Dystopian Fiction in a Dystopian Reality

The genre has so much to tell us about how civil liberties are eroded that it goes way beyond simply Orwell VS Huxley

George Orwell’s eponymous classic Nineteen Eighty-Four has recently again become a best seller, and in response a slate of articles have cropped up asking why this might be the case. Many of these articles have focused on comparing Orwell’s dystopian classic to Aldous Huxley’s almost-equally famous Brave New World, asking which one was “more right”, and therefore which deserves the most credit and attention paid as a portend of our times — and of the times to come.

In this dark and troubling political environment it is hardly surprising that people might search for explanation, or even solace and escapism in the nightmare of a dystopian unreality. But the danger of pitting these two titans against each other is that it can quickly descend into fatuous tit-for-tat one-upmanship, obscuring some of the most potent and poignant lessons that the genre has to offer us.

The comparison between Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a new one, though the key comparison in this case comes from Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which was later brilliantly illustrated by Stuart McMillen in an online web comic in 2009. In his book Portman essentially argues that Huxley’s vision of a terrifying future was far more prescient of the world we live in today, and that ultimately the threat of an Orwellian authoritarianism developing has essentially collapsed, along with the Soviet Union.

Postman rightly identifies a number of chillingly accurate predictions that Huxley made, especially from the perspective of the western consumer-citizen. The image of a populace numbed with information overload and saturated with inexhaustibly abundant multimedia resonates. Too often the corollary of capitalist comfort and copious consumption has been political lethargy, and today those that are most needed to defend our rights, freedoms, and dignity are often those that have become the most disengaged.

But Huxley also predicted full employment, social consensus on extreme classist stratification, state-provided recreational drugs, and an extremely liberal, open, and accepting culture towards sexual expression and freedoms. Any number of disgruntled demographics and marginalised communities can attest the gap between this and reality, from the 1.6 million unemployed in Britian, to LGBTQ people suffering abuse and persecution on both side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, in their rush to extol the virtues of Huxley, many critics have forgotten what made Orwell’s work such a classic in the first place — and what makes it so resonant and relevant today.

Of course the most famous aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the omnipresent and omniscient Big Brother, the personification of the big and invasive state that so terrifies the libertarian and right wing mind. In the novel the reader never actually meets Big Brother — he is a symbol of the ubiquitous reach of state power, and the pervading totality of such a state’s surveillance apparatus.

In the real world we may not yet have telescreens barking orders or lampooning us for not being able to touch our toes, but we do have more screens and digital windows into our minds than either Huxley or Orwell could ever have imagined. We live under the incredibly invasive Snoopers’ Charter, and readily offer both hardware and software companies a bewildering level of access and permissions to our data in exchange for the use of their services. Taken in tandem with the overwhelming amounts of data trawled by GCHQ, NSA, and the rest, and it becomes quite clear that both the state and non-state actors have the ability to gain an incredible wealth of insight and knowledge into our every day lives, activities, and associations.

This speaks to Orwell’s nightmare far more than it does to Huxley’s, because it provides significant opportunities for extensive, detailed, and pervasive surveillance to be conducted at all times, from which persecution and self-censorship are rarely far away. Given this, it’s hard not to conclude that perhaps the telescreen is already here after all, it’s just hidden behind one-way glass and sits not on our walls but in our pockets instead.

Orwell’s classic was also more prepared to talk about the violence inherent in authoritarian states and polities. Indeed, he wrote that “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever”. It’s easy for critics to claim that Huxley was more accurate when describing a techno-lethargy for domestic metropolitan populations. But for the victims of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, secret rendition, ongoing police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, and ill-advised foreign interventions, the long arm of the imperial state still exists. More than metaphorically, a boot still stomps on their faces. With security-focused governments and an increasingly hostile political climate, this is a lesson well worth being mindful of.

