Posts Tagged ‘dystopia’

Making sense of it all…

July 29, 2017

I occasionally have moments of existential doubt about all the reading I do; I realise I could be spending large chunks of my life doing something else – though I have no real idea what – and I realise that one day all the carefully garnered knowledge and developed opinions will be no more than fading and ultimately extinguished electrical impulses in a no longer-existing brain… which is, I suppose, the ultimate fate of all human existence. Angst-inducing, nonetheless.

So what is it all for?

I’m a pretty fortunate human being, comfortable and retired, living in a peaceful part of the world at the moment. And I see all sorts of mayhem going on all around me, from the obscenity of warfare such as in Yemen and Syria, to the effects both current and feared of our species’ wrecking of the planet’s climate and environment; I see the rank stupidity of politicians and businessmen the world over, and the manipulation of ordinary people by selfish elites pursuing power and money. In short, something verging on dystopia.

I also look around and see marvels of human achievement: the exploration of space and the landings on the moon are my favourite examples, along with the achievements of writers like Shakespeare, the music of Bach and the paintings of Turner. I see the stunning beauty of the planet. And I find myself thinking, how have we managed to make such a pig’s ear of so much? does it always and inevitable have to be like this? Is this what the Fall was about – knowledge of good and evil?

And this is where my reading seems to come in: I’m trying to understand how we have, over time, sold our souls to the pursuit of money, riches, material goods; how we have allowed small cliques to take power, take possession of resources, oppress and kill others. And at the same time we have praised sages, wise men and religious leaders who have exhorted us to do the opposite, and not done it…

If we ignore the past, we are condemned to repeat it, said someone once. That’s it for the factual side of things. Now for the imagination:

Writers of fiction imagine things. They imagine and describe people, their world, their behaviours. And they help us to understand why people behave in the ways they do as individuals. Maybe we end up wiser at the end of a novel or a play. Writers of science fiction, and utopian fiction, go even further: they attempt to imagine and to bring to life how things might possibly be different, better.

Very often, they merely imagine the blissful future state, however, but are not able to imagine the transition from now to then, from our present to their future. Sometimes their future may seem rather dubious: who would want to live in Huxley‘s Brave New World? (Answer: quite a few of my sixth form students, at various times in the past…) Sometimes writers do try to move us from now to the future, and the way there is not smooth, is sometimes bloody.

And how do we know we will like that future? and if we do, how would we ensure it stayed like that? Given that there are so many different kinds of people, what do we do with those that don’t fit, or don’t want to fit? In Huxley’s world, the lucky ones were exiled to an island and closely supervised to see that they did not contaminate the rest of the utopia with any mischief. In Marge Piercy‘s Woman on the Edge of Time, misfits were put to death…

So I’m doing all this reading and thinking in order to try and work out how the world might be better in future, how the human race might live peaceably with itself and the rest of the species we share a planet with… in a future I’m not going to be a part of. But, it seems to me, it’s in the nature of human beings to want to think, explore, invent, discover, and through my reading I’m merely taking part in that enterprise; through this blog I’m sometimes sharing where I’ve got to with my journey; I don’t expect to make any earth-shattering discoveries, but I can remain hopeful. Is that enough? If I hadn’t done all the reading I’ve done over the last fifty years or so, I’m sure I’d have quite a few spare years, but I wouldn’t be me, and would I do anything more useful with that time?

To be continued, I suspect…


Dystopia time again

March 28, 2017

51VHe12RxJL._AC_US218_Margaret Atwood’s novel has been clearly on the radar ever since it was first published, but is making waves again since the election of D Trump in the US, and is due to appear as a TV series next month. I’ve also spent a year or so working on a study guide to the text, for sixth form students, which has recently been published. There was a film made by the German director Volker Schlondorff in 1990, but it’s a film that’s better passed over because of its gratuitous change to the ending of the novel.

So I’ve been reflecting on twentieth century dystopias more generally; Atwood’s novel for me sits alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and the three novels all have pertinent things to say about the current state of the world, from radically different perspectives. To many of us, the present situation in the UK and in the US verges on the alarming – or am I being too cautious? – and revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden among others only increase our feelings of paranoia.

