This is not the dystopia we were promised. We are not learning to love Big Brother, who lives, if he lives at all, on a cluster of server farms, cooled by environmentally friendly technologies. Nor have we been lulled by Soma and subliminal brain programming into a hazy acquiescence to pervasive social hierarchies…
….Standard utopias and standard dystopias are each perfect after their own particular fashion. We live somewhere queasier—a world in which technology is developing in ways that make it increasingly hard to distinguish human beings from artificial things. The world that the Internet and social media have created is less a system than an ecology, a proliferation of unexpected niches, and entities created and adapted to exploit them in deceptive ways. Vast commercial architectures are being colonized by quasi-autonomous parasites. Scammers have built algorithms to write fake books from scratch to sell on Amazon, compiling and modifying text from other books and online sources such as Wikipedia, to fool buyers or to take advantage of loopholes in Amazon’s compensation structure. Much of the world’s financial system is made out of bots—automated systems designed to continually probe markets for fleeting arbitrage opportunities. Less sophisticated programs plague online commerce systems such as eBay and Amazon, occasionally with extraordinary consequences, as when two warring bots bid the price of a biology book up to $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping).
In other words, we live in Philip K. Dick’s future, not George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s
[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of George Orwell’s novel 1984. I think 1984 is an important dystopian work (although I think Huxley gave us a better book and a more accurate vision in his novel Brave New World). Anyway, I find myself fascinated by one-star Amazon reviews for some reason (see also: See also: Melville’s Moby-Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses and Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress) and to be clear, I think some of the one-star reviews of 1984–including ones I cite here—make some pretty valid points (others are atrocious, of course). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ unique styles of punctuation and spelling].
1984 is a fictional novel by George Orwell.
I don’t really like futuristic based books…
1984 might have been scary 100 years ago, but not now.
…the plot is fairly simplistic but with redundant lines. “Oceania has always been war with Eastasia.” “Freedom is slavery.” “Big Brother is watching you.” In other words, it was nothing but a lot of nonsensical fillers.
I truly believe that Orwell’s sole purpose for writing this novel was to encourage anarchy, and to convince his readers to be subordinate to authority.
The text was so long and unelaborate.
George Orwell is no wordsmith and his style of writing stinks and flows like verbal diarrhea.
i give this book one star i had to read it for class and i know it’s suposed to be a “classic” but god itis awful. first of all its NOTHING like the future is probly going to turn out. second of all every one says the aurthor george orwell is so trippy and wierd but i think he’s just trying to cover up for the fact that HE CAN’T WRITE. please george do us all a faver and stop writing books.
I am not at all intrested in the goverment. This may be part of the reason that I didnt like it.
I personally think big brother is the man.
It is crude, heavy-handed, superficial propaganda.
…a boring, unoriginal one-hit wonder who wanted to make a buck rehashing much-talked-of, much-written-of themes.
It is dark, depressing, and I finished reading it feeling like less of a human than when I started.
Quote from “1984”: “Humanity is nothing more than one man shoving another man’s face in the mud.” So, “1984” tells us that humans are completely useless and we have no reason to exist.
It was just thoughts of a sad man with perverse and suspicouis thoughts. The main character constantly dwelled on how horrible everything was and eventually how he was going to fight against it. But never did, unless you count having an affair and writing in a journal or buying an old paperweight.
Keep your dictionary handy.
I was greatly dissapointed with the redundent and unecessary words.
For me the book took a downword turn during the time where Winston started having a love affair with some girl.
…it doesn’t make any sense to think that a novel like this one is really any better than say, Michael Crichton or Stephen King.
The main character, Winston, daydreams about raping Julia, who later becomes his dirty mistress. Then about a hundred pages later, they get caught by the Thought Police, thrown into “prison,” and are brain washed. That’s pretty much what happens.
…and must we really keep reading in full detail the horror and disgust of Winston’s vericose veins?!
Today, his book is the modern bible of the paranoid disgruntled white male and other conspiracy nutcases.
Human beings are BETTER than this…
In addiction, the contradictions throughout the novel were frustrating.
On the surface it seems to be an interesting glance at the “future” that our grandparents envisioned. This however could not be farther from the truth. 1984 is in fact a lame, boring, and novel that attempts to be philosophical.
…a monumental ode to nothingness, an ideologically streamlined state of unbelievable being.
And please for the love of God don’t read that “Brave New World” book by Hoxley. It is twice as worse as 1984.
