Dystopian fiction and radical politics


Thursday, January 24, 2019

The First Dystopia

Between the latest Trump drama over the State of the Union, and the similarly stupid drama going on over Brexit, we find ourselves, weirdly, in a situation where British King Charles I is suddenly a trending topic.

You will not find me waxing punditry on the English Civil War, about which I am poorly informed, but suffice to say, some people are seeing similarities between Charles I, who went to war with his own parliament, and certain modern leaders.

While I can't say much about whether these comparisons are historically valid, never let it be said that I missed an opportunity to jump on a meme.

Charles I was the villain in the very first example I could identify of a work of dystopian literature situated in the not-too-distant future -- "Aulicus his dream, of the Kings sudden comming to London," a six page pamphlet by Francis Cheynell published in 1644.

A handful of arguably dystopian works preceded or shortly followed "Aulicus his dream," but they fell into two categories:
  • Fantasy Anti-Utopias, written in response to Thomas More's Utopia (1516), which were set in imaginary lands. 
  • Exploration Anti-Utopias, which were fictionalized accounts of civilizations found in unexplored areas of the world. 
While these works described dystopian or at least dysfunctional societies, they were not extrapolations of current social trends in real places.

"Aulicus his dream" followed what is now a familiar template, with the narrator falling asleep and predicting the disaster that would follow if Charles I prevailed in his conflict with the parliament. The account is not especially detailed (or clear), but it was enough to qualify the tract as an extremely early example of futuristic fiction, and the very first example I could find of a dystopian tale set in the not-too-distant future. (If you know of an earlier one, drop me a line.)




Books/short stories read: 95

Films and TV series watched: 124


The Turner Diaries, the infamous racist dystopian novel by neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce, has inspired more than 200 murders since its publication in 1978, including the single deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing.

The book is arguably the most important single work of white nationalist propaganda in the English language, but it is not a singular artifact. The Turner Diaries is part of a genre of racist dystopian propaganda dating back to the U.S. Civil War. A new paper from J.M. Berger documents the books that directly and indirectly inspired Turner and examine the extensive violence that the novel has inspired.



Supergirl: Man of Steel

Deliver Us From Dystopia

When? A Prophetical Novel of the Very Near Future

The Turner Diaries on PBS American Experience

Logan's Run

Dystopian Robo-Call

The Spook Who Sat by the Door

The Turner Legacy

Racism and Radiophones

The Unparalleled Invasion


J.M. Berger is an author, consultant and analyst studying extremism. He is an associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism -- The Hague and a fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism. For more about Berger, click here.


"...smart, granular analysis..."

ISIS: The State of Terror
"Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's new book, "ISIS," should be required reading for every politician and policymaker... Their smart, granular analysis is a bracing antidote to both facile dismissals and wild exaggerations... a nuanced and readable account of the ideological and organizational origins of the group." -- Washington Post

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    "...a timely warning..."

    Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam:
    "At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times

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