Sci-Fi Drugs

The other night, I had one of those moments. It was a moment where I found myself thinking about a cool concept and realized that it would make a damn fine post. It’s also one that interests me quite a bit and has even influenced my own writing. So as quickly as I could, I hopped on my laptop (even though it was 2am) and began making a list of all the sci-fi drugs I knew!

To me, the reasons for including drugs as part of a sci-fi franchise are obvious. For one, drugs and drug cultures are very much a part of our society, so it’s only natural that a sci-fi author should have something to say about it. As Gibson said, all sci-fi is really about the time in which it is written, ergo fictionalized drugs in future settings are really a reflection on the attitudes of today.

On the other hand, creating fictitious drugs and inventing subcultures that use them are a good way to give a story some realistic background. Wherever and whenever a story takes place, you have to assume that they will have narcotic substances there, and what form they take and how they go about dealing with them tells you much about that culture.

Either way, it’s a subject that has fascinated me for quite some time. So here are some highlights from the wold of sci-fi drugs!

Can-D:
Here we have a designer drug that was created by none other than sci-fi great Philip K. Dick. As fans may know, this guy was somewhat of an expert on drugs, having taken part in the Californian drug counter-culture during the 60s and 70s. As a result, he had a lot to say about drug use, their impact, and drug policy.

In this particular case, the drug comes to us from the story of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Taking place in the 21st century, where global warming has sent millions of people off Earth to the hostile environments of the Solar System, people have turned to a combination of the drug Can-D and what are known as “layouts.”

Layouts are physical props intended to simulate a sort of alternate reality where life is easier than either the grim existence of the off-world colonies or life on Earth. By taking the drug in conjunction with the layouts, people are able to experience a sort of shared hallucinogenic state. This in turn has given rise to pseudo-religious cults that have grown up around the use of layouts and the drug, consisting of people who dream of better worlds than the one they are forced to endure.

Dancer:
To complete the semi-dystopian setting of his Bridge Trilogy, Gibson was sure to add a designer drug that was all the rage amongst Californians in the near future. The drug was named Dancer, a powerful and addictive hallucinogen that apparently came in the form of a red dust. People would take it orally, rub it on their gums, smoke it or snort it.

In short, Dancer was like a red cocaine, except that it caused hallucinations rather than manic behavior. People who consumed it would typically become euphoric and mellow, causing them to get all rhythmic and break into dance (hence the name). However, it was was also known to make people violent from time to time, which made it more akin to the the effects of PCP.

Inspired by California’s drug culture and the emergence of designer drugs in the early 90s, Dancer was clearly meant to serve as an allegory for multiple drugs, or as a prediction of what the next big craze could be.

Dust:
Fans of Babylon 5 ought to remember this one. Basically, the drug was a hot item on the black market because it had the ability to give users temporary telepathic powers. It was violently addictive, and known for giving a very powerful and unique high. However, in the course of trying to stop the Dust trade to B5, Psi Cop Bester acknowledged that the drug was originally created by the Psi Corps as a way of creating telepaths.

When they realized it didn’t work, the drug was abandoned, but made its way to the black market because of its obvious appeal. As a longtime fan of B5, I can honestly say it was elements like this that made me like the show. Not only was the concept and the name cool, the fact that it began as a government-sanctioned drug was also believable and clearly inspired by the history of many real-world drugs.

Neuroin:
Inspired by Philip K Dick’s short story, Minority Report was a quasi-dystopian future where the use of precognitives promised to eliminate all violent crime from society. But of course, there’s a dark side to all this, and it just happens to be linked to the underworld drug known as Neuroin, a powerful and addictive psychoactive substance.

Though it is never explained in any real detail, the name suggests that it is of the opiate family and possibly combined with a neural stimulant. In addition to being the drug of choice of the protagonist, it is also the very thing that created the precognitives in the first place. All three psychics were once children who suffered brain damage in utero as a result of their mothers’ neuroin use. Though damaged neurologically, a side effect was the development of precognitive powers, which the state began to use in order to engineer the process known as “PreCrime.”

