[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week, we decided to transcend Orwell by asking panelists to go beyond 1984.
Here’s what they said.
Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s recent surge of popularity — Bookscan tells me that sales of the mass market paperback edition increased by 35 percent during the week ending June 9th, and a further 60 percent the week after, and other editions saw spikes as well — is a great sign. Both tyranny and collapse are as likely to sneak up on a populace as anything else, so I am pleased to see that people are wary of these horrific intrusions into their privacy by the state. The vision of waking up one morning to swastikas flying from every flagpole is a fanciful one. First we’ll be told, “Now now, Nazism is just a political view some intelligent, college-educated people have…”
So I’d like to look at novels of the slow collapse. I like Norman Spinrad’s Little Heroes, less so for the story than for the setting, in which members of the precariat subsist on government-issue kibble that is just nutritious enough to keep them alive, and in which formerly middle class jobs are now scut work. Prescient stuff! Another good one is Frederik Pohl’s The Cool War, which is about international affairs carried out by sabotage and low-level terror, with massive but subtle negative impact on productivity and quality of life. The needs of a commercial novel all but demand that the cool war be revealed as a conspiracy rather than as a series of structural epiphenomena, but it’s still a good book.
Not a book, “The Master of the Aviary” is a great novella by Bruce Sterling. The collapse is a little further along in this one. It can be found in Gordon van Gelder’s anthology Welcome to the Greenhouse. It’s about a post-collapse city-state and the life of a gadfly philosopher in a world with little water. It’s a surprisingly warm and cheerful story, thanks to Sterling’s mad scientist attempt at nucleic exchange between Walter Miller and Kurt Vonnegut. And there’s hope, even at the very end of the world; wisdom and whimsy can still defeat the forces of repression. “If there is trouble,” the philosopher warns a would-be tyrant, “my students will come to harm. Because my students are brave. And bold. And idealistic. And exceedingly violent. You can start a brawl like that. Do you think you can end it?” The brawl between philosophy and politics may never end, but philosophy gets its licks in.
I am a huge fan of Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen, which is at least adjacent to science fiction. It’s about the here and now — or at least the here and few years from now; consumer culture and environmental collapse are surging, war is perennial and ubiquitous, and the rebellious counterculture is itself just another form of consumer identity. America is being evacuated by the smarter sorts, who can see what’s coming. A young woman named Della collects photos of monks who have set themselves aflame while sitting zazen, and then someone starts setting off bombs after Della calls in fake bomb threats. It’s an extremely well-observed novel, from the left, about the failures of the left, and it featured a declassed scientist protagonist who now works in a faux-collective vegan restaurant.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Project Itoh’s book Genocidal Organ. (Disclosure: I acquired and edited the book for Haikasoru.) In it, Sarajevo has been nuked, war follows in the wake of a linguist and peace activist who is attempting to solve the conflicts that bedevil the developing world. An American Special Forces soldier is sent to Europe to bring the linguist in, and learns the secret to the “grammar of genocide” and how people can be controlled through propaganda and media messages. What the soldier uses it for…well, look at the title of the book.
Finally, we should talk about Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which is a historical of sorts, though with a science fictional theme — it’s a novel (in stories) of scientific and social scientific ideas, and its theme is the Soviet Union and the seeming futility of attempting to plan an economy without market signals. Here tyranny and collapse go hand in hand, feeding on one another. But Spufford isn’t just a miserymonger; we get to see the everyday life of people in the USSR, experience heady idealism and even a few successes in computation and cybernetics here and there, with fear and privation hanging over the scenes like a dark cloud.
All these stories go beyond just portraying a dystopia; they give us, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, bits of language we can use to discuss what’s happening to us. So please do read them.
