Utopian Science Fiction

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

Welcome back my friends! A funny thing happened just this morning. I was looking at an old article –  titled Dystopian Science Fiction – and realized that something was missing. Yes, this is the article that earned me most of my current followers and the bulk of my traffic on this site, but I quickly came to the conclusion that there was a hidden voice in that little study that never got a chance to have its say.

Basically, when I was looking into dystopian literature, I realized that it and utopian literature are almost the same thing. You might say that they represent two sides of the same coin, not so much opposites as interchangeable facets where one can become the other with a simple turn of the wheel. So I asked myself, why then haven’t I compiled a list of the most popular Utopian literature to go along with my dystopian one? Having read Thomas More’s seminal book that started it all, I’m nothing if not incredibly fascinating by the subject. And anyone who knows me knows that I’m a nerd for research and can’t resist sharing what I find.

So why the hell haven’t I done this yet?! Don’t know, probably got swept away with all those posts about robots, ships, and guns. In any case, it’s a mistake I rectify here and now. Using the same format as my article on dystopian sci-fi, I’ve come up with a tentative list of the greatest forerunners, classics, and modern examples of utopia in literature. The list is by no means complete, but I feel it is a faithful sampling. You be the judge, here goes:

Earliest Examples:
The first acknowledged examples of utopian literature come to us from classical antiquity, when scholars reached beyond the old strictures of writing about dynastic struggle, great wars and the foundations of their empires to tackle issues such as justice, morality, and the driving forces of history. By asking these questions, and offering up possible explanations, they were to have an immeasurable effect on subsequent generations of intellectuals, statesmen and social reformers.

The Republic:
Written around 380 BCE by Plato, this is perhaps the oldest example of utopian literature. Written as an account of one of Socrates many dialogues, the chief purpose of this book was in finding the true definition of justice and what it takes to achieve a just city-state and a just man. As Plato’s best known work, it is also one of the most influential philosophical and intellectual texts in the history of western society and maybe even the world.

Made up of ten books, the account follows Socrates and his Athenian and foreign guests as they discuss various topics. Amongst them are whether or not the “just man” is happier than the “unjust man”, the theory of forms and universality, the nature of the soul, the role of the philosopher in society, and finally, what the different types of government are and what makes them just/unjust.

From Plato’s account, Socrates and his peers proposed that philosophers are the ideal statesmen and that justice can best be summed up by considering the common good rather than common sense definitions having to do with personal justice. In addition, the allegory of the cave – how we are all essentially prisoners and merely going by projections of truth rather than truth itself – was advanced. And finally, they listed the four predominant forms of government (timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny) and how they tended to devolve into each other.

Ultimately, the value of this work was in how it showed the connection between political cause and effect, and how it sought to create guidelines for good governance. It’s identification of the four major types of government has been used over and over in the history of political discourse and even became the basis of modern political sciences. And because of its focus on things like the common good and the idea of philosopher statesmen, it was also to have a profound influence on later generations of scholars, particularly Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx.

The City of God:
Written by St. Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century CE, The City of God is considered one of the most important texts in the history of Christianity. Written after the Visigoth sack of Rome, the text was intended as much as a consolation to Christians as it was a discourse on theological matters. Basically, Augustine claimed that though the city of Rome had fallen, the City of God, the “eternal Jerusalem” still stood strong and would endure.

Essentially, Augustine advanced a perception of history in this book that was characterized by a dialectical process, or a conflict between opposites. On the one hand, there was the City of Man, characterized by earthly pleasures and decadence, and the City of God, dedicated to eternal truth. The conflict, he claimed, would end with victory for the latter, where people would throw off the bonds of an earthly paradise in favor of a spiritual one.

Thought it did not concern itself with matters of practical governance or how an ideal state could be created in the here and now, Augustine’s treatise was to have a profound effect on the fields of theology and philosophy. Basically, his idea of a city where spiritual purity could be attained became the basis for a theocratic state, while his theory on the dialectical process of history would go on to inspire men like W.F. Hegel and (again) Karl Marx.

Tao Hua Yuan:
Otherwise known as “The Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring”, this book is considered the quintessential utopian book by Chinese scholars and historians. Written in 421 CE by Tao Yuanming, it is an epic poem of how a traveler accidentally discovers an ethereal paradise where people live an idyllic existence, unaware of the world outside their walls.

Written after the collapse of the Han Dynasty, a period marked by civil war and unrest, this poem tells the tale of how a fisherman sailed up a river that was entirely surrounded by blossoming peach trees. At the end of the river, he finds a village where the people, thought surprised to see him, welcome him and treat him as one of their own. He quickly realizes that the community is an idyllic one, where people live in harmony with nature and one another.

In time, he learns from the villagers that this place was established by their ancestors during the last civil war when the Qin Dynasty was conquering all of China. Since that time, they have been cut off from the outside world and know nothing of its political shifts and wars. Upon leaving, he is told that it would be pointless to recount his discovery of the village to others. He nevertheless makes a note of the village on his map, but when he tells others of it, their attempts to locate it prove unsuccessful.

