Sunday, June 6, 2010

Thinking about Dystopian Futures on a bright, June Day

Today, in 1949, George Orwell's novel 1984 was published. He would die seven months later, after suffering all sorts of medical indignities--somehow, in all my years of English major undergraduate and graduate study, I never knew this fact. Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac site describes the final part of the writing process this way: "He wrote from bed, and by longhand when his typewriter was taken away from him in the hospital. He went through an intense drug treatment in the hopes of curing his TB, which caused him mouth blisters, throat ulcers that made it hard to swallow, rashes, and flaking skin, and his hair and nails fell out. He was losing weight, had fevers, and his right arm had to be put in a cast, but he kept writing with his left. Under pressure from his publisher, he finally finished the book by the end of the year, and had to retype the messy manuscript himself."

Suddenly, nothing in my writing life seems bad. I have my health, so what do I care if the printer doesn't work, if my work life consumes my writing time for a week here or there, if my manuscripts remain unpublished. At least I can keep writing with my dominant hand!

I haven't read 1984 since graduate school, probably around 1988 or so. Back then, the world depicted in 1984 still seemed like an impossible, improbable future of some future Soviet-like state. I suspect if I reread it now, I'd be amazed at how relevant it still seems.

I remember first reading the book in high school and being horrified at the idea of cameras everywhere, at a government who could always see you. And now, with the advent of cheap, easy technology, we seem to have arrived at that world. Well, we're always on camera, it seems or trackable in some way. I have trouble believing in a government efficient enough to keep track of us all in the way that the government in Orwell's novel was able to do.

In terms of a terrifying glimpse into the future, I still think that Octavia Butler got it closer than the mid-20th-century dystopian novelists, Orwell and Huxley. Go read Butler's The Parable of the Sower. Go read it right now. You'll see a picture of a government that can send a ship to Mars, but can't keep the earthly world from unravelling. It will feel chillingly possible.


Jacob said...

"I have trouble believing in a government efficient enough to keep track of us all in the way that the government in Orwell's novel was able to do."
But Oceania didn't keep track of everyone. The vast majority of people (the "proles") were not subjected to that kind of scrutiny. That was reserved for the members of the Party. Plus a lot of the monitoring was internal, creating the hegemonic conditions for people to rat out their co-workers, children their parents etc.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

I had forgotten about those aspects of the novel--thanks for the reminder!

Speck said...

Just finished reading Parable of the Sower and indeed it was frightening. I kept thinking: what else could possibly go wrong. The pervasive sense of mistrust and suspicion about everybody is what got me.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Speck, there's a sequel,"Parable of the Talents," which while also striking grim notes, goes in a more optimistic direction. Well, some would argue with my use of the term optimistic. Still, it's interesting to see what Butler does with the themes and the characters.