Reading The Hunger Games (2008) and watching Visioneers (2008) recently reminded me that last year I read We (1921) and Pictures of the Socialistic Future [POTSF] (1891). Recent social commentary (i.e., utopian and dystopian) fiction seems to me much less interesting than these older treatments. The reason: 1891 and 1921 were still relatively early in the industrial revolution, when folks were far more uncertain about where this revolution would ultimately lead.
Today the developed world has relatively stable politics, gender and employee relations, leisure activities, etc. So dystopian commentary must get people to see their familiar world from an alien perspective, where they might like it less. Such commentary may try to get people to see themselves as being illicitly dominated, or as pitifully weak and unimpressive, or as insensitive jerks. But this mostly fails, as people are already pretty comfortable with seeing their world in their usual way.
Early treatments like We and POTSF, however, could far more plausibly suggest that quite visible then-current trends would lead to alien worlds that would actually be their grandkids’ future. Some of these fears were of course centered on politics – imagining illicit dominators telling people what to do, be they capitalist oligarchs or socialist bureaucrats. But far more important, I think, were fears that industrial style regimentation and conformity might spread out of workplaces into homes, food, love lives, leisure activities etc. For example:
We is set in the future. D-503 lives in the One State, an urban nation constructed almost entirely of glass, which allows the secret police/spies to inform on and supervise the public more easily. … Life is organized to promote maximum productive efficiency … People march in step with each other and wear identical clothing. There is no way of referring to people save by their given numbers. … D-503′s … friend R-13, a State poet, is employed to write songs in praise of the State.D-503 meets I-330, a woman who dresses erotically and teases and entices him instead of sleeping with him in an impersonal fashion. … He begins to have dreams at night, which disturbs him, as dreams are irrational. … At the novel’s end, D-503 is subjected to the “Great Operation” that has recently been mandated for the whole population of the One State. This operation removes the imagination by striking a certain region of the brain with x-rays. After this operation, D-503 watches the torture and execution of I-330 with equanimity.
I’d love to know what 1800 era folks really think about our lives, relative to these fears. I suspect they’d be somewhat horrified by just how far we have taken workplace regimentation, but they’d be relieved to see us mostly rejecting it in our homes, food, love lives, and leisure activities. Relative to our farmer ancestors, we have become hyper-farmers at work, but have used the resulting wealth to return to forager styles the rest of the time.
Our robot/em descendants, however, may well not have the wealth to afford forager styles outside work. So they may change to more efficient non-work lives, and become workaholics with far less such lives. Such descendants may better realize some of the fears of these early visions of an industrial future. That makes this scenario as interesting to me as those early industrial social commentaries.