is, apparently, that we are at risk of becoming a slightly weird version of fundamentalist Islam.
OK, that’s not really what this post is about, but I had to at least say it: all the hand-wringing that The Handmaid’s Tale is “eerily timely” (a quote from a review that appears repeatedly as an ad in my, and probably your, twitter feed) themselves seem eerily out of place in that they ignore the fact that the components of Atwood’s dystopia are found in the present-day Islamic world, from the sex slaves of ISIS to the male-guardian requirement of Saudi Arabia to the continued subjugation and exclusion from education of girls in much of Afghanistan.
The only part of her premise that I find particularly interesting is the question, “what would happen to society if infertility skyrocketed?” Now, the way she answered it, that somehow the women in power/married to men in power were all infertile, and only the underclasses were fertile, is also an odd plot device, but it would be disruptive to society in a pretty major way — though in her envisioned environmental catastrophe, it’s more likely that the majority of the population would have highly diminished fertility, rather than there being two classes of fertile and infertile.
But of course, Atwood’s objective is not to warn others of the perils of what she imagines to be our path to theocracy. Or, at any rate, that’s now how her book is perceived. Rather, its function seems to be to give comfort to feminist-activists, to assure them that their cause is just because The Enemy is indeed so evil that they’re just one step away from full-on theocracy, and that their opponents are indeed so vile that, if they could manage to gain total power, they would subjugate women in hideous ways.
Which is, of course, why they don’t see the parallels to Islamic societies; that’s not where their attention is. It’s directed at their political opponents. (It’s like the old Cub Scout skit of someone looking for a lost item by the streetlight “because that’s where the light is.”) The status of women elsewhere isn’t a part of their story, their fight, and a novel about those other women wouldn’t serve the same purpose of affirming the rightness of their own cause.
And what about other dystopias?
Are they warnings, or are they affirmations?
George Orwell wrote 1984 in response to his fear that English socialism could one day become as totalitarian, as the Soviet Union already was. There’s a lot of content in the novel that’s rich for exploration, including Newspeak and the idea that the rulers were changing the very language itself so as to prevent the formation of anti-government thoughts. But I don’t think anyone has ever had the self-awareness to perceive that Orwell’s caution applies to their own speech and actions, just their political opponents.
Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World even earlier, and, while in many ways it seems a more accurate forecast of the world to come, with its conception of a populace that’s perpetually content (is pot taking on the role of soma in Huxley’s world? is the hook-up culture Brave New Worldian?), Wikipedia suggests that there was no particular impetus to his writing than that he thought it was an interesting set of ideas to work out.
Social critic Neil Postman contrasted the worlds of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World in the foreword of his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. He writes:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
Journalist Christopher Hitchens, who himself published several articles on Huxley and a book on Orwell, noted the difference between the two texts in the introduction to his 1999 article “Why Americans Are Not Taught History”:
We dwell in a present-tense culture that somehow, significantly, decided to employ the telling expression “You’re history” as a choice reprobation or insult, and thus elected to speak forgotten volumes about itself. By that standard, the forbidding dystopia of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four already belongs, both as a text and as a date, with Ur and Mycenae, while the hedonist nihilism of Huxley still beckons toward a painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus. Orwell’s was a house of horrors. He seemed to strain credulity because he posited a regime that would go to any lengths to own and possess history, to rewrite and construct it, and to inculcate it by means of coercion. Whereas Huxley … rightly foresaw that any such regime could break because it could not bend. In 1988, four years after 1984, the Soviet Union scrapped its official history curriculum and announced that a newly authorized version was somewhere in the works. This was the precise moment when the regime conceded its own extinction. For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.
(See the link for its internal links and footnotes.)
More recent is Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games trilogy, about which she has explicitly said that she drew inspiration from American reality television, and about which others have claimed similarities. Ironically, though, at the time, critics were drawing connections between reality TV as it existed at the time, and the Hunger Games competition, in order to criticize reality TV-watching, but the idea of citizens of the Capitol joyfully watching the suffering of others really seems to have, in fact, foretold the newest iteration of public facebook postings of horrific crimes — though, to be sure, I can’t say that I recall any reports of these posts being viewed and shared by an enthusiastic audience, so much as the ultimate horror when they’re reported in the news.
So, readers, this is where I start my workday and ask you: what dystopias speak to you? And are they warnings or affirmations?
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWomen_in_burqa_with_their_children_in_Herat%2C_Afghanistan.jpg; By Arnesen (Woman and Children) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons