Lesson 8: Dystopia and Beyond

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain the history of the utopia and how the dystopia arose as a response to utopian fiction.
  • Identify characteristics of dystopian fiction in Stand on Zanzibar and Gateway.

Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner
Gateway, by Frederick Pohl


Even before there were novels and short stories, people had the same human instincts and desires: to entertain and to be entertained, to instruct, to explain, to illuminate, to invent, to imagine things that are not. Conditions may change, but those instincts and desires remain the same, and contemporary social conditions determine the ways in which those instincts and desires ultimately express themselves.

Those instincts and desires could not create what we know as science fiction until the Industrial Revolution brought the general realization that science and technology were producing irreversible change and were altering the way people lived, even within their lifetimes. Science fiction came into being in a new world—a world created by invention and technology, a world in which change is apparent, a world in which people believe in progress.

Many of the pre-science fiction stories written about this accelerating rate of change were vehicles for criticizing contemporary society or presenting an ideal society—that is, a utopia. The genre began with Plato’s “Republic,” continued with the work that gave the utopia its name, Thomas More's Utopia (1516), and progressed through Campanella's The City of the Sun (1623), Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1627), and the first such work published in America, Louis Sebastien Mercier's Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1771).

The utopia reached its modern peak with Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), but it lost impetus after World War I and particularly after World War II. Progress, in the face of the brutality and mass civilian deaths, no longer seemed like a tenable assumption.

In the face of growing problems such as overpopulation, pollution, war, crime, mob violence, and racism, pessimism about the future of humanity seemed more realistic than optimism. The era of the dystopia began.

The British writer John Brunner, who dropped out of college to launch a full-time writing career (mostly funded by quick sales to Ace Books), transformed himself into a literary craftsman with The Squares of the City (1965). He then devoted almost a decade to four dystopian novels: Stand on Zanzibar (dealing with overpopulation, 1968), The Jagged Orbit (racism, 1969), The Sheep Look Up (pollution, 1972), and The Shockwave Rider (future shock, 1975).

Stand on Zanzibar, which won the Hugo Award in 1969, takes its form from John Dos Passos’s novel U.S.A., adapting that novel’s experimental techniques to a period almost fifty years later and with appropriate technology. Where Dos Passos wanted to reveal a nation from a variety of viewpoints (Newsreel, The Camera Eye, MAC, Lover of Mankind, The Plant Wizard, Janey, J. Ward Moorhouse, etc.), Bruner wanted to use a variety of viewpoints to reveal a complex society troubled by overpopulation, shortages, and political, social, and personal reactions: Context, The Happening World, Tracking with Closeups, and Continuity. Both are “mosaic novels,” in which the complete narrative picture is made up of small individual pieces—indeed, the first paperback cover of Brunner’s Ballantine edition is a mosaic of individual scenes and characters from the novel.

Frederik Pohl’s Gateway (winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell awards in 1977) is placed in a similar, near-future world troubled by shortages, overpopulation, and poverty. But Pohl’s world has hope that technology may find a way out, symbolized by the remnants of technology left behind by the long-departed alien Heechee, including interstellar vehicles. No one knows how they work and where a particular vehicle will travel, so any trip is “a crapshoot”: the explorers either win big by discovering some previously unknown technology or scientific insight, win a little, or don’t return and lose everything. And only a few people within society can buy their way to Gateway, the asteroid that serves as home port for the Heechee spacecraft, so it remains more an escape valve than a realistic hope for solutions to future problems.

Like Donald Hogan and Norman Niblock House, the main characters in Stand on Zanzibar, Gateway’s Robinette Broadhead is an anti-hero. And like Stand on Zanzibar, Gateway offers a critical commentary on humanity and the human condition. Both Brunner and Pohl are skeptical of human motivations and humanity’s ability to face its problems or find any satisfactory solutions. Robinette, for instance, is consumed by guilt, and the novel is related through therapy sessions with a robot psychotherapist, Sigfrid von Shrink. Part of his psychological problem is neurotic guilt, for which psychiatry was developed to treat; but part of his guilt is real—his lover and her companions were condemned to death while he was saved. Perhaps more significantly, because of the time dilation beyond the event horizon of a black hole , they still are dying, still realizing that he saved himself at their expense.
Writing Assignment 8
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

  • How can you justify the overwhelming flood of information that assails the reader in the first chapter of Stand on Zanzibar? Do you have to change your habit of reading, your expectations, when you read Stand on Zanzibar? What is Brunner trying to do? Is it fair? Could Brunner have achieved the same effects some other way?
  • Why is casual sex emphasized in this society? Homosexuality? How do we know this?
  • Why is color blindness a disqualification for having children? How is the effort to control population reflected in today’s world, and what are the side-effects?
  • How does overcrowding evidence itself?
  • What is eptification? What was Donald Hogan hired to do? Why is Sugangutung a danger to this society?
  • Who (or what) is the protagonist of Stand on Zanzibar? When considering this, reflect upon the fact that, in science fiction, background becomes foreground—the world itself is usually more important than the individual characters. What would be the measure of success in Stand on Zanzibar? In Stand on Zanzibar, how does that work out?
  • If Shinka sweat (pheromones) can be bottled, what has that bought humanity? Has it solved the problem?
  • Finally, would you accept salvation out of a can?
  • Who does Robinette Brodhead remind you of among the previous novels discussed? Is there a reason these are anti-heroes?
  • Robinette seems to whine a lot; why is this appropriate?
  • What is the theme of Gateway? How does Rob winning the lottery foreshadow the theme? Why does winning the lottery make him feel guilty?
  • Why does Rob have ulcers? Why is he concerned that he kills everyone close to him?
  • What is “full medical” (note the use of contemporary terms with other meanings, something that van Vogt pioneered in The World of Null-A and Pohl adapted for his collaborative satires with C. M. Kornbluth)? Why does Rob need it?
  • Stand on Zanzibar has its mosaic, Gateway has its sidebars. What function do they serve?
  • Gateway, like Stand on Zanzibar, has homosexual references. Are they used in the same way and for the same purpose?
  • How does the behavior of the Heechee vessels reinforce the theme of the novel?
  • At the end, Rob asks, “Do you call this living?” Is this a way of describing the human condition? How has space exploration changed that? And how does Sigfrid’s response alter our understanding?
  • Gateway also has several sequels. Do these affect the reading of Gateway in the same fashion as the sequels to Dune?

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