Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reading list for our new dystopia.

Occasionally, as folks have stopped to take a breath during this last chaotic week, some have recommended one or another (or more) novels that speak to a society sliding into authoritarianism. The one most often cited is George Orwell's 1984, and in fact, in the wake of Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway's coining of the term "alternative truth," it vaulted it to the number-one spot at Amazon (it's currently at number two).

While 1984 is significant for a number of Newspeak concepts it introduced to common usage, including the phrase Big Brother is watching you, it doesn't cover everything that's going on right now. So here's a short list of other dystopian books I've either read or had recommended to me over the years. The majority were written back in the 1930s and 1940s, when Communism was taking hold in Eastern Europe and authors were concerned about whether it could happen in their own countries.

1. Another book by Orwell, Animal Farm, is perhaps more relevant to the current political climate in the United States. I read this book when I was in the fourth grade (long story why) but didn't fully realize what it was about until many years later: a group of farm animals decide their farmer is a horrible dictator and overthrow him in order to gain their freedom. They agree on a set of rules to live by, which are painted on the roof of the barn. Pretty soon, though, the pigs -- who were given the farm's administrative role -- decide to take advantage of the other animals, and conditions become worse than they were when the farmer was in charge. And before long, the animals notice that their new society's number-one rule has been amended; to the original, "All animals are equal," has been added, "but some are more equal than others."

The book is a satire based on the Russian revolution in 1917 and the nation's subsequent descent into Communism. But it's a case study for what can happen when someone unscrupulous hides behind the banner of freedom.

2. Another title folks have been mentioning is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In the novel's consumer's paradise, everyone is blissed out on a drug called soma. They all love their jobs and, in their spare time, pursue mindless activities cheerfully -- all except for Bernard Marx, a psychologist who knows too much about how society is kept in line. He and his girlfriend travel from London to visit a Savage Reservation in New Mexico, whereupon they discover a non-native woman and her son, whose name is John. The young man is the natural child of Bernard's boss, which is scandalous because sex is all for fun now and nobody has children the regular way anymore. Bernard and his girlfriend bring John and his mother back to London, and from there the novel is about John's inability to integrate into this new society.

Brave New World was prescient in its depiction of our consumer culture -- but we've yet to get to the point of mass hypnosis or mass medication, unless you count TV. Still, it's relevant. I remember liking it better than 1984 when I read both of them in high school.

3. I read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 earlier -- in junior high. The main character here is Guy Montag, a fireman somewhere in the American Midwest. His job is not to put out house fires, though, but to burn books. The novel's title is the temperature at which paper ignites. In the dystopian society of this novel, the government controls all information, and TV is the opiate of the masses. Guy begins to question the party line, and begins collecting books himself -- and that's when his life begins to unravel.

Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World are often mentioned together as the classic dystopian triumvirate. Bradbury's book is the newest of the three -- he wrote it during the McCarthy era in the 1950s -- and it ends on the most hopeful note. One character likens civilization to a phoenix that forever reinvents itself, ideally without the flaws that doomed the last go-round.

4. I'm going to add just one more to this reading list: It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. I have never read this one, but it's next on my list due to recommendations from a couple of people. Here's part of the description from Goodreads: "Written during the Great Depression when America was largely oblivious to Hitler's aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a President who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press."

Sounds astonishingly relevant to what's going on today, doesn't it? I'll let you know what I think when I'm done.

I'm sure you all have suggestions to add to this list. Have at it.

These moments of dystopian blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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