David Kubicek

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Archive for the category “Speculation About the Future”

A Dystopian Novel Reading List

In observance of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, which will be coming up soon, here are a few dystopian stories you might like to check out. A dystopia is a world where something, to use the technical term, has “gotten out of whack.” It is an unpleasant place, usually an extrapolation of what our future could look like if current trends continue. The disturbing thing about some of these stories is how many of these visions already have come true. For instance, in Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, Ray Bradbury predicts interactive television, although it is a klunky version of interactive television because he did not predict digital technology. In that same novel, Bradbury envisioned reality shows and that entertainment media would become a major focus of many people’s lives–he also predicted our fascination with large screens, except his screens weren’t 50, 60 or 70 inches–one of his screens made up the entire wall of a home, and families saved to up to turn all four of their parlor walls into TV screens.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it contains some of the most memorable dystopian visions created over the past century.

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924): This novel was completed in 1921, only three years after the Russian Revolution. In those early days, there was still a little freedom left in the Russian literary world, but the New Order was clamping down hard. We was not published in Russia (and as far as I know it has not been published there to this day), although it was published outside of the former Soviet Union, and Zamyatin (who asked to leave Russia and, surprisingly, Stalin let him in 1929) is better known in the West than in Russia. We depicts a totalitarian society where everyone has a number, not a name, and conformity is the norm.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932): This one is about a 26th Century society that worships technology and conformity. The main character is Bernard Marx, an Alpha who is different from others in his caste. When Bernard returns from vacation–to a  “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico–with a savage named John, he basks in his short-lived notoriety. But the meeting of the two worlds does not work out well for either of them.

1984, by George Orwell (1949): Shortly after Trump took office, this novel shot to number 1 on the Amazon best seller list, an extraordinary feat for a novel that was first published more than 60 years ago and had long been relegated to the list of books that are assigned in English classes but that few people seek out for pleasure reading, which is understandable–a lot of unpleasant things happen in this story. It is about a world where individualism is discouraged, citizens are under continuous surveillance, and the past is rewritten to support what the government wants people to believe. 1984 originated some phrases that have come into general use, such as “Big Brother,” “doublespeak,” and “thoughtcrime.”   It is understandable that the novel is suddenly hot again; the Trump Administration seems to be using it as an instruction manual–Alternative Facts, anyone?

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953): This story is set in a future where books are illegal and firemen are called to burn books in secret libraries of a few elusive radicals (librarians, college professors, and other book lovers). Guy Montag is a fireman who used to love his job, until he succumbs to his curiosity about what’s in books. After that, the sh-t hits the fan.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1986): This is a society in the near future, so near in fact that the narrator, Offred, remembers being taken from her husband and child and indoctrinated into her new life where her job will be as a Handmaid, whose main purpose is to bear a child for her “Commander.” Her name is Offred because her Commander’s name is Fred, and she is the handmaid Of Fred. Everyone in this new society has a specific function and must live by specific rules, even the Commanders. The Handmaid’s Tale is unusual for a dystopian novel because it has a happy, or relatively happy, ending.

The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins: This trilogy consists of The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010). Every year a boy and a girl from each of the 12 districts of Panem–which long ago was known as North America–is sent to a competition (think gladiators of ancient Rome) in which they are expected to fight to the death. The victor–in a society where it’s a struggle for most citizens in the Districts to put food on the table–is rewarded with a house and the promise of food for the rest of his or her life. The rules specify that there can be only one survivor, until Katniss and Peeta change the rules, which causes considerable embarrassment to the Establishment and drives the story for books two and three.

Honorable Mentions:

Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945): Orwell, which is the pen name for English writer Eric Arthur Blair, hated totalitarianism. He made this clear in no uncertain terms in his non-fiction as well as his two most famous novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, the latter of which tells the story of a group of barnyard animals that overthrow an autocrat (the farmer), and set up an animal democracy only to have it overthrown by another autocrat, a conniving pig (a real one, not metaphorically speaking) named Snowball.