Based on the film adaptation, the principal means of taking neuroin appears to be through a specialized inhaler. This would allude to the fact that neuroin was taken in vaporized form. In the end, this drug served as both a commentary on the dangers of escapism as well as a plot device. While neuroin was the reason for the precognitives existence, it was also how the main character chose to numb himself over the loss of his son.

Nuke:
The designer drug from Robocop 2, and one man’s attempt at achieving his dream of becoming a Jesus-like figure! Designed by Cain, Nuke was an extremely pleasurable and addictive substance that began making the rounds in Old Detroit by the second movie. Coupled with a Police strike and financial ruin, Nuke seemed to be the thing that would finally break Detroit and allow the greedy bastards at OCP to finally take over.

There are several kinds of Nuke, but by far the most popular variety comes in the form of the red sludge. This is known as Red Ramrod, and was followed shortly thereafter by White Noise, Blue Velvet, and Black Thunder. The color scheme alluded to Cain’s “patriotic” sentiments, as he was known to say that his drug was making “Made in America” mean something again.

Nuke comes only in liquid form and is taken by means of small needles that inject the drug directly into the bloodstream. Because of its highly pleasurable nature and chemical properties, only a few doses are needed before a person becomes hooked and will experience intense withdrawal if they don’t get a regular dose. A commentary on the emergence of designer drugs, it was also served as a means for making some tough observations on drug use and its effect on society.

Snow Crash:
This drug is, admittedly a little off the beaten path. Featured in the Neal Stephenson novel of the same name, Snow Crash was essentially an allegory for a system crash, but in neurological form. Taking the form of both an inhalant and a digital virus, the “drug” had the effect of rendering users docile, passive and babbling an idioglossia similar to speaking in tongues.

But of course, there was more to it than all that. Basically, Snow Crash was designed by an information tycoon named L. Bob Rife who wanted control over people’s minds and daily habits. Using a Sumerian tablet, he basically encoded the ancient “Enki virus” – a virus that altered humanity’s neurology and spawned modern languages. So really, he was looking to reverse the Babel myth, making humanity neurologically simpler and thus programmable.

In addition to being a commentary on the drug culture, Snow Crash was also an observation about the proliferation of computer viruses in the early 90s and an allegory on the similarities between ancient myth and modern technology. It was also pretty cool and weird!

Soma:
When it comes to designer drugs, Soma pretty much takes the cake. Derived from Aldous Huxley’s classic tale of dystopia and social engineering, Brave New World, Soma was the kind of drug that came with the label “good for what ails ya” and meant it literally. Designed to cure any and all emotional problems, the pill was mass produced and a key feature of the World State’s apparatus of social control.

Use of Soma is prescribed at a very young age to citizens of the World State, as soon as children are old enough to begin sleep conditioning. Slogans such as “a gram is better than a damn” are programmed into their minds so that they respond to emotional stress by simply popping a pill. This is often referred to as “taking a vacation”.

To illustrate the effects of the drug, Huxley relied on his own experience using mescalin and other drugs. Apparently, subjects using Soma would enter a dream-like state where everything became pleasant and agreeable, all their worries and unpleasant emotions melting away. This dream-like state could be discerned by observing a person’s eyes, which would become noticeably glazed.

In addition, though the state freely distributed the drug and there were no shortages, Soma was still designed to be non-addictive and with no harmful side effects. This, added to its effectiveness, made it the ultimate designer drug and a very effective means of social control. A commentary on the pharmaceutical industry of his day and on the drug culture of the 1920s and 30s, Soma remains the most popular example of a fictional sci-fi drug!