The thing that most people seem to forget is that dystopian fiction is political fiction, whereas most science fiction – YA and otherwise – seems to treat dystopia merely as backdrop. The other thing to remember is that such political fictions are responses to the politics of the time of writing. Orwell was writing about the rise of fascism during the war years in 1984 (1949). Anthony Burgess, in his response 1985 (1978), wrote about the stranglehold trade unions had on British industry. He admitted that all he had done was “melodramatize certain tendencies”, but the point remains that Burgess saw 1985 as a novel about the politics of 1978. Which is why to take Orwell’s 1984 as political allegory, or a warning of the dangers of totalitarianism, is to miss the point of the novel. Read the book as a piece of fiction, but don’t imagine there is anything to be learned in it about the here and now. The same holds true for Burgess’s 1985.
The other thing to bear in mind is that dystopia is in the eye of the beholder. To many sectors of society, the present day is pretty dystopian. But I imagine the super-rich don’t see it that way – except perhaps in reference to the legal obstacles which prevent them from yet further depradations. It’s all a product of world-view. The streets of the Western nations are paved with opportunity; the landscapes of the Eastern nations are blanketed with peace and contentment. Does anyone really believe either? Does putting such misapprehensions in a fiction make them any more real or any more acceptable?
What science fiction can do for us, however, is show us what it might be like to exist in a specific dystopian setting, and it does this best when it hides the true situation from us. In Alastair Reynold’s The Prefect (2007), Thalia visits a habitat in the Glitter Band in which all the citizens have been neurochemically adjusted to exist happily within a “Voluntary Tyranny” state. They don’t know it’s a dystopia. As Reynolds writes, “life in a Voluntary Tyranny was perversely liberating because it allowed them to shut off an entire part of their minds that dealt with the usual anxieties of hierarchy and influence” (p 108). I find that much more interesting a scenario than trying to recreate postwar Britain in some post-apocalyptic setting. If those “adjusted” citizens are happy, whether it is artificially imposed or not, does that make their happiness invalid? Does it invalidate the choice they made in joining the Voluntary Tyranny?
Another such fictional society features in John Varley’s short story, ‘The Barbie Murders’ (1978). (It may well have been the inspiration for Reynolds’ Voluntary Tyrannies; I don’t know.) In Varley’s story, the members of the Temple of the Standardized Church have all been surgically altered to resemble Barbie dolls. Though they take on the appearance of a parody of the female form, they are actually neuter…which is what triggers the murder being investigated by Lieutenant Anna-Louise Bach of the New Dresden police on Luna. The surgery, and the appearance taken by the members of the cult, are an expression of a very real human need to belong to something, to be a part of a collective.
Often, science fiction uses this need to drive its dystopian visions. In Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive (1973), the titular scientist has created a secret human society based on that of insects such as bees and ants. Of course, the main thrust of the story is that Hellstrom’s experiment is “a nightmare more horrific than even their paranoid government minds could devise”, as the SF Masterwork editions back-cover blurb has it. Charles Stross’s Glasshouse begins with a similar experiment, in which a group of people are placed in a simulation of a 1950s US small town (but this is the future, so their research on the 1950s proves somewhat incomplete). However, the novel only comments on this in passing and soon turns into a more typical sf adventure novel. Douglas Sirk’s brilliant movie All That Heaven Allows (1955) manages a more cutting commentary on 1950s US small town society than science fiction has ever done. It may well be because it had the advantage of doing so from within. Which does make you wonder why dystopian science fiction all too often falls back on historical models…
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, which is not really fiction and not really science fiction, covers in fictionalised form the life of the Soviet Union. While the West was all too keen to characterise the USSR as an “evil empire”, and while clearly its initial utopian dreams collapsed pretty swiftly under the weight of incompetence, inefficiency and corruption, Spufford shows that from within it did seem like a utopia. Its creators had the greatest of hopes for it, the biggest of dreams, and that their grand experiment ultimately failed doesn’t invalidate the attempt. The Soviet Union was one of history’s two great experiments at creating a fair and just utopian society, but both lost their way within a generation. The second, incidentally, is Islam.
