Time Travel In Sci-Fi

Hey all. Have I said yet that it’s good to be back? Well, truth be told, it feels like I’ve only really got back into the swing of things in the past few days, and after a two week hiatus to boot. I also noticed that it’s been awhile since I’ve done a conceptual post, something dedicated to classic sci-fi and the concepts that make it so freakishly and enduringly cool!

And so I thought I’d tackle a very time (pun!) honored concept in science fiction today, that being the concept of time travel. Despite what many may think, the idea of going forwards or backwards in time is not a recent idea. It did not begin only after scientists theorized that time and space were expressions of the same phenomena – aka. relativity – nor with the development of quantum theory. However, these scientific discoveries did spur the concept on by introducing the idea of temporal paradoxesand the notion that there was such a thing as a space-time continuum resulting in multiple universes.

But I’m getting sidetracked here; and frankly, all this paradox and timelines stuff has been known to give me a headache! Instead, I’d rather look at some of the most renowned and celebrated instances of time travel in science fiction. Sidenote: As usual, I’ll be starting with literature and saving pop culture for another day. And of course, I won’t be covering everything, just the few examples that I think are the best.

Earliest Examples:
As already noted, the concept of being able to see into the past and future, with the purpose of changing the course of it, predates the idea of time travel as a scientific phenomena. In truth, it was often used in novels as a device to advance plot, character development, and offer moral instruction on the importance of choices and making the right ones.

A Christmas Carol:
This was certainly the case in Charles Dickens’ classic tale of selfishness and redemption, where a miserly capitalist is shown both his past and future in order to help him mend his ways. Published in 1843, A Christmas Carol has gone through countless renditions and adaptations over the years, with names like Ebeneezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim becoming household names that are synonymous with greed, pathos, and generosity of spirit.

Taking place on Christmas Eve, 1843, the story opens with a general description of Scrooge’s own life and success in the accounting trade, followed by an assessment of his character. Miserly, stingy, unsympathetic to the plight of the poor, his success is due in part to the fact that his business partner, a man much like him, has been dead for seven years, leaving everything to him.

After reluctantly letting his employee, Bob Cratchit, a poor but happy family man go home for the night, he is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. Marley warns him that for his life of greed, he is suffering eternal punishment, and tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts who will show him the error of his ways and teach him the true meaning of Christmas. These ghosts, which are named the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, all show Scrooge how his decisions to forsake love, family, and kinship for the sake of his money have left him lonely and heartbroken, which is the source of his cruelty. When he sees his future, which is a cold grave with no one to mourn or miss him, he realizes there is still time and vows to change his ways.

Encapsulating Dickens’ view of industrialization, class distinction, poverty and the exploitation of the English working class, Carol remains one of the best known examples of social commentary in English literature. It is also the first widely-known example where time travel was used as a plot device.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:
Published in 1889 and written by the venerable humorist Mark Twain, Yankee employs a great deal of Twain’s characteristic wit in order to dispel the 19th century notion that the Middle Ages were a time of romance and chivalry, instead showing them to be a time by ignorance, superstition and brutality.

The story begins when an engineer named Hank Morgen from Hartford, Connecticut suffers a head wound and finds himself inexplicably transported back in time to the court of Camelot. After realizing that he is living in the 6th century and, for all intents and purposes, the most technically proficient man on Earth, he begins using his skills and knowledge of the future to convince the people that he is a powerful magician.

As a result, he replaces Merlin as the chief sorcerer of the court and begins growing in fame and power. He then embarks on an industrialization program for England, establishing trade schools to teach modern concepts and English, thus elevating them from the Dark Ages. At his prompting, Arthur begins to travel the land and is convinced to make several enlightened reforms, including abolishing slavery and improving the lot of the peasants.

In the end, Hank is lured to the continent by the Papal authorities who naturally fear him. While he is gone, the Church issues an Interdict on his followers and activities, and Arthur and Lancelot go to war over Guinevere. As foretold by legend, Arthur dies at the hands of Sir Mordred before Hank can save him. Upon his return to England, a Papal Army comes for Hank and his followers, who end up fortifying themselves in Merlin’s Cave behind an electric fence and minefield while employing Gatling guns.

However, disease begins to set in and Hank himself is wounded and falls prey to illness. While lying in bed, his assistant sees Merlin casting a spell over him, one which he claims will make him sleep for 1300 years (putting him back in his own time). The story ends with the narrator, a man who is writing the tale down in the present, saying that Hank is lying unconscious on the floor of his factory, leading the reader to question whether or not it was all a dream.

An endorsement of rationalization, industrialization and Americanization, Twain’s tail not only challenges the notion that the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance, brutality and persecution, but shows how attempts to remedy the past, however well-intentioned, were doomed to fail. In a way, this proved to an ironic commentary on those who were reinterpreting the Middle Ages to suit their current woes about industrial civilization. To them, Twain would insist that it’s easy to glory a past you don’t have to live in!

The Time Machine:
As already mentioned, the concept of time travel was not new by the time that H.G. Wells wrote the book on the same subject. However, Wells was the first to approach it as a scientific phenomena and inspired just about all subsequent interpretations. Written in 1895, The Time Machine was one of several stories written by Wells that involved time travel. Much like his earlier story, The Chronic Argonauts, the story revolves around an inventor who builds a time machine for his own personal use.

Told from the point of the view of a man known only as “The Time Traveller”, the story consists of his account of his journeys into the distant future and what he encounters there. In his first journey, he travels to the year 802, 701 AD, where he discovers a world divided between two races of people – the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The former are a beautiful, elegant people, though they appear to have no real drive or curiosity, who live in Edenic communities. The latter are a race of brutish troglodytes who live underground and work the machinery that makes the Edenic world above possible. Every now and then, these people emerge to the surface at night to capture and eat one of the Eloi, an act of revenge against their oppressors.