Spice:
Then again, the spice melange is pretty damn popular too. However, as the only drug on this list that is not designed or synthesized, and is by definition an “awareness narcotic,” Spice is really in a category of its own. Taken from the Dune series, Spice was the most precious resource in the universe in more ways than one.

For starters, Spice could only be found on one planet, the desert world known as Arrakis. Mining Spice was also a highly hazardous duty, due to the inhospitable climate of Arrakis and the presence of Sandworms. And given its many benefits, which included prolonged life and expanded awareness, it’s little wonder why it was so damned expensive!

A clear allegory for oil, all life and commerce in the Imperium of Dune revolved around Spice in one way or another. The Guild Navigators used it to achieve their limited prescience and guide ships through foldspace. The Bene Gesserit used it to enhance their mental and physical acuity and make contact with their “Other Memory”. And every house used it to improve their health and longevity. In short, without Spice, all trade and commerce in the universe would end and countless people would die.

And of course, there never would have been a Paul Mua’dib or a Leto II, and humanity would have died as a result! That’s quite a drug them people got there!

Substance D:
Once again, we have a fictitious drug that comes to us straight from the mind of Philip K Dick. Featured in his 1977 book A Scanner Darkly about the drug subculture of California, Substance D was a powerful psychoactive drug that also went by the name “Slow Death.” The name proved apt, as the drug was not only violently addictive, but resulted in brain damage due to overuse.

According to the story, Substance-D was synthesized from the fictitious blue flower Mors ontologica, which is Latin for “death of being”. In the course of the story, the protagonist – an undercover narcotics agent – becomes addicted to the drug, suffers brain damage and is sent to one of the new recovery centers (“New Path”) to get clean.

In time, he is given the task of working on one of their many farms and learns that these places serve as grow ops for the flower. Hence, we see that “New Path” is the source of Substance-D, and is therefore benefiting from both the drug and the harmful effect it has on society. A commentary on strong-arm governments and the pharmaceutical industry perhaps?

Final Thoughts:
When it comes to fictionalized narcotics, a few basic features become evident. For one, fictional drugs can take one of two forms, being either of the organic or synthetic (i.e. designer) variety. Second, their use as part of a story’s background is meant to call attention to our current drug wars, warts and all. But above all, they seem to serve as a form of social commentary by pointing to the ongoing nature of temptation, escapism and repression. On the one hand, human beings will always be looking for escapes and ways to ease the burden of existence. On the other, we are always likely to feel the need to control the flow of narcotic substances and legislate what people can and can’t put in their bodies.

Finally, I found that just about all the authors here were taking a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach. Essentially, they were content to sit back and make observations on the whole issue of drug use and moral legislation, rather than making pronouncements. This would seem the preferable option considering that you can’t really offer a clear resolution without sounding either enabling or preachy. Some say that drug use destroys society, other say that people have the right to put whatever they want in their bodes. And then there are those who say that human weakness is a constant, and that criminalizing such a thing turns a flaw into a war. Complicated!

On a brighter note, all this talk puts me in mind of my own fictional creations. Years back, when I was coming up with the concept for my Legacies story, I spent a fair bit of time pondering what kind of drugs people would be using in the relatively distant future. I think I might just dedicate a page or a post to just that topic. In truth, I’d like to know what people think about my inventions. Look for it, it shall be coming soon!

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!

Equilibrium

Equilibrium

And we’re back! I tell ya, I’m mentally burnt from reviewing so many classics that I actually enjoyed! But I guess that’s to be expected. Somehow, its just easier to burn and mock bad movies, as opposed to dissecting and delving into movies with real themes, plots, memorable characters and complex messages. And I have covered a few movies in the last while that I had mostly good things to say about. So its about time I got back to bashing something worthy of it! Yeah, that seems about right. Here’s Equilibrium!

