08 October 2003

Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and the Politics of Dystopia

This morning I had my classes listen to a program on New Hampshire Public Radio which discussed Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. One of the guests on the show was James Patrick Kelly, the best science fiction writer in New Hampshire and one of the best in the world. My students demanded that I call in to the show, and so I did, even though I didn't really have any sort of question ready. Inevitably, I was the first caller on the air, and was rather surprised to suddenly find myself needing to say something, so my question (asking what the perfect audience for the book might be) was hardly brilliant. I was just glad I didn't completely embarrass myself. (The students also demanded that I say hi to Jim to prove that I actually know him. Thankfully, he said hi back, so now my students think I'm Well Connected.)

Most of the discussion on the show wasn't quite at the level I'd hoped it would reach, but it was 9 o'clock in the morning and host Laura Knoy's questions mostly involved such things as, "So was Bradbury right about the world we're living in?" and "How does it compare to the movie?" and "How does reading the book make you feel?" Not the sort of questions I tend to have my students approach, but appropriate ones, I suppose, for public radio. The responses were generally intelligent and insightful, at least within the range of discussion allowed.

There were some mistakes propagated by the discussion -- to be fair, of information which would only be known to people who had seen some of the interviews available on the DVD. For instance, no-one seemed to know that Bradbury supported the decision of the filmmakers to omit any reference to a nuclear war. While I agree that the war is an integral background to the book, and would have added an extra level of meaning to the film, it's unfair to blame director Francois Truffaut completely for the omission. (Granted, it's hardly Truffaut's best film -- I think it was Bradbury who called it a mediocre film saved by a brilliant ending, which, indeed, it does have -- one of the most beautiful last scenes of any film.)

One insight which got cut off by the half-hour break regarded Bradbury's portrayal of anti-intellectualism in the book. This is sometimes missed by readers, who comfort themselves with believing the novel's extrapolations have nothing to do with them because they are, after all, literate and don't spend all of their time watching banal TV shows. But the books are burned not so much because of any inherent qualities books as a medium have, but rather because of what they are capable of doing to a human mind -- making a person engage their brain with someone else's imagination. A film, TV show, or radio program could do the same (some do), just as plenty of books are little more than mucas for the mind. What Bradbury was getting at were the habits of mind which had been discarded by the society in the novel. And, as was pointed out well in the program, those habits of mind disappeared not because of government edict, but because of neglect. The government in the book merely took advantage of a situation which was favorable to their goals. But there's hardly any mention of a powerful government anywhere in the novel, and the only laws we know about are the ones which make books illegal. Popular laws, we mustn't forget.

We're also reading 1984 by George Orwell, a book which is commonly paired with Fahrenheit 451 in people's minds (and which, along with Huxley's Brave New World could be said to be a part of the definitive dystopian literature of the 20th century). The two books have proved to be an excellent pair for inciting discussion, because their two worlds are so vastly different, and yet result from similar extrapolations.

In some ways, Orwell gives us the best analysis of totalitarian impulses (ones indulged in by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, North Korea, and other leaders and countries) while Bradbury shows us a more insidious world, one in which the culture itself, and the apathetic citizens of that culture, created. Both books are novels, works of imagination, and so are full of poetic license and subtle elisions of logic which make them excellent exercises of thought but hardly blueprints or predictions. Arguments that "1984 didn't happen in 1984" and "Fahrenheit 451 is useless because our technology advanced farther than Bradbury predicted" are irrelevant and misguided, because neither author was trying to predict what tomorrow would look like exactly, but rather to critique trends in the world they lived in when they wrote.

We still read these books, rather than other utopian and dystopian novels, because the authors intuitively latched onto trends which still have resonance in today's world. One of my students went to see Michael Moore speak, and she came back excited because his next film is to be titled Fahrenheit 911: The Temperature When Truth Burns and Moore made allusions to 1984 -- she was thrilled to have been able to get his references, and unsettled that they applied so easily to our own world, one vastly different from the ones depicted in the novels.

This, it seems to me, is the value of utopian and dystopian fiction -- they help us think about the elements of our political and social life which affect our everyday lives. What do the choices we make mean? Jim said on the program that what we need is balance, and that he'll be watching the Red Sox tonight without feeling any guilt about helping to create a world like Bradbury's. I'm keeping up with the Sox these days, too, and even though I sometimes grumble about the distractions of our media-saturated culture, a culture of bizarre TV shows which claim to be about "reality", news programs which manufacture more news than they report, brain-numbing sitcoms, and 24-hour sports channels (bread and circuses anyone?) -- it does no good for us to take a dystopian story and say, "It's all coming true! We must change our lives completely!" Rather, we should consider our choices in life and how they affect the world. If Fahrenheit 451 has convinced one person to spend a little time memorizing a poem rather than watching TV for a night, it has accomplished more than thousands of other books have done, and, I would argue, it has made the world a better place. Not because everyone is killing their televisions, but because some people have thought about how they are using their time and how they are finding value in life.