After escaping from a near-death encounter with the Morlocks and retrieving his time machine, he travels ahead to roughly 30 million years from his own time. There he sees some of the last living things on a dying Earth, which appears to be covered by red lichens and populated only by crab-like creatures and butterflies. He jumps forward further by small increments and sees the Earth’s rotation gradually cease and the sun die, leaving the Earth a frozen heap where no life can live.

Clearly meant as a social commentary on class distinction in Britain of his day, The Time Machine was also a potential warning about the state of man. Taken to its extreme, the concept of industrialization and rationalization would lead to the production of two races of people – a leisure class with no discipline or survival skills and a class of brutalized, downtrodden workers who had gone backwards in terms of evolution. A fitting commentary on an age when the gap between the rich and poor was enormous, the former becoming rich of the work of the workers while they in turn lived in horrendous conditions.

The Modern Classics:
By the onset of the 20th century, time travel was becoming an increasingly popular concept for science fiction writers. Thanks to writer’s of the previous century, the purpose of using it for the sake of social commentary, allegory, or as a literary device for the sake of character development had become well established. Many of these were used effectively by authors to warn contemporary readers about the path human civilization was on. Another major development was the publication of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” in 1905 and the proposal of multiple universes (as an interpretation of Quantum Theory). These added a certain degree of scientific merit to the idea. As a result, books involving time travel also began to be used to describe such phenomena as temporal paradoxes and circular time.

By His Bootstraps:
Written in 1941 by Robert A. Heinlein, this short story was amongst the first to introduce the concept of a time circular paradox, where the past and future becoming intertwined. This idea is something which Heinlein would return to several times over the years, where time travel creates a self-fulfilling scenario that the character must repeat, either in the past or in the future.

The story begins when a man (Bob) who is working on his doctoral thesis on time-travel is met by a time-traveling interloper named “Joe”. Joe looks familiar and shows him the small gateway that he used to travel back, and invites Bob to come with him 1000 years into the future. Suddenly, a man who looks just like Joe shows up and begins fighting with him, during which Bob is knocked through the gate.

He awakens in the future, and learns from an old man named Diktor that aliens were the one who built the time machine so they could fashion humanity into slaves. Joe realizes a 20th century man could become king in this world and that the man who invited him was his future self. As such, he travels back through the gate to meet himself in his apartment, this time using his own name to convince his past self to time travel. As before, another version of himself which shows up to fight him and his past self is knocked through.

This time around, his past self meets with Diktor, but this time goes  back into the past to procure all the items a 20th century man will need to be a ruler. He procures these, then goes back for the third time, but sooner so he can arrive at a time before Diktor is around. When he gets there, he sets himself up as chief and begins tampering with the time travel device so he can see its makers. Once he does, he’s shocked by their appearance and his hair turns white. After years of waiting, he meets his past self which comes through the gate to meet him. The circular paradox is now complete, with Bob realizing that he IS Diktor (the future word for “chief”) at that he must send himself back to ensure his own future.

At once complicated and containing several overlapping elements, the story introduced audiences to the very cool and timeless concepts of time loops and paradoxes. On the one hand, we see a future which seems fated to come true, but could not possibly exist without the intervention of the main character. Hence the concept of the circular time paradox. After learning the truth, the main character must conspire to ensure that everything that has happened happens again… otherwise the future which he inhabits will no longer exist.

A Sound of Thunder:
A short story which was first published by Ray Bradbury in 1952, A Sound of Thunder introduced readers to the concept of the “Butterfly Effect”. Beginning in 2055, the story opens on an era when time travel has been invented and is used for hunting safaris. The main characters are talking politics, remarking about how a fascist presidential candidate was defeated by a moderate.

The party then gets into their time machine and travels back in time several million years to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. Once they arrive, the travel guide (Travis) warns the hunters about the necessity of minimizing their effect on events, since any alterations to the distant past could snowball into catastrophic changes in the future. The hunters must also stay on a levitating path to avoid disrupting the environment and only kill animals which were going to die anyway.

When they find the T rex, one of the hunters (Eckels) loses his nerve and runs away. The two guides then kill the dinosaur seconds before a falling tree was meant to kill it, and go off in search for Eckels. After finding him and realizing that he ventured from the path, Travis orders him to remove the bullets from the T rex’s body (a necessary precaution) as penance. When they return to the present, they immediately notice subtle changes.

Words are spelt differently, people act differently, and the fascist candidate who had lost the election in their own time has been announced as the winner. Eckels removes his boot and discovers the culprit, a crushed butterfly that he stepped on while straying from the path. He begs the others to let him go back and make things right, but all that is heard in reply is the “sound of thunder” alluding to the fact the Travis shot Eckels.

In addition to being one of the most republished science fiction stories in history, this short story also introduced the concept of what would later be known as the Butterfly Effect, so named because of the butterfly featured in the story. As such, the story would go on to inspire countless similar science fiction tales over the course of the ensuing decades, serving as a cautionary tale about tampering with the laws of nature.

The End of Eternity:
Written by Isaac Asimov and released in 1955, Eternity is considered one of his best works, due to the way it dealt with the subject of time paradoxes. Striking a starkly different tone from his Robot and Foundation novels, the story is a mystery/thriller that deals with the subjects of time travel and social engineering.

It begins with the introduction of an organization known as Eternity that exists outside of time. Staffed by people from various time periods (known as Eternals), this group enters the temporal world at different points in time to make small alterations (called Reality Changes) that are designed to minimize human suffering over the course of history. They are also made up of “Technicians”, the people who execute those changes.

As the story opens, the main character, a Technician named Andrew Harlan, is tasked with going back and ensuring Eternity’s creation. His mission involves taking a young Eternal (Cooper) back in time with the “kettle”, i.e. the time machine, where he is to meet the historic inventor of Eternity (Vikkor Mallansohn) and teach him the principles of time travel so he can make it happen.