Now I already know that I’m stepping on some toes just by implying that this movie was fluff. As it turns out, Equilibrium is a cult-classic with its own dedicated fansite. That’s right, people actually came together and created a website strictly for fans of this 1984-ripoff. Go check it out, its actually pretty respectable: Equilibrium Fans

That shouldn’t come as a big surprise, people love an underdog after all! And considering the bashing it took and how little money it made, its little wonder why its fans would be so dedicated…

(Background—>)
Yes, as already noted, this movie did very poorly at the box office, grossing just over five million dollars, which was roughly a quarter of the movie’s budget. And it was generally panned by critics, earning only 37 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a metascore of only 33 out of 100 on Metacritic. Little surprise. The general consensus amongst critics was that the movie was a rip-off, a “reheated mishmash of other sci-fi movies” as one review put it. Or, as the NY Times claimed, that it borrowed heavily from such classics as Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and other science-fiction classics. Roger Ebert was the only one to be gentle, giving the film 3 out of 4 stars and saying that “Equilibrium would be a mindless action picture, except that it has a mind. It doesn’t do a lot of deep thinking, but unlike many futuristic combos of sf and f/x, it does make a statement”.

On the other hand, the movie did manage to attract a cult following that saw all this “borrowing” as signs of quality, who enjoyed the combination of action and sci-fi/satirical elements. But regardless of whether it was seen as a weakness or a sign of quality, the fact remains: Equilibrium borrowed HEAVILY from many sci-fi classics, particularly 1984, and tried to repackage them into an action movie riddled with plot holes, contrivances and topped off with a happy ending. You either loved it or hated it, and I personally thought it was pretty damn funny!

(Content—>)
So the movie opens with scenes of destruction and debacle, telling us that humanity was brought to the brink of annihilation by what was clearly WWIII. In response, a new order was formed, this one dedicated to creating a perfect society through the eradication of human emotion. Hmm, interesting spin on the 1984 concept (not to mention F451 and Brave New World!) So apparently, the civilized people live in a walled city called Libria (obvious reference to the movies title and their value system), the rest live in the “Nethers” where emotion is still practiced. The people of Libria take a drug named Prozium which “eliminates the highs and lows” of emotion (thinking they just mashed the words Prozac and Valium together) and the law is enforced by people called “Grammaton Clerics” who go out and arrest “sense offenders”. Oh, and the religious/political leader of this world is known as the “Father”. He’s the guy who founded the Librian philosophy and leads the state through the “Tetragrammaton Council”, even thought no one sees him except on big huge TV screens making his famous speeches.

Okay, first impressions… Obvious! For one, we have some clear satire on the culture of pharmaceuticals, the pills people pop when they are manic or depressed. Except here, you pop one to cure it all! Echoes of Soma, hello Brave New World! Then we have the Grammaton Clerics who go out and arrest “sense offenders”… They ARE the Thought Police, “sense offense” IS thought crime, and the way they burn the people’s houses and possessions out in the Nethers is every bit what happens in F451. Oh yeah, and the Father is totally Big Brother, and its already pretty clear he doesn’t even exist! And the religious angle is also very clear. The name Tetragrammaton for example, which is Greek for “a word having four letters, is clearly a reference to the Hebrew name of the God of Israel (YHWH). And the Grammaton Clerics, need I say more? Essentially, what they are trying to say is that the philosophy of unemotion has been elevated to the status of holy canon, making it unquestionable and the state’s authority total.

But the action is still pretty cool. For example, in the opening sequence after the intro, we see John Preston (Christian Bale) – cleric extraordinaire – go into a Nether compound. There, he shoots up an entire room of people after jump-kicking the door down and sliding into a room full of gunmen. Seems this is an example of what’s called the “Gun Kata” (or as some people called it “Gun Fu”), where clerics get into the middle of a crowd of hostiles and do a gun dance, inflicting maximum damage on the maximum amount of targets. After clearing this place out, they uncover a cache of art (sense offense materials) and burn them. We also see his partner, Errol Partridge (Sean Bean), steals a book from the scene by WB Yeats and claims he’s turning it in to be destroyed. But you totally know he isn’t! The man is clearly a “sense offender” (dammit, that sounds like sex offender when you say it fast!). Preston quickly realizes this and meets up with him in an abandoned church in the Nethers. There, they have a chat about why he’s chosen to break the law, forsake his career, and condemn himself to death. Bean claims that the price of emotion is a “cost I would pay gladly”. Not sure where that quote is from. Closest thing I could find was “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” by Wimpy, the hamburger addict from Popeye.

