01 June 2016

Dystopian Essays

What can dystopian fiction tell us about the society in which it is written? What do different approaches reveal about the concerns of the authors and how they want to tackle the underlying threats? What forms of utopia risk degenerating into dystopia?

Here are ten essays on dystopian themes you may find of interest:

'Dystopian Origins: how did we get here?'
: on what gave rise to the dystopian genre.

'The Politics of Control: Huxley, Orwell or Burdekin?': comparing Huxley, Orwell, and their lesser known contemporary, Katherine Burdekin, whose novel, Swastika Night is insightful and terrifying.

'Triffids, High-Rise or Lord of the Flies': on the common themes of lawlessness and disorder in three contrasting novels.

'Utopian Jekyll & Dystopian Hyde': on how utopian intentions can turn into dystopian rule in practice.

'Power Disparity & Dystopian Breakdown': on the central theme of widening power gaps as a precursor to dystopian nightmares.

'The ‘Good’, ‘Bad’ & ‘Ugly’ in Dystopian Fiction': comparing the political targets of different dystopian novels and what they reveal about their authors' attitudes towards social issues.

'Cooperative Gestalt & Dystopian Fiction'
: on the core communitarian themes and their relationship to the cooperative gestalt in the writings of Thomas More, Francis Bacon, and James Harrington.

'Contesting Dystopian Visions': on the recurring dystopian concern with the concentration of wealth in an elite and the consequences for the vulnerable masses.

'Dystopia Goes to Hollywood': a look at the popularity of dystopian films and the opportunities they offer to widen serious political discussions.

'Redrawing the Utopia-Dystopia Roadmap': on some of the ideas that may inform a remapping of utopian and dystopian writings.

30 May 2016

A-Z: 26 Curiosities from Kuan's Wonderland

Here is an A-Z selection of some of the allusions and references in Kuan’s Wonderland that may interest you (before you read on, beware of spoilers):

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: There are echoes of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books throughout the novel. Wu-yin, the white cat morphing into an Alice-like girl is one such moment. A deeper homage is to be found in the closing poem – a variation of the melancholic acrostic at the end of Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

Batya’s pebble: Batya, the orangutan-like outsider asks Kuan to return the emerald pebble to his son, a memento about a father-son relationship the meaning of which only becomes clear when it is no longer in Kuan’s possession.

Camus, Albert (1913-1960): The Rebel and The Plague are major influences on Kuan’s Wonderland; the Clinic for Potokans is named ‘Oran’ after the city where the story of The Plague is set.

Dante’s Vision of Hell (from The Divine Comedy): The 9 Circles of Challenge mirror Dante’s 9 Circles of Hell (hence the use of names such as Minos, Asterion, and Antaeus). What for the Mauveans merits the highest honour is therefore the most unforgivable.

Elephantium: Comparable to any substantial energy-producing substance which has many harmful side-effects, and which enables those who have control over it to enrich themselves and dominate others.

Father: The psychological motif of the novel is the transition from asking, “will father save me?” to “can I save father?”

Guantanamo: A hint to the final destination is given with Kuan, and the two characters who have been steadfast in helping him get to where he will find the truth: Tan and Amo (Note: the ‘K’ in ‘Kuan’ is pronounced ‘G’ in Chinese). A former British resident, Shaker Aamer, was held at the US Guantanamo Bay facilities for over ten years before he was eventually released without ever having been charged with, let alone convicted of, any wrongdoing.

Hades: hell is where the mind is imprisoned with no hope of being released.

• ‘I’m About To Die’: Amadeus’ most heinous retribution is to trap his victim in the inescapable moment before death, so that one is consumed by ever-lasting despair. It captures the state of mind of arbitrarily held and tortured political prisoners.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (1505-1580): this classic Chinese novel (also known as The Monkey King), often available in comic book versions (like the one Kuan was reading), uses the format of a fantasy adventure to tell the story of someone struggling through a long and trying journey to discover vital truths kept in an inaccessible place.

