Long ago in a galaxy far away…well, not really, but more than 50 years ago in a small high school in a tiny town not unlike thousands of other small high schools in other tiny towns all across these United States, a young lad with an active mind read his way through much of the library of that school. Yes, I’m talking about myself, but the “me” of the here and now seems so far removed from that lad that an editorial distance seems appropriate. That said, the active mind continues to survive and make itself felt even half a century later.
I was particularly fond, even then, of books, stories, movies, and TV shows that tried to answer the question “what if…” Some small departure from the world and the thinking of the here and now, some twist, some miniscule shift in the order of things: any or all of these could cause changes and changes would, of course, cause other changes, and so on, until the reader (or viewer) would find himself in some setting that, though clearly similar to his own world, incorporated enough differences to make it subtly, or sometimes terrifyingly, different. “Different” was usually thought-provoking. Much of the era’s fiction was clearly post-war; whether specifically laid out or implicit, most of the characters showed the influence of having lived though a terrible, widespread war. That mindset often caused them to work, if not for peace, at least for the avoidance of war. Changes in the social structure often flowed from that avoidance.
Young readers today often are targeted by authors who write from the point of view of a hero(ine) in late adolescence or early adulthood, a time when everyone questions everything and wants answers that are not always available. The Hunger Games series and the Divergent series are commercially successful examples. Their central characters find themselves in situations that are manifestly unfair and cruel, and they struggle to overcome them from within. In the middle 60’s, I didn’t find a lot of that. The only writer of prominence who wrote to the so-called “juvenile” audience was Robert Heinlein, who aimed several novels at this audience during the 1950’s.
I was most struck, however, by works that were decidedly not juvenile, and not really “science fiction,” but dystopic, i.e., the opposite of utopian. They depicted miserable places and miserable people, but such people as one might have met in every-day life–just that something “twisted” reality out of its familiar shape and into something that thwarted the desire of people to live a better life and pass on that better life to their children–and I won’t belabor the point to show how all these commonly-known dystopias are relevant today. Three of them in particular bear mentioning–and reading or rereading.
In 1948, WWII was a not-very-distant memory for the British author and essayist George Orwell (yes, I know, Eric Blair). He actually had already written one broadly satiric novella, Animal Farm, which took as its subject the Russian Revolution that established the Leninist regime. It was successful, but Orwell wanted to show how the ordinary Brit could be led down a path to horrible repression and authoritarianism. His masterpiece, 1984, is well-known. Legend has it that Orwell himself wanted to call the book “1948,” the time in which he was writing, but the publisher would not agree, and supposedly suggested transposing the eight and the four; the reading public, the story goes , would not like to see Britain or London portrayed so negatively.
In the world of 1984, the world has devolved into three huge nation-states, Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Oceania comprises the Americas and the British Isles; Eurasia is Europe and the old Soviet Union; and Eastasia is principally China and Southeast Asia. Most of Africa as well as some of South Asia and some other areas, are the resource and labor-rich prize over which the three superstates fight–eternally, with Oceania in an uneasy “alliance” with one of the other two, until a betrayal changes the ally to the enemy and vice-versa. Thus, the economy, such as it is, of Oceania is always on a war footing, and the needs of the population are largely ignored.
The social system is known as “Ingsoc,” an abbreviated term for “English Socialism,” and society is divided into the Inner Party, the Outer Party, and “the proles,” the vast underbelly of the society, kept alive by state charity and amused by “illegal” lotteries and other such pedestrian pursuits. Its hero is Winston Smith (gotta love that name…), an Outer Party functionary who dreams of rebellion, while the police state is waaaay ahead of him. An illicit love affair (since the Party controls all “normal” sexual relations) gives the state the proximal cause to arrest, imprison, torture, and brainwash both Winston and his paramour, Julia; in the end, each betrays the other, and news of a military advance gives poor Winston cause to love Big Brother, the representation of the totalitarian government.