Then, in a move that isn’t totally contrived, Preston accidentally breaks his last vial of Prozium and the clinic is closed so he can’t restock. That’s right, an elite cleric lets his stock of mind-altering drugs run out and the factory just happened to be closed so… yeah, he’s screwed until they open again! Then, wouldn’t you know it, he begins to experience emotions and finds the awakening quite appealing (and disturbing because he now feels remorse for killing his ex-partner!) Alas, he has to hide his emotions now because he gets a new partner, some career-minded dude named Brandt who is clearly gunning for the spot of top cleric. Preston’s kids, like something out of children of the corn, are also pretty suspicious (echoes of the Spies from ’84), so he has to be careful at home as well. Only place that’s totally private and safe is the few inches that lay inside his head (’84!)

Oh yeah, we also learn a few things in the course of this that also make little sense. One, Preston had a wife that was arrested and incinerated because SHE was a sense offender. When he meets with Dupont (Angus MacFadyen), the head of the Council under the Father, he is asked how this could have happened. How does an elite cleric, best in the business, NOT notice sense offense in his own home? He replies that he himself has never been able to figure that out. Well, that makes all of us! That and the death of his partner clearly tell us that he’s going rogue real soon! Oh yeah, we also learn that there’s an Underground apparently that operates within Libria. But unlike in 1984, this resistance ACTUALLY exists and literally lives underground. Its now Preston’s job, with his new partner, to find this group and eliminate them.

They then do a mission together where they find a new batch of people in the Nethers, one of them the enigmatic Mary O’Brien (Emily Watson) who has a cache of classical music and antiques. After saving her life, Preston goes through her stuff and has a deep, emotional moment as he listens to some Mozart. This is right out of ’84 again, where Winston found an antique shop in London and was totally enamored by everything he saw in the place. Preston than commits the same act that Partridge did in the beginning, pocketing a book and claiming he was going to get rid of it himself. He then rescues a dog because (holy evil Batman!) dogs are illegal and are have to be put down. He tries to let the dog loose at the edge of town, but that ends badly when a bunch of police show up and he’s forced to kill them using some of funky, acrobatic, Gun Kata moves! Also, in the course of interrogating O’Brien, he finds himself falling in love with her. We learn in the course of things that this lovely red-headed “sense offender” knew Partridge and led him down the path of sense offense in the first place. She’s slated to die now, and he’s obviously not too happy about it.

Shortly thereafter, Dupont summons him again to talk to him about his suspicious behavior. Convinced that Preston is not telling him the truth, he slams his fist down on the table and yells “DON’T LIE TO ME!” Uh, hello? Isn’t emotion supposed to not exist for these people? And this is just the first instance of this kind of plot oversight. Afterward, while practicing what appears to be truncheon Kata, Brandt comes in and starts fighting with Preston and he lets a lot of emotions fly. For one, he keeps smiling! Second, he taunts him by telling him that since some cops turned up dead (his work), there’s going to be a big offensive in the Nethers and all sense offenders will be wiped out on site. No more arrests are processing! Last, he seems disappointed when he looses their match. And these people are suspicious of HIM? No wonder he never suspected his wife, the man’s been surrounded by sense offenders all this time and he can’t even tell! (Still sounds like sex offenders to me!)

