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The Evolution of Dystopian Literature by Mary Elizabeth Baldwin

Abstract: This paper served as my Honors Senior Thesis, which I composed my final year of undergrad, and was reviewed and approved by two literature professors before being completed. It compares two works of dystopian fiction, George Orwell’s 1984, and Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, both of which were written in response to current events unfolding at the time. They portray worlds, both past and future, that comment on contemporary problems and make the reader question our current society. Furthermore, my thesis discusses how these novels prove to be dystopian, and why this genre is still important for the literary world today. These novels hold incredible power, and continue to influence and affect people living in a world 60-70 years after they were written. My thesis explains the events proceeding 1984 and The Man in the High Castle, shows how these works of literature remain relevant, and also compares them to modern adaptations of dystopian literature. Overall, the dystopian narrative is an important aspect of our literary world, and can give us insight into our real political and social concerns.


Dystopian literature has sparked an interest, particularly in teens and adolescents, over the past couple of decades. This phenomenon has occurred many times in history, typically during a period of change or controversy in the country’s political climate. Two of the most renowned works to fall into this genre are George Orwell’s 1984 and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Both novels feature middle aged protagonists who essentially have no control over their lives and the world they live in. In recent years, a new genre commonly called “Young Adult” (YA) dystopian fiction has also become increasingly popular, representing worlds that parallel our own in a safe and fictional way. Works such as The Hunger Games (Collins 2008) and Divergent (Roth 2011) depict disturbingly corrupt societies in which young protagonists are somehow, by means of extraordinary talent and dumb luck, able to save the world. This type of story tends to give young readers hope and confidence, and many become “adventure franchises” which are later adapted into movies and tv shows. Overall, dystopian literature has certainly changed dramatically in recent years, but overall interest in these stories and how they represent our society, seems everlasting.

1984: A Haunting Representation of our Modern World

It is speculated that George Orwell’s influence for writing 1984 was as a response to the buildup of atomic weapons after World War II. The creation of the atomic bomb brought warfare to a whole new level, and one that it could not come back from. Orwell’s portrayal of Oceania in the novel, is that of a state that is mostly destroyed by nuclear war, and that lives in constant fear of being attacked by its enemies while possessing a permanent threat to those that oppose it. Orwell “gives an impressive picture of how a society must develop which is constantly preparing for war, constantly afraid of being attacked, and preparing to find the means of complete annihilation of its opponents” (Fromm 262). This feeling is repeatedly found throughout history, first during WWII, then the Cold War, and even now in our own post 9/11 society. Oceania leaves a lasting impression on readers because it contradicts the idea that “we can save freedom and democracy by continuing an arms race and finding a ‘stable’ deterrent” (Fromm 262), which was a popular idea in the mid-20th century. Many people believed that no country with nuclear weapons would ever attack the US out of fear of retaliation, but 1984 shows something quite different. Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia do not withhold their weapons out of fear of repercussions, but rather constantly bomb one another, until whoever is left standing becomes the ultimate victor.

However, Orwell does not just warn against modern war tactics but also the invention of other technologies like telescreens and listening devices. Winston and his fellow comrades live in a world where they are under constant video and audio surveillance throughout most of their lives, a phenomenon that was not yet possible at the time Orwell was writing but that is frighteningly real today. Orwell “was imaging the possible consequences of political totalitarianism in his own time and taking especially into account how modern technologies would make such totalitarianism more possible than ever before” (Jackson 376). Therefore, Orwell recognized the limits of totalitarian governments during his own time period but forewarned that with the rise of technology, governments would be able to supervise and control both the actions and the thoughts of its citizens like never before. In many ways, 1984 is more representative of the world in which we live in today than it was of post WWII Britain, due to the significant increase in modern technology.

