Recommended Reading 02, and a warning

2009/04/10

There were three great dystopian novels written in the 20C. All of them, in my opinion, are worth reading, although they are, naturally, quite depressing. The three novels most often cited are the following:

  • 1984, by George Orwell (probably the most well known)
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  • We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin (note: sometimes, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is cited in place of Zamyatin’s novel, as the latter is relatively obscure due to having been originally written and published in Russian)

Each of these novels take place in fictional worlds that, to an outside observer (i.e. the reader), are clearly not utopian visions of society; on the other hand, the majority of the inhabitants of each society view their world as ideal. Each novel features a handful of individuals who slowly discover the shocking truth behind the idyllic facades presented to them by their societies, and attempt to rebel against the status quo. Each society, in turn, maintains its respective facade through various means, and in detail, these are different from one story to the next.

The underlying theme in each society, however, is fundamentally the same. Each society maintains order through coerced conformity, and they generally take extensive measures to ensure this conformity. In the case of 1984, this takes the form of the infamous Big Brother, manifested through the use of extensive surveillance and the manipulation of language and perception. [1] In the case of Brave New World, this is accomplished by ruthless selective breeding, extensive hypnotic indoctrination, and consumption of psychoactive drugs. In the case of We, conformity is enforced by rigid adherence to schedules and efficiency, and the suppression of any expression of individualism (e.g. each individual has no name, only an alphanumeric identity, roughly analagous to identifying ourselves solely via our Social Security Numbers). Regardless of the methods involved, the overall effect is the same: enforced conformity.

Herein lies the basis for the warning alluded to in the title. Rigid adherence to any idea, agenda, belief, etc., has the potential to suppress our capacity for critical thought, and without this ability, we will eventually be unable to notice when the blinders are lowered over our eyes. Critical thought is of vital importance to a free society, as it not only allows us to challenge a proposition that could prove to be deleterious to our society, but also provides us the wherewithal to make that determination, after considering the merits of the idea. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, what worries me in contemporary “debates” about the future of our society is the tendancy for each side to villify its opponents and dismiss the positions of the latter with only cursory consideration (if any consideration is even attempted). Civil opposition is not an evil thing. At worst, it is a source of delay and aggravation; at best, it affords us the opportunity to analyze our own position, and determine its merits in the face of challenge. This does not strike me as an unhealthy behavior for us, as citizens of a rational society.

There are also a few other titles that are worth mentioning:

  • Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; in this case, societal control is established through the suppression of knowledge. This suppression is achieved by burning any and all books, and making reading itself illegal. Fewer rigid controls exist in Bradbury’s society than those in other dystopian societies, but one could also argue that without the proper knowledge, critical thought is practically impossible.
  • Anthem, by Ayn Rand; Rand’s society enforces conformity through the suppression of individualism. One could argue that this is a similar theme as Orwell’s Newspeak, as the individuals in Rand’s society lack the basic vocabulary to describe themselves in individual terms, and think only in collective terms. Like Zamyatin’s novel, individuals are also identified by combinations of random words and numbers, instead of names, again, in an effort to suppress individualist ideation. [2]
  • The Man In the High Castle & Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, [3] both by Philip K. Dick; both of these novels are not quite dystopian in the same sense as 1984, Brave New World, and the like. Rather than depicting totalitarian societies, the societies depicted are more like “anti-utopian” in that they are not ideal visions of society. The former depicts life in a post WWII America wherein the Allies lost to the Axis powers, and consequently, the American continents are splie between Germany and Japan. The latter depicts a post-apocalyptic society that is not so much dystopian as it is simply not ideal, as the surface of the planet has been ravaged by a world war.
  • If This Goes On…, by Robert Heinlein (short story); this story depicts an American theocratic society. While the religion in question is fictional, the story does provide a useful parallel for contemporary Islamist groups who work towards subjugating the entire world under their draconian interpretions of sharia, and the importance of vigorously opposing any such efforts. [2]
  • Dune (and its five sequels), by Frank Herbert; this one can actually go either way, depending on your interpretation of the society presented in the novels. There are strong aspects of feudalism, eugenics, repression, imperialism, and a host of other negative institutions evident in the society that Herbert describes in the series. In some cases, the forces behind these institutions are motivated solely by power and greed; in other cases, there are more altruistic motives involved. One important aspect to note is that Herbert quite admirably presents the complexities inherent in society, and, as often happens in real life, situations cannot easily be differentiated as purely good or evil, but fall somewhere in between.

And that’s all for now. I promise, the next reading list will be substantially more upbeat than this one.

Notes:

[1]: One of the main reasons that I think everyone should read Orwell’s two essays, Politics and the English Language, and The Principles of Newspeak (which is, in point of fact, the appendix to 1984), is that Orwell makes a compelling argument regarding the consequences of manipulated language. Most notably, he argues that language forms the basis of one’s perceptions, and that without the proper words to describe a concept (or using the wrong words to describe it), on cannot even think of the concept, let alone put it into practice. Eventually, I plan on devoting a post to this topic.

[2]: If you’re looking for optimism, these two stories have relatively happy endings (though I won’t detail their resolutions), unlike most of the other dystopian novels.

[3]: Most of you will probably recognize this story from the movie adaptation that was made from the story, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

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