Dystopian Science Fiction

Lately, I’ve been feeling kind of dystopian! Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m working on an anthology of dark science fiction with some fellow writer’s over at Goodreads (called Writer’s Worth). Or it might just be that this seemed like the next logical step in the whole “conceptual science fiction” thing. Regardless, when it comes to the future, sci-fi writers love to speculate, and it usually takes one of two forms. Either humanity lives in a utopian society, where technology, time and evolution have ferreted out our various weaknesses. Or, we live in a dystopian world, where humanity has either brought itself to the brink of annihilation or is living in dark, polluted and overpopulated environments, the result of excess and environmental degradation.

As with all things science fiction, the aim here is to use speculative worlds of the future to offer commentary on today. As William Gibson, himself a dark future writer, once said: “Science fiction [is] always about the period in which it was written.” So today, I thought I would acknowledge some truly classic examples of dystopian literature and the books that started it all. Here they are:

Earliest Examples:
Dystopian literature, contrary to popular conception, did not begin in the 20th century with Brave New World. In fact, one can find examples going as far back as the Enlightenment, when philosophers and scholars used fictional contexts to illustrate the weaknesses of society and how they might be reformed. And, in many ways, this form of social critique borrowed from Utopian literature, a genre that takes its name from Thomas More’s seminal book that describes a perfect fictional society. But where More and earlier writers (such as Plato and St. Augustine) used perfect civilizations to parody contemporary society, this newer breed of authors used dark ones to do the same. In short, Utopian literature showed society how it could be, dystopian literature as it was.

Candide:
A true classic, though it is sometimes difficult to classify this work as a true dystopian work of fiction. For one, it is set in the contemporary world, not in a fictionalized society, and revolves around the life of a fictional character who travels from one region to the next, seeking to answer the fundamental question of whether or not this is “the best of all possible worlds”. However, this book remains one of the principle sources of inspiration for science fiction writers when constructing fictional worlds for the sake of satirizing their own.

Published in 1755 by the critic and philosopher Voltaire, the story was inspired by the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and the church’s and Leibnizian’s attempts to rationalize it. At the beginning, Candide – the main character who’s name means “optimism” – lives a sheltered existence where he is busy studying and living with his friends and companions. However, this existence is quickly interrupted by the arrival of war, and Candide and his companions are forced to travel from place to place, witnessing all the problems of the world.

These include war, slavery, rape, imperialism, abuse of power and exploitation, and takes them from Europe to the Middle East to the Americas. Eventually, they return home and reflect on all they have seen and whether or not this is “the best of all possible worlds”. They conclude that it is not, but offer a resolution by saying that “we must cultivate our garden”.

Gulliver’s Travels:
Another classic example, but which is often considered a combination between utopian and dystopian novels. This is because the plot involves the travels of one man – Gullliver, who’s name is a play on the world gullible – who’s journey takes him through many fictional worlds where life is either perfect or tragically flawed in various ways. However, since the purpose of these worlds is to parody English society of his day, it is often included as an early example of satiric literature that falls into the utopian, dystopian and science fiction camps.

The story involves four journeys where Gulliver travels to several fictional societies and records what he sees for posterity. The first voyage takes him to the land of the Lilliputians, a race of tiny people who’s morals match their physical size. After some rather brief descriptions of how these people select their leaders (limbo tournaments and other stupid games) we learn that they are a parody of the British system of parliament.

His second voyage takes him to a place which is the polar opposite of the first. Here, in the land of the Brobdingnagians, he is presented with giants who’s physical size mirrors their moral outlook. They consider Gulliver to be a curious specimen, who’s descriptions of his country disgust them. In the end, they consider him a cute sideshow attraction and refuse his offer for technological advances (like gunpowder). Gulliver then leaves, thinking the people are out of their minds, but ironically states that he witheld the worse about England out of a desire to save face.

His next voyage involves a little “island-hopping”, first to the flying city of Laputa, an island nation where technological pursuits are followed without a single regard for the consequences. He then detours to another island, Glubbdubdrib, where he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures. Then onto Luggnagg, where he encounters the struldbrugs – an unfortunate race of people who are immortal but frozen in old age, with all the infirmities that come with it. Gulliver then reaches Japan, which is in the grips of the post-war Shogunate period, and is narrowly excused from taking part in an anti-Christian display which all foreigners were forced to perform at the time.