A serious invasion of privacy in our own country became increasingly apparent to the public in 2013 when Edward Snowden’s “exposure of the mass spying conducted by the United States National Security Agency” (Giroux 22), caused a frenzy among the American public. This sparked a ton of controversy and citizens compared the spying to that of Orwell’s “Big Brother.” Ironically enough, the government’s reasoning for the operation was to protect against terrorists, like the ones who caused the 9/11 attacks. It seems as if the more protections we try to put in place, the more our country itself begins to look like a dystopia. Executives from both political parties such as Obama and Trump have suggested Snowden should be brought home and face criminal charges; however, many Americans consider him a hero. Congress responded to the incident by passing the “USA Freedom Act, improving transparency about government surveillance and limited government power to collect certain records” (Roth & Shetty). Despite Snowden bringing forth an important political and social issue and the resulting adjustment in the law, politicians still have tried to paint him as the “bad guy.” He is comparable to the 1984-character Goldstein, whose existence is never proven in the novel, but whom acts as the Party’s scapegoat. Snowden may have breached confidentiality, but his actions appear to have been more beneficial to society than harmful.

Furthermore, critics have claimed that the current administration is partially, if not mostly, responsible for the public’s sparked interest in dystopian novels as well as depicts frightening parallels to the governments described in these books. Similar to the world of “Big Brother,” Trump’s administration turned American politics into a “spectacle of fear, divisions and disinformation” (Giroux 21). The government has become a parallel to the government of Oceania, which is full of contradictions. Winston’s world is divided into four ministries, “the Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news…The Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war; the Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order, and the Ministry of Plenty” (Orwell 8). It’s obvious early on in the novel that each of these ministries are hypocritical to their titles, and that they all play a role in maintaining the “fear, divisions and disinformation” of Oceania.

The most famous and utterly shocking parallel between the current administration and Oceania is Kellyanne Conway’s mention of “alternative facts” during a press conference in 2017. The media exploded after this conference, describing the term as a “move reminiscent of the linguistic inventions of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth” (Giroux 23). Not to mention, many speculators have claimed that “alternative facts” is simply an “updated term from what Orwell called ‘doublethink’” (Giroux 23). Doublethink is defined as “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them” (Orwell 32). In the novel, Doublethink is used as a tool for people to prevent themselves from being guilty of thoughtcrime. This could range from simply not believing in what the Party says to actually plotting against the Party. Doublethink is a way for the citizens of Oceania to protect themselves from the Party when they know what they are being told is untrue. People have argued that Conway’s use of the term “alternative facts” was the executive branch’s attempt to legitimize the practice of doublethink and get away with false claims. Overall, this ordeal made the public frantic, and people began to worry over whether or not they could believe what the government tells them.

A prime example of doublethink in the novel is when Winston is told that Oceania is at war with Eurasia, and that they always have been at war with Eurasia. However, Winston distinctly remembers “it was only four years prior since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia” (Orwell 31-32). Like Winston, those who know that Oceania was once at war with Eastasia never admit it, and simply accept that Oceania is at war with Eurasia because to do otherwise would be to go against the Party. As Winston’s character goes to show, doublethink proves to be a difficult task when one possesses a strong conscience and the need for the truth. It is unfortunate that Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” is where Winston holds his job falsifying records. Although he does not agree with the actions of the Party, he even admits “if all records hold the same tale- then the lie passes into history and [becomes] truth” (Orwell 32). Winston’s personal struggle throughout the novel is to convince himself not to commit thoughtcrime, but in the end, his conscience refuses to let him overlook the injustices that the Party is guilty of.