However, Harlan, embittered by Eternity politics and the fact that he is being denied contact with his lover (a non-Eternal named Noÿs), scrambles the time settings and sends Cooper to the wrong time. After his superior reasons with him and tells him of his own love affair with a non-Eternal, Harlan realizes he’s made a mistake and begins trying to find Cooper, whom he thinks he sent to the 20th century. Working on the theory that Cooper would have left an SOS behind in the past, he begins going through old artifacts. He discovers a message in a magazine from 1932 showing a Mushroom Cloud with the acrostic A-T-O-M. Since this predates the development of nuclear weapons, he determines that it must be a message.

Harlan then agrees to travel back in time to find Cooper, provided he can take his lover Noÿs with him. When they get there though, she reveals that she herself is an agent of Reality Change, from the centuries where Eternals cannot enter. She reveals that her own people prefer to watch time and not get involved, and that Eternity is denying human creativity and the development of space travel through their tampering. As such, they want to deny the creation of Eternity.

She tells him that all he need do is give up on finding Cooper and let her perform her mission, which is to help stimulate the development of nuclear science. Due to his own experiences with the Eternals, Harlan agrees that his organization may not be the best thing for humanity. He agrees to help her and the kettle disappears, indicating that Eternity no longer exists.

Slaughterhouse Five:
Written in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five is considered Kurt Vonnegut’s most influential work. Taking place during World War II, the story incorporates aspects of time travel and the larger questions of free will versus determinism. In addition, the themes of war and senseless slaughter run through the whole thing like a vein, with the setting, tone, and events aligning perfectly to convey a noire message to the reader.

The story opens with a disillusioned man named Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who is taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge. He and other POW’s are taken to a slaughterhouse in Dresden which has fallen into disuse since the war began. During the subsequent fire-bombing of the city, in which the entire town is destroyed, both the POW’s and German soldiers take cover in the basement.

While in the basement, Billy becomes “unstuck in time”, moving forward and backward and experiencing events out of sequences. In one time jump, he is kidnapped by aliens and placed in a zoo with a B-movie actress who is meant to be his mate. He learns from the aliens, known as the Tralfamadorians, that they can see in four dimensions and see the full progress of their lives. As such, they cannot change the course of them, but can focus on individual moments.

As he continues to travel, he witnesses different moments from his own life and relives various fantasies. He sees himself in the snow before his capture, experiences moments from his post-war life in the US as a mundane family man during the 50s and 60s, and even witnesses his own death at the hands of a petty thief named Paul Lazzaro in the late 70’s.

He learns that his death is the result of a string of events which have already begun. The man who kills him turns out to be the friend of another POW named Weary, who died of gangrene as a result of his capture. This, he blamed on Pilgrim, who he hates for his anti-war attitudes and thinks was responsible for their capture. By the 70’s, when the US has become Balkanized and Billy joins a movement dedicated to warning people about the alien threat, Lazzaro shoots him in front of an audience. In this way, Billy realizes he has become just like the Tralfamadorians, in that he too can see his fate and now must decide how to go about changing it.

In many ways, Vonnegut was on the ground floor of the post-modern trend, thanks to his use of a non-liner narrative where things happen out of sequence and time seems jumbled and confused. The book was also hailed for its multi-layered nature, combining the ideas of fate, free will, cause and effect, with a fatalistic sense of human nature and war in the same narrative. The fact that it takes place inside a slaughterhouse when outside, fire bombs are consuming a city, also demonstrated a thematic consistency that did not go unnoticed.

Recent Examples:
With time and our evolving understanding of history has come many new and exciting examples of time-travel in sci-fi. For one, writers began to incorporate ideas from the growing field of alternate history, as well as refining their ideas of what time travel would involve from a scientific standpoint. From this point onwards, time-travel novelist would either maintain a sense of paradox with their writing, showing how tampering in the past led to the future, or would use the idea of altering the past to show just how easily can diverge from what we know today.

A Rebel in Time:
Written in 1983 by Harry Harrison, the author of Make Room! Make Room! (which became the basis of the movie Soylent Green), Rebel is one of several science fiction novels that presents an alternate history of the American Civil War in which the Confederacy won. However,this novel was the first to combine this idea with the concept of time travel, where it was intervention from the future that led to the divergence.

The story opens with a racist Colonel named Wesley McCulloch who is being investigated by a special military committee for buying up large quantities of gold. Troy Hamon, the black soldier charged with looking into his activities, determines that McCulloch also murdered three people to cover his plans, which includes the theft of an antique Sten gun.

In time, he realizes that McCulloch’s plans involve the use of an experimental time machine, and that he hopes to deliver the Sten gun and the gold to Confederate forces in the past. With this easily-producible automatic weapon and plenty of gold to fund the war, the Confederacy will win. Hamon pursues McCulloch into the past and must fight his way through Civil War America, braving prejudice and the war in order to stop the plot from achieving fruition.

Because of the way it combined time travel and attempts to alter the past with alternate history, Rebel went on to inspire such renowned stories as The Guns as the South by Harry Turtledove, as well as the entire Southern Victory Series. Though not as popular as straightforward alternate histories, it was demonstrative of how easily some of history’s most pivotal events could have played out very differently.

Outlander:
Written by Diana Gabaldon and Published in 1991, this novel is the first is a series of seven that are known as the Outlander Series. In addition to winning the RITA Award for “Best romance novel” of 1992, the series is renowned for merging historical fiction and romance with the concept of time travel, though in a way that is arguably more fantasy than sci-fi.

The story takes place shortly after WWII and centers on a British Army nurse named Claire Randall and her husband Frank, an Oxford history professor who briefly worked for MI6. Reuniting after the war, they decide to take a second honeymoon in Scotland, during which time they plan to research Frank’s family tree. While there, they hear of the local standing stones of Craigh na Dun and decide to attend an evening with some of the locals.

