1984 vs. Brave New World

Whenever I’m confronted by a virtual bookshelf or asked to list my favorite authors, I always make sure that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are ranked among the top 10. Both of these men were immensely influential for me, inspiring not only my love of literature but also my desire to write. In that, I am hardly alone. Literally millions of people list these men as major influences, claiming that 1984 and/or Brave New World had a huge impact on their personal and/or intellectual development. It is probably for these reasons that I love teaching them so much, they’re just so chock full of all the elements a literary teacher likes to get into! Picture a quarry full of gold nuggets, one that never runs out and pays out for every new person who’s willing to mine it, and you’ve got a good idea of what these books are like.

Geez, was that sycophantic enough for ya? Okay, both books have their share of weakness too, and while I must admit that 1984 was certainly better structured and more serious than Brave New World, arguably it is the latter which proved to be more accurate. This is another aspect of these two books which has helped to establish their timeless nature: both are distopian visions of the future, both are works of satire that – like all works of satire – were set in the future but were really about the times in which they were written. And, most importantly, both were extremely critical of the day and age they were written in, addressing the many ways in which freedom was being suppressed. But since their approaches and their visions contrasted heavily , future generations were left to debate: which came true?

Huxley sought to answer this question himself in his essay “Brave New World Revisited”. Naturally, he thought that it was his vision that proved more accurate, but of course he’d say that! It was his vision! He also had the advantage in that Orwell had died shortly after writing his magnum opus so he wasn’t exactly around to rebut. But alas, Huxley’s contemporaries and subsequent generations of scholars tend to agree with him. Between a future where humanity is controlled by a series of brutal dictatorships who suppress free thought and control their citizens through the destruction of language, the rewriting of history, and the constant manipulation of emotions, and a future where humanity belongs to a global state where people are made compliant through pleasure and conditioning, it is arguably the latter which came true. The jury is still out, and the trial never ends, but right here, right now, Huxley’s vision is still taking the lead.

Of course, a few years ago, proponents of the 1984 school of thought believed the odds might have been tipped in Orwell’s favor thanks to the rise of the Bush administration, Afghanistan and Iraq, domestic spying and the controlled paranoia of orange alerts and patriotic orthodoxy. However, with the worsening situation in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and a series of blatant scandals, each one a “slow-bleed” on Bush’s approval rating, those fears were put to rest. With every passing month after the 2004 election, it seemed that Bush’s “War on Terror”, which many believed to be little more than a justification for waging war on American civil liberties or launching a global neo-con agenda, was doomed to fail. So once again, the pendulum swung back to Huxley. Thank God too! I don’t know about you, but between Feelies and Soma on the one hand and he Thought Police and Room 101, I’ll take being amused to death over being brutalized to death any day!

Naturally, the debate shall continue, most likely well into the “information age”, a time in which new ways and opportunities for encouraging social cohesion or suppressing human freedom will present themselves. But it is such a good debate isn’t it? Not only is it fun, from an intellectual standpoint anyway, but it also forces us to confront the ways in which our personal, intellectual, and creative freedoms are not being addressed, by circumstance or design. It forces us to take stock of our society and think of ways with which we could address the ways in which our governments and even we as a people fall short. It forces us to think for ourselves, which, I don’t know about you, but to me seems to be the point of these novels in the first place. For it is only in individual thought and the freedom to do so that any kind of social control or attempts to make us compliant fail. Well, that and armed rebellion, but this way is much cleaner, I think you’ll agree!

What does Osama’s death mean?

I did not start this blog with the intention of getting into politics. There are few things more subjective and divisive than where one stands on various issues, political parties, or where they fall in the big spectrum. However, once in awhile something comes along and you just have to take to whatever forum you have available and comment on it. And so I come here, to my webpage where I usually do reviews, to comment on this groundbreaking story.

Yes, it finally happened. After ten years of obscurity and unconfirmed whereabouts, after years and years of being told “we think he is in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Bin Laden was not just found, but killed. And the big question that seems to be on everyone’s lips is, what happens now? Obviously, 9/11 was a turning point in history. Whether or not you agreed with the assessment that it “changed everything”, you had to admit that it was what Gibson described as a “nodal point” in our history. It changed many things, for better or for worse, including but not limited to how the world thinks of terrorism, how the US executed its foreign policy, what that policy entailed, and had a huge impact on international relations. It also put a face on global terrorism, again for better or for worse. And with Bin Laden’s escape from the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq and torture controversies, many people have been left wondering about the course of the whole “war on terror” and whether or not it was even worth pursuing anymore.

