Technology in the Dystopian Novel
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Technology in the Dystopian Novel

In 1903 the late victorian novelist George Gissing wrote:

I hate and fear "science" because of my conviction that for a long time to come if not forever, it will be the remorseless enemy of mankind. I see it destroying all simplicity and gentleness of life, all beauty of the world; I see it restoring barbarism under the mask of civilization; I see it darkening men's minds and hardening their hearts. . . .


Although Gissing puts the case against "science"—by which he clearly seems to mean technology—in the most extreme form, still his is a view shared by many, perhaps even by most twentieth-century literary intellectuals, whom C. P. Snow characterized as natural Luddites. In particular, it is a view that informs the dystopian novel, a uniquely modern form of fiction whose emergence parallels, reflects, and warns against the growing potentialities of modern technology.

As I have argued elsewhere, the dystopian novel, in projecting an admonitory image of the future, fuses two fears: the fear of utopia and the fear of technology ("We" 56-57). By utopia I mean those imaginary models of static, regimented, totally ordered—in short, "perfect"—societies found in the writings of figures such as More and Campanella, C abet and Comte, Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells. The fear that some form of these utopian models was being actualized by history led the Russian émigré philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev to write that passage that Aldous Huxley made famous as an epigraph to Brave New World and that can [End Page 53] serve as the credo of the dystopian fabulist: "Utopias are realizable. Life is moving toward a utopia. And perhaps a new age is beginning, an age in which the intellectuals and the cultivated class will dream of avoiding utopia and of returning to a society that is non-utopian, less 'perfect' but more free" (187-188). That the utopian ideations of the past—which once seemed impossible of historical actualization—appear in this century not only possible but perhaps inevitable is the result in great part of the increasing array of techniques for social control made available by modern science. Thus the dystopian imagination posits as its minatory image of the future an advanced totalitarian state dependent upon a massive technological apparatus—in short, a technotopia.

The question that I want to consider in this paper then is this: is the technology in dystopian fiction merely an instrument in the hands of the state's totalitarian rulers, used by them to enforce a set of values extrinsic to the technology itself, or is it, rather, an autonomous force that determines the values and thus shapes the society in its own image, a force to which even the putative rulers—the Weil-Doers and Big Brothers and World Controllers—are subservient? This question reflects, of course, the debate about the nature of technology and its potentially dehumanizing and destructive effects that has raged since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. If we divide the antagonists in this debate into technophiles and technophobes—admittedly far too simplistic a division—then we can characterize their positions as follows.1 The technophiles contend that technology is value-neutral, merely a tool that can be used for good or ill depending on the nature and purposes of the user. Man, that is, remains in control, remains the master of his creations—though, of course, he can be an evil master and "misuse" them. The technophobes, by contrast, view technology as a creation that can transcend the original purposes of its creator and take on an independent existence and will of its own, like the monster in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein who declares: "You are my creator, but I am your master—obey" (167). The technophobe's Frankenstein complex—as Isaac Asimov has termed this view (xi-xii)—implies, in turn, a technological determination operating in history. This position has been expressed perhaps most unambiguously by the philosopher Martin Heidegger:

No one can foresee the radical changes to come. But technological advance will move faster and can never be stopped. In all areas of his existence, man will be...