Speculative fiction is a literary genre encompassing elements from fantasy, science fiction and horror. However, one branch of the genre that is startlingly relevant in today’s world explores the theme of dystopian societies.
George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, has long since been hailed as one of the most controversial yet extraordinary novels to date. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is another literary masterpiece brimming with profound themes and questions.
Despite their place in fiction, these titles craft realities dangerously close to our own. We can learn a lot about our world — past, present and future — from these stories.
A prominent theme in 1984 is that language is power. This is represented by Big Brother’s obsession with diminishing language. The protagonist, Winston, tells us: “How do you communicate with the future? Words.”
Today, we take our ability to read, write and communicate for granted. Only when that ability is limited do we realize how powerful language is. A strategy used by governments in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale is to limit language and the spread of thought. Eerily, this strategy is an all-too-familiar one of many current governments.
Since its debut, 1984 has been banned in the United States and a number of other countries branded it as being either anti- or pro-communist.
The Handmaid’s Tale offers another warning that we should heed. The protagonist, Offred, says, “We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.”
The quote symbolizes ignorance in society, a detrimental notion that gradually gives way to totalitarian regimes. While many of us are exposed to the media in different forms — now more than ever — we often take little consideration of the issues presented unless they affect us directly.
A major reason Gilead, the society in The Handmaid’s Tale, was overtaken by authoritarian rule is because the people were not openly and actively engaged in the issues of their world. Their ignorance led to overlooking minute changes gradually made in the society’s foundation, and inevitably led to uncompromising government control.
“We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it,” said Offred. His words are a grave reminder that we need to be aware of the events around us.
The fact is, our world is thriving with information and opinions. We endlessly consume books, movies, shows, podcasts, articles and journals — only it’s become much more habitual to let ourselves be spoon-fed by the mediums from which we take.
The problem is that we become passive citizens in societies hungry for order and constitution. Societies that, although in the pursuit of a better tomorrow for all, frequent the path of becoming too blinded by the goal of a perfect world to consider the consequences of their hasty actions.
I’ll sign off with words of wisdom from Malcolm X, who saw the influence of the media during the American Civil Rights movement. In today’s world, it is as influential as ever.
“The media’s the most powerful entity on Earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
Graphic: Shawna Langer/ Graphics Editor