One thing we know for sure about the future: it's unknown. Yet, as writers have been proving since there were writers, it can be predicted, often with a fairly high degree of accuracy. Maybe Big Brother doesn't literally stare at people in Communist countries, but in Soviet Russia 2+2 really did equal 5, at least according to Stalin's propaganda posters. And for those of us in the West, it's hard to deny that Aldous Huxley was pretty right-on, even down to the disconcerting mass consumption of soma.
Not all the predictions are accurate, obviously. Plato's Republic (thank goodness) never came to pass; it hasn't got as far as Bradbury's book burnings....yet; and we haven't been enslaved by morlocks....again, yet. But that doesn't make the novels in which these ideas are posited any less important or compelling.
Utopian (the ideal world) and dystopian (a horrible reversal of utopian) societies reflect both the way authors see things going, and the general attitudes prevalent at the time of writing. Sir Thomas More's Utopia (from which the word originated) wasn't intended to suggest such a perfect culture as he describes actually existed in the New World, but to demonstrate what the Christian humanists of his day thought such a society would look like.
There are more dystopian novels than utopian ones; perhaps this should be no surprise in a world filled with violence, anger, immorality, debauchery, and anarchy. It's hard to imagine things getting increasingly better in the face of such horrible conditions. Yet many authors have tried to envision such a turn, most of them philosophers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the most famous, positing in Emile his concept of the noble savage, and in The Social Contract man's opportunity for constructing a proper societal structure.
The books in this section aren't philosophy, however, at least not in the sense that Rousseau's works were philosophy. Orwell, Wells and Huxley were all philosophers of a sort, but they were eminently practical, reaching the masses through works that avoided technical language and embraced the conventions of fictional adventure stories.
You don't have to agree with any of these writers to enjoy their books. While some of their predictions were demonstrably (and frighteningly) on point, the point is that they were thinking and reflecting on the places their contemporary situations might lead, not that they precisely charted the course beforehand.
Yet these aren't merely time-specific volumes; each embraces the universal themes of what it means to be human, how societies ought to be run, and where true goodness can be found. The answers provided may suprise you, or at least make you wonder why things aren't as bad yet as writers like Bradbury suggested they could become.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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