The next day, she returns to the stones and experiences a strange sense of disorientation. Upon waking, she hears a battle nearby and goes to investigate. She sees an English army fighting with the Scots and comes across the very ancestor Frank has been researching, Captain Randall. Convinced that this is a reenactment, Claire plays along and pretends to be a robbed Englishwoman.

Before she can go with him, a Scotsman knocks out Randall and takes Claire prisoner. They claim to be fugitives from the Red-Coats and ask for her help in tending to their wounded, and her skills as a nurse earn her their trust. Afterward, they begin running again, and Claire comes to the realization that she must be in the past given the brutality of the situation and the fact that the lights of Inverness do not appear where they should. This causes her much grief, and the man she helped heal, Jamie, begins to comfort her.

Confused and disoriented, she is brought to the seat of power of the Clan McKenzie and questioned by the laird. She in unable to convince them of her story, but is allowed to stay with them on the condition that she not try to leave. Having come to terms with her situation, she tries to find a way to return to Craigh na Dun where she hopes to be able to return to the present. Around the county, Claire comes to be known as an “Sassenach”, an “Outlander”, but earns some trust through her knowledge of medicine. In addition, it is becoming clear that she and Jamie are beginning to take a shine to each other.

She learns that the McKenzie’s are Jacobites who are resisting English rule, that Captain Randall is the one oppressing them, and that he is still looking for her. The laird’s brother, Dougal, proposes that Claire marry Jamie, as a means of making her a Scotswoman and ensuring her protection. She agrees, thinking this is the only way to ensure her safety for the time being, and also because she thinks Jaime is the most suitable man there. As a gesture of trust, he reveals to her that he has been using an alias since he’s a wanted man. Not a McKenzie by birth, his real name is James Fraser.

They marry and have sex for the first time, but Claire finds herself tormented by thoughts of Frank, who she knows must be worried sick over her. After a near-disastrous escape attempt in which Captain Randall nearly rapes her, she returns to life in Castle Leoch and grows closer to Jamie. However, due to local superstitions and the jealousy of others, she and a fellow healer named Geilis Duncan are accused of witchcraft and sentenced to public whipping. Naturally, Jamie comes to their rescue and they ride out into the wilderness. Claire realizes that Geilis is also from the future when she notices a vaccination scar.

Once safely away, Claire finally tells Jamie the truth and he decides to return her to Craigh na Dun. However, she cannot bring herself to leave and decides to stay with Jamie, realizing that her love of him is greater than her love of Frank. Jamie then returns with her to Lallybroch where he secretly reclaims his role as Laird. However, things turns bad when Jamie is betrayed by one of his own to Captain Randall who sentences him to hang for his Jacobite activities. Claire and her kinsmen organize a rescue, during which Captain Randall is killed. She and Jamie escape to a monastery in France to contemplate the future, and Claire learns that she is pregnant with their first child…

The novel remains a favorite amongst fantasy and historical fiction fans alike because of its interweaving of real history with fantasy and romance. As the series goes on, Gabaldon dabbled in further examples of crossing historical fiction with romance, with Claire going back and forth through time and completing the loop her travel has initiated. In this way, her travels are shown to be a paradoxical phenomena, creating the very future she comes from and necessitating that she go into the past again.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus:
Orson Scott Card, the same writer who created the Ender’s Game series, released this complicated tale of time travel and historical tampering in 1996. As the first in the Pastwatch Series, this installment deals with the most controversial historical figure and subject in history: Christopher Columbus and European contact with the Americas in the late 15th/early 16th century.

The book contains two interwoven narratives which converge towards the end of the book. The first opens in the late 15th century where Christopher Columbus is preparing for his long voyage across the ocean, while the second takes place in the future where the planet is doomed and civilization is on the verge of collapse. Entering into this is a group of researchers who haves developed a machine called the “TruSite II” which gives them the ability to view and record events in the past.

In time, their work leads to the development of time travel and the group decides to send back agents to alter the past. Focusing on Columbus, who’s actions led to centuries of genocide and exploitation, the group concludes that if he did not arrive in the New World, history and technological development would have proceeded more slowly and evenly, leading to a better future.

However, the team soon realizes that they are not the first to tamper with history. In an alternate timeline, Columbus was never obsessed with going westward and instead led a final crusade to Constantinople. Meanwhile, the Aztec Empire fell and was replaced by an iron-wielding Tlaxcalans, who went on to establish a more modern, centralized state in central Mexico and pushed their influence far beyond the old Aztec borders.

When Portuguese traders finally did make contact with the New World, the Tlaxcalans kidnapped them and acquired the knowledge of firearms. Though exposure to smallpox did have a dire effect, the sparse amount of contact did not lead to full-scale pandemics and the Tlaxcalans were able to develop a natural immunity. By the 16th century, the Tlaxcalans used their knowledge of improved ship technology to sail to Europe and conquer it at a time when it was politically fragmented.

This timeline led to the development of its own Pastwatch, to whom the conquest of Europe by the Tlaxcalans was seen as the most dire event in history. As such, they traveled back in time and fed the ambitions of Columbus in order to act as a buffer against this conquest. However, their own tampering produced an equally dire, but opposite outcome: the conquest of the New World by Europe. With this in mind, the main characters begin to strive for a balance, a timeline in which neither hemisphere was conquered and both Europeans and Native Americans could acheive contact peacefully.

Ultimately, they succeed and Columbus’ wife, one of the agents, reveals to him near the end of his days what would have happened had they not intervened. After learning of the terrible events he would have had a hand in, Columbus weeps for days. His name and his title have thus been “redeemed”. By the end, Card gives readers a glimpse of a 20th century that resulted from this balance, a harmonious world where East and West came together for trade and mutual benefit, leading to the creation of an advanced utopia. In this future, scientist unearth the skulls and the time capsule of the three agents and hear their warnings about possible futures.

