Free Will and Crime in Dystopian Literature


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

Crime has long been a perfect contested space to explore the conflicts between security and free will that have been at the center of dystopian literature. The scenario they explore provide an elegant thought experiment for considering how we define crime and, especially, criminals. But the key question, at the base of many dystopias of the 1950s remains, should society override individual free will?

A dystopian portrait of a woman looking hazy an din a coat that looks like a straight jacket.
Criminals in Brave New World are either reconditioned or exiled. (Image: dmitry zubarev/Shutterstock)

Illusory Free Will

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, is so named for the apparent auto ignition temperature of paper. In that world, the auto ignition of paper matters because all books are banned and the so-called firemen are responsible not for putting out fires but for using fire to put out books. Thus, they put out the individual thoughts, too, that might follow from reading them. Similarly, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, from 1952, presents the image of the player piano who embodies the automation of everything, even art, and foretells a world where free will is merely illusory.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Crime and Free Will

The 1950s produced many dystopias in which human behavior is oriented toward conformity rather than creativity. They toy with the idea that social forces can overpower individual free will and warn us that they most certainly will, unless we do something about it.

These ideas get concrete enough for us to really dig into them when they’re located in the arena of deviancy—or perhaps criminality—depending on how we understand behaviors that exist at the limits of the socially acceptable, or even completely outside it. It looks into the very heart of the question, what is crime and what is free will. It ponders if criminal behavior is evidence of humanity’s naturally evil nature or is it a result of being a victim of discrimination that would disappear in a more equitable society.

Crime and Criminality

Writers such as Thomas More address criminality in most of our utopias and dystopias. More’s Utopians enslave or execute those they see as criminals, Samuel Butler’s Erewhonians sympathize with them and provide medical treatment. Edward Bellamy’s future Bostonians, on the other hand, don’t really have to worry about criminality since the utopia of Looking Backward is just that good.

In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s One State, criminals or dissenters are lobotomized, in Brave New World they are either reconditioned or exiled and they are, one must say, exceedingly rare, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four they are completely, utterly broken.

Learn more about Thomas More and Utopian origins.

Philip K. Dick and Dystopian Literature

In 1956, Philip K. Dick provided a fresh approach to the questions of free will and criminality in dystopian literature in his short story, Minority Report. The man trying to escape the system of ubiquitous surveillance is the one who has helped to set it up.

A cover of the book 'Fahrenheit 451' with a man dressed in newspaper, covering his eyes.
In Fahrenheit 451, all books are banned and firemen are responsible not for putting out fires but for using fire to put out books. (Image: Jim Linwood/Public domain)

As a science fiction writer, Dick regularly used dystopian settings in his extremely prolific, if rather short, career. He died when he was just 53, but he had already written 44 novels and over a hundred short stories

Consider, especially, Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and its excellent film adaptation by Richard Linklater, set in a dystopian California future in which the protagonist lives a double life as a drug user living in a house of users and as an undercover cop assigned to infiltrate that same house. Similar to this is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its famous movie  adaptation  by  Ridley Scott, Blade Runner. The plot centers on a kind of futuristic cop in a dying Los Angeles deals with genetically engineered replicants who raise questions about what it means to be human.

Once we hit the 1950s, though, we see far fewer pure utopias or pure dystopias. Predictably, this is also a time when the lines blur between utopia and dystopia as two separate genres. Think about The Chrysalids, for example, with its extremely ambiguous ending.

Learn more about utopian satire.

Genre Hybridity

We get a hint of this with H.G. Wells when the generic purity—if there ever was such a thing in such a paradoxical genre—of utopia and dystopia was threatened by mixing it with science fiction.

Since then, our representative novels have had relative generic purity. Herland, from 1915, is pretty solidly a utopia until the ending, with the rapist Terry heading back into the world with only a promise and his good friend Van to keep him from retaliating against the women of the utopia. And the Big Three Dystopias—We in the 1920s, Brave New World in the 1930s, and Nineteen Eighty-Four in the 1940s—we can see some potential for hope, but they’re pretty clearly dystopias.

The McCarthy era seemed extreme in the ways it curtailed personal liberties in the 1950s. This is perhaps from where the compulsion to address the tensions between security and liberty arose. The problems of criminality and free will remain central to thinking about what a utopian—or dystopian— world might look like. Even today it forces us to question how much free will we actually have. The questions that were at the base of many dystopias of the 1950s remain relevant even today.

Common Questions about Free Will and Crime in Dystopian Literature

Q: What is the image that the player piano presented by Kurt Vonnegut?

Kurt Vonnegut presents the image of the player piano who embodies the automation of everything, even art.

Q: Where is Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly set?

Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly is set in a dystopian California future in which the protagonist lives a double life as a drug user and as an undercover cop.

Q: Which works are referred to as the ‘Big Three Dystopias’?

The ‘Big Three Dystopias‘ refers to We, written in the 1920s, Brave New World, written in the 1930s, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in the 1940s.

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