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Transcript of Dystopia: Questions
Questions and Issues
There is no dystopia without a question of philosophy. By its very nature dystopian literature is philosophy incarnate. An author envisions a world which does not yet exist, but it may someday. An author foresees a world which is best to be avoided, but perhaps we cannot. An author fears the worst that he/she sees over the horizon, but hopes for best by warning those who will listen. But what questions do these authors ask? What exactly do they wish for us to question about the world that may be here tomorrow? What do they want us to see more clearly by reading their tales.
Though there are entirely too many individual literary works within the dystopian sub genre to examine in depth, there are several widely addressed philosophical questions that have been posed by authors, film makers, and game creators. the following is a sampling of those questions specifically chosen to highlight some of the most profound issues in modern philosophy.
Philosophy is traditionally divided into three categories: knowledge, reality, and value (Velasquez 11). Beyond that philosophy extends to include various single-subject areas of inquiry such as art, science, the meaning of life, so forth and so on. (Velasquez 17). Dystopian works, when viewed as a whole, as a complete comprehensive sub-genre, tend to touch on virtually all of these categories in one way or another at various times.
The dystopian society differs from that of today in several ways, presenting and commenting on class matters and other social issues.
Criminal defense lawyers are obligated to defend a client, no matter their crime. However, this begs the question, “
Is the unethical aspects of dystopia in general become ethical aspects over a period of time?
Dystopian literature usually establishes a foundation of day-to-day normalcy. The better ones draw you into life and then create characters dealing with conditions of life being overwhelming and the denial of personal freedom in any and many manners. In contrast to Fahrenheit 451, the story behind Star Trek – TNG “The Measure of a Man,” while not particularly dystopian, shows the full measure of ethical considerations on a daily basis, and additionally extends those considerations towards the android Data. Captain Stewart can barely contain his animosity towards the scientist who intends to break down and duplicate Data, whether good or bad the outcome, with no guarantees.
In most cases, Dystopia is written to get people thinking. Its something like a Door that opens up into a room of mirrors; You’re taken into a possible future or an alternate timeline and are shown yourself in that world, dealing with issues that you may not have noticed were there. By that logic, Dystopia seems to exist to ask questions. In post-apocalyptic works, those tend to be fairly straight forward; namely, “How will we survive?” In ones where the government is totalitarian, like in The Hunger games and the portrayal of Britain in V for Vendetta, those questions lean towards “How do we fight?” and “How will we be heard?”.
There’s also one other, slightly more general question; “How did we get here?”
In Dystopian works the world can go from one highly similar to our own to one where basic rights and needs are something to be fought hard for - either amongst each other, or through hard work. Critical readers have the challenge of looking at the work to find a question; “How did the world become like this?” In some cases, ‘the how’ subtle. The movie Interstellar, for example, takes place in a near-future where crops were hit with a unnamed blight which left food a scarce resource. One can also find a warning in the answer to that question; something along the lines of “If we don’t stop, the future will be a nightmare”.
Another example of a question is “Is it worth the cost?” In The Giver, by Lois Lowry the world first appears to be a Utopia, but the further you get into the story, the more you see that it isn’t. People have lost perception of color and the ability to feel emotions, and their society is governed by strict rules coupled with harsh punishments. Is the ‘Peace’ worth losing one of the things that most people consider as something that makes us human? In a way its almost a matter of perspective, as depending on who you ask, the result might very well be worth that cost.
So, what other questions and issues does the subgenre bring up?
An important ethical issue of 451 is controlling citizens’ thoughts. The then authorities were following the law as it was then interpreted. Montag was not allowed to publicly vent his differences, or any thought of disharmony. While defending their laws, no reading of books, and no possessing of books, if one spoke out differently one would be subject to the firing squad, both literally and figuratively. However, must we follow an immoral law? Many dystopian stories override that aspect of freedom of speech we so highly prize in the U.S. justice system. Our Bill of Rights protects “Freedom of Speech” as number one right to be protected. Dystopian stories in general and Fahrenheit 451 in particular express the right to control your thoughts. While we cannot incite people to negative action with spoken thoughts, we are clearly allowed to think anything we want. We cannot or might not want to follow the law on moral grounds, but you may find yourself facing a firing squad.