Kafka, Franz (1883-1924): The Trial is an important influence on Kuan’s Wonderland, but it is from the title of another Kafka novel (with its theme of being inescapably thwarted) that a recurring symbol in our novel is derived – The Castle. Kuan’s predicament follows him on the submarine, FSS Castle; the place known as Schloss 22 (‘schloss’ - German for ‘castle’); Rook Mansion (‘rook’ is another name for ‘castle’ in chess); the city of Bastille (‘bastille’ - French for ‘castle’); and with Dr Erica Lee in jeopardy on Chengbao Island (‘chengbao’ - Chinese for ‘castle’).

Long March (1934-1935): The chapter heading ‘Long March’ (referring to the difficult journey for Dr Lee and the Potokans to escape to Chengbao Island) alludes to the historical Long March when the Communists in China, being hunted down by their enemy, escaped on foot over some 12,500 kilometers (8,000 miles) over 370 days. Around 7,000 of the 100,000 soldiers who began the march made it to the end.

Moon: a recurring motif about painful separations. The poem by Su Shi (1037-1011), referred to by Dao in the novel, contains this final stanza,
“人有悲歡離合,
月有陰晴圓缺,
此事古難全。
但願人長久,
千里共嬋娟”
“People may be joyful or sad, together or kept apart,
The moon may be bright or dim, full or hidden from view,
This unavoidably is how it has always been.
Let us hope we endure,
And though far from each other, we can in unison admire the lunar beauty.”

New Beginning: The prophecy of Amadeus demands for its own fulfilment the cleansing of all impure elements in Shiyan so that an imagined past can commence again. It is a staple of religious and ideological charlatans.

Orwell, George (1903-1950): Animal Farm as a political fable in part inspires Kuan’s Wonderland, but it is 1984 which is most strongly echoed. Can you spot where ‘1984’ is displayed in the novel?

Peterloo Massacre: when Dao mentions the name of his uncle, ‘Peter Lu’, to Kuan, the latter is reminded of the Peterloo Massacre, a historical incident that took place at St Peter's Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a crowd estimated to be around 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation (15 civilians were killed and 500-600 were injured).

Quantum Level Nebula: Amo’s home turns out not to be in some far off nebula, but in a tiny space far closer than Kuan could have expected.

Reflectors: This ubiquitous technology, embedded in every reflective surface in Shiyan to transmit and receive all forms of signal, is a reminder of how communications are widely monitored and manipulated in contemporary society.

Shiyan: The name of our dystopian world means ‘experiment’ in Chinese. At one level it represents the plutocratic experiment initiated by Dao (serving as a warning to countries such as China which in embracing it, risks creating oppressive divisions). At a deeper level, it is an experiment for Kuan to see if turning his back on the world he has left behind is a feasible way to cope with the tragedy in his life.

Typewriter: The typewriter motif points to the reason why an innocent person is wrongfully imprisoned in the story. It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, and a downside of that is that anyone typing out unwelcome words can end up being locked up without charge for years.

• “Underground spirits and their reflected sound”: This phrase comes from Terry Pratchett’s word play on ‘economics’ in The Colour of Magic (1983). In our novel, Kuan asked if it was true that such spirits were responsible for bringing Potokans into the world. In fact, it is precisely the economic system that is the cause.

Vortex of Charybdis: The vortex signifies the danger of death by drowning, and is part of the series of incidents throughout the novel which eventually led Kuan to the realisation of what the eerie splashing sound he heard was about.

Wuchang Tearoom: The Tearoom where Kuan met up with Agent Tan to talk about the “mission” gets its name from the Wuchang Uprising of 1911, which heralded the Xinhai Revolution to end the Qing Dynasty and replace it by the Republic of China.

Xian: The character of Chief Engineer Xian (the one with the leopard head atop her human body) shows how dedication to a patriotic or environmental cause can be manipulated into serving the opposite if one does not question what one is being asked to do by those in more powerful positions.