As a historian, this book appealed to me on many levels. Not only did it address one of the most contentious and controversial issues in all of recorded history, it also dealt a reality that is rarely ever addressed. For centuries, historians and social scientists have been trying to decipher why modernity turned out the way it did, with certain civilizations superseding others and colonizing the known world. Many modern scholars remain trapped in the past on this subject, with several still subscribing to outdated and even racist theories of “culture” and ideology being the cause.

However, it should be plain to anyone who looks closely enough that one pivotal event, aside from various geographical and environmental factors, was the real cause of this disparity. This was none other than the discovery” of the New World in the late 15th century by the Spanish. Thanks mainly to smallpox, Europeans managed to embark on a  program of conquest, genocide and plunder and would meet minimal resistance in the process.

And thanks to the introduction of countless tons of gold, silver, pearls, cotton, coffee, tobacco, spices, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, chocolate, vanilla, pumpkins, beans, rice, squash, and more to the European economy and diet, Europeans grew fat and rich and shot ahead of their previously more advanced neighbors (the Arabs, Indians and Chines). This fueled further expansion into Africa and Asia, and also led to the discovery of more resources that would fuel industrial growth – i.e. the Americas vast stores of coal, minerals, and oil.

By examining the what ifs of history, and positing that another outcome was possible and just as undesirable, Scott creates a narrative that is not only realistic and deals with extremely relevant subject matter, but also instructive in that it demonstrates the importance of cooperation over conquest, trade and understanding over genocide and assimilation. I often wonder what would have happened had Columbus died of a heart-attack before venturing, or his ships had been destroyed like Cortez’s. Better yet, if Cortez had been killed in battle and never made it back to Cuba. That man was a royal douche!

Timeline:
A tale of historians who travel back in time, Timeline, released in 1999, contains Michael Crichton’s usual combination of fact, action and adventure. In this case, he combines aspects of real history and questions about quantum and multiverse theory with scenes of medieval warfare, as told through the eyes of modern historians who travel back to the time which they are studying.

After a series of strange events in the Arizona desert and an archaeological site in France, the main characters –  a group of medieval historians – are summoned to the headquarters of ITC (the company that is funding their research) and learn of a startling fact. After building a quantum time machine, one of their professors used it to travel back to the 14th century. Apparently, he went to the very site they have had under excavation, but then failed to return.

The researchers  – Chris, Kate, and Marek – all agree to go back and search for him, dressing in period costume and taking a security detail with them. However, they are attacked as soon as they arrive in the past, which leads to an accident in which a grenade rolls through the space-time aperture and their time machine is destroyed on the other side. What’s more, the local lord takes Kate and Marek prisoner.

Alone and cut off from the future, Chris heads for Castelgard to confront the Lord Oliver and meets a boy along the way. Apparently, this “boy” is actually the Lady Claire in disguise, a woman who has escaped from  Lord Oliver’s custody. Once they reach the castle, Chris is taken and he and Marek are challenged to a joust, which they prove victorious in. However, this leads Lord Oliver to order their deaths, and they are forced to plan their escape.

It is also revealed that Lord Oliver is holding Johnston in his fortress at La Roque, mainly because he believes Johnston knows of a secret passage that is its only weakness. With an army led by the infamous French mercenary Arnaut de Cervole approaching, he is desperately preparing for the siege. Johnston helps Oliver develops Greek Fire, even though he knows Oliver is meant to lose the siege, while Chris, Marek, Kate and Claire use clues from the future to search for the secret passage themselves.

Chris also realizes that someone else from the future is tracking them, a knight named Robert de Ker. Eventually he is revealed to be Rob Deckard, an ITC employee and former marine driven insane from too many time trips. This is apparently a consequence of traveling to different possible universes, which can result in the displacement and mismatching of different cells in the body. In Rob’s case, it is his neurons which have become mismatched, causing him to have psychotic episodes.

In the end, they all break into La Roque and do battle with hum and Deckard, killing them both. Back home, the ITC manage to finally repair the device and try to bring the team home. However, Marek chooses to stay behind with Claire, having realized that he always wanted to live in the past. When the others return and realize that the company head, Mr. Doniger, has no regard for human life and plans to use the time travel device commercially, they send him to 1348, the year of the first Black Death outbreak. In the end, Chris and Kate get married and find the graves of Marek and Claire in France marked with a familiar epitaph.

The Time Travellers Wife:
A slight twist on the classic story of time travel, this 2003 novel by Audrey Niffenegger explores the idea of time-travel as a genetic disorder. Inspired by Niffenegger’s own frustration with relationships, this novel is essentially a metaphor for the trials of true love. Classified as both science fiction and romance, the story is based on the themes of love, loss, free will, and communication, it also contains some rather interesting commentaries on existence and the nature of memory and experience.

As the title suggests, the story focuses on the life a man who suffers from Chrono-Displacement, a condition which causes him to involuntarily travel through time, and his wife, who is forced to endure stretches of time without him. The man, Henry, has been time-traveling for most of his life and apparently has no control over the process, though his destinations are largely places and times related to his own history. The trips are apparently tied to stress and other stimuli, making them unpredictable and undesirable.

His own timeline naturally converges with that of his wife, Clare, but at seemingly random points in her life. In each visit, their ages are mismatched, as are their memories of the other. Whereas Clare meets him in a natural chronological order, the visits are mismatched from Henry’s perspective. On one of his early visits (from her perspective), Henry gives her a list of the dates he will appear and she writes them in a diary. During another visit, he inadvertently reveals that they will be married in the future.

Once married, Clare has trouble bringing a pregnancy to term because of the genetic anomaly Henry may presumably be passing on to the fetus. After six miscarriages, Henry wishes to save Clare further pain and has a vasectomy. However a version of Henry from the past visits Clare one night and they make love, causing her to become pregnant with their daughter Alba. She too is diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement, but appears to have some control over it. Before she is born, Henry travels to the future and meets her when she is ten years old and learns that he died when she was five.