Speaking of religion, perhaps the most celebrated piece of dystopian writing is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). I don’t know if Atwood considered the novel a Gedankenexperiment when she wrote it, but I very much suspect she never thought she’d live to see parts of the US move closer to Gilead with each passing year. That’s dystopia as an expression of power over the powerless. It’s all that “hierarchy and influence” which Reynolds mentions in The Prefect. War and totalitarianism are simply different manifestations of the same impulse.
I recently had a discussion with someone over the relevance to twenty-first century readers of many so-called classics of science fiction. Given that the UK and the US have been embroiled in one war or another for the past few decades, they suggested that Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974) had relevance for a modern reader. But, I pointed out, The Forever War is written from the perspective of a combatant who returns home. Science fiction as a genre is not aimed at the serving military. Members of the armed forces just happen to form a small subset of the sf readership. To those of us not in the army, navy or air force, war is a distant thing which appears on television news and newspaper front pages, it doesn’t directly impact our lives. For a twenty-first century sf novel about war to be relevant, it has to be relevant to the way we experience it, as distant colonialism in service to political strategies completely divorced from everyday realities. I don’t know of any sf novel which does that.
Far too much sf featuring war follows the pulp tradition and is little more than manly derring-do in outer space, in which the enemy is othered to the fullest extent and then summarily destroyed. This does not make for interesting fiction or interesting speculation. There is plenty of room for interesting and meaningful science fiction in that Schrödinger’s Cat-like area in which dystopias and utopias exist. Sadly far too few science fiction writers have chosen to open the box…
I find the most successfully portrayed oppressive states are the ones which churn away in the background of the plot. A compelling story can accumulate dramatic significance when viewed in the context of hindered liberty. This is in contrast to dystopian classics like Love Among the Ruins by Evelyn Waugh or We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, where the tyrannical state is a main character, with its shackles and machinations acting as the catalyst and propellant for the story’s arc. Grimness need not always be worn on the sleeve to be noticeable and terrifying.
I should note at the onset that I am limiting myself to stories where dismal societal trappings are a wholly human creation and not brought about externally. Otherwise I would speak at length about the horrors of occupied Earth in The Alien Years by Silverberg, the exceptional Way of the Pilgrim by Gordon Dickson, and (the pinnacle of the trope, IMO) The Liberation of Earth by William Tenn.
I am also sidestepping post-apocalyptic dystopias, where cultures cruelly remake themselves in the aftermath of some manner of collapse. For outstanding examples see Fitzpatrick’s War by Theodore Judson, Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson, and Esther Freisner’s Psalms of Herod and Song of Mary (easily the most brutal dystopia I can recall).
The definition of dystopian fiction is a slippery beast, and is often dependent on the time in which the story written. As a result, hindsight can be rather damning.
For example, my wife has written at length about the TSA and its unsavory track record. The tipping point for most critics of “security theater” was the implementation of body scanners at airports. The acceptability of such a device and its role in a purportedly free society was, and is, the lynchpin of the debate about authoritarian power.
Which got my inner libertarian nerd thinking: does Spock pointing a tricorder at an alien constitute a violation of privacy?
Consider if the tactics of the TSA were expanded to beat cops, who could ascertain your height, weight, and nature of everything you were carrying just by waving a scanner at you. In the current political climate the outrage would be palpable. And recent online privacy concerns cast a harsh light on the Star Trek idea that a crewmember’s actions on the holodeck are available to anyone, and that your com-badge maps your every move. And what about transporters? They not only track the position and state of every atom in your body, but keep a record of them for future reference.
Also, it has been pointed out to me by my friend Mark that V’Ger only attacked when it was scanned. Just sayin’..
Stepping back from even those examples, the Trek universe could be viewed as dystopian by nature of the Federation being a socialist entity that frowns upon artificial intelligence, prohibits genetic engineering, and carries out scientific exploration using only military ships. Like I said, hindsight can be damning.
