Dystopian reads from the 1920’s and 1930’s

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Dystopian reads from the 1920’s and 1930’s and their relevance today

I read four novels “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis (published in 1935), “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley (published in 1932), “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin (published in 1924), and “Swastika Night” by Katharine Burdekin (published in 1937). I will summarise the stories and comment on them individually then attempt to tie together their themes and suggest what relevance they might have to modern society and politics.

It Can’t Happen Here

It CantLiberal, Doremus Jessop, is forced to break laws, write and distribute seditious material, and smuggle people out of America when a populist government led by president Buzz Windrip quickly reveals its true fascist colours.

The book seems spookily precognitive in its descriptions of Buzz’s speeches and the backgrounds and beliefs of those closest to him in government. In may ways this might have been written about Trump 80 years before his election.

Promises are made to elevate the poor white males and pay them well. Wars are declared to pacify the restless populous when those things promised do not materialise. Concentration camps take the place of colleges and universities and labour camps ensure full (if not gainful) employment.

Most of it is written (ironically) as if propaganda for Buzz’s Corpoism regime. This grew old fairly quickly. I think the book’s worth remains one of warning rather than elegant prose.

Brave New World

220px-BraveNewWorld_FirstEditionWhat would a world without war or hunger, where everyone is happy, look like? In Brave New World, Huxley considers this, both from the perspective of independent thinking insiders like Bernard Manx, and from the perspective of a complete outsider, John Savage.

This is a world still potentially in our future, but we can see some of the techniques used at play already – soma (our Prozac nation), non-threatening music (our sanitized pop tunes), and distraction (our pointless TV shows and celebrity culture).

Brave New World can be seen as a Utopia or a terrifying dystopia dependent on how you view diversity and solitude. In this world murder is a lesser offence than unorthodoxy, because a murder kills one person whereas unorthodoxy threatens the whole society. Years are spent brainwashing citizens to stifle independent thought. Everyone belongs to everyone. No one is born, they are grown in bottles and distilled as infants. Eugenics allow people to be custom made to fit their assigned roles in society. There is no class mobility, there is no pain, there is no struggle. There is only work and consumption.

It is a chilling novel about the loss of self, or it is a gentle novel about how society could work better without the friction of diversity and selfishness. Mustapha Mond sums up this choice in the latter pages of the book, from which I will give you some quotes. He has to choose between Truth and Happiness, and he chooses happiness not for himself but for everyone.

“People are happy; the get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get.”

“Each one of us … goes through life inside a bottle. But if we happen to be Alphas, our bottles are, relatively speaking, enormous.”

“… he’s being sent to a place where he’ll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life.”

Is this our ultimate choice, war or loss of individuality? It’s a fascinating question, as relevant today as when the book was written. More than that the story surrounding the question is strong, the characters are believable and the prose is beautifully written. Even those events that may seem implausible work in the greater narrative.


We Yevgeny ZamyatinThe story is set in a world of identity-less organisms (ciphers) that make up a community referred to as We. A society with strict rules dictated by science and rationality with no room for individuality. In this Russian dystopia, as with “Brave New World”, pairing off into couples is dissuaded. It is usual for groups of four to walk and talk together rather than two or three. Days are carefully structured by the use of timetables. There is no privacy, even in their rooms. Instead of names the ciphers are designated a letter followed by numbers which matches the glass room in which they reside. Sex is organised through a system of pink slips and it seems as though consent isn’t a consideration and lack of consent is unthought of. In this world the annual election of the Benefactor is celebrated as a holiday equal to Christmas or Easter, looked forward to with excitement. Everyone gets a vote, but whoever does not vote for the Benefactor is eradicated as a threat to the community.

One interesting point is the perseverance of difference even in this society of dehumanised, nameless ciphers. Our hero sees those around him often in terms of their designated letter – O is round and plump, I is skinny and S has a curved and misshapen posture. It’s subtly done, but helps make our hero’s dilemma later seem more natural.

As with “Brave New World” people are treated as children, incapable of independent thought. A benevolent dictator, the Benefactor, rules their lives completely and they are, on the whole, grateful for this. They are protected, by a glass dome, from the ills, diseases and discomfort of the outside wilderness. Oil based foods are produced to satisfy hunger. Exercise is prescribed within the carefully planned timetable. And everyone is content.

The story centres around D503, the builder of the Integral, a space ship that will send their message of science and rationality to assumed primitive lifeforms on other worlds. As with “Brave New World” and to a lesser degree “It Can’t Happen Here” it is a woman, I330, who disrupts D503’s structured existence and causes in him a sickness he refers to as a soul. I330 is dangerous, subversive, appears and disappears in dreamlike irrational ways. She represents chaos within this ordered world. 1330 changes D503 on such a fundamental level that he no longer knows what is real. He acts against the interests of the Benefactor and the community without thinking about what he is doing or why, simply to get closer to this enigmatic woman.

When threatened by I330 and the group she appears to lead, the State react by operating on all the ciphers to remove their imaginations. A scientific procedure to return the organism of We to its stable state. D503 sees the beautiful simplicity of this procedure and much of him wants to be cured of his soul.

