Dystopia and the Bureau of Labor Statistics
My favorite stories are dystopias. Apparently I’m not alone. Blade Runner, Mad Max, Divergent, Maze Runner, Children of Men, Watchmen, The 100. Such stories are commonplace. Stories that take an aspect of reality – nuclear war, scarcity, disease, infertility – and extrapolate it out to its most extreme.
Dystopian fiction is easily read as caution, but it’s sometimes difficult to know what against. Good authors build worlds that are so absorbing that we have trouble seeing the similarity to our own.
I recently read Paul Auster’s dystopian novel In the Country of Last Things. The novel takes place in a fictional city ravaged by poverty, scarcity, and famine. Auster notes in interviews that very little in the book was invented. He merely stitched true stories from war-torn or impoverished places into a single city and placed a wealthy girl with a European or American sounding name in its midst. The point is not that the city is an illustration of what could be. It’s an illustration of what is already but goes unnoticed.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is newly popular. The story’s salience is obvious. Atwood was inspired by the alliance of religion and conservative business interests in the Reagan years. She describes the natural conclusion of encroachment on women’s reproductive freedom. That flare illuminates every corner of her story. There’s nowhere else to look. Not every story is so accommodating of our attention.
Others build worlds that are engrossing and creative like Atwood’s, but incidental. We are inclined to miss the point. Great stories have layers and we peel back only a few.
V for Vendetta is a deep story about individuals, government power, and resistance. Those themes always land in front of mind. That the battle for control of the government is realized as a battle for control of the media doesn’t. Are television and media so important for us now? Hannity as Prothero?
Suzanne Collins constructs a world so bizarre in The Hunger Games that it’s hard to think of anything but children warring on television for days on end. But not everyone lives in a dystopia. Many bask in opulence and plenty of privileged station. It’s difficult to maintain a dystopia for some without it being quite comfortable for others.
The most ubiquitous of dystopias is probably George Orwell’s 1984. Written in a real world divided amongst superpowers, 1984 considers a world thirty-five in the future. It’s filled with ideas we regard as prophetic and references that since congealed into pop culture.
Big Brother. Newspeak. Doublethink. Even the author’s name now describes something nightmarish and oppressive on a totalitarian scale.
Politicians across the spectrum describe efforts by their adversaries as “Orwellian.” Which is to say “nightmarish and oppressive on a totalitarian scale.” The word is used by political opportunists to describe everything from bipartisan surveillance efforts to defunding the NEA to the Affordable Care Act. But use of the name misses one of the most important points of Orwell’s most famous work.
Orwell would’ve loathed the use of his name in such a way. He warned of communitarian extremes (“Can you not understand, Winston, that the individual is only a cell? Do you die when you cut your fingernails?”) but he was, himself, a socialist. He loathed state violence and travelled to Spain to bear arms against militant fascism, but made clear how authoritarianism was made possible. Language.
Perhaps the most consistent theme in 1984, and the one we self-servingly forget, is the weaponization of language. The way in which government control rests on warped information and words emptied of meaning. The protagonist Winston remembers how rapidly his country Oceania changes alliances and finds itself at war with its opposing superpowers. He recalls when Oceania was at war with Eastasia and allied with Eurasia. But he remarks of the present, “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”
Later, while being interrogated, Winston insists on the immutability of the physical world. His torturer scoffs: “The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them.” He continues:
“How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
Warping truth, sharpening information like a blade, melting fact into fiction, and denying the undeniable are the essential skills of the tormentor.
Orwell’s protagonist is irrelevant. A man of no real consequence who breaks in prison, but that’s not enough for his captor. Repression isn’t enough. Orwell makes a point of The Party’s obsession with actually controlling perception.
Orwell’s dystopia is about violence, hate, demagoguery, and surveillance. But it’s about truth as well. It’s about power’s need to manipulate reality. Two plus two is four. Two plus three is five. Or maybe eighteen to twenty-one. Or perhaps forty or maybe all of them at once. According as we need them.
The allure of violence and control obscures. Our desire to make coercion, intimidation, surveillance, and breaking bones the only repression worth vigilance causes us to exaggerate much and utterly miss the rest. We’ve chosen to fear the hammer and sickle, the revolver and the back alley, Big Brother, and being watched. We’ve chosen to ignore the foundation on which such terror rests so long as the terror itself remains out of sight.