The Federation shares a lot of characteristics with Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium, where societal dead ends and cultural failures become common among planets trying to cling to old ways. However, that stagnant setting makes the events of Mote in God’s Eye far more intriguing.
Niven and Pournelle played the same riff in a different key in Oath of Fealty, where reactionary measures taken in the wake of civil unrest lead directly to a new kind of feudal society. This milieu gives added ballast to the book’s tale of murder and terrorism.
Kristine Katherine Rusch’s Diving Universe stories take place against a canvas where the shadowy forces of authority secretly harvest and exploit long-forgotten technology to further their power and position. While the stories focus on the risks of exploring derelicts and ruins, the truths uncovered point to authoritarian conspiracies covering thousands of years. Rusch nurtures this into a permeating sense of impending dread.
The societal stratification inflicted on the world in Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain evolves into deeply entrenched class politics. By the time we get to Beggars Ride the concept of anarchy becomes a survival tactic to close the chasm between the factions. Strife and resource control become commodities, and the cost is borne by the powerless population.
The Eridani Caliphate in S. Andrew Swann’s Apotheosis Trilogy exhibits all the symptoms of over-reaching authority and cultural restriction. More importantly, it is exactly this centralized zeal for control which facilitates the actions of the self-styled “god” that threatens no less than the total of humanity.
Speaking of space opera, Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth gives us Paula Myo’s birth-world Huxley’s Haven. Here, civil overseers took genetic engineering to the point where children were bred to fill specific social roles. This is a place where not only has a hefty portion of free will been subtracted from the equation, but it was done so by explicit design. It is a mind-numbing reversal of social Darwinism, offensive to almost every sensibility, and its impact is magnified by the Commonwealth’s embrace of post-singularity technology. Yet it is probably the most defining component of Paula, and without it she would not be the exceptional character that she is. I enjoy the fact that when we finally meet the leaders of Huxley’s Haven (portrayed, to Hamilton’s credit, as unnervingly likable characters), they view Paula’s effectiveness as an investigator as justification for their actions. In the midst of the Galaxy-wide threats to the Commonwealth, this one world is arguably the most memorable.
Several comics have successfully insinuated dystopian threads into their settings. The Nikopol Trilogy by Enki Bilal sees a future fascist France visited by the Egyptian pantheon (in a pyramid starship, no less) in search of their rogue brother. The oppressive regime tends to be a source of comedy in the story, but is well fleshed out nonetheless. Grendel: God & the Devil, portrays a Vatican-dominated America driven by the title character’s vigilante actions to form a new inquisition. The story is essentially about a vampire rebellion, but the weight of this theocratic society is apparent in every scene. And I have to give recognition to Frank Miller’s Give Me Liberty and its sequels. The protagonist, Martha Washington, sees the ups and downs of a military-centric future America and the toll it takes on the underclass to maintain it. By tale’s end she becomes a force for change, but that road is a slow and heartbreakingly difficult one.
Which leads me to the rare story where we see life in a post-totalitarian world. Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier took place in a 1950s that is still getting over the conditions of Big Brother’s recent reign (playing on reports that Orwell originally wanted to title the book 1948). I mention this mainly to draw attention to the very funny Newspeak Tijuana Bible which is tucked in the book.
I need to step outside SF to cite the 1995 HBO movie Citizen X, which told the story of the hunt for Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. We see the efforts on the detectives during the reign of the Soviet Union, through the events of its fall, and the unsettled climate afterwards. It is a sublime example of how totalitarianism strangles even the most heroic of endeavors.
Lastly I need to mention Fifteen Million Merits, the second episode of Charlie Brooker’s satirical anthology series Black Mirror. Brooker successfully extrapolates the bleak and hopeless worker trope from 1984 and We into a society built on mandatory consumerism, invasive advertising (you have to pay just to ignore commercials), competition shows, and institutionalized distraction. It is a frighteningly modern dystopia, taking the technological encroachment crafted by the likes of cyberpunk and Max Headroom and putting it through the abattoir of social media and specious fame.