In essence, the poem suggest that this place, the idyllic village, was otherworldly, and the man’s voyage up the river was in fact a voyage into the afterlife. It also advances the idea that it is only in being cut off from the outside world that an earthly paradise can exist, and those that leave it will never be able to return. This idea was to have a profound influence on Chinese and Asian culture, no doubt inspiring such myths as that of Shangri-La. In addition, the Chinese expression shìwaì taóyuán, which refers to a remote paradise – and literally means ‘the Peach Spring beyond this world’ – has its roots in this poem.

The Classics:
By the time of the Renaissance (14th/15th century CE), Europeans began to have a renewed interest in classical learning. At first, this consisted of merely adapting and translating previously lost texts from ancient Greek and Arabic to Latin and other European languages. However, by the time of the Enlightenment (18th century CE), European scholars were adapting and expounding on classical ideas, bringing them forward into the modern age with new speculations and examples on how a perfect society could be created, or whether or not one was even possible. It was also the age that the term Utopia began to be used popularly.

Utopia:
Ah yes, the man who gave it a name! Sir Thomas More, otherwise known as Saint Thomas More, was a Renaissance humanist and THE man who brought the word Utopia into modern usage. Written in 1516 CE, his seminal study on the perfect society has influenced all subsequent generations of social critics, employing social criticism, history and of course, delicious irony to make a series of points about the ideal society and whether or not it can even exist.

The story is told (much like Plato’s Republic) as a dialogue between the author and a fictitious man named Raphael Hythloday, a world traveler and tradesman. In the course of recounting his tales of all the places he’s seen he brings up one in particular place, the island nation of Utopia, which he hails as the best of all possible societies. As the story goes on, he details exactly what it is that makes it an ideal place, and by comparison, all others flawed.

To break it down succinctly, the Utopians do not value gold and silver because they long ago discovered that there worth is merely an extension of their rarity. Instead, they choose to value iron and bronze as precious and keep jewels, gold and silver in reserve in case they need to bribe foreign princes or armies. In addition, their economic activity is based on an egalitarian principle, where all people rotate from one service to another so that no sense of class hierarchy ever becomes permanent.

What’s more, when it comes to education, the Utopian have made it manifest that all people be taught to read and educated on basic matters of logic, philosophy, numeracy, etc. This is to prevent the creation of a philosopher caste which is concerned solely with matters of thought while others toil away and provide for them. Much like with their policy or rotating labor, it is customary that all people divest themselves from their tasks every now and then to pursue matters of art, science and other intellectual pursuits.

map of Utopia

And of course, politics, property ownership, and all other forms of activity on Utopia are considered communal. There is no such thing as private property, rule is exercised by council and not by kings and a court, and membership in this council is rotational, popular and considered a civic duty. In short, Utopia is an ideal society because rule by the few, greed and ownership are all forbidden. And though there are few laws to speak of, all of these practices are contained within a strict code of conduct which was passed down by the island’s founder, King Utopus.

And last, but certainly not least, is the issue of religious tolerance. Written during the time of the Reformation Wars, More claimed that in this ideal society, no one’s faith was ever held against them. Provided they believed in a higher power, no discrimination or persecution were allowed under the law. However, there was one exception, which applied to atheists (!). Essentially, it stated that anyone who did not believe in the hereafter, where they would be answerable for their sins, would be allowed to hold public office.

In the end, Hythloday claimed that there was no reason why other nations could not adopt these same principles which benefited the nation of Utopia so. The only reason, he claimed, was because all other nations of his day were “conspiracies of the rich” where enlightened reform is avoided because of greed, vanity and pride. Ultimately, More chooses to disagree with this fictitious character on numerous points as a way of distancing himself from the critique.

In addition, there are several ironic points which seem to indicate that he was also questioning whether or not such a place could even exist. The name Utopia for one translates from Latin to mean “No Place”. In addition, many of the customs he describes sound less than ideal and would seem to suggest that the only way to create a perfect society is to force people to comply with strict rules, which in turn can create its own problems. In the end, it was not clear if More was saying that such a place does not exist, could exist, or will never exist. All that is clear is the influence it had, once again by expounding on the virtues of collectivization, popular sovereignty and the removal of class distinction.

Gulliver’s Travels:
Though I included this novel in my previous list as an example of dystopian fiction, there are many elements of Gulliver’s Travels that fit into the category of utopia as well. For example, between every voyage Gulliver undertakes which brings him to a land that parodies some aspect of English and European society, there is a corresponding trip to a comparatively idyllic place.

After traveling to the land of the Lilliputians, a land of moral midgets who’s size matches their outlook, he travels to the land of Brobdingnagians where the same rule applies, only in reverse. Whereas he was denounced by the Lilliputians for not helping them to subjugate their neighbors, to the Brobdingnagians he was considered a novelty and his own moral outlook was received with horror.

