolonial literature and theory, nineteenth and twentieth century English literature, African and Caribbean writing and poststructuralism and feminism. Ellie’s talk very much focused upon the relationship between literature and democracy, and the ways in which the two are inextricably linked through freedom of imagination, creativity and speech—rights that are non-existent in Orwell’s 1984society.
Ellie offered different perspectives of dystopian novels in the light of postcolonialism and its effects on the western outlook towards other countries. When discussing dystopic societies, Ellie highlighted that they often exude fears of natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, as well as man-made disasters such as war. However, Ellie stated that, ‘looking into the future is a titillation that the West can afford’. Here she touched upon the imbalance in the fact that Westerners enjoy watching their buildings and homes artificially submerged in water, their societies decimated by war, however, for many countries across the world these issues are happening presently, yet we do nothing.
Dr Michael Sayeau’s research examines the relationship between the narrative rendering of the temporality of lived experience and life stories and wider developments in the social conception of time. Michael, Keeper of the George Orwell Archive at University College London, was more interested in discussing the popularity of the dystopic form and the ways in which authors remain traditional to the literary form, whilst simultaneously pushing its boundaries. He discussed novels such as: The Time Machine and 1984, and their use of romance—the most traditional literary hook. ‘At the heart of every story, dystopias included, is a tale of romance, and if an author wants to convey a political message, he must utilise romance to suck people in’.
He also looked into the reasons why 1984 is taught throughout the world, and also why it remains so popular with teens and adults alike. His answer – ‘Rebellion’. The control and surveillance conveyed in 1984 directly reflects the controlling presence of parents, whilst the constant surveillance of the bedroom mirrors a teenage angst at not being able to have sex.
The first audience question asked the academics to highlight their thoughts on what makes a novel dystopian, and how authors retain our attention without sending us into a depressive hole of desperation. Their answer was extremely simple: it is indeed hope that keeps us turning the pages. Without hope we would give up to the darkness of the novel’s dystopian world.
Another popular question amongst the guests regarded the recent rise in sales of 1984, and the implications of this.  All three academics agreed that this is probably due to people seeking answers. In a society dominated by CCTV and paranoia that no information is truly secret or safe, it isn’t surprising that people are reverting to literature for some enlightenment. Their fear of where our society is headed is clear.

Overall the event was extremely successful and one that encouraged much debate amongst its audience. One guest noted, ‘it’s so interesting to discuss utopias and dystopias, especially given our current climate and the rejuvenated popularity of these controversial texts’. Discussions such as this once again affirm the value of the humanities and their use when discussing real, hard-hitting political issues. I would certainly encourage anyone interested in these issues to look at Anthony Burgess’ work, and expect to be both enthralled and possibly offended at the same time, in the most glorious ways.
Siobhan studies English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan and is an inspiring writer, hopeless optimist and romantic, and a complete technophobe. Follow Siobhan on Twitter @smo_07

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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