Overt state torture: Back on the agenda

It is a tragedy of most recent reassessments that one of Orwell’s most salient and important points has been almost completely ignored, and that is his comment on the critical role that language plays in shaping political thought. In his seminal essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote that

political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”

This is a theme he expands on extensively in Nineteen Eighty-Four, describing how abuse, misuse, truncation, and amalgamation of linguistic concepts can eventually shape and change their meaning, usually in favour of those who wield power. Anyone who has followed Trump’s bizarre speech making delivery or the divisive rhetoric of the Brexit campaign can attest to this process, where slogans have replaced substance and catchphrases masquerade as coherent policies. The effect this can have on behalf of the powerful is not dissimilar to the two minutes hate immortalised in Orwell’s novel — it whips up vague and uninhabited anger at an ill-defined and amorphous boogieman, whether that’s Muslims, refugees or the European Union. It matters not who from nor how we do it, just that we “take back control,” and bigly.

So Orwell rightly deserves his place as a master of prescient dystopia. But despite all of this, setting Huxley against Orwell entirely misses the point of both these fine works. Their predictions and paranoid premonitions should not be juxtaposed to see who is the “winner”, for there are no winners when it comes to the demise of our civil liberties.

Both Orwell and Huxley were right, in different ways and in different spheres, but their warnings and lessons were not and are not mutually exclusive. Once this has been recognised we can move beyond the interminable and largely fatuous debate of Orwell VS Huxley, and start to ask what else the genre of dystopian fiction can tell us about the troubling world that we have built for ourselves — and what walls we might be building next.

The genre provides no shortage of suggestion. Franz Kafka’s most famous novel, The Trial, powerfully portrays the suffocating, disruptive, and coercive power that an opaque and unaccountable judiciary can apply on its citizenry. Fortunately our judiciary remains independent, but increasing attacks from both sides of the Atlantic emphasise the importance of retaining and defending this hard won check and balance that keeps the executive in line. History shows the consequences when power hungry executives subsume judicial authority, and it is bloody —which is a theme brutally explored in Arthur Koestler’s troubling but essential dramatisation of the Red Purges, Darkness at Noon.

The Trial is a potent and rightly lauded book, but Kafka’s lesser known novel The Castle is the more complete and accomplished work, and arguably is far more persuasive and poignant as a result. Carrying similar themes to The Trial, The Castle centres around the increasingly forlorn efforts of one man to reach truth and justice in the face of an excoriating and vindictively obstructive bureaucracy.

Riven by class divides and dominated by an untouchable, unelected, and largely anonymous elite, Kafka’s fictitious society in The Castle reflects our own. The novel also evocatively illustrates the crushing grind of challenging an entrenched, complex, and highly secretive bureaucratic machine — an experience that would likely resonate with those unjustly imprisoned in the Yarl’s Wood compound, those abandoned to navigate Britain’s Byzantine asylum and immigration system with little or no support in an increasingly hostile and intimidating environment, or simply with anyone who has spent time working on Freedom of Information requests.

Perhaps the most relevant and chillingly familiar dystopia is one of the most recently authored — Dave Egger’s The Circle. Set in an incredibly recognisable near-future, the battle to own the internet has been won by a monolithic tech giant that lends the novel its name. As a company The Circle is a hypothetic blend of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple, who’s popularity and effectiveness at building engaging user systems leads it to systematically encroach ever further into state functions, and our everyday lives.

It’s not just the saturation of smart phones or the ubiquity of user feedback forms that is so recognisable about the world that Eggers creates, but also the pervasiveness and importance of social media in both how we understand ourselves and how we communicate politically. These themes seem to resonate with audiences, with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror exploring them several times with great aplomb and to critical acclaim.

Rate my life

Black Mirror is a fantastic addition to the pantheon of dystopian parables. Writing in The Guardian, Noah Berlatsky rightly points out that “Orwell wasn’t (just) writing about a future Britain, but about the contemporary Stalinist Soviet Union — and for that matter about authoritarian tendencies in Britain and the west... Similarly, the Black Mirror episode Men Against Fire is ostensibly about a future in which computer programs in soldiers’ heads lead them to see their enemies as subhuman monster “roaches”. But it’s also a parable about how propaganda justifies ethnic cleansing, which seems quite relevant to the near future in which America could institute a Muslim registry”.