D503 tells his story in journal form and in so doing provides evidence against himself and others. It is the naivety of the ciphers that makes them both compelling and terrifying. Yet, within the context of the story, that innocence makes sense. Cynicism is primitive.

An amazing book, which was apparently banned in the USSR. We is an essential part of 20th century dystopian  literature and reveals perhaps the roots of Orwell’s 1984.

Swastika Night

Swastika NightPossibly the most troubling of the four dystopian books I have read, at least from a woman’s point of view. Women are all but completely absent from the story, and from the society. It is set 720 years after the second world war. Germany won and Nazi’s now rule all of Europe and Africa. The Japanese rule Asia and America (although they are only mentioned in passing in the story).

The action happens in Germany and England (a subject nation). While Alfred (an English engineer) is visiting the Holy Land (Germany) he meets a German knight, Von Hess. Von Hess’s family are in possession of a secret book that reveals some of the pre Hitler history the Nazi’s have eradicated everywhere else. Von Hess is old and his sons are dead. In Alfred he sees someone who may be able to protect the book and save the history contained within it from destruction.

The society is organised thus – Hitler (long dead) is worshipped as God. Der Feuhrer is the dictator of half the world. German Knights serve as government, the heads of churches and military leaders. German Nazis (all male) are the next most important and powerful group. The members of subject nations (like our Englishman) are below them and do much of the work in exchange for rations. Romantic relationships are always homosexual. Masculinity is worshipped especially in its most violent forms.

German and subject nations’ women are caged and kept as breeding stock. Their heads are shaven and they wear ugly robes and learn to stoop rather than stand straight. The idea of women is repulsive and therefore men are legally obliged to mate with them to breed, but love is between men only. We learn that women were complicit in their own degradation, believing that complete submission would make the men love them more. Now they are despised, but have no strength, education or pride to try and reverse their situation. The birth of sons is celebrated and sons are removed from their mothers by eighteen months to live with their fathers. Giving birth to a girl is a shameful matter, but these stay with their mothers in the caged communities. The trouble, of which only the knights and Feuhrer are aware, is that very few girls are now born and society is fast approaching a crisis point.

Jews have been eradicated completely and now Christians are treated as a subhuman underclass, the untouchables. While they shun aggressive action they are left alone. Their women are also viewed as soulless animals, but they remain in patriarchal family groups and are not caged.

Alfred returns to England with the precious and forbidden book to find he has fathered a daughter. Having read about historical women, his idea of the soulless animal is challenged, and against all protocol he holds his daughter in his arms. He wants to save her from the cage and the degradation of her mother and other women, but he is powerless to do so.

He is not certain that women are in fact soulless animals who do not feel suffering. He says in the book –

“There’s an explanation why women always live according to an imposed pattern, because they are not women at all, and never have been. They are not themselves. Nothing can be, unless it knows it is superior to everything else. No man could believe God was She. No woman could believe God was He. It would be making God inferior.”

“There are two things that women have never had which men have had, of a developing and encouraging nature. One is sexual invulnerability and the other is pride in their sex, which is the humblest boy’s birthright.”

Alfred and Von Hess also agree that the males of this society are not men (they have not reached that stage of maturity and independence) but are kept as boys, enjoying childish distractions.

It’s a terrifying book because we can see where the baby steps of removing birth control and restricting women’s rights can lead. It’s a timely wakeup call considering the actions of nations like the US in destroying planned parenthood in the name of religion. It’s brilliantly written in that you cannot feel complete sympathy for anyone, which of course is how this dystopian society is organised. If you enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, I urge you to read this book as well.


All four books agree that the way to run a society dependent on the State is by keeping us in a permanent state of childhood. Ensuring that what we desire is freely available and removing the need for individual decision making. In our modern consumerist society of available credit, lack of hunger and sexual outlets we are reaching that childhood state.

In all four books history and facts are changed to suit the needs of the State. We hear that we are becoming a post-truth society. We have reached a level of anti-intellectualism that means many will argue their opinion is worth as much as researched evidence.

In all four books an underclass is required – be it women, an entire religion, other nations or simply outsiders. If you want to know where modern society is at on this point click to any news station or read any newspaper.

Will we reach such a level of dystopia as shown in these books? On a worldwide basis perhaps we already have. Suicide nets outside Apple factories being the perfect example. In the first world I suspect we have a few more baby steps to take before we reach that point. Give us a hundred years or so. When food and water become scarcities and it is harder to provide everything people want to keep them passive and we may find out what kind of dystopia is in store for our world.

~ by Sumiko Saulson on July 21, 2018.

One Response to “Dystopian reads from the 1920’s and 1930’s”

  1. Yikes! I’m hopeful for the future just from other things I know, but this sure chilled me. I’ve watched a lot of dystopia effects in my own life during the last five years. Not so much from the news but just the change in behaviour from how the technology changed us, along with monetizing the tech, of course.

    I wanted to thank you for this article. I didn’t skim it whatsoever and it held my attention. Also it’s really important these stories keep getting discussed. That is, after all, likely why the authors created them. There are a lot of things I would not have caught going on now if I wasn’t raised on speculative fiction.

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