And now, ten years, and two inconclusive wars later – not to mention some “enhanced interrogation techniques”, hundreds of thousands dead, and a whole lot of unanswered questions – the man responsible for 9/11 and this detour in our history is finally dead. But the question remains, what now? Does Bin Laden’s death mean anything for the “war on terror”, even though the term has been dropped, and will it effect the fortunes of Al-Qaeda or US foreign policy? Second, and perhaps of equal importance, is a question I asked myself today. How will future generations look at this period in our history? Will they see it as an aberration, like we do Vietnam, or will they see it as something that began with tragedy and ended with triumph, albeit with some bumps along the way?

Personally, I think the answer to the first question is a resounding no. While Bin Laden’s death is certainly a symbolic victory, and definitely a victory for Obama (if he exploits it just right), his death really doesn’t change things vis a vis the bigger picture. Why? Because the war on terror ceased being about Osama many years ago, shortly after Afghanistan was invaded in fact. Which I think helps to answer question two, but one thing at a time! As it stands, the US is still engaged on a number of fronts with its former “war on terror”, and its enemies go far beyond Bin Laden and his small band of people. Whether it’s the resurgent Taliban, Islamic militants in Pakistan, or the possibility of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the US finds itself committed to war on several fronts. And they aren’t going so well!

On the plus side, the US has pulled out of Iraq after seven disastrous years of occupation. The long-term effects that it will have on the region are also unclear. But one thing is for sure… after years of insurgency, civil war and most areas of the country still living in fear and dire poverty, things couldn’t get much worse. Any hopes the neo-cons have that something good will come out of the Iraqi war, hence saving Bush’s legacy, cannot be taken seriously anymore. There are those who predict it will get even worse, that the sectarian violence is nearing phase two, the current government can’t possibly control the country, and that some kind of fundamentalist autocracy with strong ties to Iran is inevitable. Some think there’s nowhere to go but up, but even many of them believe that it was the withdrawal of the US that now makes this possible – i.e. that nothing good could happen so long as the occupation continued, the Iraqis needing to “build democracy” on their own.

So realistically, Osama’s departure from the international scene is really not a decisive factor anymore. At least, not in my humble opinion. And this, like I said earlier, goes a long way towards answering how this whole episode will be viewed by future generations, provided I’m right of course ;). Given the fact that the US can’t use this as a pretext to pull out of Afghanistan, stabilize Iraq, restore the US’s tarnished reputation in the Middle East or amongst it allies, mend fences with Russia, end North Korea and Iran’s defiance, or bring back the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis or Afghanis, future generations are likely to see this whole campaign as a resounding failure.

So indeed… what now? What can be done to salvage the situation that 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, and the “war on terror” has left us with? What can we do, short of turning back the clock and killing him back in 2002 when the opportunity first presented itself, thus avoiding all the crap that happened between now and then?

Of William Gibson (The Bigend Trilogy)

Not only is he a famous author, he’s also a fellow BCite and the man who literally wrote the book on cyberpunk. Beyond that, his books have been renowned for capturing the zeitgeist of our times, an age characterized by revolutions in information technology and mass media. And I can honestly say that I’ve tried to emulate him in recent years. His Neuromancer was required reading seeing as how I wanted to get into hard sci-fi and he’s a major name. And his latest works also gave me a push in the direction of modern day fiction, dealing with the cutting edge rather than the future.

But… gotta be honest here, these books have been a bit of a disappointment for me. Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History are all mainstream bestsellers that did an awful lot to capture the spirit of our age once more, but they all shared elements which I thought were kind of… well, weak. For example, consider the plot set-ups to all three books. All things in this trilogy by Gibson revolve around the enigmatic (and absurdly named) Hubertus Bigend. He’s an advertising magnate who’s always looking for the angles, the hidden agendas, the thing that’s beyond cutting edge, just five minutes away from becoming real. And to investigate these things, he hires freelance contractors, strange people with strange gifts. And that’s what sets the plots in motion every time.

