Finding Light Through Darkness in Dystopian Fiction – Part One

I’ve seen a meme floating around on Facebook of a Euler diagram linking together a host of dystopian movies and novels to an ominous undisclosed location. It started popping up during the start of the pandemic. Comments about the meme varied, yet I got the sense that those who responded were bound together by a hidden force nestled within the subconscious realm. What were people collectively tapping into? In a critique on Orwell’s writing style, Sam Jordison reveals something about 1984 that will resonate with visionary fiction fans: “You only have to look at the way it [1984] has altered our language and raised our collective consciousness of the dangers of the surveillance state.” Aside from Orwell’s “preposterous melodramatic incidents,” the horrors of 1984 evoke us to glimpse beyond society’s veil. This subconscious unveiling may explain why the dystopian meme went viral. Can dystopian stories that raise our collective consciousness be considered visionary fiction?

In Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Carl Jung viewed visionary fiction as an inverse of “psychological creations.” A visionary story is “a strange something that derives its existence from the hinterland of man’s mind—that suggests the abyss of time separating us from pre-human ages, or evokes a super-human world of contrasting light and darkness. It is a primordial experience, which surpasses man’s understanding and to which he is therefore in danger of succumbing.” To unwrap this definition, we’ll first explore our current society and the possible elements that might be prompting people to make the dystopian connection.

SOCIETY MIRRORING DYSTOPIAS

Here in the USA, privacy issues have been raised regarding the surveillance technology used to fight the pandemic. Contact tracing identifies people who may have encountered infected individuals. Apple and Google developed apps to streamline the process. It sounds noble. After all, who doesn’t want to stop the pandemic? Let’s now time travel to the post-pandemic world. Will the technology be rolled back? Dystopian stories, such as, 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, warn us that power is pervasive and controlling. The Patriot Act was supposed to be temporary, but Americans now accept it as a part of life, even after Edward Snowden opened our eyes to the surveillance state. Depending on your perspective, he’s a traitor, whistleblower, or part of a government psychological operation. If the latter is true—it meshes with stories, such as “1984,” where government operatives are part of the resistance. Trust no one!

Another emerging technology is 5G, which will play a significant role in smart cities and the Internet of Things (IOT). This hyper-connectivity has the potential to turn society into a panopticon. The term originated from English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, and related to a prison layout that enabled more control of the population. Postmodernist philosopher, Michael Foucault took the idea further and envisioned a society where citizens will feel as if they’re always under observation:

That sounds a lot like Big Brother from 1984! In the book, it’s not clear whether Big Brother is even real; however, citizens feel his omnipresence on their telescreens. The all-seeing eye is the main concept behind a panopticon. It’s interesting to add here that Foucault also wrote about panopticons in relation to a pandemic! 

I would argue that we’re partially in a panopticon. Online opinions are under the watchful eye of government officials and Internet activists. People who share popular views are rewarded, and those who don’t tow the accepted ideological line—even college professors—are considered savages that need to be erased out of society. A ten-year-old post can lead to public shaming and even career loss.  It seems as if mass-judgment has overshadowed evolutionary growth that comes with maturing and gaining wisdom. Ideological control is not a new phenomenon. Socrates was executed for unmasking the Greek ruling class and teaching people how to develop critical thinking skills.  

PANOPTICONS IN DYSTOPIAN FICTION

In a panopticon, Foucault asserted that power is knowledge. And with that power, knowledge can be used to shape the population with the help of technology. In a dystopian world, knowledge is either limited, falsified or withheld from the population. Mustapha Mond, from Brave New World is the Controller of the World State. He desires to make people happy. In his panopticon, he uses social control and the drug, soma, to stamp out conflict. In my book, Unison, the protagonist, Damon, had a similar mindset to Mond, but his experiences lead him out of that worldview. He had to leave the panopticon to understand he was living in one. “Our inventions have evolved beyond our ability to reason. I never stopped to realize technology has the potential to harm, and my shortsightedness condemned a whole population to servitude. Better to be free by candlelight than enslaved by conveniences.” His friend, Vivek, is disturbed with the statement. “So, what is your solution? Should we live with candles and the smell of yak manure for the rest of eternity? Would that not make us all defeatists—surrendering ourselves to the dark side of human nature?” Both characters never reach an agreed-upon conclusion. Their debate is an expression of my ambivalence over our ability to use technology wisely.

