Religion & Philosophy Department

Lebanon Valley College

Dreaming of a Better World

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

I have often dreamed of a society in which everyone is happy, imagined a world without suffering, conjured up the perfect solution to the ills of men and women living together. You may say I’m a dreamer, but John Lennon tells me I’m not the only one.

Utopian literature too tells me I am not alone. A history of revolution tells me others have gone further than dreaming or writing. It may not be that we all want to change the world, but many men and women have put considerable thought into it and some have brought those dreams to the real world to change oppressive regimes and work toward the perfect society.

You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

John and Paul are right that some see the turning of the wheels of history as a phase in our evolution. Things do seem better now than in the past. We have cured so many diseases, are better able to respond to the inevitable disasters that occur on our dynamic home, the Earth, we live so much longer than our ancestors, we have forms of government that give everyone a voice, value human lives more than those in the past. At least we tell ourselves we do. Yes, things do seem better now than in the past…unless we think about it too hard.

But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out

The world we live on was built on destruction, destruction of past and destruction of those that stood in our way, but we’re not done yet. We are so much better as destruction than we have ever been. John and Paul may want to avoid pain and suffering, but history tells us it may be harder than simply asking to be counted out. Like the inevitable growing pains of our teens, the pains of the maturation of the human race may be unavoidable.

Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
All right, all right

No matter how hard I try to believe John and Paul, the cynic in me won’t shut up. And the various men and women who have responded to the sentiment that it will be alright, who have responded to the various authors of utopian visions of tomorrow, the creators of dystopian fiction—be it a novel, a short story or a film—tell me I am far from alone.

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan

We would love to see the plan, but even John and Paul sound skeptical. But every solution reveals a different ill in need of a cure, a different flaw in need of correction, a different glitch in need of tweaking, a different problem in need of a solution . This is the heart of the dystopia: finding the fatal flaws in our dystopian dreams.

Capitalism, the champion of individual achievement and the free market, is the solution to class oppression and feudalism!

Jonathan Z. (James Caan), the champion rollerball player in “Rollerball” (1975), shows us that capitalism and individualism are not as busom buddies as we thought. “Wall-E” (2008), “Dead Space for the Unexpected” by Geoff Ryman, and “Just Do It” by Heather Lindsley remind us that corporations are increasing insinuating themselves into every aspect of our lives, be it slowly working to provide us with every single need as Buy-N-Large did for the denizens of the Axiom in their escape from a trash-ridden earth, or scheduling every aspect, even “dead space”, of our work day, or taking advertising to new levels of efficiency as CraveTech does.

Technology is the solution to time, labor, and nearly every other worry!

I share the worry expressed by Max Frisch when he said “Technology… the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” “Logan’s Run” (1975) shows us the dangers of becoming technological natives as well as handing over control to our mechanical handmaids. The ironically named Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) in “Gattaca” (1997) and Maria Gonzales (Samantha Morton) in “Code 46” (2003) experience the downside of the genetic revolution.

Keeping us safe is the solution to the dangers of world seemingly designed to kill us and other people who seem similarly bent!

The world of George Lucas’ “THX 1138” (1971) is extremely safe, even from danger of free thought. John Anderton (Tom Cruise) keeps us safe from even the possibility of murder, by arresting criminals before they kill in “Minority Report” (2002) (which is based on a Philip K. Dick short story with the same title, but with a better ending). Shirley Jackson shows us the cost of safety for the majority in the classic “The Lottery.” Are you feeling emotionally threatened by the fact that some people are better looking than you, better athletes, smarter? Then the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” is for you (and this is now available in a film version of the same name (1995) and under the name “2081” (2009)). Perhaps the world of Brave New World by Aldus Huxley is more your taste, plenty of pleasure and a cubic centimeter of Soma will cure any blues that slip through.

You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We’re doing what we can

But when you want money
For people with minds that hate
All I can tell is brother you have to wait

The best dystopias address the contribution each of us makes toward making our own society more dystopia than utopia. The dystopia is a warning tale, a parable meant not only to teach but to chill us to the bone. The best dystopia leaves us with a feeling of righteous indignation, an urge to make sure this doesn’t happen here. Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth—Minitrue, in Newspeak—is the systematic erasure of the past, retroactively making Big Brother’s proclamations true, the Ministry of Plenty’s commodity predictions true, and the Ministry of Peace’s military failures strategic retreats. When we fail to learn our own history, when we lapse into what Stephen Prothero calls “religious illiteracy”, when we refuse to learn the lessons of the past we are doomed to repeat them. Dystopias are not always as blunt as the choose-your-own-adventure style “Civilization” by Vylar Kaften, which puts the reader into a loop to illustrate the results of ignoring the past, but they each warn us what happens when we ignore the past, when we give in to tradition without asking why we do so. It may not be that the religious right will lead us to the theocracy in A Handmaid’s Tale, but when we fail to think about the moral laws that Hilter put into place just before World War II, banning all homosexual organizations for example, when we discuss same-sex marriage, we are contributing not to the revolution, but to tradition, a tradition of oppression and homogeneity that preserves the status quo at others’ expense. Neil Gaiman and Bryan Talbot address this in their ultra-short graphic novel “From Homogenous to Honey,” as do the classics 1984, Brave New World, and the less known We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which some credit as the inspiration for 1984. They each speak to conformity and the protagonist often resists conformity, even when they are unable to determine why, as are Bernard Marx in Brave New World and  THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) in “THX 1138” (1971), or unable to embrace the rebelliousness as Liz is in “Is This Your Day to Join the Revolution?” by Genevieve Valentine.

Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
All right, all right

The feature that defines the dystopia for me is the inescapability of the society. So no, it’s not gonna be alright, at least for the protagonist. Students in my First Year Seminar, Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Fiction and Film, and I have debated what makes a dystopia successful, what makes it a “true” dystopia. The dystopic yarn shares with the post-apocalyptic tale a resistance to the notion that it’s gonna be alright. I would suggest, however, that the open ended disaster narrative of some post-apocalyptic visions is not enough to make them dystopias. There is no hope for victory, for escape, for whatever virtue the dystopia wants to warn us in in danger. The true dystopia should leave us with a knot in our belly, our hands rolled into fists, or at least some righteous indignation. They are a call to arms, not unlike that which begins “Revolution.” The true dystopia tries to scare us into action. When Jonathan Z wins, he relieves our fear of corporate domination. When Logan 5 (Michael York) not only escapes, but frees the denizens of the pleasure-oriented underground city of under-25s in “Logan’s Run” (1976) we breathe a sigh of relief. It’s gonna be all right. I want my dystopia to make me worried. The torture employed to secure freedom in Matt Williamson’s “Sacrament” sounds too much like that which was justified not too long ago and should make me concerned about the curtailment of not only my civil liberties, as was done with the Patriot Act, but the violation of basic human rights around the world. “None of us are free if one of us is chained.” “A Clockwork Orange” should make me worry about the increased freedom we give our children as well as the efforts we make to control them. The firemen of Fahrenheit 451 and Moon Pie’s wonderment at Jonathan Z’s desire to read a book should make me worry about local school districts banning books about dirty cowboys (How are you supposed to take a bath without being naked anyway?). The dehumanization of the protagonist is ubiquitous in dystopias, for example D-503 from We and THX 1138 from the film of the same name don’t even have names, should make me worry about the inhuman treatment of women and children and the commodification of human beings as data sets for sale on Facebook. “Idiocracy” (2006) should make me worry about an increasingly disengaged electorate and the cultural illiteracy that characterizes American political discourse.

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head

More solutions!

Democracy is the solution to dictatorship!

But what happens when democracy becomes too onerous for the overworked human being? Tobias S. Buckell shows us what happens when we mix technology and democracy in “Resistance.” Philip K. Dick, one of the most prolific dystopian short fiction writers I have found, shows us the danger of a majority out to enact the public good in “The Chromium Fence.” “Idiocracy” (2006) illustrates the potential of a culturally illiterate state and dangers of consumerism and the rampant commercialization of our lives.

You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead

The Man. The Government. The Machine. The institution is what oppresses the individual. More freedom is what we need. Keep the government out of my bedroom, business, personal matters…

Freedom is the solution to…well nearly everything is you’re American!

The freedom we take for granted is curtailed to some degree or another in almost every dystopia. Reproductive freedom is the focus of ZPG [Zero Population Growth] (1972), Code 46 (2003), Brave New World, “Progeny” by Philip K. Dick, “Welcome to the Monkey House” by Kurt Vonnegut, “Ten with a Flag” by Joseph Paul Haines, “Pop Squad” by Paolo Bacigalupi, “Auspicious Eggs” by James Morrow, among others. Our sexual freedom is threatened in “Sleeper” (1973), 1984, by George Orwell, “Eutopia” by Poul Anderson, ‘Demolition Man” (1993) and “Pervert” by Charles Coleman Finlay. The right of the individual to determine their own goals in life is the theme of nearly every dystopia, but is expressed quite strongly in “Rollerball” (1975), A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, “Harrison Bergeron”, “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn, “The Pedestrian” and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison, and “Independence Day” by  Sarah Langan. In “The Truman Show” (1998) the title character (Jim Carey) fights for his freedom nearly to the death. As in Rollerball Truman wins, making it a failed dystopia according to my earlier rant. But…

Maybe the victory—the physical escape won by Truman, the victory on the roller track won by Jonathan Z, the emergence into the real world won by Logan 5 and THX 1138 at the end of their respective films, the mental escape hard won by Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in “Brazil” (1985) or Babydoll (Emily Browning) in “Sucker Punch” (2011)—shows us the reward, not always unequivocal, of fighting against the forces the move us closer and closer to real dystopias.