His final voyage before going home takes him country of the Houyhnhnms, a race of horse-people who see themselves as “the perfection of nature” and who rule over the race of Yahoos – deformed humans who exist in their basest form. Gulliver joins them and comes to adopt their view of humanity – that of base creatures that use reason only to advance their own appetites. However, they soon come to see him as a Yahoo and expel him from their civilization. In the end, Gulliver returns home to regal his family of his adventures, but finds that he cannot relate to them anymore. His journeys have filled him with a sense of misanthropy which he cannot ignore.

Throughout the narrative, Swift’s point seems abundantly clear. Each voyage to a fictitious world serves as a means to parody a different element of British society and civilization in general. And ultimately, Gulliver serves as the perfect narrator, in that his ignorance and naivety allow him to absorb the lessons of the journey in a way that is both ironic and sufficiently detached. Can’t just hand the reader the moral, after all! Gotta make them work for it!

The Time Machine:
Published in 1895, this science fiction novella inspired countless adaptations and popularized the very idea of time travel. In addition to introducing readers to the concept of time as the fourth-dimension and temporal paradoxes, H.G. Wells also had some interesting social commentary to share. In this story, the narrator – known only as The Traveller – recounts to a bunch of dinner guests how he used a time machine to travel to the year 802, 701 A.D. where he witnessed a strange culture made up of two distinct people’s.

On the one hand, there were the Eloi,  a society of elegant, beautiful people who live in futuristic (but deteriorating) buildings and do no work. Attempts to communicate with them prove difficult since they seem to possess no innate curiosity or discipline. He assumes that they are a communistic society who have used technology to conquer nature and have therefore evolved (or devolved) to a point where strength and intellect are no longer necessary to survive.

However, this changes when he comes face to face with a separate race of ape-like troglodytes who live in underground enclaves and surface only at night. Within their dwellings he discovers the machinery and industry that makes the above-ground paradise possible. He then realizes that the human race has evolved into two species: the leisured class of the ineffectual Eloi, and the downtrodden working classes that have devolved into the brutish Morlocks. In the course of searching the Morlock enclave, he learns that they also feed on the Eloi from time to time. His revised analysis is that their relationship is not a benign one, but one characterized by animosity and the occasional act of kidnapping and cannibalism.

Is there not a more perfect vision of industrial society or class conflict? Written within the context of turn of the century England, where discrepancies in wealth, class conflict and demands for reform were commonplace, this book was clearly intended to explore social models in addition to scientific ideas. And the commentary was quite effective, if you ask me…

The Iron Heel:
This dystopian work was written by Jack London, the same man who wrote the classic Call of the Wild, and was released in 1908. A clear expression of London’s own socialist beliefs, the novel is set in the distant future when a socialist utopia – known as the Brotherhood of Man – has finally been created. Overall, the plot revolves around the “Everhard Manuscript”, a testament which details the lives of the story’s two main protagonists and which takes place between 1912 to 1932 in the US. The work is known for its big “spoiler”, letting readers know outright that the protagonists die in the course of their pursuits, but that there efforts are rewarded by providing inspiration to later generations who succeed where they fail.

In the course of this speculative story, we learn that an oligarchy – the Oligarchs or “Iron Heel” – has seized power in the US by bankrupting the middle class and reducing farmers to a state of serfdom. Once in power, they maintained order through a combination of preferential treatment and control over the military. After a failed revolt (the First Revolt) takes place, preparations are underway for a second which is expected to succeed in restoring the Republic. Unfortunately, it too fails and the protagonists are killed. However, centuries later, when their Manuscript is discovered, the Oligarchy has been unseated and a debt is being acknowledged to these characters and their actions.

Thus, London speculates that a socialist society would someday emerge in the US, but only after centuries of dominance by oligarchs who would come to power by decimating the middle class, controlling trade unions, and transforming the military into a mercenary front. His main characters, though condemned to death in the present, will be vindicated in the distant future when humanity will at last overcome its greedy tendencies and usher in a state based on equality and fraternity. Apparently, this novel inspired such greats as George Orwell, but not in the way you think. Whereas London chose to offer his readers a sense of consolation by showing them everything turned out okay in the distant future, Orwell chose to take the hopeless rout to make his point!

