Posts Tagged ‘dystopia’

The Timely, Relevant Handmaid’s Tale

June 4, 2017

Hulu has begun airing a series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the critics are falling all over themselves in proclaiming how timely and relevant the program is in Trump’s America.

The Handmaid’s Tale, for those fortunate enough not to have encountered it, is a dystopian novel set in the “Republic of Gilead”, a future North American nation in which Christian fundamentalists have seized power. Naturally women are horribly oppressed in Gilead, since that is what Christian fundamentalists most like to do. Women are chattel who are forbidden to work outside the home or to have bank accounts. There is an epidemic of infertility caused by environmental pollution and those women who are still fertile are pressed into service as “handmaids” compelled to give birth to women incapable of having their own children. As you can see, The Handmaid’s Tale is timely and relevant, for women living in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. Since Trump hardly ran on a platform of disenfranchising women, the novel is probably not particularly relevant to the experiences of American women, whatever Atwood and her fans might believe.

An everyday sight in Trump’s America

The purpose of dystopian literature, and science fiction in general, is not to predict the future but to highlight circumstances and emerging trends in the present. If it had been Margaret Atwood’s intention to highlight the oppression of women in the Middle East by portraying a similar situation in a more familiar context, much as George Orwell highlighted Stalinist tyranny by placing it in the more familiar context of England, than her effort would be laudable. That is not what she was trying to do. By her own account, she was trying to show what the “religious right” intended to do to women when they gained power. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, at a time when the Moral Majority seemed to be on the ascendant, so it might have been timely and relevant then; except that not a single prominent figure on the “religious right” was proposing anything at all like the subjugation of women in the book. If treating women like chattel had been on the agenda of the Christian Coalition, I doubt very much if it would have had any influence on politics at all. And again, Trump is hardly a fundamentalist Christian, nor did he campaign on reducing women to brood stock as part of his program to Make America Great Again.

This is where The Handmaid’s Tale falls short as a dystopia. A dystopia works by pointing out the most extreme consequences of existing trends. The resulting vision need not be especially realistic. This is science fiction after all. However it ought to ring true. The setting of a dystopian work ought to at least seem possible, based on things already happening

As a man of the left, George Orwell knew from personal experience the totalitarian tendencies of most left wing movements. He knew what he was writing about when he wrote 1984. He was able to make the setting of his novel match the real life circumstances of totalitarian governments like the Soviet Union under Stalin and Nazi Germany. He believed, with good reason, that Britain was heading towards a totalitarian socialist state. We may not currently be living in Big Brother’s Oceania, but in an age of mass surveillance and bigger, unaccountable bureaucracies, we should certainly be aware of the possibilities.

Aldrous Huxley had considered very carefully the possible changes that advancing technology might bring to society. His Brave New World is a study of how advances in contraception, cloning (though the word hadn’t been coined at the time) might change family life. If we can design each person according to plan would we design different people for different jobs? What would the concept of equality mean if some people are designed before birth to be the leaders while others to be workers? Huxley also explored the implications of freedom of thought in a world in which thoughts are conditioned by persuasion techniques far more advanced than the crude advertising and propaganda of our time. You might not need the Thought Police if every thought in every head is put there by years of conditioning. It is possible that something like Brave New World might really be in our future, perhaps closer than we might imagine.

In contrast, Margaret Atwood knew nothing about the goals and aspirations of conservative Christians when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale and there is no sign that she has bothered to learn anything about them in all the years since. Her vision is one that simply does not match the reality. No prominent Christian leader of any sect or denomination has come out in favor of disenfranchising women. Christianity is not the religion that teaches that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s. Historically, women have generally had a higher status in the Christian West than in any other civilization. It is true that women have often been discriminated against and patronized in the West, but women have rarely been treated as chattel or worse to the extent they have in East Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, and especially the Islamic world. It is in the Christian West that the idea that women ought to be treated as actual human beings, and even protected arose. Only in the West could anything like feminism come to be.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantasy. I think it is poorly written, but that is just my opinion. Perhaps others may think it a classic. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the literary quality of the work, but please don’t insult my intelligence by saying it is in any way timely or relevant to contemporary America.