In addition, after traveling to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan, all of which are seen to be inherently flawed in some respect, he travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms. These horse people, who boast rational capacities that put humanity to shame, are seen as the perfection of nature whereas humans are seen as brutish. What’s more, Gulliver’s time amongst them makes him inherently sympathetic to them, but in the end they deny him the right to live amongst them since they see him as a danger to their civilization.

Ultimately, Swift did not give any details as to how the morally upright societies which stood in contrast to his parodies achieved their current state. But by including them in his story, he was employing a decidedly utopian tactic – using a fictitious, ideal society to point out the flaws in an existing one.

Erewhon:
Also known as “Over the Range”, this novel by Samuel Butler is renowned as a prime example of utopian literature (though there are some dystopian elements as well). Published in 1872, the bulk of the story is an account of the fictional nation named Erewhon which is located within the mountains of New Zealand. Often compared to Gulliver’s Travels and Letters from Nowhere (1890) the tale is about a seemingly perfect society which proves to be less than all that.

In describing Erewhon, Butler paints the picture of an idyllic society where people live close to the land. There is also no machinery because the people of Erewhon fear that it will someday become intelligent and supplant them – a rather unique take on Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection.

However, in time, the author notes several odd customs in this land involving their justice system, religion and system of coinage. For example, criminals are treated as invalids in their society, whereas invalids are treated as criminals. In addition, religious institutions offer their own coinage and act like banks, but are immune to charges of counterfeiting because they are religious institutions. These practices were meant to satirize certain aspects of Victorian society at the time, including its religious hypocrisy, intolerance and anthropocentricism.

Clearly inspired by other utopian writers, Butler even went as far as to borrow a page from More who was also ironic with his choice of title. The name Erewhon, an anagram for “Nowhere”, makes the deliberate point that this society is fictitious, and therefore its better elements are not to be found anywhere. Though by no means a dystopian story, it is nevertheless a poignant allegory for the British Empire during the time of writing, an empire that for all intents and purposes did not live up to its own ideals.

Modern Examples:
Though by no means as popular as dystopian literature, utopian novels were still a very common feature in the 20th century. And like dystopian lit, it was used repeatedly by authors to mock and satirize the world of their day. By showing a society that had overcome mankind’s traditional flaws, some sought to demonstrate how society could be bettered. Others, however, liked to juxtapose the belief in a perfect society with the reality of an imperfect one, as a way of demonstrating how the quest was noble but was sure to encounter problems.

Men Like Gods:
Published in 1923, this work of science fiction by the venerable H.G. Wells explores an parallel universe where human beings live in a world without government.  Much like the time machine, the book contains equal parts speculative science and social commentary, involving a world in the future that parodied his own.

Taking place during the summer of 1921, the story opens with a cynical English journalist named Barnstaple who is mysteriously transported through time to an alternate world named (interestingly enough) Utopia. Essentially an advanced Earth, Utopia is three thousand years ahead of humanity, where people live in a perfectly realized anarchy, no government or sectarian religion exist, and scientific research flourishes.

All Utopians live by the “Five Principles of Liberty”: privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism. After a month of staying amongst the Utopians, Barnstaple asks if he can stay amongst them but is refused. According to the people of this world, the best thing for this journalist is to return to his world. This he does, renewed of vigor and committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.”

This was not a political revolution, in Well’s eyes, but rather the march of progress which he felt was already very much at work in society. In essence, such a revolution that was guaranteed by scientific and rational progress, he surmised, would one day wipe away all the current problems of the world. Namely, petty nationalism, sectarian turmoil, and irrational fear.

Childhood’s End:
Released in 1953, this story is perhaps Arthur C. Clarke’s best known novel outside of the Space Odyssey series, and the one which established him as a writer. Embracing many themes which would show up in numerous sci-fi franchises, the book deals with the near-future possibility of contact with an alien species and the profound effect it will have on humanity. Broken down into three parts, the book begins with the arrival of aliens, moves onto the effect they have, and concludes with the aftermath of their experimentation and their departure.

The story opens with the introduction of the Overlords, a space faring race that appear suddenly in orbit around Earth in the late 20th century. With their ships poised over every major city on Earth, they issue a simple directive: End all war, now and forever. They assume a sort of indirect control over human affairs, preferring to stay aboard their spaceships, and communicating directly with only the Secretary-General of the UN.

Though many suspect of them of malicious intent, the Overlords influence is largely indirect and they promise to reveal themselves in 50 years. In the meantime, the suppression of war leads to a sort of golden age where prosperity flourishes, but at the expense of creativity. When 50 years is up, the demon-like Overlords emerge and begin conducting some seemingly benign psychic research.