We:
The story takes place in the distant future, roughly one thousand years after the One State conquered the entire world. After years of living in a perfectly synchronized, rational and orderly world, the people of the One State are busy constructing a ship (the Integral) that will export their way of life to extra-terrestrial worlds. Published in 1921, and written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the story was clearly inspired by life in post-revolutionary Russia, with its commitment to “scientific Marxism, but was also a commentary on the deification of reason at the expense of feeling and emotion.

The story is told from the point of view of D-503, chief engineer of the Integral who is keeping a journal which he intends to be taken on the voyage. As we learn in the course of the novel, everyone in the One State lives in glass apartments that are monitored by secret police known as the Bureau of Guardians. All sex is conducted strictly for reproductive purposes and cannot be done without state sanction. However, the main character soon comes into contact with a woman named I-330, a liberated woman who flirts with him, smokes, and drinks alcohol without regard for the law.

In time, he learns that I-330 is a member of a revolutionary order known as MEPHI which is committed to bringing down the One State. While accompanying her to the Ancient House, a building notable for being the only opaque structure in the One State where objects of historic and aesthetic importance are preserved, he is escorted through a series of tunnels to the world outside the Green Wall which surrounds the city-state. There, D-503 meets the inhabitants of the outside world – humans whose bodies are covered with animal fur. The aim of the MEPHI are to destroy the Green Wall and reunite the citizens of the One State with the outside world.

In his last entry, D-503 relates that he has undergone an operation that is mandated for all citizens of the One State. Similar to a lobotomy, this operation involved targeted x-rays that eliminate all emotion and imagination from the human brain. Afterwards, D-503 informs on I-330 and MEPHI, but is surprised how she refuses to inform on her compatriots once she is captured. People beyond the wall even succeed toward the story’s end in breaching a part of the Green Wall, thus ending the story on an uncertain note.

In addition to parodying the worst aspects of scientific rationalism, imperialism and the notion of progress, the story also went on to inspire some of the greatest satires ever known. In addition, many of its more esoteric elements have appeared in countless novels and films over the years, most notably the concepts of encapsulating walls, secret museums, government-sanctioned breeding, and machine-based programming.

The Classics:
And now we move onto the dystopian classics that are most widely known, that have inspired the most adaptations and sub-genres of noire fiction. Although updated many times over for the 20th century, these dystopian novels share many characteristics with their predecessors. In addition to timeless social commentary, they also asked the difficult question of what it would take to set humanity free. Whereas some chose to confront this question directly and offer resolutions, other authors chose to leave the question open or chose to offer nothing in the way of consolation. Perhaps they thought their stories more educational this way, or perhaps they could merely merely think of none. Who’s to say? All I know is their works were inspired!

Brave New World:
There’s scarcely a high school student who hasn’t read this famous work of dystopian fiction! And although Aldous Huxley denied ever reading We, his novel nevertheless shared several elements with it. For instance, his story was set in the World State where all reproduction is carried out through a system of eugenics. In addition, several “Savage Reservations” exist beyond the veil of civilization, where people live a dirty, natural existence. But ultimately, Huxley’s aim was to comment on American and Western civilization of the early 20th century, a civilization where leisure and enjoyment were becoming the dominant means of social control.

This last aspect was the overwhelming focus of the novel. In the World State, all people are bred for specific roles. Alphas are the intellectuals and leaders of society, Betas handle high-level bureaucratic tasks, Deltas handle skilled labor, Gammas unskilled labor, and Epsilons menial tasks. Therefore, all vestiges of class conflict and generational conflict have been eliminated from society. But to further ensure social control, all citizens are sleep-conditioned from a young age to obey the World State and follow its rules. These include the use of Soma, a perfectly legal and safe designer drug that cures all emotional ales, promiscuous sex habits, and “feelies” (movies that simulate sensation).

In the end, the story comes to a climax as two of the main characters, Bernard Marx and Lina Crowe, go to a savage reservation and find a lost child named John. His mother was apparently a citizen of the World State who became lost in the reservation and was forced to stay after she learned she was pregnant. Having experienced nothing but alienation and abuse as a “savage”, John agrees to go with Bernard and Lina back to “civilization. However, he quickly realizes he doesn’t fit into their world either and expresses disdain for its excesses and controls. Eventually, the people who sympathize with him are sent into exile and he is forced to flee himself. But in the end, he finds that he cannot escape the people of the World State and commits suicide, a tragic act which symbolizes the inability of the individual to find resolution between insanity and barbarity.