When he is 43, during what is to be his last year of life, Henry experiences a time slip which deposits him in a Chicago parking garage on a frigid winter night. Unable to find shelter and clothes (he always appears naked during a time slip) he suffers hypothermia and frostbite and has to have his feet amputated when he returns to the present. Henry and Clare both know that he will not survive many more time jumps. Then, on New Year’s Eve, 2006, Henry time travels into the middle of the Michigan woods in 1984 and is accidentally shot by Clare’s brother, a scene which was foreshadowed earlier in the novel. Henry returns to the present and dies in Clare’s arms.

Clare is devastated by Henry’s death and later finds a letter from Henry asking her to “stop waiting” for him, but which describes a moment in her future when she will see him again. The last scene in the book takes place when Clare is 82 years old and Henry is 43. She has been waiting for Henry, as she has done most of her life, and when he arrives they clasp each other for what may or may not be the last time. The story ends with it being implied that Clare dies in Henry’s arms, as he did in hers before.

Through the use of a non-linear narrative, Neffinenegger was able to effectively demonstrate the sense of yearning and loss that so often accompanies true love. In addition, her use as separate narratives was also an effective tool in that it demonstrated how different people can be in different places in a relationship at different times. Ultimately, every instance that Clare and Henry spend together is made sacred by the fact that neither of them knows how long they will have together, which illustrates beautifully the temporal nature of love itself. Or to put it another way, that story’s a sad, sad tale! Go hug the one you love right now! I’ll wait…

Summary:
And that’s all I got for now and my brain is fried from all this writing. Hence, I think I will leave the summaries and commentaries for another time (was that a pun? That sounded like a pun!) Besides, with this many examples, does anything really need to be said in the way of conclusions? Of course it does! The more examples you have, the more complex the patterns become. So expect some more on my time-travel series, coming real soon!

The Post-Apocalypse in Sci-Fi (Part III)

The Book of Eli:
This 2010 movie – starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and directed by the Hughes Brothers – takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States thirty years after nuclear war has left it a scarred and desolate place. Enter into this a wandering nomad named Eli (Washington), a man who is wandering to the West Coast with a mysterious book that “a voice” commanded him to take there. As he travels, the importance of his task is made clear, as the history of the post-war world he is making his way through.

Along the way, he encounters a town run by Carnegie (Oldman), a  man who dreams of building more towns and controlling their residents through the power of a (again) a mysterious book he has heard about. His men are busy at work, searching the surrounding countryside for this book, but so far to no avail. When Eli arrived in town, Carnegie forces him to stay, as he is the only other literate person he has ever encountered.

Ultimately, it is learned that Eli has the book Carnegie is seeking, and that this book is none other than the Bible. He escapes from town and is pursued by Carnegie’s daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis). He explains to her that the Bible he carries is the last remaining copy since all others were destroyed after the nuclear holocaust. He was guided to it by a voice, he says, and has since been making his way across the country, guided by his newfound faith.

Eventually, Carnegie catches up to them, mortally wounds Eli and takes the Bible for himself. However, Solara manages to escape from his custody and begins transporting Eli to San Francisco so he can complete his mission. They come at last to Alcatraz where a group of survivors has been holding up under the watch of the curator named Lombardi (Malcolm McDowell). When Solara reveals they have a copy of the King James Bible, they let them in. Eli, who for the first time is revealed to be blind, begins reciting the Bible from memory.

Back in Carnegie’s town, he manages to unlock the Bible and is horrified to see it is in braille and that his wounds will soon kill him. Meanwhile, Eli dies in Alacatraz just as the printing press there begins printing copies of the Bible and the curator puts the original on a shelf next to the Torah, Tanakh and the Qur’an. Solara decides to leave and head back home, taking with her Eli’s possessions in the hopes of making a difference. She, like him, has become a wanderer guided by faith.

Granted, the message of this movie might seem a little over the top. I, for one, can’t imagine why post-apocalyptic people would destroy Bibles. If anything, I would think they would take their frustrations out on science and turn to religion for solace. Still, the point is made very clear through several key acts of symbolism. Eli, though blind, is guided by faith and it keeps him alive. And though he is robbed of the Book, the true source of it’s power, which Carnegie wants to abuse for the sake of power, lies in Eli’s own self. Really, the message couldn’t be more clear, and yet it is demonstrated with a degree of subtly that one would not ordinarily expect from a movie with a religious message. But it’s not so much about the Bible itself, it’s about maintaining hope and faith in a world where these things have been abandoned.

A Canticle for Leibowitz:
Published in 1960 and written by Walter M. Miller Jr., this novel is a considered a classic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi by genre fans and literary critics alike. Renowned for its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state, this book has generated a significant body of scholarly research, yet it was strangely the only novel Miller wrote in his lifetime.

Inspired by Miller’s own participation in the bombing of the monastery  at Monte Cassino in WWII, the story takes place in a Catholic Monastery in the South-Western US after a nuclear war – known as the “Flame Deluge” – takes place. Known as the Albertian order, the monks who inhabit this monastery are dedicated to preserving humanity’s scientific knowledge and rebuilding civilization over the course of thousands years.

The story opens roughly 600 years after the war takes place, in a time when science and technology, even the idea of literacy itself, has been almost wiped out by a campaign known as “Simplification”. At around the same time, a Jewish electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz, who worked for the military, converted to Christianity and founded the Albertan order.

After generations of hiding and smuggling books to safety within the orders walls, Leibowitz was betrayed and sacrificed by “Simpletons”, at which time the Catholic Church had him sainted and ordered the monastery beatified. Centuries after his death, the abbey is still preserving “Memorabilia”, the collected writings that have survived the Flame Deluge and the Simplification, in the hope that they will help future generations reclaim forgotten science. The story is structured in three parts titled: “Fiat Homo”, “Fiat Lux”, and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let There Be Man, Let There Be Light, Thy Will Be Done), with each part comprising six centuries each.

