In the first part of this article, we discussed the first three of the top five Dystopian novels, and more importantly, how for a book to be part of the classic genre, it needs to be “possible.” And perhaps more so, it needs to be immediate. As in, we can see the elements are unfolding around us and the precursors to the tyranny evident in our own times.
The last two books I want to discuss are unique in this realm because of how very close they are to what we see happening around us today. They are not merely fascinating and frightening potentialities but warnings of what is taking place right now, today.
Every few years since its publication in 1953, fearmongers have warned that Fahrenheit 451 by science fiction author Ray Bradbury was on the brink of becoming a reality. In some ways, they were right; we have seen the banning of books or the suppression of ideas in one form or another with startling regularity. But before, it was always specific and targeted. Now, something very different is happening.
The innocuous and the innocent are under attack. I’m not talking about a handful of Dr. Suess books or the campaign against Harry Potter author J.K Rowling for her views on transgenderism, but rather the insidious usage of “lived experience” to demand censorship.
Is lived experience important? Certainly, but only to the individual who has lived it. It is, by its nature, subjective and not, in any way, useful as an objective measure. It may surprise you to hear that nursery rhymes such as “Jingle Bells” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” are now facing the progressive ax. Why? Well, that’s a somewhat complex issue.
“Baa Baa Black Sheep” was, as far back as 1986, considered “racially offensive because it highlights a “black” sheep, which is often used as a way of pointing to an outsider … as in, “the black sheep of the family.” Yet this mid-18th century ditty provides no evidence of racial animus. In fact, black wool was highly prized at the time because it could be processed without the need for dye.
The argument against “Jingle Bells” is even more ludicrous. An American educator (who apparently teaches teachers) claims that the bells in question refer not to those on a sleigh but rather to “black minstrels.”
The point here is that the excuse to sideline or outright ban songs, books, poems, nursery rhymes, and indeed speech can now be an individual’s subjective perspective. Fahrenheit 451 puts the point of this perfectly:
“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”
By erasing or limiting the types of information we receive, we are being mentally castrated. Yes, we know more “facts” and small pieces of information, but we are losing the ability to see in scope and scale. Instead of asking whether something has inherent value, we are asking, “is it offensive to anyone?” or “Will these words set the woke mob on me?”
It is the magician’s art of distraction. Fahrenheit 451 also detailed this bait and switch with the TV walls and the faux harmony of the family sitcom.
This book remains one of the greats of the genre because it is speaking to us directly, now, telling us what is happening and what we must do.
The other book that epitomizes the genre is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Written in 1931, this book shows us the end result of our present actions. We are divided by our groups, Alphas, Betas, Gammas, in the same way, those in power now seek to categorize us by race, gender, or orientation. It’s almost as if the so-called class warfare that begot the labor movement never really happened … We now have a class assigned to us based not upon our earnings or social status but on our immutable characteristics. Some are victims; others are victimizers, regardless of individual actions.
Those unhappy with their state-enforced designation are considered defective. Those who are unhappy with the world around them or their meaningless lives devoid of rigorous pursuit are deemed sick and treated with the latest drug of choice: Soma.
The family connection is not merely discouraged; it is a thing of the past. Think of how disgusted the citizens are when they find that John the savage actually has a mother! The people are encouraged to be promiscuous and not form attachments to one another, but to focus on naught but pleasure, distractions, and work.
Are you finding any of this familiar?
“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”
And what of safe spaces? What of the government stepping in to try and remove simple challenge, when in fact, it is challenge and adversity that makes us better and stronger. Is math too hard? Don’t worry; it must be racist; we won’t grade you on math. Was someone mean to you at work? Please don’t panic; we’ll use the full force of the state and inbuilt societal pressure to demonize that person, so you never have to have a confrontation ever again.
Are we creating a world of people who are secure from failure?
Back to Brave New World for a moment when discussing trials and tribulations:
“The Savage nodded, frowning. ‘You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether ’tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows or outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them … But you don’t do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy.’”
And as we move towards our own Brave New World, it is worth thinking about Ray Bradbury’s words when related to the digitization of books and knowledge. During an interview, he said:
“I still love books. Nothing a computer can do can compare to a book. You can’t really put a book on the Internet. Three companies have offered to put books by me on the Net, and I said, ‘If you can make something that has a nice jacket, nice paper with that nice smell, then we’ll talk.’ All the computer can give you is a manuscript. People don’t want to read manuscripts. They want to read books. Books smell good. They look good. You can press it to your bosom. You can carry it in your pocket.”
A digital manuscript can be scrubbed from a million homes with the touch of a button. It can be erased, censored, cut, and cast down the memory hole in the blink of an eye. But a book … a physical book … can be held close to the breast, passed from one hand to another, read in secret if needs be, and the ideas can be discussed, the sources checked, and the legacy of that literature live on regardless of what those in power may decree.
That is the dystopia we face … that is why dystopian novels are so important; they teach us the one thing that the overarching tyranny would never allow: how to resist the tyrant.
As Bradbury says, “A book is a loaded gun.” And we all know that tyrants first disarm the citizens.
Read more from Mark Angelides.