So he rides along on one such assault, sees lots of people die and feels bad about it. Then he tries to rescue some hideaways, but Brandt finds him and orders him to kill them. He even hands him his gun to do it. He says “no, you do it”, and hands him his gun back. As if Brandt’s suspicions weren’t already confirmed, he then catches him as he runs out of the “processing center” (where O’Brien has just been incinerated) where he breaks down and start to cry right there in the street. Arrested, Preston has his ass dragged before Dupont (again!) where Brandt tells on him and says that he’s the one who shot those officers. Strangely, Preston doesn’t seem too afraid because, you see, forensics can match bullets to a specific gun. Turns out, the gun used to kill those officers was Brandt’s! We then get a quick flashback to where Preston was handing Brandt back his gun while they were together in the Nethers. Brandt is then hauled off, claiming (screaming, in fact) that he has no feelings. Okay, two things here: One, that whole gun switcheroo happened AFTER he killed those cops. How could he have shot them with Brandt’s gun if he didn’t even have his hands on it yet? This is a major plothole! How could it have gone unnoticed?! Second, Brandt once again is blatantly demonstrating emotion. How is no one noticing this?

Regardless, Preston now seems to have gained Dupont’s trust, so he’s sent on a special mission to infiltrate the Underground. Seems right up his alley, since he’s already decided to become an offender himself. But before that can happen, he must rush home and get rid of the cache of Prozium that he hasn’t been taking. He gets home and rips off the bathroom mirror (he’s been hiding them inside the wall) and is confronted by his son who tells him he needs to do a better job of stashing his vials. His son then smiles! Turns out, his kids are sense offenders too, have been ever since their mother was incinerated! How sweet… Whoa, hang on here! You’re telling me that this guy’s KIDS have been offenders for years now and HE NEVER NOTICED?! What kind of cleric is this guy? First his wife, then his kids, then his partner??? Didn’t he say near the beginning that the key to his success as a cleric was being able to get inside the head of sense offenders? How can he be suspected of being a sense offender when he’s the only one in Libria who HASN’T been sense offending this whole time?

After this close shave, he goes to the Underground and begins plotting with them. Seems they have a plan: they will stage their surrender, Preston will get the credit for the arrest and, as a reward, a chance to meet the Father. He will assassinate him while their people attack the Prozium factory. With the shipments shut down, the people will experience emotions again and rise up against the system. Ah, but there’s a snag! Turns out, as he gets there, that the Tetrarchy have other plans. They sit him down, hook him to a polygraph, and then reveal that he’s been had! Brandt is alive, it seems, and it was all a set-up! And then a video of the Father, which suddenly turns into Dupont, comes on to address him lets him in on the double-cross. The Father (like we didn’t already know) has been dead for years and Dupont has been the real head of state since that time. Oh, and that whole thing of sending him to find the Underground? Part of the set-up! You see, they could tell he was a potential offender, and figured they could use him to locate the resistance and get their hands on them. Letting him beat Brandt was just a ruse so he would feel comfortable and able to fulfill his purpose.

Yeah, this isn’t totally contrived either! According to Dupont, they were looking for an infiltrator to get into the Underground, someone who could think and feel like they did, but who wasn’t aware of it yet. Now how the hell is that supposed to work? This guy couldn’t even spot his own wife and children, and he’s supposed to be an elite cleric AND a latent sense offender? Second of all… what are they, psychic? If he was the perfect candidate for knowing how sense offenders worked, why screw him over? Last, but certainly not least, the only reason he started offending was an unlikely accident! Remember, he broke his last vial and the Prozium factory was closed? Or did they set that up too? Once again, we have a climax where the bad guys somehow foresaw everything, how everything proceeded based on their designs, even though there’s no way they could have planned this without being psychic. Whatever, it’s not supposed to make sense, it’s just supposed to tie everything up into a nice little package!

