Yesterday in class we touched upon Dystopian societies in our discussion of Snow Crash (which I am thoroughly enjoying and am having to prevent myself from finishing too quickly). I have always been fascinated by the utopian fantasies (mainly from Chapter 7 of The Republic by Plato) and more importantly the dystopian societies described in detail in such literary works as 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Giver by Luis Lowry and finally in my most recent reading, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
The word “utopia” comes from the title of a book written by Sir Thomas More, an English author from the 14-15th Century, and was the name of a fictional island off the Atlantic Coast with a perfect societal system. The word itself means “nowhere” in Latin. Utopia was mainly based off the discourses in The Republic, in which Plato held a Socratic debate with many of his pupils who then transcribed what was said. Utopias are a bit boring though, because they describe the perfect society, and who wants to read an action packed novel about a flawless society? Authors have chosen to focus more on dystopian (or negative utopian) societies, because they can be great story-telling tools; they enable to author to effectively comment on the defective societies around them by depict these systems in terms that everyone can understand.
One such influential novel is 1984 which was published in 1949, shortly after George Orwell witnessed the effects of totalitarianism and the Second World War on society. In this world, there is one central power, ‘the party.” This is a society entirely controlled by the government, in which every home is bugged and has a video screen that has a dual purpose, that of streaming in endless party propaganda and that of recording all movements made by the people inside. Nothing is missed and when (not if) someone in the party is found to have committed thoughtcrime (any kind of negative thought aimed at the current political system) they are tortured and either reconditioned or put to death in the Ministry of Love. All media is controlled as well, the protagonists job is to falsify documents and to “correct” news from the past (essentially alter information so that the party is always correct) and to ensure that the “corrected” information does not conflict with any other information. The party controls all knowledge and rewrites history to benefit itself. Orwell wrote this anti-totalitarian novel because of what he observed in societies that were developing around him.
So far in Snow Crash, a quite distinct dystopian society is being described and commented on. This is a world opposite but also very similar to 1984. In Snow Crash society has fractured completely, technology has allowed people to entirely subsist in their own tiny worlds, possibly in a burbclave (Snow Crash’s suburbs) with its own government and police system, or in a tiny 5 by 10 U-Stor-It unit. This is a society essentially without a government, a place where small city-states exist everywhere and anyone and everyone is for hire. It maybe be technologically advanced, but it is a also a system that is entirely devoid of social contact, where people can live their entire existence in an online virtual world called the Metaverse. So far the world appears pretty corrupt where Mafias and pizza delivery bosses control all. There is no central police force; the police have to be literally hired. This creates an interesting world that is foreseeable in our future; it is a speculative fiction that comments on what might happen. I am excited to see how this dystopian world plays out for Hiro Protagonist and to see what Stephenson has to say about where I society is currently headed.