This analysis is meant to compare and contrast utopian and dystopian societies in fiction and real life by defining and contextualizing these topics with examples from fiction and today’s society i.e. Star Trek, George Orwell’s novel 1984, People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, and Omar El Akkad’s novel American War. It will discuss how the dystopian genre has gained momentum in the modern era.
This analysis will also discuss how a utopian society will inevitably fall into a dystopia and how the ruling power of a real-life dystopia, The People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, uses complete culture and economic isolation, widespread propaganda, and violence to crush all forms of dissent and convince its members that their society is a utopia.
In regard to the novel American War, this analysis will answer the question who is wrong and who is right in the Second American Civil War by addressing that wars, especially civil wars, are fought in moral grey areas. Both sides have legitimate justification for fighting, and both are guilty of war crimes and atrocities. Lastly, this paper will assess the issues and themes presented in American War and will address the lesson we should ultimately take from the novel.
Utopian Societies have been prevalent in Western Culture since the 16th century. The first use of the word was used in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 novel of the same name, but a more contemporary example of a Utopia is the Star Trek franchise, originally envisioned by Gene Rodenberry. His vision of the future is a society where Earth has united peacefully under a single government alongside other star systems called the “United Federation of Planets”.
Issues that were once the forefront of our society, i.e. racism, starvation, disease, and war, have become obsolete. The Federation is founded on the principles of liberty and equality, and the Federation’s military branch Starfleet deals primarily with peacefully seeking out sentient beings and carrying out scientific, defensive, and diplomatic missions.
The Dystopia genre, unlike the Utopian genre, is a more recent genre. The most prominent example of is George Orwell’s novel 1984. In 1984, Orwell envisions an alternate 1984 where three Superpowers (Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia) are in a constant state of warfare. Citizens of theses societies live under a totalitarian regime where they are constantly under government surveillance, are subject to widespread censorship, and are stripped of their individualism. All forms of dissent are crushed through force; citizens who show any form of protest to the ruling party, INGSOC, are arrested by the Thought Police and sent to be tortured, “reeducated”, and eventually executed by the Ministry of Love.
The Dystopian genre saw a massive spike in popularity during the 20th century. Many people attribute the increase in the popularity of the dystopian genre with serious militaristic innovations made during the Second World War, primarily the invention of the nuclear bomb, and the Cold War between the United States and U.S.S.R For the first time ever, humans cold annihilate entire cities in a matter of seconds.
While wars prior to WWII caused massive devastation, the invention of the atomic bomb and the subsequent Cold War created the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction: a military doctrine in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by opposing would cause the destruction of both sides. Anxiety over the atomic bomb was also met with economic and environmental anxiety, which in turn contributed to the increase in demand of dystopian media. This spike in popularity of the dystopian genre has made people wonder if it is possible for our society to crumble to 1984 style society and if some government already fallen into a dystopia.
Many believe the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) under the Kim regime as the definitive example of a real-life dystopia. North Korea has a totalitarian style government with their Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, having final say on executive and legislative matters. They are a military based society requiring all able-bodied men and a selective number of women to conscript in armed service at from 17-30, which gives the country the fourth largest military in number of soldiers. The North Korean government has received criticism for its human right’s abuses, treatment of prisoners, and wide-spread censorship. The mass censorship coincides with complete economic and diplomatic isolation under the official philosophy of Juche: the belief that through self-reliance and a strong independent state, true socialism can be achieved.
There are many similarities between fictional dystopia, such as George Orwell’s 1984, and real-life dystopias, such as North Korea. Both are militaristic societies with totalitarian style governments that practice government censorship, mass oppression, and complete isolation. The main difference between fictional dystopias and real-life dystopias is that fictional dystopias are set in a world where their government is either the only remaining government or political ideology, while real-life dystopias have other political ideologies and governments that make up the world they live. This allows for the people living in the dystopia to compare their lives to others and either rise up against their ruling class or defect to more free societies.
The dictionary Merriam-Webster defines utopia as a “place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions.” The term Utopian comes from British author Sir Thomas More when he coined the term in his 1516 novel Utopia. He imagined a perfect island society located in Caribbean Sea. However, the political structure of the island would, in today’s standards, be classified as a dystopia for advocating policies such as communal living, life-time leaders, and slavery. This brings up the question: how can a utopia devolve into a dystopia?
A true Utopian society has never existed in the real world. The word Utopia derives from the Greek language. The prefix ou- meaning not and -topos meaning place, which would make the literal translation mean nowhere. Like humans, all forms of government that have ever existed have been imperfect and full of glaring flaws, even democracy. Winston Churchill put it best when he stated, “Indeed it has that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Utopian societies have only ever existed in fiction, and even then, the narrative hardly remarks on human’s capability to form a perfect society. The narrative tends to be written, as professor Gregory Eck of Williams College puts it, “about the failure and impossibility of utopia than of its success.” Utopias are dystopias in the making. Most utopias constructed in fiction have usually been built under false pretenses or suffer from the same corruption and injustice that all societies face.
When the lie or the injustice is exposed, the house of cards the utopia was built under collapses. An example of this collapse is the 2011 film, The Dark Knight Rises. The film takes place a few years after the controversial death of Attorney General Harvey Dent. His death brought upon the law the Dent Act, which saw the mass incarceration and eradication of Gotham’s organized crime.