I haven’t even mentioned The Obsolete Man , Babylon 5, a lot of Vance, Spinrad and Brunner, the innumerable Doctor Who stories that tackled the subject, and the underrated comic Morlock 2001. That, if nothing else, speaks to the potency and propagation of dystopian fiction.
At least until the government bans it.
The original Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, a large portion of which pre-dates Orwell’s 1984, covers these themes in an interesting and relevant way. Regardless of what a reader thinks of the quality of Asimov’s writing in these stories, they do illustrate a large empire that has begun its fall. War is constant, especially on the periphery, where skirmishes flare up repeatedly as the outer kingdoms break away from the empire and declare their independence.
Yet, even more interesting, and perhaps more relevant to recent events, is the notion of what the Foundation was secretly setup to do: collect vast amounts of information about everything, and then use that information to predict the outcome of events based on the masses. We see this happening explicitly today, when, for example, billions of tweets are studied to predict the outcomes of elections. News reports suggest this has also been happening secretly, with agencies scanning the meta-data associated with various forms of communication.
The psychohistorians of the Second Foundation did something very similar, on a much larger scale and with technology far beyond what we have today. Psychohistory, as Asimov describes it, works only when the masses upon whom the predictions are based are unaware that such predictions are going on. When the subjects become aware of the surveillance and prediction, it changes their behavior, rendering the predictions useless.
There would seem to be a parallel today that raises an interesting question: when people are aware they are being watched, how does it change their behavior in the aggregate, and how, if at all does it impact the quality of the data being collected?
Today, there are massive amounts of data available to just about anyone with some skill and desire to use it in interesting ways. When we are aware of the data we collect and know how to use it, it can be beneficial. The Quantified Self movement is one example of a proactive use of all of the data we generate about ourselves every day. It allows us to better control our lives. When data is collected without our knowledge, it has more of a potential for allowing our lives to be controlled.
If we look at the works since the publication of Orwell’s 1984 that have concerned dictatorship, totalitarianism, and war, then we find ourselves faced with the deep debt the genre owes to Orwell’s watershed book. From the post-literary society in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the Madison Avenue–style totalitarianism of Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants to the military-industrial underbelly of Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration and the AI-infused dictatorship of Algis Budrys’s Michaelmas, science fiction sees no shortage of Winston Smiths waging battle against some deeply personal Oceania. Given that the formula of one Everyman (or, in the case of Slan by A. E. Van Vogt, a league of superhuman mutants) standing toe-to-toe against oppressive regimes that ban books, the ability not to consume, or even, in the case of George Lucas’s nightmarish THX-1138, not to use drugs is an easy tale to tell, the surfeit of dictatorships in science fiction seems obvious and overbearing.
The tradition may be overstuffed, but still resonates. As I write these words, the name Wendy Davis, representative of District 10 of the Texas Senate, continues to ebb through the social media landscape after her 13-hour filibuster of Senate Bill 5, which would have made elements of the world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale feel like documentary. The Republic of Texas may be more than a century and a half behind us, but for several moments during the evening of June 26, 2013, the Lone Star State veered dangerously close to the Republic of Gilead. (And, given Texas’s second special session, may yet see the state swerve within its borders.)