Overall, Huxley’s BNW was a commentary on a number of scientific developments which, under the right circumstances, could be used to deprive humanity of their freedom. In many ways, this was a commentary on how the expanding fields of psychology and the social sciences were being used to find ways to ensure the cooperation of citizens and ensure good work habits. Nowhere was this more apparent than in factories and in the creation of “assembly-line discipline”, which was exemplified by how the people of the World State revered Henry Ford. In addition to performing eugenics on an assembly-line apparatus, the people worship Ford and cross themselves with a T (a reference to his model T car).

But above all, Huxley seemed to be asking the larger question of what is to be done about the process we know as civilization. If it was inimical to freedom, with all its rational, sterile and domesticated luggage, and the alternative  – a dirty, superstitious and painful existence – was not preferable either, than what was the solution? In the end, he offered no solution, allowing the reader to ponder this themselves. In his follow-up essay, Brave New World Revisited, he expressed some remorse over this fact and claimed that he wished he had offered a third option in the form of the exile communities – people who had found their own way through enlightened moderation.

1984:
Ah yes, the book that did it all! It warned us of the future, taught us the terminology of tyranny, and educated us on the use of “newspeak”, “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime”. Where would dystopian literature be today were it not for George Orwell and his massively influential satire on totalitarianism? True, Orwell’s work was entirely original; in fact, he thoroughly acknowledged a debt to authors like H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. But it was how he synthesized the various elements of dystopia, combining them with his own original thoughts and observations, and crystallized it all so coherently that led to his popularity.

But I digress. Set in the not-too-distant future of 1984 (Orwell completed the book in 48 and supposedly just flipped the digits), the story takes place from the point of view of an Outer Party member named Winston Smith. Winston lives in London, in a time when England has been renamed Airstrip One and is part of a major-state known as Oceania. As the book opens, Oceania finds itself at war with the rival state of Eurasia, though not long ago it was at war with Eastasia and will be so again. As a member of the Ministry of Truth, Winston’s job is that of a censor. Whenever the enemy changes, whenever the Party alters its policies, whenever a person disappears, or the Party just feels the need to rewrite something about the past, men like Winston are charged with destroying and altering documentation to make it fit.

Ultimately, the story involves Winston’s own quest for truth. Living in the constant, shifting lie that is life in the totalitarian state of Oceania, he seeks knowledge of how life was before the revolution, before the Party took control, before objective reality become meaningless. He also meets a woman named Julia with whom he begins an affair and rediscovers love. However, in time the two are captured and taken to the Ministry of Love, where they are tortured, brainwashed, and made to turn on each other. In the end, Winston accepts the Party’s version of reality,simply because he discovers he has no choice. His tragic end is made all the more tragic by the implicit knowledge that he will soon be killed as well.

For discerning fans of science fiction and dystopian literature, the brilliance of 1984 was not so much in how the totalitarian state of the future is run but how it came to be. According to the Goldstein Manifesto, which is the centerpiece of the novel, World War III took place sometime in the 1950’s and ended in a stalemate, all sides having become convinced of the futility of nuclear war. Shortly thereafter, totalitarian revolutionaries with similar ideologies took power all over the planet. In time, they became the three major states of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, whose boundaries were a natural extension of the post-war spheres of influence.

Also interesting is Orwell’s speculation on how these totalitarian ideologies came to be in the first place. In short, he speculates that dominance by a small group of elites has been an unbroken pattern in human history. In the past, this arrangement seemed natural, even somewhat desirable due to poverty, scarcity, and a general lack of education. However, it was within the context of the 20th century, at a time when industrial technology and availability of resources had virtually eliminated the need for social distinction, that the most vehement totalitarians had emerged. Unlike the elites of the past, these ones had no illusions about their aims or their methods. As the antagonist O’Brien says “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake… Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

This message still resonates with us today. Even though western civilization did technically dodge the bullet of WWIII and does not resemble the world of 1984 in the strictest sense, the cautionary nature of Orwell’s critique remains. Even if the patriculars of how 1984 came to be did not happen, the message remains the same: human freedom – meaning the freedom to live, love and think freely – is the most precious thing we have. Beware those who would deprive you of it for your own safety or in exchange for some earthly utopia, for surely they will themselves to be your master! There is also an ongoing debate about which came true, 1984 or BNW, with the consensus being that it was Huxley’s dystopian vision that seemed more accurate. However, the jury is still out, and the debate ongoing…

Fahrenheit 451:
Here is yet another dystopian novel that has become somewhat of a staple in the industry. In Bradbury’s vision of the future, society is permeated by mindless leisure and decadence. Virtually all forms of literature have been banned, and local “firemen” are responsible for enforcing the ban. Wherever illegal literature is found, firemen are responsible for arriving on scene and putting them to the flame. Yes, in a world where all houses are fireproof, firemen are no longer responsible for putting fires out, but starting them!