DARKNESS AND LIGHT

Can we collectively overcome the dark aspects of human nature and consciously evolve, or is it something that we first have to do as individuals? In Brave New World an outsider, John the Savage, is psychologically smothered while living in a hedonistic society. After a riot he’d incited, he protests to Mustapha Mond:

 The Savage also declares the right to be unhappy. He views the need of both darkness and light to live the full human experience. His tragic ending cancels out his statement in that his discomfort with the Brave New World ends up destroying him. Huxley later expressed regret over not giving John a third choice: being exiled to the Falkland Islands where he could express his individuality with other World State outcasts. From a visionary fiction perspective, the flawed characteristic of John the Savage  is that he preaches his worldview to the Deltas. When they don’t respond as expected, he becomes enraged and throws out their soma rations. Through John the Savage, we see that evolution of consciousness can’t be forced.

Ayn Rand’s Anthem gives us hope in a dreary world where, “I,” is considered an “unspeakable word.” The protagonist changes his name to Prometheus and evolves into an individual. He reflects on history and the lost battle of selfhood.

In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Montag decides never to burn books again. He encounters a group of men by a campfire that memorizes books to preserve them for the future. Montag has a transformative moment while staring at the flames, viewing them as warming instead of burning. The fire that he’d once used to destroy books now embraced him. Granger, one of the men at the campfire, views humankind as a phoenix that rises through the ashes and is born anew.

Rand and Bradbury both use the cyclical patterns of civilization. From darkness, we move towards a period of enlightenment, and we’re all too aware that we can again return to darkness. It is up to us to continue evolving and learning from our past.

Philip K. Dick used the I Ching for inspiration when he wrote the alternate history dystopian novel, The Man in the High Castle. The setting is post WWII where the Nazis defeated America. They control the Eastern side of the USA and Japan controls the West Coast.  Mr. Tagomi, the trade consultant of the Japanese Public States,  has a profound spiritual experience after gazing at a silver triangle: 

Moments like this bestow upon us a sparkle of optimism in otherwise helpless circumstances. Dystopian protagonists battle darkness by turning inward and evolve while doing so. It doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. Perhaps these tragic stories propel us to turn inward where we can honestly reflect on what we see happening around us. From there, we can consciously evolve.

 How about the effect on the visionary writer. What does it feel like to encounter the dark worlds they create?

Sometimes these “monstrous and meaningless happenings,” can weigh heavy on an author’s soul. Philip K. Dick had planned on writing a sequel to “The Man in the High Castle.” He’d made several attempts but didn’t have the endurance to get into the head of the Nazis again.  If you would like to read more about Carl Jung’s connection to visionary fiction, click  here and here to read more by fellow visionary fiction author, Victor Smith.

 

In part two, I link to how these dystopian stories connect to a Universal world view and how they can evoke an expansion of consciousness. I will also touch upon how beliefs we have about ourselves and the world can sometimes hold us back from looking beyond society’s veil.

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10 thoughts on “Finding Light Through Darkness in Dystopian Fiction – Part One

  1. Saleena Karim says:

    Eleni, thank you for this thought-provoking – and pertinent! – post. I hadn’t known about the meme you mentioned at the start of your article so it was interesting to learn about it.

    Since most dystopian fiction, like most horror, tends to end pessimistically, as a rule I don’t view it as VF (by which I mean it doesn’t fall within the genre IMHO). But I do also think dystopian fiction can definitely offer visionary messages through its dark mirror.

