You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
New Wave Dystopia

New Wave Dystopia

A new generation of science fiction authors center their writing on marginalized people, because they recognize that we typically build dystopias for marginalized people, first.

Noah Berlatsky

If one book epitomizes the genre of dystopian literature, it’s probably George Orwell’s 1984. But even dystopias change over time, and from today’s perspective, Orwell’s nightmare future can look a little dilapidated. Orwell could learn a lot, for instance, from Martha Wells’ delightful space adventure Murderbot series. The more recent novels reveal that dystopias are more commonly defined not by the experiences of the relatively privileged and affluent, but by the experiences of the most despised.

Orwell’s 1984 is a dystopia inspired in part by Stalinism, in part by Nazism, and perhaps in part by Orwell’s experience as a colonial administrator. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a writer whose job is to adjust past news stories to fit in with the current party line. Surveillance, by the perhaps apocryphal leader “Big Brother,” is ubiquitous. The secret police enforce ideological conformity; any minimal deviation in thought or deed results in arrest, torture, brainwashing, and execution. 

Winston is relatively privileged as a member of the ruling party with a middle-class job. He’s sometimes envious of the lower-class Proles, who are under more minimal surveillance, but they have less money than him and live in relative squalor. Arguably, part of the horror in 1984 is that even the intellectual class like Winston– aka white affluent writers– are oppressed. Oceania is a nightmare because it is so totalizing that individuals like Orwell and the reader face the kind of brutal policing and harsh treatment that is usually meted out only to enslaved or criminalized people. 

Martha Wells, by contrast, centers her narrative not on relatively well-off people but on the most exploited. System Collapse (2023) is the latest novel in her Murderbot series. Murderbot is a SecUnit, which is a cloned cyborg soldier, fast and strong enough to destroy an army of normal humans. It spends most of its time downloading and watching soap opera serials. “As a heartless killing machine,” it admits, “I was a terrible failure.” The Murderbot novels are entertaining romps and the protagonist is deeply lovable. 

Murderbot’s favorite television series—because, yes, robots watch TV too—is The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon. Sometimes, though, it has to interrupt an episode to go save its friends from giant toothy megafauna or vicious corporate assassins. When it has to interact with humans, it will go off and stare into a corner so they can’t see its face, because it is shy. “You don’t need to look at me,” it says with some irritation. “I’m not a sexbot.”

The dystopian nightmare in the Murderbot books, in contrast to 1984, is a capitalist one. Much of the Murderbot universe is controlled by rapacious, extractive corporations. Surveillance is still everywhere, in this case because corporations spy on people in order to data mine their conversations for profitable information. The corporations ship people into debt slavery to dig for minerals or to labor in factories making their shoddy products. 

The corporations have created cloned sentient cyborgs for security, and put governor modules in their heads that fry their brains if they disobey orders. Our Murderbot hacked its module. But before it did that, it was a slave with no rights. Almost no one in the universe even recognizes it as a person. Occasionally, SecUnit owners would order SecUnits to fight to the death in gladiatorial combat. On dangerous missions SecUnits are often jettisoned and left behind to die. They’re disposable, despised, sometimes feared. They’re treated like machines.

Wells’ Murderbot series is in line with some of the most influential writing in contemporary science fiction, which in similar fashion has deliberately shifted narratives to include the viewpoints of the most marginalized and dispossessed. Another pioneering example is Octavia Butler’s Parable duology from the early 1990s. Butler imagines a future America disintegrating into crime, anarchic chaos, and Christofascist intolerance. 

Butler’s protagonist is a visionary Black religious leader, Lauren Olamina, and many of the supporting characters are Black or Hispanic. Lauren and her community are enslaved and targeted for violence by both police and Christian zealots. Similarly, in N.K. Jemisin’s mid-2010s Broken Earth series, the protagonist, Essun, is enslaved because she has the power to cause earthquakes and control the planetary surface. Essun is Black, and her history of oppression dovetails with the history of oppression on the earth we’re more familiar with.

Murderbot, who is neurodivergent and nonbinary by human standards, would also be the target of prejudice in our society, as it is in its own. That overlap serves to underline something that Orwell doesn’t quite engage, which is that dystopias are often dystopias precisely because they are not totalizing. Violence and oppression are acceptable, and accepted, because they’re targeted at people like Murderbot, Essun, or Lauren, who are perceived as lesser and so can be scapegoated and brutalized with little public protest. 

If the goal of dystopian fiction is in part to educate people as to when a dystopia is coming for them, it’s important to recognize who the dystopias tend to come for. In 1984, Orwell imagines a dystopia that comes for everyone, more or less equally. In contrast, Murderbot lives in a world which is horrible in part because middle-class white intellectuals like Winston can look around and conclude that since they are not being surveilled and brutalized, things can’t be that bad yet. 

Murderbot and the new wave of dystopic fiction center on marginalized people because they recognize that dystopias are most commonly built for marginalized people. Murderbot spent years living with a Big Brother in its own head, and it is arguably treated with a cruelty more thoroughgoing and vicious than anything Winston experiences. The Party at least cares enough about Winston to want to convert him. The corporation doesn’t even bother to concern itself with what Murderbot believes or doesn’t. That’s partly why Murderbot becomes obsessed with watching television serials. When you’re not supposed to have your own narrative, claiming a soap opera for yourself can be an act of rebellion.

At one point in the novel Artificial Condition, Murderbot is musing about why none of its serials star a SecUnit. “I guess you can’t tell a story from the point of view of something that you don’t think has a point of view,” it concludes. 

Wells has chosen to tell the story of a SecUnit because she wants to affirm that people on the margins are people with their own voices and their own stories. And what those stories say, in part, is that the people who experience dystopia first, and most intensely, are often ignored. If you want to be prepared for the worst, you need to pay attention to the experiences and voices not just of the Winston Smiths, but of the Murderbots, too. 

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago. He writes about movies and other matters at Everything Is Horrible.

Image: Cover Art for The Murderbot Diaries by Andis Reinberg.