Series and Systems: Russian and American Dystopian Satires of the Cold War

By Maus, Derek | Critical Survey, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Series and Systems: Russian and American Dystopian Satires of the Cold War


Maus, Derek, Critical Survey


One of most striking aspects of literature written during the Cold War is the prevalence of dystopian and/or anti-utopian works. As the prefixes of both terms imply, the genres that attempt to discredit utopias have generally been perceived in opposition to their model texts, i.e., utopias posit an ideal society, whereas dystopias posit a terrible society resulting from specific utopian premises. Although numerous contemporary critics have explained the relationship between utopia and dystopia in terms that transcend such straightforward divisions, the dystopian fiction of the Cold War suggests that there is still some utility in considering (though not adopting) the more simplistic definition, both because utopian language generally contains a simple good/bad logical dichotomy (1) and because the culture and politics of both the Soviet Union and the United States during this period frequently relied on such simple binary utopian sentiment. In my view, the prevalence of dystopian and anti-utopian sentiment in Russian and American fiction is a parodic-satirical response intended to subvert the rampant utopian mindsets of both the superpowers during the Cold War. (2) The authors of the works examined here do not support either side in this ideological struggle, but rather attempt to invalidate the conflict's overarching logical context.

A Brief Overview of Contemporary Criticism on Dystopia

Gary Saul Morson broadly defines 'anti-utopia' as a genre that parodies utopian thinking. He classifies anti-utopia as an 'anti-genre' of which dystopia is a prominent subclass. Anti-genres are distinct because the 'set of conventions governing the interpretation of [anti-generic] works ... establish a parodic relation between the anti-generic work and the works and traditions of another genre.' He further delineates a subclass ofparodic texts as 'metaparodies', which 'exploit [a] dialogue between parody and counterparody (or ... between genre and anti-genre)' (142) in order to confound any attempts at definitive interpretation. The 'meta-utopian' form 'allows [the author] to entertain utopian or anti-utopian arguments, but does not ultimately commit [him/her] to them' (146). Two meta-utopian approaches that recur frequently in Cold War satire are what might be termed 'serial dystopia' and 'systemic dystopia.' In the former a society is caught in a loop of equally undesirable revolutions and restorations; in the latter all parties in a given ideological struggle are presented as dystopian, thereby undermining any claim of moral superiority therein.

Morson asserts that anti-genres, unlike genres, 'do not necessarily have exemplars--that is, acknowledged originating works--because the broader tradition of literary parody may provide models.' To wit, he notes that Don Quixote is an exemplary text for many anti-utopian works--despite not being an anti-utopia itself--because of its innovative use of parody. (3) The models for anti-utopian literature do not even need to be literary since both utopian and anti-utopian scenarios can be found in historical, philosophical, political, religious and scientific texts: '[a]nti-generic motifs may also be drawn from a body of nonliterary texts, a knowledge of which is part of the competence the anti-genre presumes and encourages in its readers' (116). Several Cold War dystopias illustrate Morson's point by being predicated on the notion that distinctions between literary and nonliterary texts are tenuous or even specious because of governmental or other external control. (4)

Alexandra Aldridge further distinguishes utopia from dystopia in terms of their respective temporal orientations:

   It should be recalled that satire is always implicit in utopian
   literature in the sense that the utopian state serves as a standard
   against which the author's contemporaneous society can be measured.
   [...] If utopia has a plus sign, dystopia has a minus sign in the
   same area--that is, the presentation of a non-ideal outweighs the
   attack on contemporary trends . 

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