In the course of the story, the main character – a fireman named Guy Montag – begins to become intrigued with literature and discovers a sort of magic within it that is missing from his world. In addition, Guy is told by his boss that society became this way willingly. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of sloth, they chose convenience, ease and gratuity over subtly, thought and reflection. In time, Guy’s choices make him a fugitive and he is forced to flee and seek refuge with other people who insist on keeping and reading books. It is also made clear that nuclear war is looming, which may provide some explanation as to how society came to be the way it is.

In this way, the book has a lot in common with both 1984 and Brave New World. On the one hand, their is active censorship and repression through the destruction of books and the criminalization of reading. On the other hand, it seems as though the people in Bradbury’s world surrendered these freedoms willingly. It is a fitting commentary on American society of the latter half of the 20th century, where entertainment and convenience seemed like the greatest threats to independent thought and learning. This, in turn, could easily form the basis of dictatorship. For as we all know, a docile, narcotized society is an easily controlled one!

The Handmaids Tale:
Here is another novel that few people get through high school without being forced to read, especially in Canada. But theres a reason for that. Much like 1984, BNW, and F451, The Handmaids Tale is a classical dystopian narrative that has remained relevant despite the passage of time. In this story, the US has been dissolved and replaced by a theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead. In this state, women have been stripped of all rights in accordance with Old Testament and Christian theocracy. The head of this state is known as the Commander, the chief religious-military officer of the state.

The story is told from the point of view of a handmaid, a woman who’s sole purpose is to breed with the ruling class. Her name is Offred, which is a patronym of “Of Fred”, in honor of the man she serves. Like all handmaidens, her worth is a determined by her ability to procreate. And on this, her third assignment, she must get pregnant if she doesn’t want to be discarded. This time around, her assignment is to the Commander himself, a man who quickly becomes infatuated with her. Over time, the infatuation leads to sex that is done as much for pleasure as procreation, and he begins to expose her to aspects of culture that have long been outlawed (like fashion magazines, cosmetics, and reading). She even learns of a Mayday resistance that is concerned with overthrowing Gilead, and that the Commander’s driver is apparently a member.

In the end, Offred is denounced by the Commander’s wife when she learns of their “affair”. Nick orders men from “The Eyes” (i.e. secret police) to come and take her away. However, he privately intimates that these are actually men from the resistance who are going to take her to freedom. The story ends with her Offred stepping into the van, unsure of what her fate will be. In an epilogue, we learn that the story we have been told is a collection of tapes that were discovered many generations later after Gilead fell and a new, more equal society re-emerged. This collection is being presented by academics at a lecture, and is known as “The Handmaids Tale”.

In addition to touching on the key issues of reproductive rights, feminism, and totalitarianism, The Handmaids Tale presents readers with the age-old scenario for the rise of a dictatorship in the US. Apparently, the military-theological forces who run Gilead in the future seized power shortly after a staged terrorist attack which was blamed on Islamic terrorists. In the name of restoring order and ending the decline of their country, the “Sons of Jacob” seized power and disbanded the constitution. Under the twin guises of nationalism and religious orthodoxy, the new rulers rebuilt society along the lines of Old Testament-inspired social and religious orthodoxy.

This angle is not only plausible, but historically relevant. For as Sinclair Lewis said back in 1936 “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” This is paraphrased from his actual, more lengthy comments. But his essential point is the same. If a  tyranny were emerged in the US, he reasoned, it would do so by insisting that it was religiously right and that it was intent on protecting people’s freedoms, not revoking them. In addition, the angle where an Islamic terrorist attack spawned the takeover? Tell me that’s not relevant to Americans today! Though written in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian scenario received a shot of credibility thanks to eight years of the Bush administration, a government that claimed religious orthodoxy and used security as justification for questionable wars and many repressive policies.

Final Thoughts:
After years of reading dystopian literature, I have begun to notice certain things. For starters, it is clear why they are grouped with science fiction. In all cases, they are set in alternate universes or distant future scenarios, but the point is to offer commentary on the world of today. And in the end, utopian and dystopian satires are inextricably linked, even if the former predates the latter by several centuries.