In Pattern Recognition, he recruits Cayce Pollard (pronounced Cay-See), a freelance “coolhunter” who uses her odd intuition to evaluate logos and brand names for companies. Her father was lost in 9/11 (something that Gibson had to include because it occurred while writing it) and this haunts her. In addition to her weird skills (hypersensitivity to iconography) she follows footage on the internet produced by some cinematic genius. Bigend wants the creator found because… he’s curious, he wants their talent, or something like that. So Cayce sets out to find them relying on Bigend’s network, his dime, and her own personal contacts. Her journey takes her from New York, to London, to Tokyo, and finally to Moscow, all the while she’s pursued by a rival and some shadowy agents who’s agenda is not quite clear. In the end, she finds the geniuses in Moscow, the genius is a brain-damaged girl who’s sister takes care of her and puts out the footage as a way of expressing herself. The dark agents pursuing her turn out to be their protectors who just stalked her because they weren’t sure of her, and Bigend’s slightly richer for having uncovered the truth… I guess. Cool idea, weak climax, weird overall point.

Then there was Spook Country. The name alone was telling, alluding to its focus on the paranoia and intrigue of post-9/11 America. In this one, Bigend is back, employing yet another freelance contractor named Hollis Henry (why they couldn’t just bring Cayce back is beyond me, but whatever). This one has no weird intuition, she’s just a former teen singer who’s gone on to become a writer about the industry. He hires her ostensibly to research locative art for some new magazine, a cutting edge technology that is now referred to as “augmented reality”. In the course of this, she discovers that her real mission is to find out who the artist is working for. You see, he’s been using the GPS technology that powers locative art to track a crate that’s been moving around the world for years, passing that info onto some shadowy figure.

So once again, Bigend is curious… When Hollis looks into it, she finds out that the crate is filled with millions that were embezzled from Iraq’s reconstruction fund and the old man tracking it is a former intelligence operative who has a score to settle. He and his crack team are also being tracked by a current intelligence man who uses an addict named Milgrim to track the old man’s operatives by translating their Russian texts (rendered in a language called Volapuk). By the end, the old man and his crew follow the crate to Vancouver and fill it full of hollow point bullets containing radioactive dust. The money is now useless, Hollis is given an exclusive first hand look at it, and returns to Bigend to report on it. Once again, he’s richer for knowing, but has gained nothing else… And all that spy stuff and paranoia? Didn’t really amount to much. Sure there was spy work going on but it was pretty damn subtle, the marginal stuff that goes on at the fringes of the war on terror, not anything central to it. Not what I would expect at all from a book that was trying to make a point about post-9/11 America, in all its paranoid, angry, confused glory.

In the finale, Zero History, which apparently takes it name from the character Milgrim, a man who has no record of his existence for the last ten years (hence, zero history), things are a bit more clear in terms of Bigend’s motivation. However, the overall story was a bit weak, with a name like Zero History and the fact that its the third installment in the series, I was expecting a big send-off, something that went over and above what the first two did. It didn’t seem too much to expect; after all, the first book was a fitting commentary on cyberspace and the sort of tribalism its engendered. The second book upped the ante with a look at espionage and paranoia in post-9/11 America. So who wouldn’t expect that this one would deal with something incrementally bigger and more important? Alas… not so much. But I digress!

In the final installment of the trilogy, Bigend hires Hollis again, paired up with Milgrim, to investigate the origin of some elusive fashion line known as Gabriel Hounds. The reason he wants to do this is because he wants to break into the military-fashion crossover market. Not as silly as it sounds; according to the book, this has been a huge market trend since the Vietnam War and has received new life thanks to the war in Iraq. The culture of war provides life to the fashion industry, swaths of men who buy outfits to look like soldiers, and fashion designers get accustomed to making army gear and end up contracting to the military itself. In the course of their investigation, they learn that one sample they are looking at is the illusive brand named Hounds. These denim products are sold using direct marketing: the dealers show up at prearranged drop points, sell off their merchandise, and then disappear. However, the other sample they come across is being produced by an arms dealer who has a big racket involving former contacts in the military and consulting worlds, and he now sees Bigend as competition. Since he’s a former military man and is into some shady stuff, things begin to get dangerous!

However, the climax is once again the same, with a build-up and then a letdown. Sure the bad guys get beat, but no one dies and no one even gets hurt beyond a simple tasering. Some arrests are made, people hook up, and the world keeps on spinning! There’s also the point of how Bigend’s company appears to be coming apart towards the climax, but in another abortive twist, nothing happens. Bigend is simply declared as being “too big to fail” by the end, and his machinations about being able to see a few minutes into the future appear to have come true thanks to the work of his people. Cool, as a concept, the idea of limited prescience, but like with the other books, it feels like something taped over the plot itself to give it some credibility. Bigend’s main motivation was his curiosity, a contrivance to get the story moving; everything else just feels like justification. Somehow, Bigend has to benefit from all his maneuvering, and developing some kind of system whereby he can predict trends sounds like a good answer. No explanation is forthcoming as to how this works, its just thrown in at the end. Too bad too, as a premise, it’s pretty cool and even kind of worked with the title. Zero History: there is no future, just a constantly evolving present. He who can see just a few minutes ahead and glimpse it in formation will have unimaginable power!