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    • Eleni Papanou says:

      Hi Saleena:

      I came into this with a similar mindset. The meme was a great bouncing off point from readers’ perspectives. If they are tuned to the nuances of what is happening now, visionary elements are certainly in play. My personal view is that “The Man in the High Castle” and “Anthem” are clear examples of visionary fiction because the characters evolve and there is an expansion of consciousness within them. They traveled along their own heroes journeys, got hit with difficult challenges and grew from within. “1984” and “Brave New World,” have more shades of gray due to their dark endings, and one doesn’t get a strong sense of inner growth, but they had a broader impact than the other two books. You also bring up a topic that would be great to explore: visionary fiction versus stories with visionary elements in them. Thanks for your comment!

      Eleni

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    • Victor Smith says:

      A thought that jumped out at me on reading the full article and these comments on the dystopian novel. I have always maintained (with Jung) that dystopian novels can be some of the most powerful VF, even if only from the viewpoint of “how much worse it can get if we don’t…” Think Canticle for Liebowitz of Lucifer’s Hammer for instance. And even if the novel’s characters fail to achieve growth in consciousness, in the book, some readers will–and that’s what ought to count to the author. IMO I think the world is better off knowing that 1984 can happen than it would be blithely thinking such things are impossible.

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      • Eleni Papanou says:

        I agree. By seeing characters regress, we gain insights about why they did. Sometimes we find kernels of truth in the villains. That’s another characteristic about these books that I appreciate. They’re not cardboard characters and come off as real human beings in brief moments. I’ll be discussing that in part two!

        Eleni

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  2. Gerald R Stanek says:

    Wonderful insights connecting so many great works of fiction. Seems to me Light is usually found through darkness; it tends to appear when most needed. I think dystopian works are definitely needed for those who are in such pain they can’t find truth in utopias. Looking forward to part two.

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    • Eleni Papanou says:

      Yes, I agree that some dystopian novels can be uplifting. Others, not so. I felt down after revisiting “1984.” It’s stark and depressing, and I personally don’t get that visionary fiction feel with it. But, people are still reading it. I notice sales for this book increase through troubled times. I’m starting to think of it as the “1984 Effect.”

      Thanks for the comment!

      Eleni

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  3. Victor Smith says:

    Wonderful jumping off points, Eleni. We must, must, must find a setting where we can talk VF and its ramifications to our hearts content. Should conversation flag, we can break out this article to get things going again. I might even throw in what I really feel about the Ayn Rand Effect–that ought to start a delicious row. Can’t wait for Part 2.

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    • Eleni Papanou says:

      I would love a delicious row, although I doubt it will be with me. I get where you’re going with the Rand-effect. I have gone over it in my own blog series on spiritual objectivism. I think that there are elements of spirituality in her work, which is in contradiction of how she presented herself. In my own writing, my characters also evolve beyond me. That might be an interesting topic to focus on in future articles!

      Rand was certainly a flawed individual. Self-determination would have been better than the word, “selfish,” for example. Her philosophy has also been misused by people in power, so the Rand-effect is obvious in that capacity. The same misuse could also be said about Nietzsche’s work. Today’s postmodernists are far removed from his beautiful philosophy to the point where I don’t even recognize it. Interestingly, Stephen Hicks recently started a list on the similarities and differences between Rand and Nietzsche. I haven’t gone through it yet. Should be interesting!

      Thanks for commenting.
      Eleni

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  4. Margaret Duarte says:

    Thank you, Eleni, for your informative, timely–and interesting–article. You grabbed my attention in the first paragraph with “…the horrors of 1984 evoke us to glimpse beyond society’s veil.” And continued to intrigue me to the end with questions like: “Can dystopian stories that raise our collective consciousness be considered visionary fiction?” and “Can we collectively overcome the dark aspects of human nature and consciously evolve, or is it something that we first have to do as individuals?” Well done!

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