Moreover, Orwell’s world also emphasizes the importance of language, and how it can be used to make or break society. Language takes on a very peculiar form in 1984 with the development and perfection of Newspeak. Newspeak is one of the Party’s several tactics to keep the public of Oceania oppressed by “steadily reducing the number and kind of words in the dictionary and, of course, enforcing the diction as the source of speech” (Jackson 380). In the novel, Newspeak is still being perfected, and Winston’s comrade Syme, is currently working on the most updated edition, with its end goal being the simplest form of speech possible. Syme tells Winston as they wait for their food, “You think, I dare to say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words- scores of them, hundreds of them every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone.” (Orwell 45). Therefore, even Syme admits that it is Newspeak’s main objective to reduce the number of words used in Oceania’s vocabulary, but he seems too fascinated with the task to register the imminent danger that comes with destroying words. Syme admits to Winston that “the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought” (Orwell 46), and by doing so the Party will be able to achieve further control over its people. Thoughtcrime will be “literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it” (Orwell 46). Therefore, the goal of Newspeak is to create a language that would make it impossible to commit treason against the Party. Ironically enough, Winston during this conversation thinks, “Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent” (Orwell 47), a prediction that will eventually come true. Therefore, Orwell warns how language, and its complexity, are important to keep a society going. Language allows people to express their thoughts and ideas freely, and the more restricted a language becomes the easier it is for a government to control its people.

The simplicity and reduction of language is another way in which skeptics compare the Party to the current administration, with Trump’s avid use of platforms such as Twitter and his supposed “affection” for the uneducated. Trump has created his own way of delegitimizing language and speech with the #fakenews movement. The current Commander in Chief has used his Twitter account, a platform that is specifically designed to get one’s point across in very few words, to take “ownership of the notion of ‘fake news’ [by] inverting its original usage as a critique of his perpetual lying and redeploying it as a pejorative label aimed at journalists who criticized his policies” (Giroux 26). Therefore, by delegitimizing the speech and language of those who oppose him, he essentially controls what the country can claim as “real journalism” and what is deemed as “#fakenews.” This control is frightening to the public, as what is true and untrue has become indistinguishable. On top of all of this our society has in general begun to use fewer words. With almost the entire millennial generation on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, our minds have been taught to think in the simplest forms possible. Our lives and daily experiences are limited to captions of just a few words, preventing us from sharing complex ideas.

Overall, 1984 proves to still be relevant to our current society and administration. Oceania warns against many modern issues such as governmental infringement on the public’s privacy, the inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and the reduction of our language to its barest forms. 1984 divulges deeply into these issues despite being written 70 years ago, and serves as a platform for what dystopian fiction should look like. This novel has remained consistent in our culture due to the concerningly accurate parallels between Oceania and the world we live in. Ultimately, it is important for our society to continue to read and analyze this book because it presents us with a grim truth that many of us do not want to face, but which has become increasingly important.

The Resurgence of Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a novel that came out in the wake of the Cold War, also pertains to many of the social and political issues we are faced with today. The novel has received a newfound popularity among the public, now in its third season as an Amazon Prime series. The Man in the High Castle (MHC), a novel of Alternative History, depicts a dystopian United States that has been taken over by the Japanese Empire in the west and the German Reich in the east, with a lawless “wild west,” Neutral Zone in between. Dick’s multilayered world in MHC warns against the dangers of government interference in everyday life, as citizens, particularly American citizens, are closely watched by government police. Dick, like Orwell, manages to make commentary on over-intrusive governments and the importance of language to maintain freedom.

In MHC, the story focuses on a banned novel, a book within the book, titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which contradicts the emergence of the Japanese and German Empires. In Grasshopper, the United States and Great Britain become the victors of WWII. This does not parallel real history, with the US and Soviet Union claiming victory, but rather gives the reader a second version of alternative history (Gray 60). Grasshopper is written by a man named Hawthorne Abensen, the titular character, who is rumored to live in a secluded “fortress” to protect him from those who are outraged by his work. Grasshopper has been banned in the country and Juliana, the protagonist, wishes to meet the author. Public interest in banned literature has occurred quite significantly in this country with famous works such as The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger 1951), The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald 1925), and even J.K Rowling’s famous Harry Potter Series, being banned from schools and other public institutions on the grounds of having inappropriate or questionable content. Despite Grasshopper being “banned through the United States. And in Europe,” it is still described as “popular…Another fad. Another mass craze” (Dick 68). Therefore, Dick may be hinting that human curiosity and interest is more powerful than any government agency, even a totalitarian regime. Even still, by banning Grasshopper the government demonstrates its attempt to limit the people’s consciousness and keep them from fantasizing with these ideas.