1984 is a fascinating peek into Orwell’s nightmare. Such terms as doublespeak (convincingly lying while one knows the truth), thoughtcrime (committing the crime of thinking something contrary to the Party’s teachings), and the government’s Ministries, all ironically named for the opposite of of what they practiced–i.e., the Ministry of Love, which tortured, that of Truth, which disseminated only propaganda, and that of Plenty, which distributed goods to the people, making sure that only the favored classes were, well…favored. All of it was what Orwell feared England could become in a return to a WWII scenario. If you ever see someone watch a bit of news come out of Washington or London or Beijing, etc., and he nods and says “We have always been at war with Eastasia,” he’s quoting from the Ministry of Truth shortly after a switch in alliances.
In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, named for the supposedly precise temperature that book paper catches fire. Its principal character, Guy Montag, is a “fireman,” but in this novel, firemen are book-burners. The fire truck has a tank full of kerosene. Books are banned, and I mean, seriously BANNED. If you are hiding books at your house, and you are found out, you’ll get a visit from the firemen. They pull up out front, douse the house in flammable liquid, and torch the whole thing.
Bradbury doesn’t devote a lot of exposition to the why of things. It’s Montag’s world, and he really doesn’t question it much, at least not for a while. He lives a pretty sterile life with his wife Mildred, who questions even less than he does, spending her time in mass entertainment, while indulging her addiction to sleeping pills. Montag is put seriously off his path by the arrival of a neighbor girl who does things like “drinking” rain water by tilting her head back during a shower, and of course, asking questions. Mildred eventually reports Montag for hoarded books, and then abandons him.
I never counted Fahrenheit 451 as one of Bradbury’s finest novels, but it does illustrate in a kind of clumsy way the lengths some will go to defend censorship and anti-intellectualism. It came out in the area of McCarthyism, with its dark insinuations of dangerous “otherism.” In most of the book’s setting exposition, it appears it could be set in small-town America, circa 1953. It sets forth a small gathering of people who commit themselves to memorizing entire books, one to a person, in anticipation of another time when the world would be ready for books again.
In an abrupt ending, Mildred, who, after leaving Montag and going off to live in the nearest large city, dies in a nuclear attack, while Montag survives in the woods to become a member of the book people. Heavy stuff. In my own opinion, it suffered from being made into an unwatchable film in the mid-60’s. The movie version featured Oskar Werner and Julie Christie (who was hot as pistol at the time, in box-office terms), but just did not really hang together as a story.
My last entry here among the dystopias of my youth is a sort of under-the-radar classic: Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut has seemed to have an up-and-down reputation as an author, but at the time of publication of Player Piano, he had no reputation to speak of, since it was his first novel. It did not enjoy much commercial success, but did win some critical praise plus an unintended and unwelcome side effect. Critics referred to it as science fiction, but Vonnegut wanted it to be received as satire or social criticism. It became more widely read some years later, as the author gained fame with other works like Slaughterhouse Five.
Player Piano tells the story of a society substantially like ours today, except that the labor shortage caused by World War II is an important plot device. In the book, it has caused more and more of heretofore human labor to be obsolete because of automation. This factor alone may make it more relevant to the present day.
Imagine a society made up of a small number of engineers, some managerial types, and a lot of underemployed people. The engineers and managers live in a comfortable, spacious area with ample houses, while the underclass huddle in small apartments in a city setting. The protagonist, Paul Proteus, though a part of the engineer/manager class, begins to feel uneasy and joins an embryonic rebellion. One thing leads to another, and a rebellion does break out, though it is quickly crushed.
The remarkable thing is that in the crowded towns, as order breaks down, individuals attempt to rebuild machinery for their own purposes, thus recreating (on a personal scale) the automation Armageddon to which they have lost their way of life. Though it’s been 50 years, I still recall some guy wandering the chaos, muttering that if he could find a particular part, he could build a machine that would play the drums. Would I surprise you if I told you that I am reminded of this nearly every day? People who have been put out of work by computers working, dreaming of creating the next popular “app” that will put others out of work?
Sometimes it’s scary how authors predict elements of the future. On the other hand, to give credit where credit is due, these authors were visionaries, each in his own way. Want to know what’s to come? Someone in the here and now is writing it.