Generations pass and humanity grows antsy due to a general feeling of stagnation. However, many children begin to be born who demonstrate telekinetic powers. Finally, the Overlords reveal that they are representatives of what is called the Overmind – a vast cosmic intelligence created from alien races that have all shed matter’s restrictions and become cosmic beings. The Overlords, for whatever reason, cannot join the Overmind, so they act instead as a bridge, seeking out intelligent life and fostering cosmic evolution. Humanity is now set to join this intelligence, having become post-human and ready to embrace their full potential.

Though some would see this concept of Overlords, Overminds, and tampering with evolution as a negative, Clarke presented it as an unequivocal positive. To him, the idea that humanity would need to be forced to become enlightened seemed like a perfectly plausible means of overcoming its inherent flaws. This is in keeping with Clarke’s Futurist mentality, where progress is not only inevitable and desirable and human antipathy towards progress is based on irrational fear.

The Dispossessed:
Published in 1974, this novel is one of several  utopian science fiction books published by famed author Ursula K. Le Guin. Written during the Vietnam War, the story takes place in a distant solar system (Tau Ceti) where two empires with diametrically opposed views become engaged in a proxy war when a neighboring state undergoes a revolution.

Set in the same universe as her critically-acclaimed story Left Hand of Darkness, the Tau Ceti system consists of two major worlds – Anarres and Urras. Urras is the focal point of the story, a planet which is dominated by two major nations which are rivals. The A-lo nation (which represents the US) is capitalistic and patriarchal whereas the Thu nation (Soviet Union) is run by an authoritarian regime that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.

To complete the analogy, both states become embroiled in a war when an underdeveloped nation named Benbili experiences a revolution which prompts both sides to invade. Thus, Benbili comes to represent South-East Asia at the time of the Vietnam War, just as Urras represents the world at the time of writing – a world divided between two diametrically opposed empires, both of whom seem to think they are the example of a perfect society (or as close as one can come to it).

As the story goes on, we learn that Anarres, the other major world, was settled long ago by a group of proto-Anarchists who left Urras to escape the planet’s divided nature. Since that time, the Anarrean people have created an egalitarian society which maintains contact with Urras only through its capitol-city spaceport. In keeping with the story, this alternate planet can be seen as a third option for humanity, which finds itself otherwise torn between two extremes.

This calls to mind Brave New World, where Huxley had created a planet torn between madness and insanity, or primitive freedom and “civilization”. In the end, the character of John the Savage, a man who had a foot in both worlds, could not reconcile himself to either and killed himself. Huxley had long expressed regret with this outcome, thinking that he should have offered a third option in the form of the exile communities that dotted the world in his story. Seen in this light, Dispossessed seems to offer solutions to the problem of two civilization fighting over who’s “utopia” is better.

Ecotopia:
Published in 1975, this novel is considered a pre-eminent work of utopian fiction and a fitting commentary on the green movement and counter-culture of the 1970’s. In it, author Ernest Callenbach describes a new society which has been founded in the Pacific Northwest by groups of ecological secessionists. Interestingly enough, his critique of this fictional society was based on environmental science and descriptions of actual communes that were being established across the mid-western US at the time.

Set in the year 1999, the story takes place from the point of view William Weston, a reporter named who is the first American to travel to the new country of Ecotopia. Most of the narrative consists of his cables back to the fictitious newspaper he works for, but other details are filled in by his diary entries. These include an affair with an Ecotopian woman, an experience which leaves him transformed and opens him up to the Ecotopian way of life.

Amongst the differences he notes between his world and this ecological utopia are the policies of universal health care, liberal cannabis use, fitness, local art and fitness (as opposed to television and spectacle sports), sexual freedom, and voluntary mock warfare. Curiously enough, they also celebrate gender roles and believe in racial separation. Not sure how those are meant to be utopian, but okay…

In the end, the narrator comes to see that the Ecotopians are not a backwards, regressionary people but simply individuals who want to live a healthier existence closer to the Earth. In addition to using modern technologies, provided they are ecologically friendly, they also maintain an advanced arms industry and stockpiles of WMD’s, a means of ensuring that a potentially revanchist US government doesn’t try to take back their territory by force. In the end, Weston chooses to stay in Ecotopia and act as a sort of cultural liaison to the outside world.

Aside from the issues of gender roles and racial segregation, this book seems to fit the description of an ideal society quite well. By demonstrating that a better life need not mean huge sacrifices or the denial of technology, Callenbach was basically arguing for an open mind when it comes to the ecological and social experiments which were taking place in the US at the time. His idea of an outsider coming to respect and embrace this culture also calls to mind More’s Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels, where the narrators did the same. He also seems to be arguing that a better society is not only possible, but within our reach.

The Giver:
Although classified as a dystopian novel by some, this 1993 piece of YA fiction has undeniably utopian elements, and therefore confounds simple classification. Taking place in a fictional community where pain and strife have been eliminated through “Sameness” and people’s roles are selected by a council of elders, The Giver begins as a description of a utopian society which gradually becomes more dystopian in its outlook.