Some dystopian works address metaphysical issues and delve into the inquiry of “What is real?” This is achieved through a variety of methods. One of which includes the introduction of a reality which is unfamiliar to accepted conventions. For example, The Matrix, “...depicts a dystopian future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a simulated reality called "the Matrix", created by sentient machines to subdue the human population, while their bodies' heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source.” (”The Matrix”) Authors who introduce alternate realities have different motives for doing so, some of which might include the following: the author aims to overhaul the prevailing doctrine of reality; the author seeks to create an unrecognizable reality in order to distance the storyline from his/her time and place and render it safer to criticize certain issues, power structures, norms, etc. without ruffling too many feathers; the author wants to prompt creative minds to take things a step further and bring about the newly described reality.
DYSTOPIA: Post #2
Realizing that books are forbidden is another indication that 451 expresses unethical confines, as perceived today. Fahrenheit 451 expresses no ethical point of view other than its unnatural acceptance of the authoritarian “Big Brother,” the controlling sector, making decisions for the citizenry for their own good. Ray Bradbury brings you right into the lifestyle of the average day-to-day citizen, craftily lulling you into complacency before the realization hits that it’s the dystopia itself constraining personal freedoms. According to the 451 government, doing what has to be done to maintain the status quo of the life, is ethical. Perhaps the acceptance of skewed thinking, speaks more to the social and philosophical aspects of this dystopian subgenre.
It would certainly seem to have evolved so over a period of time as supported by “Official Censors” Captain Beatty states authoritatively to Montag, charged with being “the custodians of peace.” … the captain’s explanation of firemen. (p 51). There are examples of Official Censors evident throughout history. Specifically, for example, in the time of Hitler’s Germany (1933-1945) the Torah, amongst every other book written and published and in any way connected to the Jews, were torched in the streets of Poland and elsewhere, supposedly teaching the citizenry a lesson. No respect was given to the books, and no thought was given to the writers and their legacy. It was a travesty of ethics to be sure. Does man have the right to destroy literature? Again, acceptance of this is evidence of dystopian literature.
Attorneys must comply with a Professional Code of Conduct which classifies ethics as a professional conduct. While these ethical considerations are mnt. The prosecution or State’s lawyer’s job is to prove every element charged against that defendant/client. In Old English law, the law upon which our justice system is founded, the prosecution and defense teams worked together to get a conviction. If it wasn’t the charged defendant, then it was to find the guilty party. Nowadays our legal system is out-of-step with Old English law. The legal system has become so complicated, the defense lawyer may know his client is guilty of an evil deed, but protects him at all costs. The prosecutor or State’s lawyer’s job is to get a conviction. Each side of the argument must conduct their business ethically. Dystopia seems to have no room for ethics.
This same lack of ethics is expressed in the destruction of man’s literature. Being dystopian literature,
is far removed from typical ethical considerations. The lives and lifestyles have moved far beyond concerns about the mere negation of citizens’ rights as we know them. Does the acceptance of “wrong” over a period of time make “wrong” more acceptable or easier to live with? Not according to this writer.
, Janet McNulty’s heroine, Dana, upon graduation from school is handed her job assignment for the rest of her life. In dystopian literature the dysfunctional family and socio-economic dynamic is the first order of the day. How is it that humanity, fantasy or otherwise, bargains off their freedoms so lightly. In this story the reigning president promises to make life better; but, cannot. Each successive president made promises, saying only “The problem is the system,” (p 14). Further, concessions were made to the unethical yet socially acceptable president, as he kept getting re-elected, congress grants him more and more power over the people. When uprisings occurred due to the failure of the president to bring about change, the president overran the districts with military. The country was re-districted and attempts to control the citizenry with pecuniary rules and edicts were the order of the day. Dystopia seems to be founded upon a communist type premise that speaking out against the system brings dire consequences, and ultimately a death sentence.