The Man in the High Castle also dives deep into the question of right and wrong. It seems apparent in the novel, since it is mainly told through the perspectives of Americans Juliana, Frank Fink, and Robert Childan, that the “enemy” would be the German and the Japanese. However, in Grasshopper, due to its reversal of the victors, the whole concept of “right” and “wrong,” and “good” and “evil,” is put into question. It experiments with the idea that “evil is an illusion” (Rieder 215). After all, who is to say that the US and Great Britain would not be just as “evil” as the Japanese and German having won the war. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki certainly would be evidence to suggest so. Joe Cinnadella makes this argument when Juliana questions him about Grasshopper, stating “They talk about the things the Nazis did…The British have done worse…those mass fire-bombing raids that Churchill thought were going to save the war” (Dick 85). Here, we see the perspective of good and evil being flipped as Cinnadella exposes the evils committed by one of the Allied powers during the war. As we also see in 1984, the idea in “absolute evil” as pushed by the Party, is flawed. Much like Oceania’s enemy changes from Eastasia to Eurasia and back again, the characters and regimes in MHC prove to be just as ambiguous. The reader’s may find their alliance changing while reading the book, just as the perspective of the characters’ change.

Furthermore, suggesting that the Nazis and the Japanese were the true victors of WWII explores the idea that “Nazism really triumphed in World War II” (Rieder 215). After all, Nazism is what caused the war to begin with and brought significant devastation to Europe. Moreover, shortly after the conclusion of the war the US and the Soviet Union began the Cold War, frantically competing with one another to show off their power and arsenal of massive nuclear weapons. Rieder quotes Katherine Hayles in his interpretation of MHC, explaining “the winner of any war is locked into the necessity of continuing to fight, to maintain his superior position. This effort eventually destroys him…The winner is paradoxically the loser” (215). Therefore, in our own real world, the US and Soviet Union can be interpreted as losers because they were forced to continue to build up their arsenal and flaunt their political power long after the war ended. Other countries were able to focus on rebuilding, while we continued to fight.

What truly makes MHC such a captivating work of Alternative History, is not just that it makes us reflect on how we see the world and the governments which run it, but it also makes us reflect on ourselves as individuals. A character who repeatedly blurs the lines between right and wrong in the novel is Japanese Trade Minister Tagomi. Tagomi is the main representation of the Japanese Empire in the novel, and he plays sort of a double role throughout the entirety of the story. To American Robert Childan, he is an intimidating character, a Japanese official who essentially represents those who oppress the American culture. However, Tagomi plays a different role during his interactions with Mr. Baynes, the German official, where the latter clearly has the upper hand. Between these two characters we see how even in a world where the Japanese and German are the victors, there is still an imbalance of power between the two nations. More importantly, the tension between these two nations is a direct representation of that between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and how each country strived to maintain their political influence and standing.

However, Tagomi’s character becomes even more ambiguous at the end of the novel, when his character goes through a major developmental arch. It begins with his killing of two German SD men. Tagomi finds himself alone in a place where his own people have taken over. Tagomi eventually accepts his fate after he is transported to another world by means of a pendant that was given to him by Robert Childan. He finds himself in a San Francisco with no “pedecabs,” overrun by whites and concrete highways. He thinks “After death we seem to glimpse others, but all appear hostile to us. One stands isolated.” (246). Therefore, Tagomi’s journey to an alternate universe represents the current situation he is in. He is isolated now that he has murdered the two SD men and strained relations between the Japanese and German even further. It is only after this experience, that he is able to go into work and face his fate. Ultimately, Mr. Tagomi walks on the line of good and bad throughout the entirety of the novel. This ambiguity is part of what makes MHC so interesting to modern day readers, as it does not clearly differentiate between good and bad, but rather plays with the idea that humanity, in and of itself, is both.

