Book name: Dystopia: A Natural History
Author: Gregory Claeys
Format: ebook, print
Publication Date: 2017
Dystopian novels are undeniably popular, but where does the concept originate from and how do real-life events filter into the fiction that continues to thrill and disturb us in equal measure?
I stumbled upon Dystopia: A Natural History in the Blackwell's university bookshop in Newcastle on a family day out when we drifted up to that part of town to collapse and revive at the specialist teashop a few doors down.
I was about to add 'check your privilege' and that was even before adding that I got to know this area well because my daughter went to Youth Theatre nearby. It's probably best at this stage if we just move on to the book itself, LOL.
This non-fiction work is a pretty weighty tome at 500 pages so it's not for the fainthearted. A clinically thorough treatment of a naturally depressing subject matter doesn't make for light reading.
I took my time in getting through it because the text was very dense and there were lots and lots of footnotes.
The early chapters of Dystopia: A Natural History look at the origins of real-life dystopia in ancient history, for example the emergence of the concept of the Devil, and then trace its development through recent political events such as the French Revolution. This was well done.
We often think of dystopia as a concept of the present and the future, without realising how much its existence depends upon our past. In a real sense, it has always been with us. Humanity can be very dark!
The most recent history of dystopia dealt with here is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. The summaries were well produced, but there was little here to surprise anyone who has a reasonable general awareness of twentieth-century history and politics.
The more recent instances of dystopian societies considered were Pol Pot's Cambodia during the 1970s and the current situation in North Korea.
The analysis of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot was immensely perceptive, tragically sad and provided an impressive amount of detail. It was one of the best parts of the book.
The section on North Korea that followed was too short, in my view, bearing in mind that this is the world's most dystopian society of the present day.
It is hard to get much information about North Korea, but a lot more analysis and detail could have been supplied given its contemporary relevance and this section just felt way too short.
After the history the focus changed to literature, with old favourites 'Brave New World' and '1984' taking pride of place. However, the analysis of Yevgeny Zamyatin's 'We' was excellent.
This third part in the great trilogy of twentieth-century dystopian fiction was given its deserved amount of prominence, which is pleasing because some other authors don't always include it.
The overview of the origins of dystopian fiction earlier than the twentieth century was fascinating, as was the examination of how dystopian fiction has developed since Orwell and Huxley.
Dystopia: A Natural History ended with a suitably depressing look forward to an all-too plausible future. By that point I had almost lost the will to live. Job done.
Gregory Claeys provides a superb analysis of dystopia both fictional and historical, including discussions about the psychology and causes of the phenomenon.
To be able to arm ourselves against a terrible danger involves first being able to recognise it for what it is. The means to do so is what this amazing book offers humanity. It wasn't an easy read or a quick one, but it repaid the time and effort and I am glad to have read all of it.
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