74. Biting through (III)
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Anyone setting out to write good dystopian science fiction needs to observe their own time and then describe it, merely adding a little exaggeration and development of social views and technology. The act of prophecy is the act of transcription. The prophets of the Old Testament were not men who saw the future; they were men who remembered the eternal truths and stated how their societies had departed from those truths. If those societies collapsed, it was not because the prophet literally foresaw the collapse; he simply knew that any society whoring after strange gods had, in the past, collapsed. When the prophet saw the same thing happening around him, it was no great leap to predict the same outcome as before. The prophet is, therefore, the man with his eyes open—or perhaps just one eye open, sometimes that is enough.
The contemporary West is a combination of three novels published over the 20th century. From 1984, we take language control and the circulation of elites; from Brave New World, we take empty consumerism and mass pacification through drugs and easy sex; from A Clockwork Orange, we take our therapeutic state and casual violence—especially among young people.
The antonym to these three novels is The Handmaid’s Tale. This novel, the only one written by a woman, is an act of imagination and desire. It describes a world that has not existed in the West for centuries and only exists in Iran now. It is not a descriptive novel; it is a novel designed to warn and control the Western intelligentsia against backsliding into forbidden modes of thought. It is a prison, not a liberation. It is also, subconsciously, an expression of female desire: the desire to be captured and raped by a strong and handsome man—firm in his faith—and forced to bear his children. This, along with the security of a traditional society, is the secret and unspoken desire of Western women, a desire expressed by Handmaid.
The world of 1984 is post-war Britain combined with Orwell’s experiences in the Marxist left, the BBC, and the Spanish Civil War—and particularly the world of the Hampstead intelligentsia. This is a world of shortages and grime. It is not our world, the 21st-century world of shiny gadgets and the Internet. What we take from 1984 is a facility for manipulating language and a partition between the Inner Party, the Outer Party, and the Proles—each group with a different relation to what they may say about, for example, transsexuals. We are also, in post-Soviet times, cynics about the circulation of elites described in 1984: there is no utopia and economics does not mean much—only the ideological purity struggle within the top 10% matters.
In terms of everyday life, we live in Brave New World. We are consumers first and we distract ourselves with orgies and audio-visual spectaculars and, if feelings intrude, we take a pill and it is all better. We look forward to genetic manipulation. Unlike 1984, ours is a clean world of plenty—it is just that the plenty is empty, and our thoughts are policed. The difference is that our technocracy does not function perfectly; we balk at real eugenics and clever mass control, we are more incompetent than Brave New World.
Our state is not like the state of 1984, nor is it the perfect technocracy of Brave New World. Our state is the flawed therapeutic state of A Clockwork Orange. We do not execute violent men; we reform them with drugs and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; except, as with the novel, our technocracy is imperfect—perhaps due to its Orwellian thought control—and so no criminal is ever reformed; they just learn to excuse themselves in therapy-speak. Our manipulation of violent outsiders destroys the criminal instincts that Nietzsche knew were necessary for great art—for a bit of the old Ludwig van. All this is mediated through a thick urban argot that is obscure to the higher classes.