But do we want to be free from danger more than we want the freedom to do what we wish? Do we wish the freedom to do what we wish more than the freedom from danger? Many legislators after 9-11 decided that freedom from danger was more important that certain individual freedoms to, privacy for example. Benjamin Franklin disagreed. “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” (Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759). Good societies balance “freedoms from” and “freedoms to.” Imbalances produce dystopian governments, because my freedom to curtails others’ freedom from.

But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow

Ironically the communism that Mao Zedong adapted for his use in China aimed to liberate people from oppression, but in turn became oppressive. Many dystopias begin as a step to help people be happy, to free them from one oppression…and eventually enslave them with another.  OMM’s advice to THX 1138 is a good example:

Let us be thankful we have an occupation to fill. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents and be happy.

Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.

Trina, in Sarah Langan’s “Independence Day” visits an auto-doc very similar to the unhelpful voice from the Unichapels, issued from beneath a picture of Christ, that mimics the active listening of the worst sort of therapist, and the helpful sedative dispensing robot/analyst in Philip K. Dick’s “Chromium Fence.” But the dulling of the senses won’t curb the human independent streak, at least not for long.

That is a truism of dystopias. We want to be free. Then why are the masses in all these tales either perfectly fine with following, as is Parsons in 1984? I think dystopian thinkers are not telling us what we are, but what they think we should be. Who hasn’t been in a line at Disney World, or the local store, and felt like cattle being herded at someone else’s whim. We shouldn’t, these dystopian storytellers insist, be those meek folks who give into fear, accept the delusion, fail to recognize what is noble in us. We should be the protagonist fighting the forces the suppress us, fighting the fear, apathy, self-loathing that stops us from being who we “truly” are.
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
All right, all right
All right, all right, all right
All right, all right, all right

Do the authors of dystopian visions of the future bring harbingers of doom? Do they merely exaggerate some small concern into a nightmare? I would say they run the gamut. In my opinion, they urge us to consider the missteps we have made in trying to make things better, to look in the mirror and face the nature of humanity, blemishes and all. They express fears in hopes that others will be cautious in their dreams of tomorrow. Perhaps if we heed the warning everything is gonna be all right.

Most of the stories I mention above can be found in a relatively recent anthology entitled Brave New Worlds (2011) edited by John Joseph Adams ( There are several volumes of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, each of which has a handful of dystopian shorts. Past, Present, and Future Perfect: A Text Anthology of Speculative and Science Fiction (1973) edited by Gregory Fitz Gerald, an older collection including many dystopian shorts, includes some of the others mentioned above. The more famous dystopian novels I have referred to above are 1984 by George Orwell, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World  by Aldous Huxley, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and A Handmaids’ Tale by Margaret Atwood. I would also recommend The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (the inspiration for Blade Runner (1982). A quick search on google will produce many lists of the best dystopias. Recently the young-adult section of the bookstore seems to be overrun with dystopias, many aimed at teenage girls, for example, XVI by Julia Karr, Matched by Ally Condie, Empty by Suzanne Weyn, Delirium by Lauren Oliver, Divergent by Veronica Roth, Ashes to Ashes by Jo Treggiari, and Uglies (and the subsequent books in the same series, Pretties, Specials, and Extras) by Scott Westerfield.

Film too is burgeoning with dystopias. One website claims to list the “Top 500 Dystopian movies of the Sci-fi world” (, though the author has a much broader vision of what makes a dystopia and, by the time you get into the 300s, what makes a good film. Here is a list I compiled for my students. I am sure I am failing to include some, but that is nature of such lists. For vanity’s sake I have marked those I find most interesting as dystopias with a D and those I most enjoy as a film with an F, but as they say, there is no accounting for taste (just as my students).

Metropolis (1927) F
The Time Machine (1960)
Dr. Strangelove (1964) F
The Omega Man (1971)
THX 1138 (1971) D
A Clockwork Orange (1971) DF
ZPG (1972)
Sleeper (1973) D
Soylent Green (1973) D
Zardoz (1974)
A Boy and His Dog (1975) D
Rollerball (1975) D
Logan’s Run (1976) D
Escape from NY (1981)
Blade Runner (1982) DF
Brazil (1985) DF
Max Headroom [Pilot] (1985)
Running Man (1987)
Total Recall (1990)
Delicatessen (1991) F
Demolition Man (1993)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Tank Girl (1995)
Gattaca (1997) DF
Starship Troopers (1997)
The Truman Show (1998)
The Matrix (1999) F
Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) F
Avalon (2001)
Metropolis (2001)
Equilibrium (2002)
Minority Report (2002) D
Resident Evil (2002)
Fahrenheit 451 (2003) D
Code 46 (2003) DF
V for Vendetta (2005) F
Æon Flux (2005)
Serenity (2005) F
The Island (2005)
Children of Men (2006) F
Idiocracy (2006) DF
Bablyon A.D. (2008)
City of Ember (2008)
WALL-E (2008) DF
The Invention of Lying (2009) DF
Moon (2009) F
The Road (2009) DF
In Time (2011) DF
The Hunger Games (2012)
Total Recall (2012)

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