Review of Desire and Empathy in Twentieth-Century Dystopian Fiction

Review of Desire and Empathy in Twentieth-Century Dystopian Fiction

Adam Heidebrink-Bruno

Thomas Horan. Desire and Empathy in Twentieth-Century Dystopian Fiction. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Hardcover, 212 pp, $99.99, ISBN 9783319706740.

Thomas Horan’s study of twentieth-century dystopian fiction is a recent addition to the Palgrave Studies in Utopianism series. This collection selects academic studies based on their broad subject appeal and their importance to the long history of utopian thought. Horan’s text is no exception. In this study, Horan traces the role of desire and empathy in seven of the most popular dystopias of the twentieth-century (Jack London’s The Iron Heel [1908], Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We [1924], Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World [1932], Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night [1937], Ayn Rand’s Anthem [1938], George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949], and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale [1985]) to make sense of a key narrative trope that appears in all seven novels; namely, why does sexual desire always precede political subversion? 

In each of the novels Horan examines, two characters meet, express unsanctioned desire for one another, and ultimately engage in some sort of illicit sexual activity. The sexual liaisons take place between a revolutionary thinker and a docile member of the totalitarian state resulting in the political awakening of the orthodox character. After seeing this literary trope appear time and again, Horan argues that sexual desire is “an aspect of the self that can never be fully appropriated by the totalitarian state” (1). Accordingly, Horan recognizes that sexual desire has a powerful political role. As he explains, desire serves as an effective means of political subversion that motivates resistance, humanizes the opposition, and produces empathy for people in situations vastly different than one’s own. Among the dystopian backdrops of the narratives in Horan’s study, desire is the only force strong enough to resist the allure of losing oneself to the false promises of totalitarianism.

Discussing the illicit sexual relationships in twentieth-century dystopia is not new. After all, the relationship between Winston and Julia in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, for instance, is one of the most recognizable displays of unsanctioned desire in the English literary canon, and dozens of articles have been published on the significance of their relationship. Moreover, according to Horan’s own research, arguments about desire and resistance in twentieth-century dystopian novels date back over a century to a time when the contemporaries of Jack London and Yevgeny Zamyatin contemplated the role of subversive desire in The Iron Heel and We, respectively. 

Given the prolific and lasting interest in the subject, Horan’s most difficult task in this study is making room for his contribution in a field that is already saturated with arguments about dystopia and desire. He accomplishes this not by adding something entirely new to any one specific novel, but rather by synthesizing the immense body of scholarship already published on the subject and comparing the details and nuances of sexual desire across some of the most iconic relationships in the genre. Horan approaches the study comparatively. While each chapter is purportedly about one novel, it never quite seems that way. At key moments in each chapter, Horan looks back at relationships he investigated earlier in the study to draw out connections and then gestures toward the relationships appearing in subsequent chapters. As a result, readers of this study will not only acquire a strong understanding of desire in seven specific dystopias, but also walk away with knowledge of how they all fit together as a genre convention.

The study’s broad, comparative approach also makes this text a remarkable introduction to these seven important novels. Despite the focus on desire and empathy in the book’s title, the study goes into great depth on topics as disparate as genre conventions, totalitarian politics, and religious rhetoric. As Horan is also the editor of critical editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm (1945), perhaps his survey of key themes is unsurprising. Nevertheless, this approach results in a thematic study of desire and empathy that also serves as a general overview of the major discussions surrounding these popular dystopias, making individual chapters from this study valuable for many students of dystopian literature.

Horan’s meticulously comparative approach in an already saturated field has some limits, as well. The study’s heavy investment in secondary scholarship detracts from the author’s own reading of the texts and makes his argument feel marginal or even insignificant at times. In many chapters, Horan doesn’t assert his own position on the use of illicit sexual desire in the novel until the very end of the discussion, summarizing the voices and arguments of previous scholars much more thoroughly than advancing his own. The majority of quotations Horan includes in the study, for example, are from secondary sources rather than the novels under investigation. While this strengthens his claims about the genre’s use of desire, it also restricts his ability to make definitive claims about the texts individually and makes it difficult for individuals unacquainted with the secondary scholarship to follow the thread of his argument.

The central value of this study is in Horan’s ability to build connections between a wide range of dystopian texts. The variety of novels examined in the study allows readers to see how twentieth-century authors employed desire in a variety of ways depending on their own political position. Scholars rarely have the chance to see an author as conservative as Ayn Rand situated as part of the same tradition as Aldous Huxley or Margaret Atwood, and yet there is much to learn about how desire functions across political differences by reading these texts together. Moveover, the inclusion of both male and female authors as well as discussions about heterosexual and homosexual desire makes this study a valuable asset to feminist and queer scholars interested in dystopian literature. 

In the end, Horan does contribute something new about dystopia and desire despite the abundance of scholarship already available on the subject, but it doesn’t come from reading individual novels. Instead—much like the political awakenings in the novels themselves—this new understanding of the genre emerges from the surprising and sometimes troubling relationships between these seven authors. Alone, each of these authors envisions a totalitarian nightmare. But together, as Horan explains, they paint a more hopeful picture: one that speaks to the power of desire to create empathy and inspire action across profound ideological differences.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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