As a third act twist, Gibson does throw one curve ball. Turns out the elusive Hounds designer, whom Hollis finds, is Cayce Pollard herself! Cool, but again, not much comes of it. Hollis says she won’t reveal her, Pollard says she’s not worried, she knows how to deal with Bigend so she’ll be okay when he finds her, and the thread dies! The story then shifts over to the military man and the threat he poses and no word is given to the Hounds for the rest of the story. Odd seeing as how that was central to the plot, but this kind of truncation is common by this installment in the story so I wasn’t surprised. In the plus column, the story does provide some interesting thoughts on resistance to commodification and how the culture of the armed forces trickles down to the street. But seriously, all the fashion stuff gets really suffocating! After a certain point in my reading of it, I couldn’t help but notice the constant mention of clothing, apparel, jackets, etc. Intrinsic to the themes of the novel yes, but I mean, c’mon! Felt like I was reading Sex and the City fan fiction after awhile! Then there was the rather odd attempts to give Bigend character traits beyond his wealth and eccentricities. Aside from an odd fashion sense he has a lust for the Full English breakfast that is mentioned too often in the story, and serves no real purpose that I can see.

Second, there’s the usual Bigend motivation factor. His interest in the marketability of military apparel is one thing, but why would be pay through the nose to get Milgrim clean in this book? Apparently, Bigend likes him because he “notices things” while at the same time is good at going completely unnoticed. For these reasons, he’s decided to pay for rehab in a Swiss clinic and put him on his payroll. Really? All that money just to hire someone who’s only marketable skill is being inconspicuous and observant? Seems more like he just wanted to bring the character back and came up with a small contrivance to fill the point. And of course, there’s Bigend himself. Unlike the previous books, where he just a shadowy figure in the background, by this book he’s grown to the point where he’s kind of like a Bond villain. Gibson even goes as far to say it by the ending, how his purchase of a Russian low-flying craft, the way he had it decked out, and has all the staff dressed like odd caricatures, is Bondian. Doesn’t make it any less weird. Oh, and the fact that he has acquired half of Iceland through a series of business deals and is flying all his staff there on that Russian craft at the end? Bondian!

Overall, what stands out about these books is their similarity to his earlier works, particularly Neuromancer. In this and other works, the story revolves around contractors who are picked up by mysterious men who work behind the scenes or have hidden agendas. But whereas in Neuromancer and other titles belonging to the “Sprawl” and “Bridge” trilogies where you have corporate magnates or mass media forces with clear (and often morally ambiguous) intentions, this time around the agenda of the shadowy person (i.e. Bigend) seems pretty benign and… well, pointless. I mean, why for example is Bigend so obsessed with uncovering all of these mysteries, what’s his motivation? Where’s the profit incentive, the threat to his bottom line? Surely a filthy-rich advertising magnate would have better things to do than spend all kinds of time and money on pet projects that have no purpose other than satisfying his curiosity. In some cases, marginal attention is given to how these things could be of use to him, but curiosity is always the main driving force. Again and again, Bigend’s actions are justified by saying that this is just the kind of guy he is, an eccentric, controlling man who wants to know whats going on around every corner and just happens to be rich enough to make that happen.

To be fair, I get it. I mean how else are you going to set up plots like this, which delve into the mysteries of the everyday world, not sci-fi worlds where anything’s possible because its total fiction and the limits of your imagination are the only constraints you have to deal with? But I would expect that a story would build to a climax, not truncate itself or end up being a letdown for the heroes, not to mention the audience. But then again, Gibson’s work is in details, the story come through more in the subtext than in the goings on of the text itself. And I still love Gibson’s work and owe a rather large debt to him for the inspiration and example he’s provided over the years. So I won’t be avoiding his books in the future; in fact, I’m anxious to see what he’ll do next. Whatever else can be said about this man, he’s good at what he does and manages to always have a keen eye for the things that are just beyond the fringes of the now, the things that are likely to be the cutting edge stuff of tomorrow. One has to wonder how much influence he himself exercises in this regard… Oh well, something for his next book maybe!