Yearning: Kuan’s and Amo’s yearning to regain the life they have lost provides the emotional engine for our story, propelling us to the shock revelation of what has in truth been lost.

Zamenhof particles: The name given to the particles, which supposedly enable diverse beings to communicate with each other in Shiyan, is derived from Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), the inventor of Esperanto (the international language).

01 March 2016

20 Dystopian Classics: how many have you read?

Dystopian literature emerged in the 20th century. When the optimism for progress in the late 1800s was confronted by a series of unprecedented disasters in the early 1900s, a new genre was born to highlight possible futures and warn against the dangers of misrule.

To look back on the dystopian classics is to revisit the major forms of dysfunctional society, many of which still pose a threat to us today.

Here’s a chronological list of 20 dystopian classics of the 20th century:

'The Iron Heel' (1908) by Jack London.
A group of powerful business people take it upon themselves to get rid of all protection for workers and systematically eliminate anyone who dares stand up against their exploitative regime.

‘The Sleeper Awakes’ (1910) by H. G. Wells.
A man awakes in the distant future to discover that an oppressive regime is now in power, yet when that is overthrown, the new leader betrays the people by imposing ruthless controls over them, provoking a new rebellion.

‘We” (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
A ruling clique seeks to retain absolute power by imposing mass surveillance and stripping people of their sense of individuality. But some people begin to discover there is an alternative beyond their confines.

‘Brave New World’ (1932) by Aldous Huxley.
A hierarchical social system is sustained by dividing all new born into classes with distinct capability, diffusing all potential frustration with a ready supply of pleasure-inducing substance, and promoting a culture of unquestioning contentment.

‘It Can’t Happen Here’ (1935) by Sinclair Lewis.
A politician with the public persona of an affable man-of-the-people gets himself elected as the President, and proceeds to use his power to crush all opposition, while amassing more wealth and power for himself and his cronies.

‘Swastika Night’ (1937) by Katherine Burdekin (writing as Murray Constantine).
The Nazis have won the Second World War and established an enduring regime that exploits non-Germans, marginalises non-Nazis, and dehumanises women. History has been completely rewritten but one man has a true record of the past.

‘Animal Farm’ (1945) by George Orwell.
An allegorical tale wherein the rebel leaders promise equality for all until they have seized power, after which they deviously widen inequality and deepen exploitation until they are no different from those they overthrew.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) by George Orwell.
A regime that turns deception into a round-the-clock strategy, feeds the masses with jingoistic stories, monitors the behaviour of the people, and inflicts psychological torture on anyone suspected of dissent.

‘The Day of the Triffids’ (1951) by John Wyndham.
Disorder spreads when the unforeseen consequences of genetically modified plants, combined with the loss of vision amongst most people, leave individuals exposed to harm until a new democratic sanctuary begins to be developed.

‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1953) by Ray Bradbury.
Society is rendered ignorant by the burning of all books, and control of the masses is reinforced by entertainment that ranges from mind-numbing TV drama and reality shows that focus on the hunting down of those designated public enemies.

‘The Chrysalids’ (1955) by John Wyndham.
Following a devastating nuclear war, a regime rises to impose its own religious orthodoxy on the survivors and eliminate any ‘deviants’ not conforming to the prescribed normality.

‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ (1960) by Walter Miller.
A monastic order preserves fragmentary learning after deadly weapons have wiped out most of humankind, not realising that the fragments contain information that will one day be used by irresponsible rulers to develop and deploy similar weapons.

‘Cat’s Cradle’ (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut.
An ailing ruler controls his people with a mixture of physical threats and the secret promotion of quasi-religious doctrines that will breed a sense of contentment. A substance that can destroy the world then falls into the hands of this ruler.

‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (1968) by Philip K. Dick.
Android slaves are made to do all the dirty work and subject to arbitrarily shortened lifespan. When they question if there should be alternative arrangements for their existence, they are hunted down one by one.

‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (1971) by Ursula Le Guin.
A doctor discovers his patient can alter realities through his dreams, and seeks to change things better for the world and himself. But each attempt to bring about a new utopia is ruined by overlooked details or unforeseen twists.

