Is Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story" a Dystopia?

Term Paper, 2012

7 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Gary Shteyngart - Super Sad True Love Story

A dystopia?

written by Matthias Jessen

Leuphana Universität L ü neburg


Winter-term 2011/12

Seminar: Immigration Literature

With „Super Sad True Love Story“ the russian born author Gary Shteyngart has written a anti-utopia, a dystopia. Shteyngart has written a fictional story with a negative ending. Set in a not so far away future, he shows a possibiliy of things to come. It's in the nature of a dystopia to look at future developments in a pessimistic and sometimes satirical kind of way. Based on the present, Shteyngart shows us, where things might end up, if we don't intervene.

“[…] they have often been called anti-utopias because they seem a sad, last farewell to man’s age-old dream of a planned, ideal, and perfected society, a dream which appeared so noble in Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Andreae’s Christianopolis, and Bellamy’s Looking Backward.”1

The dystopia as a novel was born during the industrial revolution. Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote his „We“ in 1920 and critized russian society and politics with his science-fiction book, which he had to publish outside of Russia.2

In the same year the czech writer Karel Čapek finished his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). A work of fiction that shows the extinction of human work labour and life by a rebellion of the machines.3

Other famous and influental dystopias were „Brave New World“ by Aldous Huxley(published in 1932)4, „1984“ by George Orwell (published in 1949)5 and „Fahrenheit 451“ by Ray Bradbury (published in 1953)6. One of the first utopias (beside Plato's „Republic“7 ) was „Utopia“ by Sir Thomas More (published in 1516)8. Set on an island, this work of fiction shows the opposite of England. The first real dystopia was written by H. G. Wells in 1895. Set in a very far away future, „The Time Machine“9 is a prophecy of split classes and differences.

So, what are the characteristics of these books? Did Shteyngart follow these classic novelists and written a classic dystopia in their tradition?

The classic dystopia has established some characteristics. Set in a totalitarian state, the citizens have no right and possibility to alter the political course of action, or the intervene. The dystopian novel is built around a central conflict between a likeable main character, who fights for his or her freedom and liberty, and against the totalitarian system. This system reveals itself as a surpressor. Media and language are controlled by the state and used as an instrument of manipulation. By controlling language and knowlegde, the state also controls history, rewrites history for their own good, so to say. An important part of the dystopia is the occurence of artefacts from the past, a reminder of cultural or political things and possibilities, that have been lost or were banned by the totalitarian state. The individual is driven into isolation, usually enforced by physical borders like a wall or glas. If the individual can free him- or herself out of isolation, their relationships with other people are also controlled and surveyed by the state.10

“[…] they describe nightmare states where men are conditioned to obedience,freedom is eliminated, and individuality crushed; where the past is systematically destroyed and men are isolated from nature; where science and technology are employed, not to rich human life, but to maintain the state’s surveillance and control of its slave citizens.”11

What is the intention of a dystopia? Has it a function or is it just another science-fiction story? Zamyatin and Orwell were contemporary critics and wrote against political suppression, e.g. Stalin, Lenin. A dystopia is criticising technological and social developments and shows with an imaginative power, where things might end up, if no one cares to look closer or more carefully. It's a prophecy, or a warning-function. One can even think a step further, by saying that the dystopia not only has its function as a warning-sign, but also tries to break the hegemony of taking everything as granted and proper.

“The world we are living in is, in many respects, an illusion. Or, to put it more precisely, it is founded on illusions. That is, much that is conventional, taken-for-granted, the way things are does not stand up to close examination. […] Short-term thinking has become the norm and it protects us from ever taking seriously our collective attempts to consume the future.”12

Richard A. Slaughter sees the dystopia as some sort of intellectual eye-opener, that freezes the current situation, in order to take a look at the consequences, the sustainability of thoughts, actions and trends.

“We need to see these phenomena much more clearly because, at the present, they are leading us to a world that no sane person would choose for themselves, let alone hand to their children.”13

Unlike most science-fiction books, the dystopia is not about escapism or dreaming up a brighter future, it's a reaction of bad developments and tries to offer new (sometimes satirical) perspectives and solutions.

“[…] “quality” science fiction, such as is represented by the great anti utopias,always makes a significant comment on human life: usually it is a vehicle for social criticism and satire. […] What the satiric utopist usually offers in this other world are inversions, parodies, or grotesque variations of things in our world… […] In science fiction, on the other hand, fundamental principle is prediction or extrapolation, from existing knowledge and conditions, of things to come.”14