Last time I ever read a history book by this Orwell scrub. He doesn’t know a thing about the 80s. Not ONCE did he mention Def Leppard or Karma Chameleon.
The following passage from Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Elementary Particles is part of a dialog between half brothers Michel and Bruno. Otherwise, context unimportant:
When Bruno arrived at about nine o’clock, he had already had a couple of drinks and was eager to talk philosophy. “I’ve always been struck by how accurate Huxley was in Brave New World,” he began before he’d even sat down. “It’s phenomenal when you think he wrote it in 1932. Everything that’s happened since simply brings Western society closer to the social model he described. Control of reproduction is more precise and eventually will be completely disassociated from sex altogether, and procreation will take place in tightly guarded laboratories where perfect genetic conditions are ensured. Once that happens, any sense of family, of father-son bonds, will disappear. Pharmaceutical companies will break down the distinction between youth and old age. In Huxley’s world, a sixty-year-old man is as healthy as a man of twenty, looks as young and has the same desires. When we get to the point that life can’t be prolonged any further, we’ll be killed off by voluntary euthanasia; quick, discreet, emotionless. The society Huxley describes in Brave New World is happy; tragedy and extremes of human emotion have disappeared. Sexual liberation is total—nothing stands in the way of instant gratification. Oh, there are little moments of depression, of sadness or doubt, but they’re easily dealt with using advances in anti-depressants and tranquilizers. ‘Once cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments.’ This is exactly the sort of world we’re trying to create, the world we want to live in.
“Oh, I know, I know,” Bruno went on, waving his hand as if to dismiss an objection Michel had not voiced. “Everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society. This is precisely the world that we have tried—and so far failed—to create.”
Newt Gingrich, a sour, puffy-faced man who somehow retains a platform for his regressive ideas, ruffled a few metaphorical feathers this weekend when he proposed that failing schools (populated mostly by poor children) should fire their janitorial staffs and replace them with child labor. In Newt’s bizarre Dickensian vision, giving these poor children an opportunity to scrub toilets and mop floors (overseen, of course by one non-unionized “master janitor” ) will offer them, I don’t know, bootstraps by which they might pull themselves up. Notice too that his idea also works to eradicate the notion of a free and equitable public education system in this country. And while plenty of folks have called out the sheer regressivism inherent in Newt’s comments, there are far too many people in this country who think it’s not just a solid idea, but a viable plan.
Gingrich’s comments came the same weekend we witnessed police at UC Davis casually dispersing pepper spray into the faces of unarmed, peaceful students. Who were sitting down. Sitting down. The nonchalance that characterizes this particular violence against the students is particularly egregious, but it’s simply part and parcel of a greater wave of police actions targeting dissent in this country. The police themselves are not the ultimate culprit though—they are merely a tool of a corporatacracy that intends to enforce the status quo — namely, the continuing class disparity in this country that will disenfranchise the young in particular. The attitude that allows Gingrich to casually suggest reintroducing normalized child labor is the same attitude that allows one human being to casually spray poison into the face of another human being. Dehumanization underwrites all master-slave relationships.
Dehumanization in political rhetoric is nothing new. Still, I was particularly shocked while watching the Republican Presidential Candidate debate in Las Vegas last month. What shocked me was not necessarily the sentiments (or lack thereof) of most of the candidates (I’m too cynical for that), but the nakedness of their rhetoric. They made absolutely no attempt to rhetorically gloss over their dehumanizing ideas; instead, to the cheers of an audience, they trotted out one dystopian idea after another. (Read the transcript)
Herman Cain hemmed and hawed over whether or not he would build an electrified fence between the United States and Mexico. Perry insisted he would use unmanned predator drones (like the ones we are field testing in Pakistan) to, uh, “patrol” the border. Bachmann bragged about the pledge she’d signed to “build a double-walled fence with an area of security neutrality in between.”
What would a double-walled fence look like? (Especially an electrified one monitored by predator drones?).
What would that area of “security neutrality” look like?
It might resemble the refugee camp in Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian film that engages the fascist future head on.
It’s easy to suggest that this is a hyperbolic vision of amplified grime and violence, an extrapolation of what happens when “security neutrality” becomes the normative space. But consider Ciudad Juárez, the violent Mexican twin city of El Paso, Texas. According to some sources, there have been over 1,500 murders in the first ten months of 2011 alone. Simply put, dystopian spaces similar to the ones we see in Children of Men already exist along the nebulous edges of our country.