If the future, indeed, resembles an iron heel grinding into in the face of its populace, then activism of the sort unavailable to Winston Smith may offer hope. Though not embattled with a dictatorship, the net-linked hobos of Bruce Sterling’s Distraction practice their share of flash mob riots as they engage in media warfare with a Willie Stark–esque posthuman Louisiana governor and a newly elected president of the United States. There are no really oppressive regimes in Sterling’s “Bicycle Repairman,” either, but the anarchist enclave embedded in Chattanooga, Tennessee, requires older power structures to reassess their methods. More dystopian is John Shirley’s A Song Called Youth, in which the fundamentalist Second Alliance attempts control of the future and its discontents in ways that would boggle the mind of even the most creative conspiracy theorist. Confronting them in a series of culture jams and outright confrontations is a rag-tag band of rockers and urban warriors from the New Resistance. Closer to our own time, the teenage protagonist of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother becomes a suspect in a series of 9/11-style terrorist attacks in San Francisco. He revolts by setting up an alternative computer network and launching a series of technological attacks against the Department of Homeland Security. Orwell’s vision of the future might have included a boot forever stomping on the human face, but science fiction, at its best, finds a means of stripping away its soul.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Dystopian Fiction that I think came about due to some of the earlier works like 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Zamyatin’s We is that Dystopians need to be futuristic Science Fiction set in a world that some catastrophic outside force like a plague or nuclear war set into motion. Yet, one of the most influential dystopian novels for me was Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, which I think has very relevant points for modern history. Lewis’s satire showed an America so afraid of fascism, that it allowed it’s own form of fascism to take hold of it. Lewis didn’t use a far future scenario, but showed how easy it would be for his America of the 1930’s to slip into the hands of totalitarianism.
This is why I often enjoy stories where the end of the world as we know it doesn’t come by in a big bang, or even a whimper, but through a series of societal issues within a modern historical context. Gordon Dickson’s World and Iron gives us an America that has devolved back to the pioneer days due to an economic breakdown. James Howard Kunstler’s peak oil novels A World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron also shows a regressed America, where small towns are forced to become self reliant to stay alive. Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse uses a series of social and scientific mistakes by modern society, as well as some deliberate act of terrorism, to meticulously show us an apocalypse by process. Another peak oil novel Last Light by Alex Sparrow shows England falling into the dark ages after the oil pipeline is sabotaged. You won’t find shambling zombies, robots, or muties inhabiting these pages instead you will see newly formed societies attempting to survive in an environment where the things we felt were important are stripped away.
While other dystopian novels are talking macro-political themes like totalitarianism and repression, these smaller dystopians examine whether or not our society is better or worse off with all our trappings brought by industry and technology. It’s not always an easy question to answer.
First of all, I don’t think that 1984’s resurgence has much to do with questions of dictatorship, totalitarianism, etc. It has much more to do with the growing realization (and direct revelations) that we live in a surveillance society that would probably stun Orwell with its breadth, contradictions, and level of acceptance. Or, given what he wrote, perhaps it wouldn’t surprise him at all. Orwell’s book has been as powerful a symbol as it has been a novel, and it seems that people want to understand that symbol as much as they want to read what Orwell had to say.
There aren’t many books since then, within or outside of SF, that have achieved that iconic status. Those that have tend to be more specific in what they represent; Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is invoked regarding the ethics of changing behavior and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is discussed for its take on censorship and book burning, for example. Over 60 years after 1984’s publication there are entire subgenres of literature that riff of its central themes, but the book retains its monolithic allure and humanist resonance against all comers.
Three generations on we take for granted a lot of what Orwell cautioned against, to the point where we may not even see how naturalized some of the novel’s concerns have become. The stories that I find to be worth comparing are those that try to remind us how absurd or deeply-entrenched some of his ideas have become. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” uses poignant exaggeration to hold up a mirror to the reader, responding to both the question of totalitarian governance and the hyperboles of reactionary politics. Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story shows people eager to give up their privacy (and to some extent the sense of personal responsibility) and lose their concerns in voracious consumption. Within both stories, however, there is a longing for connection that the social and political systems inhibit, which hearken’s back to Orwell’s protagonist as well. Stories that work to bring out that struggle show us how much we have lost, and still have to lose, if this goes on.
