The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism

By Tuerk, Richard | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism


Tuerk, Richard, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. M. Keith Booker. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. $49.95.

The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature is an outstanding volume in Greenwood Press' series on the study of science fiction and fantasy. Booker gives interesting readings of a number of extremely important dystopian works, including such classics as Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here. He also treats a number of dystopias he classifies as modern and postmodern, including Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s, Player Piano, Vassily Aksyonov's The Island of Crimea, Vladimir Voinovich's Moscow 2042, William Gibson's Neuromancer, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. His major contribution, however, is to place the dystopias he treats in the context of modern and postmodern critical theory.

Booker sees "defamiliarization" as central to dystopian works, explaining that "by focusing their critiques of society on spatially or temporally distant settings, dystopian fictions provide fresh perspectives on problematic social and political practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable." Accordingly, although his book gives insightful literary readings of the works he treats, he is more concerned with viewing them as social and political criticism. Although he is not the first to argue that dystopian fiction is not a "marginal genre," he argues the case forcefully as he explores the close connections between dystopian and utopian thought and literature.

His main contribution lies in placing dystopian thought and literature in the context of the work of theoreticians like Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Habermas. …

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