Dystopian fiction isn’t solely predictive; rather, its job is to comment on contemporary society. Consider Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. There’s a robot in the movie, sure. But at its core, this is a film about a divided world, a world where an underclass is deeply alienated from the product of their labor. Metropolis depicts a world split into two distinct classes: workers who live underground and managers who live in luxurious skyscrapers.
The manager class in Metropolis (is it too much for me to call them “the 1%”?) exploit the underclass from the comfort and safety of their greenzone. The “greenzone” is an essential component of any good dystopian fiction: this is the place not only of safety, but also of leisure, and hence, the refinement of culture that that leisure can help produce. Again, Children of Men is visually instructive here, in a scene (set to King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King”) that moves from the gritty streets of London (this is the middle class!) up to the gates that protect the aristocracy (notice that there’s a double-wall there folks)—
The great lie that our own “leaders” like to sell us is that we will all share in the greenzone, that we—the prosperous, culturally-normative “middle class”—will all be kept safe from the dirty, dark other that would otherwise seek to overtake our precious space. This is one way that leaders monopolize popular sentiment and consolidate power. We’ve seen this power-grab evince for years now in nebulous unending wars on abstract nouns like “drugs” and “terror,” and it will only continue.
Neil Postman is probably right—our contemporary society is more Brave New World than 1984. Again, the concept of the greenzone is instructive here. Simply put, greenzoning is far more prevalent in BNW than it is in 1984 (along with rigid and hierarchical class distinctions — “Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse”). And it is not so much the greenzone but the idea of getting to share the greenzone that we will latch on to, distracted as we cede hard fought freedoms. We will convince ourselves that a double-fence (electrified and monitored by predator drones) will protect our freedom to be comfortable, even as other walls are built to keep us—and our children—out.
Earlier, I referred to Gingrich and his “plan” to reintroduce 18th century child labor practices as “regressive.” The core regressivism in Gingrich’s ideas (as well as the mentality that allows peaceful dissenters to be shot in the face with pepper spray by those who are supposedly sworn to protect them) is based on the teleological assumption that history is progressing toward some ultimate great grand good. To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek (and others), we need to cognitively remap our psyches here in the great free Western World. We need to return to real history, and lose the teleological illusion of infinite progress.
This is why dystopian fiction is invaluable: with one hand, dystopian fiction offers us the technological progression that we have come to identify with the imaginative space of “science fiction”; with the other hand, dystopian fiction shows us that technological progression is never a good in and of itself. The human position—which is to say humanity itself—is always under threat, and not from technology, but from other humans. How far removed is Newty’s plan for child labor from indentured servitude for debtors? At what point does a “security neutral” zone echo a concentration camp?
I’ll end by contrasting two dystopian visions. One I loathe and one I love.
The one I love is Adam Novy’s 2010 novel The Avian Gospels, a take on power and torture and greenzoning and undergrounding and dehumanizing and rehumanizing. (And birds. Great big flocks of birds). Novy’s novel features children at work, or at least kids of an age Newtykins would have swabbing the proverbial deck, teenagers from both the privileged greenzone and the awful underworld. The Avian Gospels explores the deep humanity of all people and the possibility inherent in all children (don’t worry, it’s never shlocky or sentimental, and deserves a better description than that last treacly sentence). At the same time, Novy’s novel shows the dramatic stakes at heart in the kind of world that dehumanizes children. You probably haven’t read Novy’s novel but you should. I highly recommend it.
You probably have seen (or at least are aware of) the dystopian vision I hate, Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman film The Dark Knight. I’ll concede upfront that the film seems to endorse some level of cooperation between citizens and “noncitizens” in its silly “prisoner dilemma” scene. This scene is the closest the film approaches to representing moral civic behavior, but ultimately it’s more or less another manipulative faux-moral tactic employed to manipulate the film’s audience (the first manipulation being, of course, that they are seeing a “superhero” film, and not a dystopian horrorshow). In truth, the scene invites the audience to identify with the film’s villain, the Joker, or with the fake protagonist, the fascist vigilante Batman (who is, of course, the deluded “alter-ego” of 1%er Bruce Wayne). There’s no moral dilemma; the people are not real people. The Dark Knight is a dark dystopian endorsement of fascism, one that tacitly asks people to kowtow to violent authority even as it pretends to present its “hero” as an outsider. Nolan’s Batman is an extension of Bush’s Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay (just as Obama’s Guantanamo Bay extends GB’s GB). Nolan’s Batman is an extension of the Bush admin’s legacy of surveillance on private citizens. Most of all, Nolan’s Batman is an endorsement of the fake war on terror. The entire movie is predicated upon the idea that justice is relative and can be corrupted (or, in the film’s terms, normalized) by concrete events. The film’s greatest trick is its depiction of the Joker as a terrorist, as an inhuman monster who cannot be understood, who exists outside of the psychological plain of humanity.