In Fiat Homo, which takes place in the 26th century, events revolve around a young novice who while on a Vigil, finds his way to a bomb shelter with the help of a mysterious Wanderer. The discovery triggers an uproar at the Monastery, as it seems that the shelter contains relics belonging to Leibowitz himself. Some fear the sensationalism triggered by the discovery will hurt Leibowiz’s canonization, which is still being debated. After many years, the canonization is given the green light and Francis is sent to New Rome to represent the order at the Mass. Unfortunately, he is murdered in the wilderness and is buried, by none other than the Wanderer himself!

Fiat Lux opens up  in the 32nd century, 6 centuries later, when the New Dark Age is coming to an end and a New Renaissance beginning. At this point in time, the Abbey is coming into conflict with the city-state of Texarkana, a metropolis’ who’s growth was hinted at in the last pages of Fiat Homo. The mayor, Hannegan, is essentially an upstart dictator who intends to become ruler of the entire region my manipulating alliances and gaining access to the Abbey’s own stores of knowledge. In the end, Hannegan’s intentions to occupy the abbey and make war on his neighbours leads to a schism whereby Hannegan is excommunicated by the Pope and he declares loyalty to the Pope to be a crime in his domain.

In the last part, which takes place towards the end of the 38th century, humanity has once again returned to a state of advanced technology, complete with nuclear power, weapons, and even starships and extra-solar colonies. As a state of cold war sets in between the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition, the Order begins to enact a contingency plan known as “Quo Peregrinatur Grex Pastor Secum” (“Whither Wanders the Flock, the Shepherd is with Them”). As the nuclear bombs begin to fall, members of the Order board a starship and launch for deep space. With Earth about to succumb to nuclear war yet again, the Order is heading out to ensure that both humanity and its knowledge survives.

The stories central themes, which include the rivalries between church and state and the cyclical nature of history, are what make it such a memorable and enduring classic. Even though it is set in a fictitious future, it is loaded with allegories that connect it to the past. Nuclear war in the near future is the fall of Rome, the ensuing New Dark Ages a reiteration of the last, and the final nuclear holocaust between the Coalition and Confederacy represented contemporary fears of nuclear Armageddon.

By the Waters of Babylon:
Also known as “The Place of the Gods”, this short story was originally published in 1937 by Stephen Vincent Benét. Taking place in a future where industrial civilization has been destroyed, the story is narrated by a young man named John, a son of a priest who’s people live in the hills. In his day and age, John’s people believe that past civilizations were in fact Gods. There homes are considered hallowed ground and only priests are permitted to handle metal artifacts taken from them.

Eventually, John decides that he will go to the Place of the Gods, an abandoned city that was once part of industrial civilization. In order to gain his father’s approval, he claims he is going on a spiritual quest, but keeps the intended location a secret. John then journeys through the forest for eight days and crosses the river Ou-dis-sun to make his way to the sacred place.

Once he gets to the Place of the Gods, he finds abandoned buildings, statues and countless indications that the “Gods” were in fact human. When he finally finds the remains of a dead person in an apartment, he comes to realize the truth. The Gods were in fact humans whose power overwhelmed their better judgement, hence they fell.

Upon returning to his tribe, John tells his father of the place called “New York”. It is at this point that it is made clear that the “hill people” live in the Appalachians, and the river he crossed was the Hudson. In the end, his father warns him that recounting the experience to the other tribe members will have destructive consequences. The truth, he claims, can be bad if not conveyed discretely and in small doses. The story ends with John promising that once he becomes the head priest, “We must build again.”

Farnham’s Freehold:
Based on his own experiences in building a fallout Shelter, this 1964 novel by Heinlein involves a family that is transported to the future after a nuclear explosion puts a dent in their reality. In addition to the thematic elements of nuclear war and time travel, the book also contains some rather interesting commentary on race relations and segregation in the United States at the time.

The story begins with the Farnham family holding a bridge game in their home, which is attended by Hugh, his alcoholic wife Grace, their son and daughter (Duke and Karen), her friend Barbara, and a black domestic servant named Joe. After they are alerted to the fact that nuclear war is commencing, the people rush to the bomb shelter and wait for it to pass. When it seems that the bombs have stopped falling and their oxygen is running low, they walk out and begin to investigate.

What they find is that they’ve been transported to Africa, where an advanced civilization now exists that uses white people as slaves. Initially, they suspected they had been sent into an alternate dimension, but quickly realize that they are in the future. They are spared because Joe, their black domestic servant, is able to communicate to their captors in French.

In time, Hugh and Barbara agree to take part in a time-travel experiment in exchange for their freedom. They are sent back to their own time, where they escape from the bomb shelter just as the bombs begin to fall. However, they soon realize that they are not in their own time, but an alternate dimension where things are just slightly different. They survive the war and agree to spend the rest of their lives trying to prevent the future they saw from coming to pass.

The Quiet Earth:
Originally a novel written by New Zealand author Craig Harrison in 1981, this story went on to inspire the loosely-adapted film of the same name which was released four years later. In both cases, the story revolves around a small group of survivors who awaken to find that the world is now devoid of humans and most other forms of life, and that time itself seems to have stopped.

The story begins with John Hobson, a geneticist who was experimenting with using radiation to activate dormant genes, which was meant to have an accelerating effect on human evolution. He wakes up in a hotel room from a nightmare where he was falling, only to find all clocks stopped at 6:12. Upon leaving the hotel, he finds that all clocks have stopped at 6:12 and that everyone appears to have simply vanished. He dubs this phenomena “The Effect” and begins looking for other survivors.

His journey takes him back to his research facility where he finds the corpse of his partner, Perrin, inside the radiation chamber. Retrieving Perrin’s locked box of papers and grabbing some weapons and supplies he sets out for Wellington. Eventually, he finds someone, a Māori lance-corporal named Apirana Maketuin, who agrees to accompany him. They eventually reach the capitol and settle in, hoping to find other survivors and run tests on “The Effect”.