But despite it’s brilliance, several of Black Mirror’s most intriguing issues are explored in much greater depth in Eggers’ masterpiece — including mass spectator culture, surveillance through consumer electronics, and the power of public shame. In the “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror, Brooker describes a world where the quantified self and your social media clout have an impact on you in the real world, helping to determine your privilege and level of access to basic societal functions. Not only is the “Nosedive” episode eerily similar to China’s current trialling of a Social Credit Score, but it’s also an idea lifted directly from The Circle and it’s TruYou accounts.

In describing this system and it’s impact, Eggers makes one of his most critical and important points — that dystopia and authoritarianism are built as much by the contribution and participation of civilians “from below” as they are imposed forcibly “from above”. The balance between contribution and imposition in the construction of regimes of terror has long been a subject of study, thanks in no small part to Christopher Browning’s work on the Nazis. Huxley’s Brave New World certainly speaks to this point, but what Eggers skillfully demonstrates is how the process of contributing to authoritarianism from below can be incentivised, quantified, and normalised in a digital age, and can be done so in a way that makes people actively want to contribute to the erosion of our own liberties.

Relatedly, The Circle also explores the potential dangers and consequences of the world’s growing obsession with big data, particularly when it is used by private companies for public political purposes. Whether the use of content marketing, big data, and sophisticated personality profiling really did sway the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit or not, the fact that these techniques are already being used by right-wing groups and wannabe autocrats should be cause for concern amongst liberal and left-wing communities. We need to get savvy on these technologies and their use for political purposes, and fast. Eggers’ novel provides a worrying vision of what could emerge if we do not.

Eggers’ The Circle is Nineteen Eighty-Four for the millennial generation, and deserves to be venerated as a classic of the genre. The author does an excellent job of situating the reader from the point of view of the protagonist, helping us to empathise with her ethical quandaries and dubious morality calls. In doing so, Eggers draws out in a very visceral way how tyranny is built ever-so-incrementally, and how it can be built from the best of intentions. As such, Eggers picks up the baton from Hannah Arendt in emphasising and describing the banality of evil.

Do read the book before the film comes out this year

A less well known but equally engrossing read in this regard is Otto von Horvath’s Youth Without God. The story centres on one man’s struggle to retain his morality in a time of deep political monstrosity and societal moral decay under fascism. A teacher by trade, the book’s main character is increasingly forced to modify his views and self-censor his own behaviour for the sake of his own self-preservation, as the ideology of racial supremacy and nationalist resurgence begins to take hold and predominate his society. Sound familiar?

The power of dystopian fiction, then, is not only that it can illustrate the experiences, injustice, and inhumanity of living under totalitarianism, but that it can also shed light on the processes, techniques and mechanisms that are used to build and maintain that tyranny in the first place.

In this way, and when seen as more than simply Orwell VS Huxley, the genre can help us to become both forewarned and forearmed for the dangers that may lie ahead, and to be vigilant in protecting those liberties that will most likely be under threat in a time of increasing instability and authoritarianism. In the age of Trump, Brexit, and resurgent right-wing nationalism across Europe and the Western world, “what do we need to do to protect our hard-won liberties and freedoms?” is no longer a hypothetical question.

Worthwhile and recommended dystopian fiction includes:

Yevgeny Zamyatin — We
Patrick McGuinness — The Last One Hundred Days
Ursula le Guin — The Dispossessed
Philip K. Dick — The Man in the High Castle
Joseph Saramago — Blindness
Ray Bradbury — Fahrenheit 451
JG Ballard — High Rise
Ferenc Karinthy — Metropole
George Orwell — Nineteen Eighty-Four
Aldous Huxley — Brave New World
Dave Eggers — The Circle
Franz Kafka — The Trial
Franz Kafka — The Castle
Arthur Koestler — Darkness at Noon
Otto von Horvath — Youth Without God

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