Enter into this world Jonas, a young boy who has been selected by the elders to serve as the next “Receiver of Memory”. This person occupies a venerated position in their society since they are responsible for storing all memories that predate Sameness, just in case they are ever needed to aid in the decision making process.

As Jonas receives these memories, he comes to understand just how powerful knowledge is. People in his society are happy, but only because they are ignorant to any way of life that runs counter to their own. In the end, he faces a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, he could release the memories and enlighten his people, though it will surely mean chaos. On the other, he can keep them ignorant, thus ensuring stability for the time being.

Written for young adult audiences, but intensely mature in its outlook, this story not only examines what it takes to create a perfect society but what the costs of that might be. It is also very poignant in the way it addresses a theme which is crucial to growing up – how the end of innocence is a necessary step to becoming a mature and responsible individual. This is a step we frequently wish we could avoid, but seems inevitable in the long run.

Final Thoughts:
Looking at the extensive list of utopian fiction that has been produced across time, I am once again reminded of just how closely linked it is with dystopian fiction. It seems that all utopian commentaries emerged out of a problematic world, where authors felt the need to offer up a better or even ideal society as a means of satire or consolation. Though they differed in that they were not quite cautionary in nature, they shared the same basic purpose as dystopian tales. At once, they offered people a chance to examine this thing we know as the human condition and ask if something better were truly possible.

Overall, I’m not sure which I like better. When I was penning the article on dystopian literature, I could honestly say I preferred it because it seemed more realistic. Now, I wonder if there is not a profound sense of genius and realism to utopian literature that I was perhaps overlooking. Sure, one could make the argument that works like the Republic and Utopia were simple in their intent, claiming that society could be turned into a model of justice and fairness through basic reforms. But upon closer inspection, one sees the unmistakable presence of irony. In all cases, it seems like the author is agonizing over the question of whether or not such changes are even possible.

Sure, greed could done away with if collectivization were enforced. Sure, if money were abolished, there would be far less in the way of crime. Sure, if people were made to rotate between professions, there would be less class conflict and snobbery. And of course, if government were truly representative and those in power were closer to the governed, there would be less abuses of power. But how do you go about making that happen? How, without resorting to force or Draconian measures, do you get people to treat each other as equals and respect each other.

Like it or not, the question “can’t we all just get along?” has been dogging humanity since the beginning of time. Many solutions have been suggested, like the expropriation of the ruling class, a certain means of production, or a certain way of living. But inevitably, all these proposed solutions get tied up in moral considerations (i.e. killing is wrong), or questions of practicality – i.e. getting rid of all the cars, central heating, AC and electricity will lead to millions of deaths worldwide. So really, is utopian literature meant as a proposition for change, or is it merely a tool to make us contemplate the tougher questions?

I know my answer, but in the end, the point is simply to ask, isn’t it? It’s the exploration that counts, which is precisely why such literature has been penned over the centuries. Waiting for heaven to come might be a pain in the ass, but trying to make it come can also be a ticket to hell!

1984: the year that wasn’t (Phew!)

1984_John_HurtTo finish off this review of the two great satires that encapsulated the 20th century: 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian future. As I’ve said many times in the course of this thread, there has been an ongoing debate as to which vision of the future came true, and it appears that Huxley’s was the one that proved to be more accurate. But as I said in the previous post, the era in which the books were written had much to do with their divergence of opinion. And ultimately, it was the course of history that proved Orwell wrong and vindicated Huxley. But then again, his book was a cautionary tale, something that was not meant to come true, right? Damn straight, so let’s move on…

And as I also spoke about in the previous post (at great length), Brave New World was written within the context of the 1920’s as a satire on Fordism, commercialism, mass-consumption, leisure, propaganda, and the American Way. Beginning in the early 20th century, shorter hours and better pay, coupled with aggressive marketing strategies that targeted the working class, were used to tame an increasingly unmanageable workforce, not to mention immigrants. In addition, it ensured the creation of a new consumer base, on that could fuel ongoing economic growth and industrial expansion. Win-win! Well, sort of… Then, as now, the most effective way to steer workers away from radical organizations and immigrants away from their traditional cultures was seen to be the combination of nationalism and commercialism, consumption advertised as a way to achieve the American Dream of prosperity and acceptance.

IngsocBut by Orwell’s time, a new demon had emerged that threatened to extinguish human freedom. The roaring twenties, a time when bribing the workers seemed both enlightened and possible, ended abruptly with Black Tuesday and the crash of the New York Stock Exchange. Mass unemployment, desperation, drought; all these led to the radicalization of society and the rise of totalitarian ideologies. For the first time since the Age of Revolution, human beings appeared willing to surrender their freedom in exchange for security and a better life. And with Liberal-Democracy largely discredited, people needed a new philosophy to look to for solutions. On the one hand, many intellectuals and workers found a likely candidate in the Soviet Union, the home of Marxist-Leninism and the global crusade against capitalism. On the other, people began to turn to a strange new – but no less radical – philosophy known as fascism. This polarization tore many countries apart, with different segments of society turning on each other to the point of civil war. This trend continued well into, and even after, World War II. The Age of Extremes was born!