Things deteriorate before long, as Hobson begins to worry that Api might be a psychopath due to his wartime experiences in Vietnam (he finds pictures of him posing with the mutilated corpses of Viet Cong). His plans to kill him with sleeping pills are interrupted when they accidentally run over a woman in the street while joyriding. They return to the hotel and make her comfortable but know she will inevitably die. This leads to a further breakdown between Hobson and Api and they fight. Api dies in the confrontation after apparently giving up.

Finally, Hobson breaks open Perrin’s box and realizes that his partner had him under surveillance because he considered him unstable. Hobson comes to the conclusion that the Effect was his doing since the the project cause the unraveling of animal DNA, and hence only those with the dormant gene pair would be spared. It is at this time that Hobson begins to have flashbacks from his last days at the facility, during which time he sabotaged the machine because of growing misgiving about the project and mistrust for his Perrin’s motivations. It was this sabotage that caused the Effect, and the reason Hobson slept through it was because he took what he thought was a fatal dose of sleeping pills.

Maddened with grief and guilt, Hobson jumps from the window and begins to fall to his death. But then, he wakes up in the same hotel room he found himself in at the beginning, recalling the same dream where he was falling. He checks his watch and it says it’s 6:12… Spooky! Though it bears a strong resemblance to such works as I Am Legend, The Quiet Earth went beyond in that it chose to focus on the themes of perception, culpability, and alternate states of consciousness. All throughout the book, it is not quite clear if Hobson is dreaming, in an alternate dimension, the last man on Earth who is responsible for the death of countless life forms, or just plain crazy.

Shadow on the Hearth:
This post-apocalyptic novel, which was the first novel to be released by Canadian sci-fi author Judith Merril (1950), takes place a week after nuclear bombs have devastated, but not destroyed, civilization as we know it. The plot revolves around a mother named Gladys Mitchell and her two daughters – Barbara and Ginny, who are fifteen and five years of age – as they struggle to deal with worsening conditions and a system that is quickly becoming an abusive dictatorship.

For starters, all civil authority has broken down in the wake of the war and been replaced by the Security Office, a form of emergency services that exercises all power. Gladys’ contact with the services is the local “emergency squadman”, Jim Turner, a neighbor who begins to display a rather creepy fascination with Gladys along with a desire to turn the emergency to his own advantage.

Similarly, the difficult situation breeds suspicion and intolerance on behalf of the authorities who begins see enemies everywhere. The Mitchell’s maid, a woman named Veda, comes under suspicion when it is learned that she was off sick during the time of the attack. Much the same is true of Gladys’ old science teacher, who predicted that nuclear war would be inevitable and now fears the paranoid Security Office might suspect him.

Meanwhile, Gladys tried to maintain a disposition of stoic calm, mainly because she believes its her role as a mother to act as though everything is fine. While her intentions are good, she’s slow to admit that Turner and the authorities are corrupt, that their situation is bleak, or that she might need to manipulate certain people to get her way. But in the end, she is willing to go to great lengths to protect her family, from both external threats and the threat of dissolution.

In several key aspects, this story demonstrates some of the overriding themes and feelings that were present during the early cold war. We have the specter of war and dictatorship, the focus on the single-parent family, the idea of domesticity and sexism, and the affirmation of the mother figure who will do whatever it takes, even if she seems naive and silly, to keep her family safe and secure. While it might seem dated by modern standards, it is nevertheless a fitting and accurate portrayal of life in the 1950’s and the likelihood of what would come of it if the bombs started to fall.

The Time Machine:
Last, but not least, we have the story that has made my lists in one form or another on numerous occasions. In addition to being an example of utopian and dystopian fiction, The Time Machine is also a fitting example of post-apocalyptic science fiction. This is part of what makes H.G. Wells novella a timeless classic, in that it transcends or jumps between genres and can therefore be read from a number of different perspectives.

In this respect, the Time Traveler’s trip to the distant future, where the world has degenerated into a two-tier structure between the monstrous Morlocks and the stagnant but beautiful Eloi, can be seen as an example of post-apocalyptic society. What’s more, their respective degeneration is seen as the result of humanity’s obsession with class distinction, the masters becoming lazy and ineffectual while the workers have become cannibalistic and brutish.

Another apocalyptic element in the story comes towards the end when the Time Travelers recovers his machine from the Morlocks and travels another 30 million years into the future. Once there, he sees some of the last living things on a dying Earth, a red landscape similar to that of Mars which is covered by lichenous vegetation and crab-like creatures wandering across blood-red beaches. As he jumps further, he sees the Earth’s rotation gradually cease and the sun die out, the world falling silent and freezing as the last organisms die off.

In a deleted section of text, which H.G. Wells apparently included in the original serial version at the behest of his editor, but cut from the novel once it was published. Here, Wells demonstrated “the ultimate degeneracy” of man by having the Time Traveler escape from the Morlocks and jump once more before traveling 300 millions years into the future. Here, he found an unrecognizable Earth populated by furry, hopping herbivores, which he interpreted to be the descendents of the Morlocks and Eloi. Thus, in addition to first losing the instincts that defined humanity at its greatest, the Morlocks and Eloi, themselves descended from humans, even reverted to an earlier state of evolution in the end.

Though not a post-apocalyptic tale in the strictest sense, this story does contain the necessary elements of such a story. You have humanity degenerating as a result of cataclysmic events or its own inherent weaknesses, civilization as we know it being destroyed or disappearing, and even the world itself coming to an end.

Final Word:
And that’s all I got for post-apocalyptic sci-if. Sure, there are countless more examples that could be included, but three lists is enough for me and I’m neck deep in other concepts that are vying for page time. In the coming weeks, expect more news on technology, space exploration, the upcoming anthology, Data Miners (set for release in August) and plenty of assorted tidbits on stuff that relates to the world of science and science fiction. Take care all and see you again soon!

Utopian Science Fiction

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

map of Utopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!