Whereas Utopian literature was clearly meant to offer a better world as a foil for the world the writer’s were living, dystopian literature offers up a dark future as a warning. And in each case, these worlds very much resemble our own, the only real difference being a matter of degree or a catalyzing event. This is why there is a focus in dystopian literature on explanations, how things came to be the way they are. In many cases, this would involve a series of predictable events: WWIII, a terrorist attack, more overpopulation and pollution, an economic crisis, or a natural disaster.

And in the end, the message is clear: whether it is by fear, poverty, or the manipulation of critical circumstances, power is handed over to people who will deliberately abuse it. Their mandate is clear and their outlook is the exact same as any tyrant who has ever existed. But the important thing to to note is that it is given. Never in dystopian literature do tyrants simply take power. Much like in real life, true totalitarianism in these novels depends upon the willingness of people to exchange their freedom for food, safety, or stability. And in all cases, they inevitably experience buyers remorse!

Quicknote: Since getting “freshly pressed”, a lot of people have wrote in and asked me about my thoughts on “The Hunger Games”. Sorry to say, haven’t read it so I can’t offer any commentary. I will however be commenting on a number of more modern dystopian franchises, specifically examples found in film and other media, in my next post. Stay tuned, hopefully something you like will pop there!

More 1984…

More 1984…

Well, my book club is finally coming to the end of reading 1984. I sure am happy we picked that novel, as it is not only one of my favorites reads but one of my favorite books to teach. There’s just so much there, a real English-teachers delight! And really, I never get tired of reviewing it. There’s always something new to talk about, as you can plainly see! In addition, I’ve been hosting some 1984 chat groups over at Goodreads and that got me thinking about certain elements of the story all over again. In the first forum we were discussing whether or not a 1984-type society could still happen, and to what extent did we think we might be living in one already. In the second, we got into the differences between 1984 and Brave New World, how Orwell and Huxley had different visions on the future, and which we thought came true.

In any case, what I realized from all this was which part of the book I loved best. It was definitely the passages in Part II where Winston was reading from Goldstein’s Manifesto. Not only did it totally appeal to the historian in me, it was just so full of depth and insight that it got to me every time I read it (I think I’m up to three now). And after doing a little side research, I came to realize that Orwell wrote this section of the story first. Not only was the manifesto a major, culminating event in the story, it was also the centerpiece of Orwell’s thought, the very basis of his cautionary tale. Essentially, the manifesto detailed how inequality was a constant in human civilization, the ongoing struggle between the high, middle and low. But in addition to being a constant, it was almost a necessity as well, an inevitable side-effect of living with scarcity, drought, and recurring shortages.

It was with the advent of industrial technology however, that this pattern finally became breakable. While it took some tweaking, common sense finally convinced the barons of industry and political leaders alike to make reforms to fit the times. This began in the 19th century and carried on well into the 20th, when standards of living for the poor and common finally began to rise. And as education, the distribution of goods and services, and news media also improved, the gap between rich and poor and even the need for social distinctions began to diminish.

Curiously, it was as the need for social distinction seemed about to disappear that the totalitarian philosophies of the 20th century appeared. Whereas industrial processes had come to represent the potential for human liberation, these new thinkers (Marxist-Leninist and Fascist were their official titles) wanted to use these same things to make enslavement permanent. In other words, these folk saw the writing on the wall and decided to do everything they could to arrest the process of history. Or, as Orwell put it, “the pendulum would swing one last time and then stop forever”. Human beings could never be allowed to be fully liberated, they had to be cast down and kept there. Hence, these totalitarians took advantage of all that was happening in the 20th century to make it happen. Two World Wars had already began the process in earnest, destroying the infrastructure that was making human equality possible and turning what were once comfortable, privileged people into brutalized subjects.

In order to ensure that this continued to be the case – in other words, that the basis for oppression and inequality continued to exist – war had to be constant, but also limited. Nuclear weapons were abandoned and war would continue by conventional means, albeit for unconventional purposes. The real aim henceforth would be for the dual purposes of keeping people focused on an external enemy while ensuring that no improvement in the standard of living would ever be possible. All industrial products would be used by the war, and occasionally, planned shortages would go into effect to keep people wanting and just a little off-balance.

