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How Soon is Now?

By Michaela Gray

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Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

We can't talk about any dystopian society without Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. This book is the reason why whenever we read about breaches of privacy, someone, somewhere, will call the laws or government that allowed it, "Orwellian".

 

Everyman Winston Smith inhabits an almost totally privacy-free world crammed with hidden and not-so-hidden cameras (including in his apartment) through which everyone is monitored by Big Brother, leader of the Inner Party, which runs the country. Big Brother may or may not exist as an individual, but the faceless Party certainly does.

Michaela Gray explores the often-scary relevance of SFF classics to the politics of today.

 

Remember when science and speculative fiction promised us a future full of shiny flying cars and jetpacks? Unfortunately, if you're under 60, that promise was to your parents, not you. We, my friends, were promised a dystopian future in which the biggest danger to our safety and general wellbeing is our own government. Sadly, while the future never did deliver those flying cars (although I'm still holding out for a hoverboard), it's well on the way to delivering the kind of dystopian world we all love to read about. Welcome to the future. Please make yourselves comfortable while we take a look at a few dystopian novels which aren't looking so futuristic anymore. And pay attention. We'll know if you don't...

1984

While the UK isn't quite as ahead of the curve as the US, with its controversial Patriot Act (allowing the FBI to access phone, email and finance records without a warrant and indefinitely detain suspects), many in our government are calling for a return of the Communications Data Bill, also known as the Snoopers' Charter. The Snoopers' Charter would mean that details of our every email, website visit and social media log would be routinely recorded. Given the government's enthusiasm for repealing the Human Rights Act and David Cameron's own words: "For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens 'as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone'," handing over a huge amount of personal data including details of our religious and political beliefs, health and finances, just seems like making Big Brother's job far too easy - not to mention a slippery slope to the Thought Police who (spoiler!) caught up with poor Winston.

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The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986)

Atwood has stated in interviews that she writes speculative fiction, and that while The Handmaid's Tale was not based on anything which had or was happening, it was rooted in legislation; just because it hasn't come to pass yet, doesn't mean it can't.

 

Offred is a woman from whom everything has been taken, beginning with access to her bank account. She has no rights and does not own so much as her body, being kept as a reproductive concubine. She doesn't even have her own name, instead being named for her father - "Of Fred". This is because she lives in the Republic of Gilead, a country controlled by puritanical, Christian fundamentalist principles.

While The Handmaid's Tale is almost as old as I am, women's rights have been slowly but surely taking some very troubling steps backwards. Perhaps the worst example of religion and politics combining to the detriment of women was in 2014. The landmark Burwell v Hobby Lobby case saw an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act result in the US Supreme Court ruling in favour of Christian chain store Hobby Lobby, who no longer have to provide contraception for its women employees as part of its health care plan. The "war on women" doesn't sound so much like hyperbole now; removing easy and cheap access to birth control for low-paid women effectively removes their control over their own bodies and lives; and where the US goes, the UK is often quick to follow.

The Running Man by Stephen King, writing as Richard Bachman (1982)

The Bachman books are pacey, punchy and in the case of The Running Man, frighteningly prescient, yet often overlooked both by fans of King and fans of dystopian fiction.

 

Set in the US in the year 2025, the economy is in tatters, and unemployment and violence are rife. The poor are seen as sub-human, and segregated from the rich, except when they're used in game shows as entertainment. Ben Richards becomes part of this class when he loses his job. Without welfare and with a sick baby, he becomes a contestant in a game show called The Running Man.

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It sounded enjoyably far-fetched when I first read it in 1997. Yet, here we are with a shaky economy and high unemployment, and the poor are the first to feel the pinch. In the UK, we've had the introduction of the Bedroom Tax, numerous benefit cuts, Public Space Protection Orders that mean the homeless can be fined for being homeless, and Jobseeker's Allowance sanctions that lead to tragic cases like that of David Clapson (an ex-soldier who died because a missed appointment with his Job Centre meant he couldn't afford to keep insulin in his fridge) while the rich are given tax breaks. With news that the BBC is planning a game show in which the contestants are benefit claimants who compete against each other for the prize of £15k and the title of "Hardest Grafter", maybe King's vision of 2025 wasn't that far off.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

It's much easier for your average dystopian government to control its citizens if they're all on the same page, so it's not surprising that a lot of dystopian novels focus on government attempts to control what we read. While Bradbury has stated that Fahrenheit 451 is more about the idea that TV will destroy literature, it’s also a great example of the fear of government censorship.

 

Guy Montag is a fireman, but not as we understand the term. His job is to burn books, because in his society, books are banned in the name of public happiness. Citizens are instead fed a diet of brainless mass entertainment and anti-depressants.

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The modern bogeyman for governments is the internet. So far it has proved almost impossible to police (which has both its pros and cons) but that doesn't mean that various governments haven't had a really good try. The most extreme example is probably The Great Firewall of China, which filters key words such as "democracy" out of internet searches and blocks access to numerous websites; even Google is no longer allowed. However, we in the UK shouldn't get too complacent. The coalition government implemented filtering of internet pornography in November 2013, no matter whether individuals wanted such protection or not. The filter also inadvertently blocked sites providing sex education and charities. Allegations that blocking sites providing information to the LGBT community could breach the Equality Act resulted in no more than further work on the filter, which was still being criticised earlier this year. Watch this space.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (2008-2010)

Any dystopian government worth its salt will keep its citizens in line in a number of ways, law enforcement being one of them. Police states and martial law are therefore a common theme in dystopian fiction.

 

In The Hunger Games, they're called "Peacekeepers". At first they seem fairly benevolent, turning a blind eye to Katniss poaching to feed her family; later, when she inspires the beginnings of a rebellion in the Capitol, they become a militarised force who answer everything, from small signs of defiance to riots, with extreme violence.

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While only published recently, The Hunger Games is a great example of this form of control becoming reality because it is so similar to the events in Ferguson in 2014, which most of us in the UK would never have imagined happening in 2008. Initially peaceful protests following the shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer were met with an intimidatingly militarised local police and tear gas, sparking civil unrest which is ongoing today. This is less surprising when you know that the 2014 American Civil Liberties Union report found that US police have become excessively militarised with arsenals of explosives, tanks, and assault rifles often bought cheaply from the US military and routinely used in underprivileged communities of colour. The report states, “militarisation encourages officers to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies.” In other words, if all you have is a hammer, everything, including the citizens you are supposed to protect and serve, looks like a nail.

 

 

Dystopian novels are more popular now than ever, despite the often depressingly bleak picture they paint of the future, and just how uncomfortable it can be when they hold up a black mirror to current events. This is could be partly due to the vicarious pleasure we take in reading about the challenges of others while we sit comfortably at home, but mainly, I think, the root of our obsession is that we know these stories serve as a warning of what could happen if we are not watchful of those in power. They are horror stories which could become a reality, and humanity has always dealt with its fears by telling stories about them.

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