Category Archives: Dystopia

Orwell’s Powerful Premonitions

As a fiction reader, I sometimes experience confusion about what is real and what is not real, and this double consciousness can be dizzying — I’m seeing things for the first time, but they don’t feel new to me. I can’t deny that fictional stories have often informed how I experience my real life. When I meet new people or listen in on conversations, read the news or travel to new places, I feel a quickening in my mind as I shuffle through images and impressions of similar people, conversations and places I have read about in fiction.

I was holding back from writing about George Orwell’s postwar novel 1984 because the parallels are so evident and are already being explored by many smarter than I (see the great piece by Adam Gopnik that came out this past week in The New Yorker). But after this week, with the closing of our borders, the proliferation of blatant dishonesty, and the reversal of policies and protections that benefit millions of people, I decided to choose a single passage from the novel to help me illustrate the power of Orwell’s story.

To be sure, Orwell’s book offers a number of resonant passages. Where he explores the internalization of guilt and shame that comes from always being watched and recorded by the Thought Police. Or the systematic way in which the Ministry of Truth disseminates lies by editing, revising, and ultimately erasing history. Or the passage describing the hypnotizing effect of the Two Minutes Hate, when citizens get riled up and furious at a made-up enemy and then slide back into servitude and submission to the nonexistent Big Brother. All feel appropriate.

But I’m going with one concerning Winston’s neighbors, the Parsons. I’m choosing it because of all the things I am confounded by right now, the biggest one is this: when we close our borders, when we villify others, when we reverse laws that were put into place to protect human and civil rights, when we confuse and cajole people into questioning their own ability to discern the truth, I wonder, what are we teaching our children?

The passage goes like this: in the midst of writing his rebellious thoughts in a forbidden journal, Winston is summoned to his neighbor’s apartment to help Mrs. Parsons with her kitchen sink, which is clogged with cabbage leaves and human hair. Her husband is at work but her children are home, and they are both excitable and mean. The nine year old boy sees Winston helping his mother and says, “Up with your hands!” Holding a toy gun, he threatens Winston in a very real way: “You’re a traitor! You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!”

Mrs. Parsons explains that the children are angry because she didn’t let them witness a public hanging. They are members of the Spies, a state-sponsored youth group, where they have been encouraged to verbalize, and act upon, their every violent and suspicious whim. Winston thinks, “With those children, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy… It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak — ‘child hero’ — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.” Indeed, these Parsons children turn in an old man for being old and later turn in their own father who, along with Winston, is tortured and reprogrammed to properly love Big Brother.

In 1984, Orwell chillingly depicts what happens when a pernicious education takes hold of society’s children, and we need to pay attention to it even though — precisely because? — it is fiction. And we need to ask ourselves, what are our children learning from us right now, in real life?

Yes, It’s a Thing

I really loved a recent article by Alexander Stern in the New York Times titled “Is That Even a Thing?” I had started using the question myself (“Wait. Is that even a thing?”), but I hadn’t stopped to think about what I was really asking. Stern’s article made me think more about, well, this whole thing, the asking about what is and isn’t a thing.

Stern says that “we [ask] about a thing because we are engaged in cataloguing.” I agree that we have a deep and innate desire to put things in their places, to order our world. And we can’t begin to do so until we have decided what things are worth our attention, until we have tried to group those things that are in our grasp.

The work seems that much harder—perhaps even different—when there is nothing to actually hold in our hands. So many of the things we consider to be “things” today aren’t things at all—they aren’t tangible artifacts or touchable realities. They are literally ghosts in the machine, passing digital trends, fads, or phenomena. In Stern’s mind, ours is a world “gone to pieces,” where things are not always real enough or real at all, leaving us in a constant state of bafflement and ironic detachment as we try to cope with what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “unreal reality.” Still, we try to flag it or file it.

An antidote to some of this confusion came to me when I saw a student approaching my office on Monday morning with a laundry basket filled with, of all things, things. She had decided to use a laundry basket to transport her final project to school. Her final project was a collection of things that she had collected to pay homage to the Museum of Civilization featured in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Elevenwhich she had just finished along with Lily King’s Euphoria and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Two of these novels are distinctly dystopian, revealing the ways in which society is restructured in the aftermath of a cataclysmic break of some kind (pandemic in one case; culture war in the other). The other features a culture clash of sorts in which Western and aboriginal notions of civilization are put in dramatic juxtaposition. My student wanted to explore her own ideas about what constitutes her civilization and how it impacts her and she, it. So she collected meaningful artifacts, gathered them up, and brought them to school: her grandfather’s typewriter, which she frequently uses; a dream-catcher; one red Chuck Taylor high-top sneaker; a music box with a spinning ballerina and two black and white photographs of her parents when they were younger; a vinyl record that a friend made for her; an iPhone; a Rubik’s Cube.

It was more than fun to look at these things together. We spent time talking about how important the curator is to the exhibit, just as the author is crucial to the story that is told. We discussed the importance of historical context, and also how some things—jewelry, toys, cooking utensil—are as old as human time itself.

In this age of fleeting impressions and impermanence, I find myself challenged by the simple question of whether something is a “thing” to me or not. That’s probably why I got so much comfort looking at my student’s basket of things. In that moment, I felt that it was at least possible that the answer to this question is a lot simpler than the question itself.

Our Warm Planet

I didn’t love Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Yes, I was struck by the dystopian aspects of life on earth – the rolling waves of dirt that blot out the sun, the futility of working an arid farm – but that was less significant to me than a single moment on the cold and distant planet that the hero, Cooper, travels to.

Cooper and his colleagues voyage on the spaceship Endurance to the outer reaches of the galaxy searching for a new home for humanity. They believe that an astronaut from a previous mission named Mann may have found a hospitable place, but – spoiler alert – they are wrong. It is a barren world of ice and wind.

When Mann is awakened from the chemically induced sleep he’s been in for years, he is so happy to see another human face that he cries.

I was reminded of countless literary heroes – Odysseus and his more modern iteration, Leopold Bloom, for example – who fall to pieces in the presence of the people or places they have been pining to see. Indeed, many of the best stories have both adventure and homecoming.

In his beautiful poem, “Birches,” Robert Frost paints a different picture of an iced-over world. For him, it is a playground for a young boy who doesn’t yet know the cares or woes of adulthood. But even so, at the end of the poem Frost says that while he’d like to climb to the top of a birch tree again, he’d want to be sure to be able to get back down.

“Earth’s the right place for love,” he concludes.

Like the boy in Frost’s poem, we want to travel and explore, but perhaps our ability to do so depends on our ability to remain connected to our warm planet, and each other.