When faced with her sister’s failure to appear at Wing 16 of the hospital for re-assignment, the officers break into the house and takes her sister “for failure to report to Wing 16 of the hospital” (p 2). When faced with the declining time of her grandfather’s life, instead of keeping him alive, his family joylessly complies with the edict and marches him off to Wing 16 of the hospital never to be seen again. Ethical seems to have no place in these stories. “No one ever returns from Wing 16”. (p 17). Ultimately, Dana is assigned to Waste Management because she insists on speaking out, asking questions, and generally bucking the system. Life didn’t last very long if you were assigned to Waste Management. After receiving her assignment she thought “Waste Management. Had she been that troublesome”? (p 4).
It is interesting to note that the dystopian subgenre is equally expressed in Eileen Gunn’s
. The school children are again being tested and given a role in life based on their accomplishments to date. The government hands these positions out and to speak out against it brings severe punishments. Over a period of time it would seem dystopian literature expresses man’s desire to control the population around him and dispose of those undesirables. “The monitors called everyone to attention and told them to put their headsets on…” (p 638). The early reference to the “Asia Center,” discovered to the Euthanasia Center, is where Elizabeth’s friend Sheena is sent to. “My mom says I’ll probably go to the Asia Center tomorrow, because I’m so fidgety”. (p 642).
Dystopian stories emphasize the structure of the lives in an atmosphere uniquely human.
In accepting the “bent A-frame” of dystopian literature, each story expresses what becomes an acceptable aspect of life, and what has become taboo. In Fahrenheit 451 for example almost immediately Montag expresses an underlying current of dissatisfaction with life in general as he contemplates the young neighbor who seems to have captured his thoughts. The story begins to support the eventual firing squad ending.
Clearly dystopian literature is a warning for all future generations.
Dissolution of the family unit
When a character’s entire family is well adjusted to the dystopia, a character conscious of the wrongs of that society becomes ostracized. The dissolution of the family is more prevalent when children are property of the state, or when cloning replaces conventional reproduction. In
, Guy Montag loses his connections with his wife. Furthermore, in
Brave New World
, children are cloned rather than born so family ties cease to exist and the idea itself is obscene. The children in
are taught to spy on their parents, leading the protagonist, Winston, to live in fear.
Loss of privacy
Characters often lose privacy as a result of living in a world with an overbearing government. Cameras, spies, and even family members may inform on those around them. In 1984, people are under constant surveillance. Citizens of this society and that of
Brave New World
are discouraged from spending any time alone
In the futuristic world, the class system changes, causing the disappearance of the middle class. The richest and poorest classes may be polarized, leading the lower class to decline in intelligence, power, and skills. With a class of people only fit for menial labor, dystopian novels raise questions about the value of the lower class and humanity in general. In
Brave New World
, all clones are made with social class in mind, determining intelligence, occupation, and force of will. The ‘Epsilon’ citizens have no ambition to rise in the world, and are conditioned to only gain pleasure from their chosen positions. In
The Hunger Games
, the people of the capital live with such great affluence, while the people of district 12 frequently starve to death.
In a dystopia, people of certain races, classes, or those possessing certain proclivities are dehumanized and mistreated. These instances may be interpreted as a criticism of bigotry present at the time of writing. In
Brave New World
, there are communities of ‘savages’ outside the dystopia. The comments made about them shows a clear condemnation of imperialism in America.
Loss of individuality
A dystopia may be built upon the status quo, and any deviation from the norm is discouraged. Likewise, citizens lose their individuality, credit is not given where it is due, and anyone who does not blend into the crowd is in danger. In
, books are burned to keep all people at an even footing, discouraging individuality.
