uxley’s Brave New World (1932) has Alphas, Betas, and Epsilon Semi-Morons – genetically engineered classes with uniform clothing and uniform opinions. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) has the Thought Police and Newspeak. While Zamyatin’s We (1921) has numbers instead of people – D-503, I-330, O-90: vowels for females, consonants for males.
If there is a single defining characteristic of dystopian literature, it is the eradication of all individuality. “Self-consciousness”, Zamyatin writes, “is just a disease”. For this reason, dystopias are invariably told by tormented outsiders: those who are well aware of the commodity-like standardisation of their fellow humans, yet either fear the consequences of speaking out or resent their own sense of self. After all, “no offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour”, as Huxley writes.
Given their tyrannical preoccupation with uniformity, it is little wonder that, as a literary form, dystopias emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. The totalitarian regimes of Russia and Germany as well as their technocratic Western counterparts, inspired by the likes of F. W. Taylor and Henry Ford, were central sources of inspiration. For all their apparent differences, these competing ideologies are united by the utopian attempt to redraw not just society, but the human being himself. The increasing power of science and technology gave rise to the idea that nature itself, in all its messy complexity, could be finally put straight.
Besides these three canonical authors, however, this generation produced another equally impressive, if much less well known, dystopian writer: the enigmatic German, Ernst Jünger. Known primarily for his First World War diaries and steadfast opposition to Weimar liberalism, Jünger went on to live until the age of 103, writing on topics from entomology and psychedelics to nihilism and photography. In the second half of his career he produced three principal works of dystopian fiction: Heliopolis (1949), Eumeswil (1977), and, perhaps his finest, The Glass Bees (1957).
Arguably his most chilling vision, however, is offered in an extended essay published on the eve of the Nazi ascension to power in 1932. The Worker, as Jünger calls it, aims to sketch what he regards as the coming new world order – an order defined by a fundamentally new type of human. Having dispensed with the liberal values of the past and embraced his fate in the factories and on the battlefields of the early twentieth century, the hallmark of the new man is an uncanny resemblance – both in body and soul – to the machine. Born to human parents, Jünger’s “worker” is nevertheless a child of the industrial age.
Read more: The Dystopian Age of the Mask