Or at least, this is what Orwell had predicted, in a nutshell, through his alter ego of Goldstein. And there’s a reason the second act ended with it. Up until that point in the story, Winston knew there was something wrong with society and wanted to rebel against it. The book did not really teach him anything in this respect. In truth, it did little more than confirm what he already knew. But the overall effect it had was to let him know he wasn’t alone. He finally learns that he is indeed sane for feeling the way he does, mainly because he knows he has to be right.

This readers with all of Act III to answer the final burning question of Why? Winston soon learns this after he and Julia are arrested and taken to the Ministry of Love to be tortured and brainwashed. Much like their betrayal, the hopelessness of their situation and the fact the Brotherhood does not even exist, the answer to this question is a spirit-shattering disappointment. Power, O’Brien tells Winston. Power is the only reason. For what else is there, in the final analysis that can justify the lengths that tyrants and their administrators will go to? Why else would countless generations of kings, emperors, nobles, priests and elites do what they have done over the millennia? Why torture, detain, brainwash, conquer, convert, force confessions and exterminate entire races of people? What better reason is there than to feel god-like and know that moral arguments and the truth are useless against you?

True, Orwell’s vision never really came to pass. There are those who would venture that we are living with Big Brother government and in an Oceania-style society right now but I would not be one of them. In every measurable way, we averted Orwell’s dystopian future by not getting into a third world war, by expanding the middle class, public education, and narrowing the gap between rich and poor even further. We also managed to take big steps towards the elimination of the gender gap – another thing that has been increasingly obsolete with the advent of modern society – and the racial gap. Granted we’ve only come so far, but if one looks at the post-colonial wars of independence, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement in conjunction with the victories of organized labor and the expansion of the middle class, one can see just how much progress we’ve made towards the kind of society of equals that Goldstein’s totalitarians wanted to avert.

But in the last thirty years, we’ve moved away from that ideal like never before. More and more, there are forces out there who are telling us of the need to cut taxes, deregulate the economy, globalize, privatize, cut education, eliminate collective bargaining, pensions, job security, outsource industry, streamline, downsize, etc etc. These same forces are the ones pushing for fiscal conservatism, saying “we simply cannot afford it anymore” as a justification for neutering governments by destroying their budgets and putting tax monies back into the hands of the rich and the super rich. Where that fails to sway people, the specter of “SOCIALISM!” is used quite effectively to frighten people into compliance and keep them from seeing the real agenda. All the while, smear campaigns are employed to paint protest movements, reformists, and people who question these changes as “radical”, “socialist”, “communist”, and even “elitist” – much the same labels that were used against people who protested the Vietnam War, segregation and sexism in the workplace.

This “revolution” began in earnest in the late 70’s, early 80’s as a response to the progress made in previous decades. In Britain, it was led by Margaret Thatcher, in the US by Ronald Reagan, and by various other supplicants and imitators in other parts of the Anglosphere and west. In terms of politics, the goal was clear: squeeze the concerns of the poor and the idea social responsibility out of politics by taking advantage of the fact that the poor were at an all time low. In terms of values, the objective seemed to be erase the pluralistic society that was emerging as confusing and chaotic, while emphasizing a traditional society instead. In short, these people wanted to regress because they didn’t like the society that was emerging. However, these revolutions did not really take off until a full decade later, when another event – the end of the Cold War – gave them another push. In the absence of a second hegemonic superpower, it now seemed that the US and its allies were free to push forth with a new agenda, not just abroad but at home.

Intrinsic to the agenda of these new conservatives (aka. neo-conservatives) was the idea that peace, security, and open markets should be achieve not through multilateralism, but through unilateralism and military force, if necessary. Rather than the US and its allies becoming more multinational, the world was to become more American. Britain and the Anglosphere would continue to enjoy the “special relationship” with the US, while continental Europe would be split based on “old” and “new”. The old Europe – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, all EU members who were firm in their commitment to regulated markets and in the habit of challenging US interests from time to time – would be marginalized in favor of countries that had recently emerged from dictatorships and had more fragile economies. These countries, who were not in a position to challenge the US, would be pressured into entering into military treaties that would cordon off Russia with a “missile defense shield”. The same is true of China, another major power with access to nuclear weapons. Their neighbors would also be pressured into an alliance with the US, extending the missile shield, and thus making the US (in theory) impervious to attack. Thus, with nothing to fear from these countries nuclear arsenals, the US could do as it pleased and not concern itself with the objections of its former enemies.