Which brings us to George Orwell, an intellectual and writer who turned to socialism at a young age and saw it as the means to cure the ills of traditional liberal-democratic society. After years of championing reform in England, he joined the international brigades and went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Like many intellectuals who looked favorably to the Russian example, he quickly became disillusioned with Soviet Communism, witnessing firsthand its methods and motivations in the field. The Great Purges, in addition to leading to the death of millions of Russians, had the effect of alienating countless intellectuals who had turned to Russia for inspiration over the years. Those who had visited Russia were especially appalled. The liquidation of the Kulaks, the Show Trials, the Great Terror, the constant purging of political dissidents; all of this convinced people just how precious human freedom was, and how flawed social theories that promised utopia truly were.the_blitzDuring the war, Orwell became further disillusioned by the growing trend of authoritarianism in his own and other democratic countries. While he initially approved of the process of “socializing” the economy, a necessity in a time of total war, it soon became clear to him that the process of censoring information, controlling industry, and using war as a means to keep the population united and compliant could lead to totalitarianism at home. These themes were all central to 1984, a book that takes place in a futuristic London that very much resembles London during the time of “The Blitz”. And just like in World War II, England (renamed Airstrip One, part of the global state of Oceania) is at war with another global power named Eurasia. The war dominates the lives of the people, with all aspects of society being slaved towards the need for victory. Industry, security, information, education, and even record keeping; all of these are controlled by The Party, Orwell’s satirical rendition of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the only power in the one-party state that has been in power as long as anyone can remember.

In the novel, society is rigidly divided between the Inner Party, the executive branch who’s membership is secret, the Outer Party that is made up of bureaucrats and government workers, and the Proles, the proletariat who have no power or any understanding of how it is exercised. Four institutions dominate Oceania, the Ministry of Love (responsible for breaking the will of dissidents), the Ministry of Truth (responsible for misinformation and propaganda) and the Ministry of Peace (responsible for war), and the Ministry of Plenty (Responsible for rationing and controlled shortages). In keeping with this contradictory appraisal of all things, the three slogans which embody the state’s power are “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”. And above all else, the ever-watchful state is embodied by “Big Brother”, a frightening yet somehow comforting caricature who represents the police state, depicted as a man with cold, dark eyes and a big, black mustache (echoes of Joseph Stalin and the cult of personality).

ministry_of_truthAll of these institutions, the entire agenda of the party, is clearly dedicated to preserving its own power and the total control they have over people’s lives. The war is ongoing, the shortages and fear it inspires constant. Propaganda and monitoring, which includes telescreens and the “Moment of Hate” are inescapable. No one has a moment’s peace or privacy. The people are taught that the war has always been, and with always the same enemy, regardless of the fact that the enemy frequently changes. Thanks to the Party’s control over information, no one knows whats really happening or whether or not a war is even taking place beyond their borders. Thanks to the Party’s censorship of all records, no one knows the true course of history or how they got to where they are. When a person is purged, they simply disappear, and no one knows if they ever really existed thanks to the Party’s control of all census data. Hell, thanks to the Party, no one even knows if it is 1984 at all…

Enter the main character, Winston, a man who remembers something of what life was like before the revolutions and the ongoing war. He is searching for answers, a search which leads him to his love Julia, a woman who actually enjoys sex, contrary to what women are taught in Oceania. The two then meet up with a man named O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party who is apparently a member of the resistance as well. In Oceania, the resistance is a clandestine group that is led by a figure known as Goldstein, a man who embodies all things evil and treasonous as far as the state is concerned (echoes of the Nazi campaign against “The Jew”). Through O’Brien, Winston and Julia are given a taste of freedom and a copy of Goldstein’s manifesto which explains how the Party seized and exercises power. Satisfied with the who, the what, the where and when of it all, Winston is left with only one question: why? Why did the Party take power, why do they exercise it so brutally and repressively, and why do they want force humanity to live a constant state of war and fear? There has to be a reason, right? Right?

ministry_of_loveWell, as it turns out, there is. In the end, Winston and Julia are betrayed and sent to the Ministry of Love. Winston soon meets O’Brien again, and realizes he’s been had, that there is no resistance, and that O’Brien and the Inner Party were the ones who wrote Goldstein’s manifesto. After being tortured and forced to confess his treason, Winston is given the answer he seeks. The Party, O’Brien claims, is interested in power, power for its own ends, the power to tear up minds and remake them however they see fit. The main difference between the Party and others like it in the past is that the Party has no illusions of why it does what it does. Then, to complete the process of torture and brainwashing, O’Brien and the Ministry of Love force Winston to betray Julia rather than undergo his worst fear (in Winston’s case, being eaten alive by rats). When its all over, Winston ends up at the same cafe he saw in an old photograph, one which he was previously ordered to destroy. In this photo, some old Party members who were purged were seen sitting after clearly being tortured, and right before they were killed. In this way, we know that Winston is about to die, but not before he says good-bye to Julia, they confess that they sold each other out under the pressure of torture, and he undergoes the terrifying transformation to become what the Party wants him to be: a loyal and loving servant of Big Brother.