A Friend of the Family, by David Kubicek (2012): Allow me a bit of shameless self-promotion. This is on the “Honorable Mentions” list because it is a novella, not a full-length novel, and it deals with characters acting within the confines of their dystopian world rather than trying to change their screwed up society or escape from it. It is about a future society that has outlawed the practice of medicine, replacing medical doctors with Healers who rely on magic to treat patients. But not everyone in the society puts their faith in the Healers, and for those people there is a loose underground network of doctors. Hank, a doctor estranged from the underground, finds himself blackmailed into trying to help a girl’s dying father and becomes enmeshed in a power struggle for control of the family, which could expose Hank and land him in prison.

Shape of the Future

On July 16, I attended my 45-year Lincoln Northeast High School reunion. One hundred and ten former classmates came—not bad, this late in the day, for a class of around 600. Some were scattered too far across the country to make it, others had dropped off the radar and couldn’t be reached, and sadly a few—probably more than I know about—are no longer with us. I’ve attended every reunion since our 20th, but this is the first time I’ve gone without my wife, Cheryl, who passed away last November.

A nostalgic thread seems to connect us all to high school. We all had varying high school experiences, some good, some not so good. But even for those who thrived in high school, I doubt that it was the best, the happiest time in their lives—at least I hope not, considering they’ve been collecting life experiences for 45 years since graduation. But high school was the beginning of our adulthood—or at least our transition to adulthood—and I believe that is why we feel a special connection.

Friends and experiences we shared in high school keep drawing us back every five to 10 years to catch up and to see how much we’ve grown—and how much the world has changed around us—as we’ve followed our life’s journeys.

Here are a few things that come to mind as I think about the time that has passed since high school:

  • When I started high school, no one had yet walked on the moon.
  • There is more technology in a smart phone today than there was in the command module that took the first Americans to the moon.
  • I learned to type on a rather odd piece of equipment called a typewriter, and my first published stories and articles where written on that ancient device.
  • When I was in high school, Lincoln Northeast acquired a forerunner to what would later be known as a desktop computer, and we were taken in small groups down to the office to look at it.
  • I wrote my first book (or more accurately ghost-wrote it) on a computer with a five-megabyte hard drive (by comparison, flash drives can store 16 or more gigabytes, and I believe that hard drives are now into terabytes).
  • I used to spend lots of time haunting libraries to do research, but the internet has sped up the process considerably, and e-mail is an easier and faster way to communicate.

My son Sean, who will turn 21 on August 31, is a child of technology. He had his first computer when he was four—it was one of our old ones after we bought new equipment. We got our first laptop when Sean was in the third grade, and he taught me how to use it; it seems that his teacher had one, so he knew all about laptops. And throughout middle school and high school Sean did his homework on a laptop.

Today Sean has two laptops—a bigger, badder one especially built for gaming, and a standard laptop to do other things on. And he is using his smart phone, in addition to texting and going online, to catch Pokemon. We got into a discussion recently on the changes he will see over the next 45 years. He couldn’t conceive of what kind of changes there might be. What else could possibly be invented? Surely, we have reached the pinnacle of our technological capability.

I told him that our minds are too rooted in the present to conceive of what marvels the future has in store. Even science fiction writers, whose business it is to speculate about the future, missed predicting two things that define our current culture—the digital revolution and cell phones. But whatever technological advancements may come over the next 45 years will be seriously cool. Sean will see them, and I’d like to see them, too, because they will be, as I have said, seriously cool.

Unfortunately, my best chance of seeing that brave new world rests on the discovery, before my ultimate deterioration, of how to transfer our minds into robot bodies. I know this was the topic of a The Big Bang Theory episode, but the idea has been kicking around for decades. But I inherited longevity genes from my parents, so I have a good chance of surviving until such a discovery is made—unless something happens to me or I get an incurable disease.

Oh well, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

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