With „Super Sad True Love Story“ Shteyngart shows the USA in a crisis. A political,economical15, cultural16 and moral crisis. After becoming bankrupt, the USA gets financial support through chinese credits, thus being dependent on China. The USA now acts like a puppet on the strings of chinese investors, which spend credits worth billions in the broken economical system of the USA. The elected government has been replaced by huge monopolistic cooperations, that had led the economy into the crisis. Shteyngart even goes further, by showing, that the cooperations don't stop there, because there is still something to earn by exploiting a broken system. In order to keep control of the population, the democracy has turned into an police-state, to prevent riots and undisered opinions. The population is addicted to mass-media and consumism. Shteyngart shows a generation of mentally, empathically and emotionally crippled personalities with a exterior justification and the total loss of inner self. Pornography is omnipresent, young girls wear transparent clothes and waste their time on digital communication-plattform that bears a resemblence to Twitter or Facebook. It's a society of materialism and digitalism. A society that is addicted to cultural trends and media and sacrifices their intimacy and privacy17. Shteyngart draws a hedonistic and ignorant lifestyle18 without identity, that only a few can have. The protagonist works for a company to enhance and extend the life of those who are worth it19, e.g. those who are rich and beautiful.20 As Slaughter writes: “[…] those with the relevant money, resources, choices will, en masse, generally opt for the comfort of images, unreality industries, 3DTV, instead of the work of facing up to it. But face annihilation we must. One form of Dystopia or another is the most likely futures for humankind at this point.”21

Manipulated by the „äppärät“, a smart-phone kind of tool, which has replaced all other media, the state has total surveillance on its citizens.22 Books have become stinking artefacts23. Nobody reads them anymore and data (controlled by the state) gets streamed by the state. The Democrats the Republicans have been replaced by the Bipartisan Party. The USA is ruled by a comic otter24, which serves as a dictator. The real politcal power is executed by Rubenstein, the head of the Department of Defense25. The USA have marched into Venezuela and started a war. The so called middle-class is ruined and diminished, homeless people live in the New York Central Park. On the other side are some remaining rich yuppies. Shteyngart closes his book with the chinese army invading New York via the Hudson River26. The USA gets divided between Norway, China and Saudi-Arabia.27

Richard A. Slaughter might say it best without even knowing Shteyngarts book: “It is, in my considered view, a world that is stripped, minded out, polluted, denuded of nonhuman life and compromised beyond all hope of repair.”28

Shteyngart hits a nerve with his book. Exploring the ever-changing realms of pop-culture, politics and economics, he’s filters constant trends and developments to build a forecast of the future. Richard A. Slaughter writes in his book about future studies: “For us to better understand what might be, we have to better understand what is […]. But without an adequate map of the present, our maps of tomorrow simply amplify and exaggerate the gaps in today’s understanding […].29 With his novel, Gary Shteyngart draws such a map, a overly sharp and hilarious map in order to point out “what is”. And maybe a dystopian novel is the only way to deal with future developments, because it is a work of fiction that might ring a bell of truth, but for society the real truth may be too true. That leaves only artistic process of imagination and the hope of being wrong with the dystopian future. As Slaughter writes: “It is not normally possible to bring such subversive notions to full awareness. The social sanctions against so doing can be severe. In fiction, however, we can allow ourselves a glimpse at the truth without directly challenging the prevailing social order. […] Back in the real (unreal?) world of daily transactions downbeat views of the future are not popular. They are deemed negative and unhelpful. […] As the quote above by Ashis Nandy suggests, negative, downbeat, dystopian futures may be more useful than we realize.”30

What Shteyngart gives us, is an image of materialism, a world out of balance, based on an unquestioned, but defective system. His characters have everything to live with, but nothing to live for.31 His Dystopia shows the rise of technology, short-term economic and cultural trends and goals and the absence of the human soul in a world where the “outer life” has lost its “inner life”.32


Hillegas, Mark R.: The future as nightmare - H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians, Oxford University Press, 1967, New York Shteyngart, Gary: Super Sad True Love Story, Random House, 2010, New York Slaughter, Richard A.: Future beyond dystopia - Creating social foresight, RoutledgeFalmer, 2004, London

Süssmuth, Hans: Studien zur Utopia des Thomas Morus, Aschendorffsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1967, Münster


1 Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 4

2 See Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 99 - 109

3 See Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 95 - 98

4 See Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 115 - 123

5 See Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 123 - 132

6 See Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 13, 155

7 See Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 66 -67

8 See Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 66

9 See Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 25 - 34

10 See Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 3, 4

11 Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 3

12 Slaughter: Futures beyond dystopia p. foreword

13 Slaughter: Futures beyond dystopia p. foreword

14 Hillegas: The Future as Nightmare p. 9

15 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 23

16 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 44

17 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 27 - 33

18 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 28, 29

19 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 12

20 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 5

21 Slaughter: Futures beyond dystopia p. 6

22 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 8

23 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 37

24 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 8 - 10

25 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 11

26 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 239 - 248

27 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 257

28 Slaughter: Futures beyond dystopia p. foreword

29 Slaughter: Futures beyond dystopia p. foreword

30 Slaughter: Futures beyond dystopia p. 7, 8

31 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 304

32 See Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story p. 270

Excerpt out of 7 pages


Is Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story" a Dystopia?
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg  (Kulturwissenschaften)
A different kind of immigrant literature: Gary Shteyngart
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
484 KB
George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story, Dystopia
Quote paper
Matthias Jessen (Author), 2012, Is Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story" a Dystopia?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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