1984 provides more difficult challenges for a reader. It's not an exciting book to read; in fact, it's relentlessly drab and depressing. The insertion of long chapters of Goldstein's book in the middle of the novel was not, I think, a good choice on Orwell's part, because though the excerpts illuminate the world of the novel and move its arguments forward, they're dreadfully dry reading, a massive speed bump for any reader, even ones interested in political philosophy.

However, 1984 is eminently worth reading and re-reading, because it focuses light on external forces which are apparent in any society. It asks, ultimately, how much authority is too much authority? This is not a left or right question, though Orwell's view was notably leftist. As history has shown, totalitarianism can rise up from any ideology -- left, right, religious, secular, etc. The book is, in the end, about power, and about power's need for more power. It would make a fine companion to various writings of Michel Foucault. The final idea of 1984 is that no individual is capable of bringing totalitarianism to an end. It takes organized action by groups committed to maintaining freedom of thought.

But freedom of thought is a frightening thing. Freedom of imagination is equally frightening to the Powers That Be. I once heard Barry Lopez say (I'm paraphrasing), "Fascism is the death of imagination."

Which is why speculative fiction, a literature requiring tremendous imagination from writers and readers, is one of the most subversive genres. Hundreds of novels have been written about totalitarianism, about the emptiness of pop culture, etc. -- but the ones which have had the greatest impact have been SF novels, whether they've been categorized as such or not.

Let's hope none of the dystopias SF writers have created ever come true, while at the same time hoping SF writers will continue speculating about the trends which lead toward dystopia. We could all use some more subversion in our minds.

02 October 2003

Genre, Imagination, and J.M. Coetzee

The announcement that J.M. Coetzee has won the Nobel Prize for Literature is welcome news -- Coetzee is a brilliant, challenging writer, certainly one of the best alive -- and the response to his most recent book, Elizabeth Costello (due to be released in the U.S. October 16), which is sort of a collection of essays disguised as a novel with occasional elements of memoir, shows that the SF field is not the only one challenged and hampered by genre boundaries.

Though, because it hasn't yet been released, I haven't read all of Elizabeth Costello yet, three parts of it have been available for a few years: two chapters of the book The Lives of Animals are included in Elizabeth Costello as well as an essay/story, "What is Realism", part of which has been excerpted by The Guardian. I have read all of these, and look forward to reading the full book.

I thought about the SF world when I read Adam Mars-Jones's review for The Observer of Elizabeth Costello, a review titled, "It's very novel, but is it actually a novel?"

I knew from the title that I would hate the review. It's exactly the sort of question which annoys me most: the attempt to foist a label on something which clearly cannot be labelled.

Coetzee is quite familiar with 18th century literature, literature which acknowledged few genre boundaries. He has even written a book, Foe, which reimagines DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe, a work of fiction originally sold as nonfiction. Hence, Coetzee is not a writer for whom genre boundaries much matter.

Clearly, then, the question in the headline of the Observer review is absurd. No, the book is not a novel in any conventional sense of the term. So what? The question for any reader is, Does this book inspire my imagination, does it raise questions I had not thought of, does it provoke me?

The three chapters of the book that I've read provoke, frustrate, and astound me -- much in the way good contemporary poetry does. I cannot pin them down, they imply more than they state. The problems they raise are not solved, the questions not answered. But they get under your skin if you approach them with an open mind.

Hermione Lee has a far more astute review in The Guardian, a review which engages the ideas of the book without trying to pigeonhole it. We would expect nothing else from the author of the best biography of Virginia Woolf, since Woolf was a writer herself unfettered by boundaries, and the biography quite brilliantly pushes some boundaries itself.

What can the SF field learn from the misunderstandings of Coetzee? Perhaps nothing, except that we are not alone in our struggles against being labelled and stuck in the cross-hairs of the most recent movement of the moment. Writers write, readers read. That is the only law. Let us praise the writers who challenge us and disdain the writers who treat us like small children, easily manipulated, easily fed familiar pap, easily consigned to the shelf of commercial complacency.