This idea holds true for our political climate in the United States today. It has been argued that, now more than ever, politicians have been making decisions based on partisan politics instead of doing what is best for the country as a whole (Greene 396). Studies have shown that the party an individual chooses to support is due to more than just political values, but also social values. The social aspect of political parties makes one feel a strong connection with the party, and stirs up feelings of resentment towards the opposing party. It is said that, as humans, we tend to “instinctively categorize the world into myriad dichotomous groupings consisting of us and them” (Greene 394). Therefore, it is only natural to assume one’s own political party that they identify with as “good” and the opposing party as “bad.” In times of political unrest and controversy, it could even be easy to picture members of an opposing party as “evil” for not seeing that the ways of one’s favorable party as clearly right. Overall, the concept of good and bad is one that has been trifled over since human history began. It is natural for us to view our own group as being right and the other group as being wrong, but what novels such as MHC reminds us, is that the lines between these two opposing ideas are actually much more complex than they seem.

Ultimately, The Man in the High Castle, like 1984, addresses many of the same political and social issues that remain current in our society today. Dick warns about government interference in our everyday lives with the banning of Grasshopper. He shows that a government with the wrong intentions will limit its people’s freedom in what they can say, do, and write in order to remain in power. He also warns about the illusions that political parties can make in framing opponents as the “bad” guys. In a time of political controversy and unrest, it is easy to perceive those that hold different views as ourselves as being “bad,” but Dick reminds us that individuals, political parties, and even governments, are much more complex than they seem. Overall, Dick’s MHC confronts many problems our society has faced throughout history, and continues to face today, earning the novel its new place in popular culture.

Dystopian Literature for the Modern World

Our political climate has altered countless times since the publications of 1984 and The Man in the High Castle, and this change is now showing in the literature world. Nowadays, if you walk into a bookstore, you’re more than likely to find a “‘Young Adult Dystopian’ section” (Fisher 27), something you probably would not have come across 20 years ago. This new subgenre, if you will, has become mainstreamed into our culture, with narratives like The Hunger Games (2008) and Divergent (2011) series having huge sales and being adapted into movies. These novels resonate well with young readers because they “engaged feelings of betrayal and resentment rising in a generation asked to accept that its quality of life will be worse than that of its parents” (Fisher 27). Due to current issues impacting our society and the lives of young people, it appears they decided to develop their own literary response, and the results were massive.

The YA Dystopian narrative uses metaphors to portray problems and concerns arising in everyday society. This form of literature began trickling into the literary canon following the attacks on September 11, 2001 (Ames 3). These tragic attacks seemed to have once again brought this literary genre back to life, much like after WWII and the Cold War. However, this new brand of dystopian novels may not be solely influenced by atrocities such as 9/11, but also the aftermath of them. We now live in a society where it is considered normal to be on video multiple times a day, and we essentially have very little understanding of how much information our government can collect from us. People can now expect to have their belongings searched at the airport, as well as have to go through metal detectors at border security. We live in a world with ever increasing protections, however when these safety precautions begin to infringe on personal privacy, much like Orwell’s “Big Brother,” our society begins to increasingly reflect the conditions portrayed in these novels.

YA Dystopian novels help adolescents deal with these situations and pressures in a harmless way. The popularity of YA dystopian fiction comes from “seeking a safe space to wrestle with and perhaps displace, the fears they play upon” (Ames 7). However, it is also important to note that this new brand of dystopian literature not only presents readers with metaphorical political scenarios, but also resolves them, “amidst the comfortable narrative threads of young adult narratives: coming of age rituals, identity struggles, romantic love triangles…” (Ames 7). These novels almost always portray corrupt governments that are ultimately taken on by a teenager or young adult looking to “find themselves.” The protagonist typically overcomes a personal struggle while also being able to fight off a corrupt government and saving the society in which they live in. Although these stories are certainly entertaining and help build self-esteem in young adults, they do not necessarily portray the realities of over-intrusive governments and technologies as works like 1984 and MHC do.