I tell ya, this book scared the crap out of me when I first read it! It was so gripping that I read the bulk of it in two sittings, (something unheard of for me) and took its many lessons to heart. Foremost amongst these was the message that human freedom is precious, that empathy and feeling are what make us human, and that the last thing we should do with our minds is surrender them to those who promise us deliverance from our suffering and an earthly paradise. I am thus far relieved that his predictions did not come true, for it is how 1984 came to be that is very important, and often overlooked in my opinion. In essence, Orwell feared that the process of total war would continue well into a third world war, that society would be destroyed by nuclear bombs and then overthrown by radical revolutions, and that the world would descend into a series of totalitarian regimes that had learned from the failures of others and could therefore not be overthrown as the others had. But lucky for us, World War III didn’t happen (yet), democratization and socialization spread in western nations, and the Cold War ended. Fears of a totalitarian future have been renewed since 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, but these fears have served to demonstrate how important and enduring Orwell’s vision was.

George-OrwellIn a way, Orwell was a more effective satirist than Huxley in that his vision did not come true. Which, after all, was why he wrote it, wasn’t it? The whole point of cautionary tales is that people avoid what they’re being cautioned about, right? RIGHT? Well yeah! Orwell sought to warn the people of his day what could very well be coming, what could come from the scourges of total war, the desire for security, revolutionary justice, and putting one’s faith in ideologies that promise an earthly utopia. In many respects, its a credit to him that people have to turn to Huxley’s vision to identify the sources of their oppression. It means he did his job!

So thank you George Orwell, and rest in peace knowing that the world is still safe from 1984… so far!

Brave New World Revisited

As a follow-up to my last post, I wanted to delve into the two great satire-epics in more detail. First up, the satire that came true: Brave New World! And as the title says, I would also like to include a little commentary on the thoughtful essay that capped off his thoughts about his magnum opus, its reception, its enduring legacy, and the themes it addressed. There were so many, so where do I begin?

For starters, the central premise in his work: that humanity would be controlled through amusement and pleasure, not fear or brutality. Without a doubt, his commentary was based on the age in which it was written (American society of the 1920’s), an age in which amusement was seen as the cure to all social ills. It might even ventured that if he wrote it a little later, say, during the 30’s and 40’s during the age of totalitarianism and total war, he might have thought differently. One could make this case, but whether by circumstance or design, he ended up being right. In the post-war era, with the death of Soviet Communism, the extension of democracy and the growth of the middle class throughout the industrialized world, it seemed that the forces of repression would need to be more creative if they were going to control the hearts of minds of the people. And, in many respects, they succeeded. With the advent of television, mass advertising, mass consumption, deregulation, globalization, outsourcing, the decline of job security, unions, public broadcasting, and the concentration of industry and information into fewer and fewer hands, personal freedom once again appears to be threatened by the forces of repression and conformity. In fact, in many ways, life today is beginning to resemble life in the 1920’s when Huxley wrote his book. Funky coincidence huh?

But enough background! Let’s get specific. Brave New World opens on the facility where selective breeding takes place under the watchful eye of Mustaffa Mond, one of the ten leaders of the world and the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. It is quickly made clear that in Huxley’s world, the World State as its known, all people are predetermined before they are even born. Those who do manual labor are specifically designed for it, their size, physical and intellectual capacities tailored to that purpose. Alphas are the top of the line people, tailored for intellectual work and management, Gammas and Epsilon’s perform the most menial tasks, and Betas and Deltas do all the stuff in between (middle-management and processing, I guess!) In this way, class conflict and expectations are eliminated, no one can feel unhappy with their vocation because they can expect nothing better, and to just to make sure readers are catching on to the subtlety of this assembly-line birthing process, the people in this future revere Henry Ford and cross their chest with a large T when uttering his name. Henry Ford, the man who invented the assembly line and the concept of unskilled labor, who reduced his workers to cogs in the machine, and then bought their loyalty by cutting their hours and increasing their pay. Some saw these as enlightened reforms and Ford as humanitarian; but other, smarter people, saw it for what it was: an attempt at making his workers passive consumers! And what was good for Ford was good for all industrial giants, America soon followed suit and the age of plenty was born! A fitting social commentary, but I’m getting off track here.