This eradication brought upon relative peace and historically low crime rates. However, the true about the life and death of Harvey Dent was kept secret from the public, and when the true character of Dent is revealed, the city collapses with all of Gotham’s prisoners being released, the government and police force collapsing, and the rise of an anarchical society. This example shows that all utopian societies are destined to fall into dystopias.
The word dystopia, on the other hand, comes from the Greek prefix dys- meaning bad making the literal translation the “bad place”. An educational non-profit called ReadWriteThink states that a dystopia is an “a futuristic, imagined universe in which oppressive societal control and the illusion of a perfect society are maintained through corporate, bureaucratic, technological, moral, or totalitarian control. In all dystopias, whether fictional or real, there are key characteristics that make their society: Propaganda is used to control the citizens, A figurehead or concept is worshipped by the citizens, citizens live in a dehumanized state, etc.
All four of these characteristics are prevalent in Omar El Akkad’s novel American War. Propaganda is prevalent throughout the Free Southern State. The most prominent example is when Albert Gaines “educated” Sarat with Southern textbooks. These books reinforced the Southern narrative and were the catalyst that indoctrinated Sarat as a weapon for the Southern cause. As the novel puts it, “He taught her about the first time the North had torn her country to shred.
He said people think of that war now the way they think about most wars…but he said it was women who were left to clean it all up in the end.” This is a clear example of Albert Gaine’s using propaganda as a way to gain control of Sarat, so that he can use her as a weapon. Figureheads are also used to push the Southern cause. The most prominent example is Julia Templestowe: a suicide bomber that became a martyr for the southern cause. “The first patron saint of its war” as El Akkad put in on page 40.
For a good chunk of the novel, the Chestnut Family resides at Camp Patience: a refugee camp located on the border of Mississippi and Tennessee. The conditions of the camp are bleak and decrepit. The family of four lives in a small refugee tent, survives off rations from the Red Crescent, and are barely equipped with basic necessities to survive. These characteristics paint the world in American War as clear examples of a dystopia.
The ruling power in a dystopia are keen on convincing the members of their society that they are living in utopia. They do this through a variety of methods: complete culture and economic isolation, widespread propaganda, and by crushing all forms of dissent through violent means. We can see example of complete culture and economic isolation in North Korea.
There policy of Juche as prevented any forms of outside media from seeping into North Korean culture. This has allowed for the Kim regime to paint Western governments as evil, imperialistic societies that are hell-bent on conquering them. Propaganda is able to convince the masses that their government and leaders are infallible, and any problems the country face are due to outside influences, usually a minority ethnic/religious group.
We saw this style of propaganda in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, and in George Orwell’s 1984. Lastly, dystopian societies reinforce the false narrative that the masses are living in a utopia by crushing all forms of dissent. This can be done through by a number of means, but some of the most common are: arresting/assassinating political opponents, banning all forms of negative media, controlling the nation’s education system, and by suppressing free thought.
In American War, no faction of the Second American Civil War holds the moral high ground. While on the surface the United States (Blues) seems to be the “good guys” of the war for advocating clean energy and trying to suppress a rebel insurgency, the Blues committed serious atrocities, human rights abuses, and war crimes during the 21-year long Civil War. At the end of Chapter 8, a rogue militia assaults the refugee camp, Camp Patience, and massacres the majority of the inhabitants. While the camp was providing shelter to Southern militias who stole supplies from the Blues, the novel implies that the Blues baited them in order to have the justification needed to assault the camp.
The Blues kill innocent women and children, like Sarat’s mother Martina, and execute Southern volunteers who were trying to surrender. The Blues are also guilty of torture and false imprisonment. At the end of Chapter 11 and throughout Chapter 12, Sarat is captured and detained at the Sugarloaf Detention Facility in The Florida Sea. There she is subject to all forms of torture and pressured into making false confessions to crimes against the North. All the while, leaving the North unaware of the crimes she herself is guilty of.
While this does paint the North in a terrible image, The Free Southern State is also guilty of similar atrocities. Throughout the novel, The South uses suicide bombers to attack political leaders, military institutions, and civilians. They also use agents like Albert Gaines to indoctrinate children as radical soldiers for the Southern cause. A cause that advocates for the use of fossil fuels, which, in this timeline, caused a drastic rise in sea levels, crop shortages, and economic ruin. At the end of the novel, Sarat, on behalf of the FSS and Bouazizi Empire, unleashes a plague that would take the lives of 100 million people.
Truths we can pull from this battle are that there never any clear “good guys” and “bad guys” in wars. Every side in a war has a legitimate justification for fighting. Both sides commit atrocities and human rights abuses, and it is our job as people to prevent and address these issues when they prevent themselves.
To conclude, Omar El Akkad’s American War depicts a bleak but realistic future that asks its readers to reflect on the society they currently live in. He shows that even a global power, like the United States can fall to dystopian level and highlights issues that American readers likely don’t focus on, mainly America’s involvement in foreign wars and America’s use of torture, by flipping the roles in his narrative.
He depicts the United States as a dystopia that has been devastated by economic ruin, climate change, and civil war, while depicting the middle-east as united superpower who uses its influence to destabilize regions for political gain. His goal is to make us truly wonder if The United States is the bastion of democracy we aim to be.
- Akkad, O. E. (2018). American War. Random House US.
- Morel, Z. (2016, April 25). Retrieved December 10, 2018, from https://sites.williams.edu/engl117s16/uncategorized/the-fine-line-between-utopia-and-dystopia/
- The World Factbook: Korea, North. (2018, February 01). Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kn.html