In The Hunger Games, for example, Katniss and Peeta are able to change a longstanding tradition of having only one ultimate victor for the titular games, when they develop a relationship for the spectators watching them. In the novel, the “Gamemakers pick up on the romance by announcing that there will be a change in the rules…there can be two winners” (Fisher 28). Therefore, Katniss and Peeta, despite their apparent helpless position being the two tributes from the poorest district in Panem, District 12, are still able to change the tradition of how many tributes can win the games. Katniss and Peeta ultimately both walk away from the games as victors, having outsmarted not only the other adolescents forced into the competition, but those who created it as well.

It is quite clear how this kind of exceptional and confident protagonist differs greatly from the ones we see in 1984 and MHC. Winston, for example, does not have the same mental capability or power as Katniss Evergreen to deceive the always-watching eyes of “Big Brother.” The Party of Oceania is much more difficult, if not impossible, to allude, and anyone who is caught breaking the rules is punished severely. Although Winston believes he is out-smarting the Party by meeting Julia in secret, it is later revealed that the Party knew of their affair the whole time and was simply waiting for the right moment to arrest them. Therefore, the government in Oceania cannot be alluded by simple tricks and does not respond lightly to those who break the rules, making Oceania a lot more comparable to our own society. The same holds true for the Pacific United States and the Greater Nazi Reich in Dick’s novel. Juliana is able to avoid government control by living in the Neutral Zone, but she is limited to its confines, plus she puts herself in danger by venturing out of it to look for “the man in the high castle.” Overall, stories like The Hunger Games certainly have sparked attention in the past couple decades, but may not as accurately represent the danger of over intrusive governments as earlier works of dystopian literature.

While YA dystopian novels have been gaining the spotlight in popular culture, sales for the classics have also spiked in recent years. The New York Times article “George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is suddenly a best seller” claims that in 2017, Orwell’s famous 1984 saw an incredible “surge” in sales, “rising to the top of the Amazon bestseller list in the United States and leading its publisher to have tens of thousands of new copies printed” (de Freytas-Tamura). Therefore, it appears that over the past couple years people have become increasingly interested in early works of dystopian literature. Furthermore, the article also states that Philip K. Dick’s alternative history book The Man in the High Castle has also had an increase in sales, and is now in its third season as an Amazon television series. Ultimately, people are definitely becoming curious about dystopian literature, and this phenomenon makes us wonder whether our post 9/11 society has helped resurface anxieties about the future world we live in.

Overall, dystopian literature, despite having changed dramatically over the last couple of decades, continues to be a genre that fascinates the general public. It is clear that these novels serve as “reflections of the issues that were important to the period in which their authors lived” (Sargent 21). Orwell’s 1984 and Dick’s The Man in the High Castle portray attitudes of skepticism of one’s government and fear of the machine in several ways. The novels warn about the power of literature and how a government that controls it will have a greater control not just over its citizens’ actions, but their thoughts as well. Alongside sparked interest in novels like 1984 and The Man in the High Castle, so has a new, modern genre of dystopian fiction emerged, the Young Adult dystopian novel. These novels, like Collin’s The Hunger Games portray young protagonists who, unlike the earlier works, are able to use both moral and mental superiority to outsmart the political regimes that look to suppress them. Some critics argue that due to the subtle and overall positive nature of these novels, they might not have as long of a shelf-life, but these works still managed to engulf a whole generation of young readers. All in all, political structures may change and genres may alter, but the idea of dystopia and all that it represents will remain consistent in the literary world.

Works Cited

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