Another element that is used to control society are “Feelies”, and like many things in the novel, it took some historical context to teach me the true genius of this concept. You see, at the turn of the century, the relatively new phenomena known as motion pictures were called “movies” (get it?). When sound was incorporated, the term “talkies” came to be used. Sensing the trend, Huxley came up with the idea of “Feelies”, films where the audience were wired into the theater so they could feel everything happening to the actors. Clever! And then there’s the designer drug Soma, a chemically non-addictive substance that people are actually encouraged to use, the process of which is known as “going on holiday”. Whenever people are frustrated, sad, depressed, anxious, restless, or angry, they are encouraged through conditioning and slogans to take their Soma and bliss out. Echoes of antidepressants perhaps? Speaking of conditioning, Huxley sought to portray the forces of commercialism by once again taking things to the next level. In addition to signs, radio jingles, and pervasive ads, people are conditioned from an early age through sleep conditioning to consume, use Soma, and follow the rules of the World State. One such rule is that everyone belongs to everyone else, including in the Biblical sense. Yes, in this world, promiscuity is encouraged and orgies are commonplace, all to keep people satisfied and avoid the pitfalls of monogamous relationships, which include jealousy, infidelity, and crimes of passion.

Thanks to all these measures, society is kept controlled and everyone is happy. Well, almost (here comes the plot!) Enter into this world an Alpha named Bernard Marx (recalling the venerable Karl) who is unhappy with society since he does not fit in. His discontent with all things is often blamed on the fact that he is a bit stunted and maladjusted, the result of a mistake rumored to have happened while he was still in the test tube. His partner Lenina (as far as that is possible in a promiscuous society) is more the traditional sort, and the object of desire for multiple main characters. Together, they visit a Reservation, where the so-called Savages who do not belong to the world state reside. Here, they meet John, the lovechild of a former Alpha who got knocked up and was forced to live out her life on a Reservation in former Mexico. When they find him and speak of their world, which he knows about only through stories his mother told him, he decides to return with them. But, much to his chagrin, he does not fit in in this Brave New World either. Lenina and he are incapable of forging a relationship, despite mutual attraction, because of their different values. In John’s world, his views on love having been shaped largely by Shakespeare and traditional “Savage” values, love is monogamous and righteous. In Lenina’s, love is free and cheap, and to be shared openly.

By the end, all the non-conformists are forced to leave, Bernard and his free-thinking friend are forced to live in exile. Lenina goes back to the world she knows, having been rejected and even beaten by John, and John exiles himself to the countryside to live a simple life. But the forces of civilization won’t leave him alone, they chase him to his new dwelling at an abandoned lighthouse and demand he entertain them. Things get a little violet, the crowd is doused in Soma gas (a standard tactic during a riotous event in the World State), and John and the people engage in a drugged-inspired orgy. When he wakes up, he’s overcome with guilt, realizes he will never be left alone, and hangs himself. A sad and fitting ending, the boy who could not function in either the “civilized” or free world resorting to the only out he can think of. Between barbarism and insanity, death appears to be the only option.

In hindsight, Huxley said that he wished he could go back and revise Brave New World, offer some third options and potential solutions other than suicide. For example, he hoped that the idea of the colony of exiles could have been developed more, where free-thinking people could have come up with some solutions to the problems of insanity and barbarism, civilization and its discontents. But arguably, this way was much more effective. In the end, the point of how a “utopian society” crushes the will of sensitive, thinking individuals, how it does not suffer challengers or people do not see eye to eye with it. And lets not forget that good art needs to frighten and offend sometimes in order to make its point. Letting people down easy just waters down the message. At least I think so. So writers remorse aside, I’d say Huxley’s vision was well-rendered in his book and needs no revisions.

And its ingenious really, regardless of whether or not history has proven his vision to be the more accurate one. Because in truth, the totalitarian age, if it taught us anything, was that human beings cannot be forced into anything for long. In order for people to surrender their freedom, they need to be made to do so willingly, and that takes fear and/or the promise of something better. In addition, it also taught us that totalitarian regimes can only truly thrive in underdeveloped corners of the world where they benefit from ignorance, poverty, and a long history of abuse. And even then, they cannot last indefinitely. Modern, developed countries that boast high rates of literacy and take things like mass media for granted require a more subtle approach when it comes to tyranny and social control. Power can never be exercised by a single man, woman or institution, and it cannot be overt. It must take place behind the scenes, where prying eyes cannot easily go, and excesses and abuses cannot easily be proven. Similarly, punishment must be equally subtle, meted out in ways that are either covert or even appear to be benign or beneficial (aka. therapy, mental hospitals, doping, etc). And above all, measures must be taken to ensure that citizens are kept happy, or at least that the majority are kept happy while the rest are kept marginalized and divided. And last of all, there has to be ways to channel or dissuade discontent. Campaigns and institutions that put a happy face on bad things are a good example, as are offices that give the illusion of making a difference or fighting the system, when in fact they are serving it.

Brave New World, ladies and gentlemen! Not as good a read as 1984, but definitely more accurate and prophetic in terms of its vision. Take that, Henry Ford! You and your little Model T too!