51OG8UQrofL._AC_US218_Orwell’s new-found relevance is obvious, with the huge growth in surveillance, both by the state and other organisms, of all citizens, made easier by the development of the web and mobile technology, and justified by authority in the name of security against terrorist threats. Smart TVs now do perform the functions of Big Brother’s telescreens, your mobile will reveal your location, and everything you do online is likely to be logged somewhere… and yet the state does not need to stamp out dissidence in the way Orwell imagined – a boot stamping on a human face, forever – because Huxley’s vision coincides, and has made such violence redundant.

51VS8inU1TL._AC_US218_Huxley’s future is even more sinister, in many ways, because based on hedonism: offer humans pleasure, through sex and drugs, and you can render them passive slaves, incapable of rebellion because they are totally uninterested. It’s hard not to feel that in some ways and in some places this is already happening: alcohol is cheap, recreational drugs are available, sex is a commodity to many, and there are so many shiny shiny consumer durables to distract and use up one’s money, before being thrown away and replaced – ending is better than mending! One learns that there are so many people who cannot conceive of being without their mobile phone or online 24/7, and who are totally uninterested in any security threat or monitoring of their lives via these desirable devices.

The fact that I can still say that Atwood offers a gender perspective on current dystopian trends feels patronising at the same time as its truth underlines the still-existing inequalities in what some would have us believe is a post-feminist age. Perhaps her vision is sharper viewed from the USA where the fundamentalist Christian right wing is still hell-bent on restricting access to reproductive rights and maternity leave; some of the language used and the proposals made by various public figures recently have been truly shocking. In Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, after the right-wing coup, women have been openly objectified and commoditised, under the guise of freeing them from the worst aspects of their lives now. And, of course, it’s men who have been kind enough to do this. All in the name of religion, too. It will be interesting to see what aspects are foregrounded in the TV series; Atwood said at the time of the novel’s publication that she wrote of nothing that wasn’t either happening or possible already – back in 1985. She didn’t let men, religion or feminists off the hook…

It’s worth comparing how the three novels are differently presented, too: Orwell offers a traditional narrative, but filtered brilliantly through his invented language Newspeak, which shapes the alternative facts for the regime, Huxley offers a non-linear, modernist narrative, jigsaw-like in places, but Atwood is probably most original and experimental. Offred’s narrative is her mind, her consciousness and her emotions, fragmented like her life was before, and is in the new times; it has both a dream-like (nightmare-like?) quality as well as an immediacy which bring us up short. Atwood allows her to revel in words and language, to ask sharp questions, and to shock us…

Here we have three very powerful novels, more relevant today than they have been for some years: we should read, reflect and let them inform our conversations and actions. Here’s your essay title:

Which of these three novels do you think is most relevant to 2017? Justify your choice.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451

November 23, 2014

9780007491568The temperature at which paper catches fire (apparently). This dystopia from the days of the Cold War (1954) is one of the oldest in my library: I’ve had it so long, I noticed the price on the back cover is in real money (3/6 if that makes any sense)… It starts out from a single idea, that the written word is dangerous because it confuses and divides people, causes disagreements – so it’s outlawed. The hero is a fireman, except that in this dystopian USA, firemen go around burning down the houses of people found in possession of books.

Ironically, it’s a book. The film of the novel, made by the French director François Truffaut, is better, because it does just that: there is no written word or letter in the film; titles and credits are recited.

Utopias and dystopias are notorious for their didacticism, and this one is no different: various characters preach to the reader, telling us how certain situations came about and what must be done; these parts are as annoying as some of the most difficult bits of Orwell‘s Nineteen Eightyfour. I don’t know if it is possible to get around such excesses: the author has a point that just has to be made, no matter the effect on the story. And Bradbury is capable of some very lyrical and descriptive writing, with his nostalgia for a mythical golden age in the past where everything was just hunky-dory.

It’s a trope of his – and a very relevant and well-presented one, not just in this novel, either – that in modern society people are increasingly alienated from themselves and each other: conversations are not ‘real’, everyone is diverted constantly by noise, advertising and endless, meaningless, trivial entertainment. People who hang on to the past and its ways are dangerous; Bradbury’s short story The Pedestrian is probably the most chilling example of this.

And yet, real analysis is sadly lacking. Bradbury seems to hint at this alienation being some sort of communist plot – he was writing in 1954 – but this doesn’t wash at all nowadays: I would argue that we see ever more of this alienation and triviality around us nowadays, and that it is a logical and expected facet of late capitalist and consumerist society: if you divide people from each other, you can sell them more stuff; if you fill their heads with trivia then they will consume more in a desperate search for meaning and fulfilment…

The novel ends with the start of a nuclear war, and the only vague hope Bradbury can offer us is a group of misfits hidden in the wilds who have memorised sections of books in the hope of being able to pass them on to future generations. It’s not as grim as the boot stamping on a human face forever, but it’s hardly any more hopeful. In the end, the concept is rather more powerful than the execution; coming back to this novel after a very long time, I was somewhat disappointed.