Other writers extend their worlds and concerns beyond Orwell’s and build on his foundation. Paolo Bacigalupi is making a career of this, blending ecological and social concerns with political commentary to produce futures with grit and a well-worn, lived-in feeling. While The Windup Girl had some problematic aspects it also showed how the outcome of current political trends could change the world in terrible ways. His novel Ship Breaker brought those outcomes down to a more intimate level, while short stories such as “Pop Squad” take old SF chestnuts and smashes them apart, scraping every bit of sustenance from them to make the reader think more critically and viscerally about the futures we might be making.
Octavia Butler goes further in novels such as Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. These stories are set in an America collapsing under the weights of its excesses and troubles, and comment on them by trying to imagine a new world, new ways of living. These books are not progeny of Orwell’s, but they create an independent voice trying to deal with some of the same issues. P.D. James’ Children of Men goes in a different direction, imagining a biological catastrophe that is slowly dooming humanity, but echoes some of Orwell’s themes and gives the reader a strange new vantage point on them.
A few very recent books dive into a sort of hermeneutic spiral, looping back towards the elements that 1984 addresses with sharpness and excess. Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik is a satire of Russia’s return to imperialism that is filled with disturbing moments and horrors but that also serves as a cautionary tale about forgetting history and granting too much power to the state. In a more scattered way, the collection Brave New Worlds contains stories (including the Baclgalupi one above) that build on, respond to, or explore nearby fictional territory to Orwell’s (some of which I have discussed in my SF Signal column). While I don’t think anyone has quite exceeded his work yet, there are a lot of stories out there that continue the struggle of understanding power and the state, and our own roles in imagining tomorrow.
Art, and I do consider genre writing to be an art form, isn’t created in a vacuum. The writer has something to say, about something. Maybe they are writing about personal experience, maybe it was a weird dream they had, maybe they are commenting on social mores or society in general, or where they fear society might be going if we’re not careful. Art is often a response mechanism. To add to the fun, everything evolves over time. What was risque in 1940 is common slang now, what was outrageous in 1980 is rather expected now. We haven’t become jaded, it’s just that our responses to authoritarian governments have changed over the decades as our society has faced different challenges.
In the 1960s Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” featured Government enforced equality, where people of above intelligence wear noise-making earpieces to discourage thinking, strong people are forced to wear weights to cancel out their physical strength, among other types of skill canceling equipment. Everyone has their handicaps, everyone is suddenly equalized, no one feels like they are worse or better than anyone else. The consequences of removing your Government supplied handicap are dire and final. How far are we willing to go to achieve social equality? Written around the same time was The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess. This time the government is enforcing family planning to avoid over population, with government supplied birth control pills, social demonizing of heterosexual relationships that could end in pregnancy, and forced pregnancy testing. The shifts that the society goes through in a short period of time are shocking.
If 1960s satire isn’t your thing, allow me to bring your attention to some very recently published fiction: Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins and “Fade to White” by Cat Valente.
In the alternate Russia-esque setting of Wolfhound Century, a totalitarian government has such complete control of information that events that happened just a few decades ago are treated as myth and spoken of in hushed voices. The Government has made their secrets all but disappear, by forbidding them to be spoken of.
The scariest kind (at least for me) of Orwellian fiction is that in which the characters see nothing wrong with what is happening. They think this life is completely normal, they are happy to perpetuate what is happening. Catherynne Valente’s Hugo nominated “Fade to White” is a perfect example of this. In an alternate history American, the two main characters are teens born after the event, and they are perfectly comfortable with the government telling them who to marry, who to be friends with, what to do for a career, and what to never, ever, ask about. To Sylvie and Martin, it’s not propaganda, it’s common sense.
What do all of these stories have in common? Control. Control over our lives, our decisions, and our information. Dystopian fiction is a safe place to explore slippery slopes. Give up control of something you don’t care about today, and it’s that much easier to be convinced to give up control of something you do care about tomorrow. But when propaganda and totalitarianism are seen as common sense, we’ve left the safe place to explore slippery slopes behind, and ventured away from speculative fiction and into horror.
And remember: Big Brother is watching you.