In the Middle East, a similar plan was put into effect. For many decades, Britain, the US, and continental European powers had maintained close ties to several “friendly dictators” in exchange for good trade relations and access to petroleum. However, by the end of the Cold War, the US and Anglosphere maintained this policy more aggressively, placing military bases on the soil of willing nations in exchange for direct political and military support. This came with obvious consequences, most notably in the form of terrorism and widespread anti-US sentiment. With country after country viewing the US presence in the region as a liability, the US and its “willing” friends decided to look for a new base of operations, a place where they could build “enduring” military bases that would give them secure access to petrol reserves and the ability to sandwich unfriendly neighboring regimes.

Finally, there was the agenda at home. For decades, this new breed of conservatives dreamed about turning their countries into one-party states, or at least marginalizing dissenting political voices until they were no longer a concern. Be they Republican, Tory, Conservative, or Likud, virtually all nations in the developed world experienced a push from the right on or after the last decade of the 20th century whose aim was to oust “liberal” concerns from politics and make a “security” agenda paramount. In addition, a clear economic agenda was being put into place as well that seemed dedicated to weakening government and allowing the private sector to fill the void. Oftentimes, this took the form of removing restrictions to trade, but also involved removing environmental, trade, and labor regulations that were designed to prevent unsafe or exploitative business practices. And finally, there was the moral dimension, where political forces of the right allied themselves to the religious right in order to push for legislation that would make abortion and stem cell research illegal, while simultaneously decriminalizing martial rape and the teaching of creationism mandatory.

What is most curious about this is the timing. Once again, it seems that forces intent of preventing freedom and imposing their singular world view mobilized when the exact opposite trends were on the cusp of being realized. With the Cold War over, former colonies freed, and minorities, natives, women and homosexuals free to be themselves and demand equality, it seemed that a new golden age might be possible. In fact, many people, of all political stripes, predicted that this would be the case, that the 21st century would be characterized by peace, the extension of free markets, and human rights. So… what happened? Personally, I would venture that it was precisely to avoid these things that the neo-cons mobilized the way they did and have done what they have done. Where they couldn’t take power, they stole it. Where they couldn’t exploit tensions, they created them. This isn’t to say that there weren’t lylegitimate security concerns at the turns of the century (i.e. terrorism), but the neo-cons certainly did all they could to make these worse through negligence, mishandling and/or overreaction.

Some would certaintly disagree and say these things are natural developments, or are necessary. But really, how can one not look at the concentration of political power, media, industry, and money into fewer and fewer hands over the last thirty years and not see an agenda. What is the purpose of all this, aside from the desire to put power into the hands of a select few? Aside from making a few people a hell of a lot richer, it would successfully reverse the trends that have been at work in western society for the past century, and that First Nations and the non-western world has been fighting to have access to for the latter half of it. That being, freedom, equality, and the elimination of vast disparities of wealth, power and privilege. Destroying that will once again create the basis for an unequal society by making sure that the middle and low do not have the means to challenge the power of the elite. If education, job security, a full belly and an informed mind are no longer possible on a grand scale, then the power of a small elite will seem justified. The only stumbling block to achieving all this lies in the ballot box or (God forbid!) technology that cannot be turned on its users to prevent the spread of information and dissenting viewpoints. But these too can be dealt with, given time…

Yes, I am aware of how soap-boxish this all must sound, but it HAS been on my mind of late. It also might sound like a conspiracy theory, but there’s a difference: Conspiracies are subtle, underhanded, and can’t be proven either way. Hence why they are called conspiracy theories. This, on the other hand, is blatant, obvious, and in everyone’s face. And the tactics aren’t rational or covert either, they have about as much subtly as a sledgehammer and are constantly being spewed. From the television, the newspaper, the pulpit, and the halls of government, there is scarcely a corner of society that hasn’t been exposed to this new take on an old rhetoric, so I don’t imagine anyone will not know what I’m talking about, even if they don’t happen to share my interpretation.

Anyhoo, I’ve gone on long enough with my own opinions. And since it was the Goodreads forums that inspired these thoughts of mine, I’ve included links to the Goodreads threads below. I’m becoming aware of how good a forum this is for discussing literature, and for aspiring authors to post their work, get feedback and network with others of their ilk. Check it out!

1984 – Can It Still Happen?
1984 Vs. Brave New World

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!