by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
Recently, I finished reading two YA dystopian novels that, while very different to each other, contained a common thread that I have identified as one of the core themes of dystopian literature – The High-tech utopia vs the Savage natural world.
Ready Player One and Under the Never Sky both have this as the dominant characteristic of their respective physical worlds. In Ready Player One, the dichotomy takes the form of an online virtual reality called OASIS versus the crumbling urban infrastructure of an environmentally wasted city. In Under the Never Sky, it takes the form of pristine ‘Dweller’ pods and virtual ‘Realms’ versus the aether-blighted wastelands.
In both, the high-tech virtual world is presented as the Utopia – although this is less pronounced in Ready Player One (whereby OASIS is more a kind of advanced Second Life platform) than Under the Never Sky (whereby the Realms are virtual worlds that dominate existence and provide a life free of fear, injury and consequence). Similarly, both present the ‘real’ world as uninhabitable, hostile and dangerous. This clear polarity allows both stories to set up the high-tech world as the false utopia (another core dystopian theme that I will explore in a later post). Again, Ready Player One does this less successfully than Under the Never Sky, the latter showing the inherent flaws of an overly-designed society and virtual existence through the character development of Aria, the novel’s protagonist.
Perhaps the best and well-known example of this dichotomy is found in Brave New World, where the engineered and scientifically-advanced society of Bernard is set in stark contrast to the savage and organic world of John.
The plot device is a useful one, in that it sets up the dystopian analysis of the ‘hidden’, almost insidious, dangers of technology. This is, of course, is an old and well-worn theme, seen most notably in robots gone wild texts (Robopocalypse and Terminator) and built on a kind of ‘technophobia’. At the core of these books, films and media is an implied discussion on the ethics of technological development.
Technoethics is a continually-developing field of thought and discussion. Whilst intuitively it may seem only a new consideration, debate about the immorality of new technology has been around as long as Socrates and Plato:
The move from one set of dominant information technologies to another is always morally contentious. Socrates lived during the long transition from a largely oral tradition to a newer information technology consisting of writing down words and information and collecting those writings into scrolls and books. Famously Socrates was somewhat antagonistic to writing and he never wrote anything down himself. Ironically, we only know about Socrates’ argument against writing because his student Plato ignored his teacher and wrote it down in a dialogue called “Phaedrus” (Plato). Towards the end of this dialogue Socrates discusses with his friend Phaedrus the “…conditions which make it (writing) proper or improper” (section 274b–479c). Socrates tells a fable of an Egyptian God he names Theuth who gives the gift of writing to a king named Thamus. Thamus is not pleased with the gift and replies,
If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. (Phaedrus, section 275a)
Socrates, who was adept at quoting lines from poems and epics and placing them into his conversations, fears that those who rely on writing will never be able to truly understand and live by these words. For Socrates there is something immoral or false about writing.
As technological development continues to advance at a rapid rate and debates about moral imperatives and ethical considerations develop in response to stubborn resistance to change, this dichotomy of High Tech vs Savage Organic will remain a key inspiration for dystopian creators.
As I continue to draft Divided Elements and read a vast range of dystopian literature, I find myself picking up and analysing the core dystopian themes. Over the coming weeks and months, I will share my observations and insight with you all in the hope of generating some great discussion and unearthing new treasures to read.
Update: The second entry in this series is now available: Dystopian Archetypes – 2. Divided Population