After the Apocalypse…

August 3, 2014

Thinking about utopias and dystopias in recent posts reminded me of post-apocalyptic scenarios. It might seem as if that particular strand in literature must be a relatively recent one, in that only since the invention of nuclear weapons have we been forced to accept the possibility that we could annihilate ourselves as a species.

But no: back to Mary Shelley, author of the more famous Frankenstein. She wrote a novel which I think I prefer, because it’s rather less frantic and over-written than the former – The Last Man, which describes just that situation: a plague gradually kills off all human beings save one, who travels through the empty and deserted remains of civilisation, reflecting on his fate. It’s an astonishing effort of the imagination, and deserves a wider audience. Early in the twentieth century, in The Purple Cloud, M P Shiel imagines a similar series of events.

Perhaps because we are such a social species, writers have striven to imagine the opposite. Perhaps because we are a warlike species, they have sought to imagine us ultimately defeated, by greater forces than ourselves – H G Wells could have had us completely annihilated by the Martians in The War of the Worlds, but chose not to, developing a different message for the human race by pointing out the fragility of any organism when faced by unknown microbes or bacteria.

And then there’s the fantasy element, as we read any of these novels: what would I do in that situation? What if I had the world to myself, all its resources and riches: how would I play with them all? Where would I go? Shelley’s hero wanders through the beautiful places of Europe…

John Wyndham imagines a combination of elements dealing the death-blow to humanity in The Day of the Triffids: another warning about humans over-reaching themselves. Deadly plants which can communicate with each other wipe out the blinded human race, except for a small enclave which retreats to the Isle of Wight, there to exercise constant vigilance against the dreaded weeds.

One of my favourite tales is Earth Abides, by George Stewart: a storyfrom the 1950s again sees humans almost wiped out by a plague; there are some survivors, but what interests Stewart is how they would struggle to survive in small numbers, with their limited and compartmentalised knowledge, how much they would need to re-discover and re-invent in order to sustain civilisation, and how inevitably with the passage of time and generations, so much knowledge and ability would be lost, and the gradual sinking into primitiveness and savagery would be hard to avoid. It’s a poignant tale, perhaps somewhat dated now, but good for making one think about the fragile veneer of civilisation…

I think the best, and most harrowing and haunting, at least to my knowledge, has to be Walter M Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s set in a remote, post nuclear holocaust future where a bastardised version of the Catholic Church strives to preserve the knowledge of the past in its monasteries; slowly and painfully, civilisation is re-established, but only for humans to gradually and inevitably make the same ghastly mistakes all over again: nuclear weapons are re-invented and wreak their horrific toll once more. Such a pessimistic vision of the species and its history could only have come out of the 1960s, with the threat of annihilation hanging over the world. It’s beautifully written, painfully described, and leaves us with no hope.

But now, I’m off to re-read a novel from the 1990s: A Scientific Romance, by Ronald Wright, in which a Wellsian time machine maroons a traveller in a post-apocalyptic Britain…



July 24, 2014

Dystopias are the other side, and seem to be a more recent development, perhaps reflecting our recently-developed ability to destroy the planet and exterminate our own species entirely – a whole subset of the genre looks at post-nuclear war scenarios – and they have a rather different purpose from utopias: they are written to warn…

To create a dystopia, a writer extrapolates from some currently trend or possibility. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was usually the danger of planet-wide atomic war; in the 1970s and 1980s, ecological disasters and overpopulation emerged as themes. Extrapolation accepts that x is currently happening, and imagines what the situation might be like in y years if nothing changes in human behaviour… there are 7+ billion people on the planet now, what happens when there are far more? Global warming is having x effect now, what will the situation be like in y years if nothing is done to address the issue?