In any case, Dupont tells him to surrender without incident, but Preston isn’t about to! His polygraph levels go flat, he breaks out the sleeve-guns, and starts blowing everyone away! Yeah, this is another pretty cool action scene, but that doesn’t prevent it from being totally stupid too! I mean, how did he get those guns past the guards? Also, he makes such short work of them that the fight isn’t even suspenseful. A few bullets, a few cuts with his Katana, and everyone’s dead. His ultra-fast fight with Brandt is especially bad; not once did their swords even cross! It was just, swipe, swipe, swipe, and Brandt’s face falls off! No joke! He then takes down Dupont in a Gun Kata fight, but not before Dupont begs for his life, confessing that he himself is a sense offender (he “feels” he says). But Preston kills him anyway, quoting that killing him is “a cost I would gladly pay”. So even Dupont is a sense offender, huh? No surprises there, he’s done enough emoting to put William Shatner to shame! But I guess this was meant to be in keeping with the whole 1984 motif, where the rulers are total hypocrites who don’t follow their own rules.

Anyway, the Underground then attacks the Prozium factory, killing all the guards with ridiculous ease, and then proceeds to blow the place up. The movie then ends with a closeup of Preston’s eye as he sheds a single tear. And that’s not the only piece of blatant symbolism before the movie ends. There’s also the part where Preston wipes his bloody fingers on one of the TV’s boasting the Father’s image, right before he blows this and every other screen in the building away (somehow, this shuts down every screen in the city). So between that and the destruction of the Prozium factory, the system is now in ruins and the people of Libria free to feel. Yaaaay, the sense offenders won! (STILL sounds like sex offenders!)

(Synopsis—>)
I think I better start with what I actually liked about this movie since that is a much shorter list. Yes, some of the action scenes were cool, but Kurt Wimmer (who wrote AND directed this movie) has a thing for action sequences where people die way too quickly. Again and again, we see people sprayed with bullets, tons of dust flying, and dozens of people dropping in the same second. The scene at the end where the Underground is storming the government buildings is the worst of the lot, entire squads of guards drop in seconds as untrained resistance fighters shoot at them. What kind of guards are these? Whoops, supposed to be covering the good stuff here… Okay, the classic sci-fi bits were also cool at times – like how people in the Nethers stockpile whatever emotional materials they can (art, literature, music), and how the clerics are required by law to confiscate and burn them. But here too, things get unbelievably hokey! At the beginning, for example, it turns out that the rogue house was keeping priceless pieces of objets d’art hidden in the floor, which included the (REAL) Mona Lisa! Are you kidding me?

Damn it, did it again! Okay, uh… the shooting locations, which included the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and the subway station under the Reichstag building. Yeah, the way they worked their sets into these locations, that was pretty cool. And the direction wasn’t bad. The camera work, casting and acting weren’t bad either… except for Taye Diggs, who smiles way too much (you’re supposed to be emotionless, dude!) The Gun Kata was neat, and the whole “sense offender” rating system (EC-10, which has to do with the MPAA’s emotional content rating system) was kind of clever as well. Last, there was the clerical/religious angle, which was kind of cool and ironic since the state is supposed to be a society of pure reason, free of emotion, and these terms can’t help but make one think of faith – something inherently irrational.

But other than THAT, this movie sucked! The plot was totally contrived, it was riddled with plot holes, some of them glaring (i.e. the gun switch), and the ending was so totally over the top it was ridiculous! Sure, some of us were encouraged that the good guys won, unlike in the real 1984, but that didn’t make it any more believable or respectable. In fact, it really just felt like Wimmer ripped off some respectable sci-fi classics, splashed them together with a cheesy action plot and called it a movie. I’m reminded of Demolition Man, and the less said about his other flop, Ultraviolet, the better! Uh oh, I’m sensing more bad reviews to come… Equilibrium, folks! Not bad if you’re looking for a guilty pleasure, check your brain at the door!

Equilibrium:
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Plot: 3/10
Direction: 6/10
Total: 5.5/10

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!

1984 vs. Brave New World

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

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

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

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

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