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Meccania: The Super-State

March 16, 2015

Before George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel of life in the totalitarian country of Oceania, there was a similar book written by, Owen Gregory titled Meccania the Super-State published in 1918. Gregory, like Orwell, was concerned about the growth of authoritarian governments in Europe with the consequent loss of freedom during and after the First World War. While Orwell took the contemporary rule of Stalin as his model for Big Brother’s tyranny, Gregory projected the authoritarianism and militarism of Prussia and Germany to what he saw as a logical extreme. By doing, Gregory was able to predict, with astonishing accuracy, many of the features of the twentieth century totalitarian state, which Orwell could observe.

Meccania

Meccania is set in the year 1970 and is a first person account of the visit of a Chinese man, Ming Yuen-hway, to Meccania, a thinly disguised Germany. After visiting Luniland (Britain) and Francaria (France), Ming decides to make a trip to Meccania to see if the stories about the country are true. His difficulties in getting into Meccania and travelling about the country would be familiar to anyone who has tried to visit Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. It is not easy to arrange to get into Meccania and once inside, Ming is accompanied by conductors. He is not permitted to speak to Meccanians without permission and must follow a prearranged tour. He learns that he will not be permitted to take his diary out of the country, especially since much of it is written in Chinese.

In Meccania, Ming discovers a country in which everything and everyone are precisely and efficiently organized. The people are divided into seven classes, from unskilled labor, to skilled labor, artisans, professionals, businessmen, to the military and noble classes at the top. No one is free in Meccania. Everyone eats the food, wears the clothing, works the job, and even attends plays and concerts prescribed for him by the state. There is no private life; the state even requires its subjects, and foreign visitors like Ming, to fill out diaries account for their location and activities throughout the day. No one reads for enjoyment. Every book and children’s toy is educational.

This system began to be put into place by the great Prince Bludiron (Bismark) in an attempt to counter the influence of Spotts (Marx) among the working class. After Meccania’s defeat in World War I, it appeared that all of Bludiron’s work would be dismantled and Meccania would become democratic. Fortunately, Prince Mechow came into power and refined and extended Bludiron’s policies until Meccania became the Superstate. The Meccanians profess to believe that this system is superior to all others and look forward to the day when the whole world is ruled by a superstate.

Owen Gregory displayed a good deal of prescience in this book, at least in so far as the way in which totalitarian states attempt to impress foreigners. There is much that Ming is not allowed to see, but he is a perceptive observer and is able to deduce much that the Meccanians don’t want him to know. Gregory’s predictions are not perfect, however, though when he errs it is usually in underestimating the viciousness of such regimes. He wrote before the Holocaust or the Gulag, so perhaps that is expected. Dissidents in Meccania are not shot or sent to concentration camps. Instead, Meccanian psychiatrists claim to have discovered a mental illness, “chronic tendency to dissent”. Dissenters are placed into mental hospitals until they recover (recant). This is, in itself a remarkable forecast of Soviet psychiatric methods, but Gregory is apparently unable to imagine that a superstate dedicated to efficiency would be so irrational as to seek to eliminate sections of its own population for political reasons.
This Meccanian efficiency is Gregory’s greatest blind spot. He, through Ming, laments the loss of freedom of the Meccanian people and fears that other states might be forced to adopt Meccanian methods in order to compete with Meccania’s military and economic power. If the adoption of a totalitarian superstate really resulted in an increase of industrial and military efficiency, such that the standard of living of even the poorest was improved, then it might be worth the bargain. As it is, the results of command economies, such as the Soviet Union show that a superstate would be anything but efficient. No planners, however sophisticated can easily anticipate the needs of a modern economy and no citizen, however docile, will work as hard doing what the state requires as he would doing what he wants.

Overall, Meccania is a surprisingly enjoyable book to read, better than most dystopias, including 1984. It is a more pleasant book, since the main character is a visitor to the dystopian state not a subject trapped in it. It might is still a timely warning. Communism, Fascism, and other totalitarian systems may have been discredited, except on American college campuses, but the desire to create a super state, for our own good, is still very much in evidence among the do-gooders, the nanny statists, the Bloombergs, and they still bear watching.


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