Clearly, a dystopia is easier to imagine, and to write, with none of the difficulty of imagining how we might get from our now to the perfection of a utopia, for instance; you just carry on regardless…

The value of writers writing to warn as well as entertain, using imagination, is important: scientists and experts can write official reports warning of x disaster if y is not done at once, or over the next z years, but a reader’s response and reaction to fiction is rather different; dry and dusty officialspeak is replaced by the imagination, the bringing to life of a particular scenario, peopled by humans with whom we may identify and empathise, as we see ourselves in their situation

If utopia is an attempt to visualise a perfect society or world, then perhaps dystopia imagines the worst possible world, though not necessarily for everyone. Disaster and/or oppression may be ecological, nuclear, political, social or religious. Let’s consider some key examples (and, as I write, I realise that I shall reserve the post-nuclear apocalypse scenario for a later post of its own).

Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopia for all women in the imagined society of Gilead (future USA), who are merely vessels for reproduction. Arguably, it is a utopia for some of the men, particularly those in power or with privilege. And yet, as the story progresses, it’s clear that it isn’t, as the creators of that society have managed to banish intimacy for everyone, and the coda to the novel makes it clear that the society eventually collapsed. A similar novel, in which the state – this time in Britain – takes control of women’s reproductive capacity can be found in Benefits, by Zoë Fairbairns.

A forgotten, but chilling warning from 1937, Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin, imagines what the world would look like seven centuries after a Nazi conquest of the world.

The archetypal political dystopia is probably George Orwell‘s 1984, although it resembles a much earlier Soviet dystopia, We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, in which everyone also is reduced to a number, and surveillance is facilitated by everyone living in transparent buildings. Orwell’s dystopia is more complex, as is its visionary history: in the actual years prededing 1984 the novel acquired a bogeyman effect as everyone feared the world really would turn out that way; consequently the novel seemed really dated when the times didn’t develop according to the prophecy. More recently, with the revelations of our surveillance society, perhaps Orwell’s’ world is coming into its own again?

And then, there’s Brave New World, a utopia or a dystopia or both, depending on your perspective…(for more on this novel, see my previous post).

What dystopias have in common is writers warning against removal of freedom: what we must think further about is that it’s our Western freedom to, with its focus on individual self-expression, rather than a freedom from, which much of the rest of the less privileged world might be rather more interested in. Our fetishistic, capitalist freedom facilitates consumption and profit, with a circumscribed individual freedom as a side-effect, whereas freedom from, say, violence, hunger, homelessness, unemployment would probably lead to the greater happiness of far more people. But that’s another story…

Science Fiction

January 23, 2014

It occurred to me that the reason I find myself reading far less science fiction than I used to, is because I have rather less of the future to look forward to, in the sense of growing older; when I was much younger, I had the sense that my future might be radically different… and, yes, daily life has changed enormously over my lifetime. Nothing digital in my childhood. Enough said.

I’ve always been picky in terms of what SF I read. I hate the term ‘sci-fi’, am not interested in space opera or fantasy and hobbits, which narrows down the field somewhat. It’s also the only genre (apart from Sherlock Holmes, of course!) where I’ve actually enjoyed reading short stories.

Speculative fiction is what I’ve always really enjoyed; the ‘what ifs’, the alternative futures, the utopias and dystopias through the ages. Some of these can verge on the didactic, and when I was studying, writing about and reviewing SF in the 1970s and 1980s quite bit of it did. I wrote a dissertation for my MA on speculative fiction, focusing on Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Ursula LeGuin, who, for my money, remain some of the best writers in the genre, although I know I have gone out of touch with what has been written more recently. And then I researched an entire MPhil thesis on Feminist science fiction. That’s reminded me of the stunning resource that is the Science Fiction Foundation, with their amazing library of literature and journals, the only one in the UK as far as I’m aware, currently based at the University of Liverpool. When I was using its resources more than thirty years ago, it was based in Dagenham at the former North East London Polytechnic.

Novels are created as entertainment, certainly, but I have always enjoyed being made to think as well, and the kind of SF I’ve described above has made me reflect on myself, on what it means to be a sentient being of the human type, on the future of the world, humanity and the universe. I suppose such writing may politicise readers, but it’s hardly likely to bring about social change or revolution, as novels are a creation of the bourgeois period and are for individual consumption. If a good novel takes me out of myself, allows me to escape who I am for a few hours, then SF takes me further away, makes me aware of my smallness in the scale of the universe, gives me a different sense of perspective. That’s why, for instance, the most important thing that’s happened in my lifetime is a man walking on the moon,  why I’m really excited at the thought of a space probe landing on a comet in a few months time, and why the thought that a space probe has left the solar system and is on its way to the stars at some time in the unimaginable future blows my mind completely.

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