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  • Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial
  • Brett Cooke
Erika Gottlieb. Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2001. x + 323.

In her monumental study of major dystopian works, Erika Gottlieb focuses almost exclusively on the intentional miscarriage of justice in the societies depicted, all supposedly created to effect a moral social harmony. She uses trials to juxtapose and compare speculative fiction by Western writers, who either imagined in advance possible and malign political structures in America or Britain or reflected on contemporary Soviet and Nazi regimes, with texts by writers having direct experience in dystopia. Thus, well-known novels by Zamiatin, Huxley, and Orwell, complemented by others by Atwood, Vonnegut, and Bradbury, serve as benchmarks for works by Voinovich, Aksyonov, Daniel, and Zinoviev. While dystopia is usually seen as a speculative genre, dealing with the future as part of science fiction, Gottlieb examines realist texts by Serge, Rodionov, Sinyavski, Ribakov, Koestler, and Grossman about recent events. Then she takes her comparison into a third dimension with an analysis of dystopian literature by a number of postwar Polish, Czech, and Hungarian writers.

Gottlieb notes that Western dystopias anticipate important features of Soviet Bloc despotism: arbitrary law behind a legal facade, the promulgation of intentional injustice, and show trials. Nineteenth-century projections, as in Imre Madach's Tragedy of Man, of the replacement of religion with utopian thought certainly came to pass. However, beginning with Orwell, the purportedly just rationale for [End Page 534] social engineering is stripped away, revealing a naked grasp on power for the sake of power. She shows how Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four are written about the USSR, noting how the regimentation of the society by a tiny elite, in effect, made prisoners of the entire populace. In Orwell's case, this was intended to end Western adulation of Stalin.

Later North American dystopias were, of course, well-informed about the crimes committed in the name of utopia. Though they show how "it could happen here," they develop relatively minor facets of dystopia. Gottlieb reads Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 as a reaction to McCarthyism and the threat of media culture. In Vonnegut's Player Piano, the mechanization of labor is so thorough as to make human beings superfluous. Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale points to danger from the religious right. Such dystopian futures are the consequences of our collective failure to take preventive action; this, after all, is agitational literature, but such threats hardly concern us much today.

In Gottlieb's view, dystopian fiction written in actual dystopia is different. The writers are exposed to danger; several were purged or imprisoned as a direct result of their works. They focus on the immediate consequences of social engineering: atrocities. Some novels take the point of view of a Chekist carrying out "revolutionary justice" of an arbitrary nature. With time, increasing attention is paid to the chaos and confusion resulting from the violence. A central question for Gottlieb is why true believers, whether in the infamous show trials or in Koestler's Darkness at Noon, incriminate themselves. In her discussion of Grossman's Life and Fate, Gottlieb highlights the similarity of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, of the war with the "peace" that follows, between life in the Gulag and outside, and wonders what one was to fight for.

Further psychological damage of "revolutionary justice" comes to light in later East European works in the form of increasing absurdity as writers apparently adapt to dystopia. Not only is no one safe from persecution, citizens in their dystopias feel a need for oppression. The show trials provide a model for theatrical black humor. Violence gives way to grotesque absurdity: space is given to bureaucratic doubletalk and yet more arbitrary persecution, as the "fury of terror is followed by the apathy of disintegration" (240).

Covering this massive literature with consistent insight, Gottlieb makes but few missteps. She stretches dystopian literature to include realism about contemporary conditions, discusses Zamiatin with Western writers, and pursues an argument that Orwell was paving the way for "democratic socialism," which is vestigial. Her "trial" often amounts to a nonformal confrontation...


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pp. 534-536
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