‘The Running Man’ (1982) by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman).
In a society structured purely for the profit of rich corporations, a destitute man is forced to go on a reality TV show where he will get money to pay for his sick wife’s treatment, if he survives being hunted down by professional killers.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1985) by Margaret Atwood.
An oppressive regime uses force to quash dissent and deploys religion to reduce women to the roles of wives, child-bearers and servants. A resistance movement emerges but it is hard to tell who fights for it and who is a government agent.

‘The Children of Men’ (1992) by P. D. James.
As for some unknown reason, children can no longer be conceived, the government takes on absolute power to determine whose lives are to be curtailed, and what to do about the dwindling labour supply and the end of the human race.

‘Parable of the Sower’ (1993) by Octavia E. Butler.
With the extreme rich living in their own protected domain, everyone else descends into abject poverty, with many becoming vulnerable to being robbed and killed by others. A young woman hopes to escape and build a new, fairer community.

‘The Ice People’ (1998) by Maggie Lee.
In a bleak future where, in the midst of the returning ice age, men and women are divided into antagonistic camps, food is scarce, robotic pets are turned into killing machines, lawlessness threatens to destroy everyone.

11 January 2016

The Politics of Control: Huxley, Orwell, or Burdekin?

Talk about writers of dystopian novels, and the two names that come up most will be those of Huxley and Orwell. And there’s the perennial debate about which out of ‘Brave New World’ (1932) and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) gives the more prescient warning.

Over decades much has been made of the contrast between the Huxleyan vision of control through artificially induced contentment, and the Orwellian nightmare of control through fear and surveillance.

In ‘Brave New World’, a stratified society ensures the lower classes are systematically disadvantaged and kept from rejecting their station in life by a false consciousness generated by a supply of cheap pleasures. It is so inescapable that the rebel in the story gives up all hope of defying it and commits suicide. In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, a rigid hierarchy diverts the masses with sensationalist media stories and jingoistic propaganda, while intrusive surveillance and psychological torture combine to crush the spirit of the would-be insurgent.

However, one key aspect of the politics of control that neither Huxley nor Orwell dealt with is that which was the subject of the novel, ‘Swastika Night’ (1937) by their contemporary, Katherine Burdekin (who wrote under the name of ‘Murray Constantine’). In her novel, Burdekin depicted a world in which the Nazi Party not only won the Second World War but went on to keep control of its oppressive empire for centuries by means of a dehumanising hierarchy. Under this system, gender and ethnic differences are turned into markers for separating the privileged upper class Germanic males from non-Aryan males, who were treated with disdain; and women, who were deprived of all respect and used to breed labourers for the working class, and heirs for the elite.

Instead of crowning Huxley’s or Orwell’s as the definitive vision of dystopian politics, we should consider them alongside Burdekin’s. The three together provide a more comprehensive and accurate picture of how the nightmare of oppressive control may come about. All three set out a callously demarcated system wherein the few at the top can do as they wish, and the lower down you go, the more you have to do as you are told – no question asked.

But each of the novels elaborates on a different approach the powerful uses to maintain their hegemony over others. Huxley highlights how superficial pleasures can divert rebellious impulses into mindless indulgence. Orwell draws out the systematic deployment of fear as a weapon to eradicate dissent. Burdekin shows us how a myth of superiority/inferiority can be inflated by stoking latent prejudices until it becomes a key lever to deepen submission.

Oppressive regimes that endanger society will not exclusively take just one of these dystopian forms. They will almost certainly combine elements from all three. Fundamentalism has nothing to do with whether someone is wearing a keffiyeh or a suit. Just look out for those espousing such views: preserve privileges for the lucky few and deny them to the majority; deregulate the market for cheap pleasures irrespective of the consequences; expand mass surveillance without any corresponding increase in public accountability; prolong detention without trial; bring in ever harsher punishment; demonise ethnic minorities; deprive women of equal respect and control. They are the ones we must guard against.