Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Year that Used to be the Future

Last month, a New York Times column complained about children's and YA literature, the kind of stuff GuysLitWire exists to promote. According to the commentary, kid and YA lit is all too dark, filled with too many werewolves and vampires and Death Eaters and too much dystopia. But I wonder exactly what such commentators have against these books, because, while they may involve dark subjects, they pretty much never promote darkness. Rather, just the opposite. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, for instance, is an enemy of the oppressive government and a champion of freedom. Nowhere in Harry Potter is the reader encouraged to be like Voldemort. It's not that the books encourage evil that bothers these critics, it's that they acknowledge it at all. The critics seem to be saying, "Hey, youth of today, stop thinking about this nasty stuff! Be happy and shiny!"

I think this is bad advice. I think we ought to be encouraging kids to read dark, dystopic literature. I mean if there's a zombie apocalypse when I'm old (or older) and I fall down and can't get up, I want the youth of today prepared to deal with the zombie menace, you know?

Ok, maybe a zombie apocalypse is unlikely, but shouldn't we best be prepared? And if you've watched any news at all for the last thirty years or so, you are well aware that there are any number of ways, with or without zombies, that the world can go to H-E-double-hockey-sticks in a hurry. Part of the appeal of dystopic literature is sitting back and thinking, "wow, at least my world is pretty sweet in comparison." But along with that thought there also comes a little motivation to keep the world from going completely awry.

So I don't think there's too much dystopic literature available to the youth of today. Au contraire, there's not nearly enough. I've been waiting a couple of months now for the next decent book about the world going in the crapper and I got so sick of the wait that I went back to the old classics. And I thought any dystopia fans out there might want to do the same. In fact I'm going to use the next several of my GuysLitWire posts to look at some of the best dystopic literature ever written--most of it from the adult section. Today I'm starting with the quintessential work in the sub-genre, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I was alive and relatively aware (attending high school) in 1984 and my world, thankfully, looked nothing like what George Orwell predicted in his 1949 novel. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith works in The Ministry of Truth, a Party bureaucracy created to control information of all kinds. Winston's job is to rewrite history so that it serves the Party in the present moment. His entire life, and everyone else's, is monitored by telescreens which record each person's every movement. He lives in fear of the Thought Police, who drag people away not only for wanting to overthrow the Party but for far less direct "crimes," like falling in love. The lives of all Party members (and all but the poor and uneducated are required to be Party members) must be entirely devoted to Big Brother, the Party's leader. Winston, who hates the party, dares to defy it. He tries to write his personal thoughts and memories down in a diary; he has an affair with a woman; he attempts to join a resistance movement. Rebellion does not go well for him.

In contemporary culture, "Big Brother" from Nineteen Eighty-Four is usually invoked in reference to excessive surveillance, like street corner security cameras or airport body scans. But the surveillance in the actual book--the telescreen which "looks back"--is only a small part of what the Party uses to control it's people. More important is the Party's control of information and the use of culture, lies, language and torture to control the very thoughts of the people under its control.

Yes, today there are security cameras everywhere and that might make you rightfully nervous. But in most ways the1984 of my high school years did not resemble Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the world today doesn't either. Why not? What did Orwell not see? Well, for one thing, information, including the use of cameras, is a two edged sword. In our world, a camera can be turned around to expose a government as easily as to spy on an individual. Leaks of information both into and out of the Middle East are partly responsible for the Arab Spring. Even authoritarian governments like China's are finding it impossible to restrict their citizens' access to information.

Which isn't to say we should not be worried. Those security cameras everywhere are rather ominous. More troubling is our own government's willingness to use and to try to legitimize torture. And there are certainly many attempts by political parties--in or out of power--to lie and to rewrite history. Despite the wealth of information proving them wrong, many are swayed into believing things that have no basis whatever in fact. There are hints of a Nineteen Eighty-Four world lurking just beneath the surface of our own. We are privileged to live in a relatively free society, but it's not to be taken for granted.

The first two chapters of 1984 in graphic novel form are available at http://1984comic.com/comic_book.html if you're into that sort of thing.

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