Epistemological issues--aka the study of “How do we know what we know?”--are sometimes invoked in dystopian works of science fiction. A lot of what we, the members of the audience, know and are willing to accept is affected by and limited to what we are already familiar with (i.e. our earthly experiences, measurements and experiments) and perceive to be true. Authors of dystopian works who stretch the boundaries of our collective imagination and understanding walk a fine line between introducing new possibilities/realities and turning off audiences who might otherwise be skeptical of a story’s conditions that run afoul of the prevailing knowledge of the day. To broaden the audience’s horizons, or to escape from the confines of academia and accepted theories, authors of dystopian works take the audience on a trip to another place, time, reality, at times employing new technologies and/or discoveries, in order to open a door to a realm of new possibilities which is free from the constraints of having to fit neatly into the current accepted paradigm. This transition allows the audience to let its collective guard down and more readily accept the new conditions the author is presenting.
The online Encyclopedia Britannica’s science fiction article makes reference to and gives examples of this literary tactic stating, “Many SF writers, like Heinlein, took particular pleasure in upsetting the most basic tenets of the human condition. John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977) is an archive of methods to shatter old human verities: characters die and are reborn as clones, change sex with ease and alacrity, make backup tapes of their personalities, and undergo drastic acts of surgery—all in a space-dwelling society that accepts such things as normal.” (“science fiction. ” 13) The article goes on to say, “Science fiction writers have spent much effort conceiving societies that are neither perfect nor horrific but excitingly different, alien to human experience. Robert Heinlein's greatest popular success, the novel Stranger in a Strange Land(1961), paints the fate of a prophet and social reformer who was raised by Martians. A Martian human has no earthly shibboleths, so the story's weird hero cuts briskly through almost every pious human custom relating to sex, death, religion, and money. For obvious reasons, Heinlein's work was a countercultural icon in the 1960s” (“science fiction. 13”)
The philosophical value issues include social, ethical and political issues amongst other things. Here our focus is on political philosophy. (For a discussion on social and ethical matters please see discussion above.) Dystopian works of science fiction often have a tendency to address political issues; typical underlying themes typically revolve around the question of what is and isn’t a proper, legitimate and/or desirable form of government and what constitutes favorable government behavior. In George Orwell’s 1984 we see several examples of dodgy governmental behavior including, but not limited to, vastly over-reaching governmental surveillance of civilians and government-sponsored disinformation and propaganda. Another example of undesirable government behavior is exemplified in Ray Bradbury’s 451 in which governmental actors burn books and seekers of knowledge alike. The authors of dystopian works tend to include political themes in their stories usually either to warn the audience of how things could become if a current political trend continues unchecked or as an exposé against how things actually are at the time of the work.
Other areas of philosophical inquiry employed in dystopian works of science fiction include an examination of technology, aesthetics, the meaning of life, and things of that nature. An example of philosophical technological inquiry can be seen in “E.M. Forster's much-anthologized story The Machine Stops (1909) [which] was written as a counterblast to Wellsian technical optimism. The story depicts a soulless push-button, heavily networked world.” (“science fiction. 12”) In Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (1921) “robots outcompete humanity within the new milieu of industrial mass production and attempt to exterminate the human race.” (“science fiction. 15”) Similar to how political themes are used in dystopian works, the technological themes prevalent in dystopia often serve as either a wake-up call or a sign of things to come.
The philosophy of aesthetics abounds in dystopian works as well. Anytime the author of a dystopian work describes the physical characteristics of a person, place or thing, aesthetical issues come into play and can skew the audience’s perception and interpretation of certain elements of the story. The author of a dystopian work can use this dynamic to great effect. For illustration purposes, if a dystopian author sought to discredit a government, in addition to describing the government’s bad behavior, the author could describe in detail the wretched setting and conditions over which the government presides thereby stirring the audience’s emotions, possibly triggering something unpleasant in the audience’s memory, and discrediting the intended target of the audience’s disdain even more thoroughly.
What does it mean to be human?
Science fiction lends itself to the question of humanity in a number of ways. It always a completely theoretical approach to human identity. It offers a means of examining humanity through the lens of an impartial observer. It allows us to see our relationship with other humans through the relationships with non human analogues. In Isaac Asimov's I, Robot we are forced to question what it means to be human and to simply serve humans. In the story the robots come to the conclusion that human beings are the greatest threat to mankind and attempt to enslave humanity for its own good. With war, murder, violence, greed, and hatred (all characteristics unknown to robots), we as the audience and the hypothetical subjects of Asimov's query must come to a philosophical realization that we are in fact our own worst enemy.
But we see in Star Trek TNG that the question over human identity may be more isometric than we would like to admit. While it may not be considered a dystopia in many regards, it offers an example of how dystopia may be subjective to who is involved i. the story. In the episode a synthetic person is forced to fight over his right to free choice. On one side of the argument he is artificially manufactured much like any other tool of Starfleet. But on he other side he satisfies all the requirements to be considered sentient. From Data's perspective, and any robot in the Star Trek universe, they are victims of a dystopian society in which their own identities are disputed and their status is equivalent to soulless machinery. The philosophical question we must ask ourselves is not what makes a robot human, but what prejudices make one human lesser than another.
Ridley Scott's groundbreaking film Blade Runner may offer the most robust ambiguity to the definition of humanity. The film involves a dystopian future in which human beings can be manufactured by a corporation and used for the sole purpose of serving humanity. But when several of these replicants attempt to break free from their servitude, they are hunted down by a human police assassin. After killing all but one replicant the human confronts the final target and finds himself at the replicant's mercy. But the replicant lets the human go, sparing his life in a final demonstration of humanity that was nonexistent in the human hunter. Is human identity a birthright, or could it be a collection of choices? If we as human choose to forgo our humanity, are we as human as the machines we build in our image our less so?
Can individualism survive in dystopia?
George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 are tales written independently of each other and yet still somehow address this question in an identical manner. From a philosophical stand point it is not the great masses of people who identify their world as a dystopia. They may be subject to it. They may even be victims of it. But they are typically in one way or another contributors to their own dystopias. It is the minority who understands their own existence. It is the single protagonist who pulls at the thread of their existence and unravels their own understanding of society. In 1984 it is Winston who is broken down by the weight of society and must conform to survive. In Fahrenheit 451 Montag finds a small group of like minded individuals, but their noble endeavor is nearly hopeless against the sheer mass of society's majority.
Philosophically speaking, we can read these two stories and question what we believe to be right. As social creatures we are inclined to accept something as right if it is accepted by most. The problem with that mentality is that the concept of safety in numbers severely limits one's ability to observe and reason from other perspectives. The moral of these two stories is not to avoid socialism and appreciate books, the moral is to always be wary of the direction that the herd travels for it may lead somewhere less desirable.
Is the price of survival too great a cost for humanity?
The film The Matrix and the novel The Time Machine may not seem altogether congruous in their philosophical approach, but in fact they examine this question in a nearly identical manner. In H.G. Wells' the Time Machine we a given a glimpse of the far future and witness the duality of dystopia. Humanity has become nothing more than livestock. They ate allowed to live peaceful, simple, and pleasurable lives but that lifestyle comes at a price. Occasionally the herd is culled to feed the superior beings. In many ways, for both of the groups, this is a utopia. A balance has been struck, and endured for many generations. War does not exist, nor does hunger or toil. But the price is too hideous for us to imagine.
The Matrix films explore this idea but less from an evolutionary approach and more from a digital one. Human beings exist in an entirely virtual world and remain unaware of this fact for their entire existence. In return, humans unknowingly provide energy for the advanced machines that have enslaved them. Again, one may argue that ignorance is bliss and both parties benefit from this parasitic relationship. But once again, the dystopian sub genre begs the question of what price are we willing to pay to ensure our continued survival as a species? Human arrogance typically accepts the fact that we will continue to develop and advance and eventually become the masters of our future. But dystopian philosophy acknowledges the possibility that our continuation as significant lifeforms in the universe may eventually come with a price tag that some will find to high to pay.
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