Once a human isn’t a human it’s easy to endorse or elect or prescribe or suggest (or ignore) a fascist program for that inhuman human. Like making that inhuman human shut up because you don’t like that inhuman human’s ideas. Or spraying poison into that inhuman human’s face. Or locking up that inhuman human in a zone of vague laws. Or torturing that inhuman human. Or indenturing that inhuman human. Or denying that inhuman human an equitable education. Rhetoric like Gingrich’s is just rhetoric until it worms its way into brains and souls, supplanting human decency, at which point it becomes its own dystopian nightmare.
Stuart McMillen’s webcomic does a marvelous job of adapting (and updating!) Neil Postman’s famous book-length essay, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which argues that Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in Brave New World was ultimately more accurate than the one proposed by George Orwell in 1984. (Via).
A few weeks ago, I saw (and loved) Children of Men, and it reminded me of one of my favorite books of all time, Ape and Essence by Alduous Huxley.
If you’ve only read one book by Huxley, chances are it was Brave New World, an incredibly prescient novel that really “got it right” so to speak–especially when compared to George Orwell’s vision of a dystopian future, 1984. In 1984, Orwell assumes that a totalitarian regime will hide and distort information from a suppressed public, that a Big Brother will watch our every move. Huxley’s BNW posits a future where the public could care less about information at all, a public that willingly cedes an antiquated ideal of “privacy.” In 1984, books are banned; in BNW no one wants to read (and who would want to read when a trip to the feelies provides a total synesthetic experience?)
But where was I…
So. Yes. Hmmm. Ape and Essence. This is a fantastic book, thoroughly entertaining–blackly sardonic, acidic and biting, yet funny and moving, full of pathos and dread and the possibility of loss, extinction, the end of beauty. I have forced this book on just about everyone I know, to the point that it is now Duck-taped together. Ape and Essence is a frame tale of sorts: it begins (significantly, on the day of Gandhi’s assassination) with two Hollywood types discovering the screenplay for an unmade movie called Ape and Essence. Intrigued by the strange story, the two head out to the desert to meet the writer, only to find that he’s recently died. The surreal and imagistic screenplay is then presented uncut as the remainder of the book. Ape and Essence presents an illiterate, post-apocalyptic world where grave-robbing is the primary profession. The hero of the story is one Dr. Poole, a scientist from New Zealand (New Zealand was isolated enough to resist nuclear holocaust) who arrives with a team of scientists to the West Coast of America. Poole is quickly separated from the other scientists and forced into slave labor, excavating graves. He finds a world where people worship the satanic god Belial, who they believe, in his anger, is responsible for the high numbers of genetically deformed children. These children are ritualistically slaughtered in purification rites that frame the social discourse of this New America. Additionally, procreation is proscribed to a two week ritual-orgy; other than this fortnight of lust and blood, sex and love are completely forbidden. The rest of the book details Poole’s infatuation with a woman named Loola, and their plan to escape to a rumored colony of “hots,” outsiders who don’t accept Belial and orgies and book burning and so on.
Like Children of Men, Ape and Essence presents infanticide as the ultimate negation of progress. In both stories, people are both root and agent of their own destruction. But playing against this self-destructive death drive is the drive for life, for beauty, for sex. Neither story is willing–or able, perhaps–to make a definitive statement on which drive will prevail. Both stories resist “happy endings,” or can only be said to have “happy” endings in the simplest of senses. Ultimately, the endings are inconclusive, unsure, tentative at best. Will the human race die out? Are simple gestures of human fellowship, of poetry, of love, are these enough to conquer the infinite infanticide recapitulated within the narrative framework? We leave the theater feeling some hope, we close the book praying (to who?) that the characters will make it to a (never) Promised Land, but somewhere in the margins of our consciousness lurks the possibility of extinction–the predicate of loss that drives any story worth telling.