It’s interesting, in the Age of Trump, that my article on writing dystopian fiction is one of the most-viewed articles on this site. My review of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451is running a close second.
I’m re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. I read it for the first time years ago when, in this country, at least, it read like a science fiction story. Now it has a strange contemporary feel. Trump’s Ministry of Alternative Facts has not yet evolved to the point of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, but the Trump Administration is working on it. Although it has been said before, it needs to be emphasized repeatedly: 1984 was written as a warning, NOT an instruction manual.
Actually, “frightening”might be a better word. Most classic dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Handmaid’s Tale describe future societies that don’t yet exist and may only exist in a more distant future “if this goes on.” But The Circle, written by Dave Eggers and published in 2013, depicts a world that is being built as you read these words. The infrastructure is in place, and the technology is almost there.
The Circle is a technology company, like Facebook on steroids. Its goal is to run all of the members’ social media through their Circle accounts–to connect everything and everyone, to store every bit of information known to humanity in The Cloud where it can be easily accessed by anyone at any time. Management’s end game is to require everyone to have a Circle account.
Mae Holland starts work at The Circle as a customer experience representative. At first she thinks of her work as just a job and doesn’t connect with the community as she is expected to. It takes some doing, but her supervisors convince her to be more “social.” It works all too well. Through a series of events which I won’t go into–read the book, and don’t forget to wear Depends–Mae agrees to become totally transparent, which means that everything she says and does will be recorded and can be viewed in real time by anyone with a Circle account–tomorrow’s reality TV, unedited and raw. She wears a bracelet that shows her the zings–Eggers’ version of tweets–so she will receive a constant flood of feedback about what she is doing and seeing. She is permitted to turn off the audio (but not the video, supplied by a tiny necklace camera) for three minutes while she’s in the bathroom, and she can shut down the whole system at night while she’s sleeping, but other than that, her life is open for all to see and hear. Her transparency turns her into a celebrity among the Circlers.
Soon Mae is driven by a strong need for approval, as represented by the number of smiley faces she gets on her bracelet (think “likes” on Facebook) and how low she can get her party score, which is determined by how many zings she sends out and how many groups she joins–basically, her level of involvement in the Circle community. She so craves approval that during a presentation of how quick and easy it is to get instantaneous survey results, the final question sent out to Circlers is: “Isn’t Mae Holland awesome?” Ninety-seven percent of the responders send smiley faces, but 3 percent send frowny faces. Rather than delight in having so many fans, Mae obsesses over the three percent who, in her mind, “want her dead.”
The most terrifying thing about this novel is that The Circle’s management wants to make transparency mandatory, and Mae is okay with that. In fact, there are some instances in which Mae decides to reveal secrets of her friends and family who want their lives to be off the grid–but Mae exposes them “for their own good” and because they’ll “thank her later.” The results of are tragic.
A movie based on The Circle was recently released. I saw the movie without knowing it had been based on a book, but when I learned that from the credits, I read the book. The movie does well enough at hitting major plot points, but it fails because it doesn’t capture the spirit of the book. The movie is actually a little warm and fuzzy compared to the book. In the movie, Mae (Emma Watson) is a sympathetic, though misguided, character who learns from her mistakes and tries to make things right in the end; in the book Mae comes off as naive and foolish, and she neither seeks nor achieves redemption. And–SPOILER ALERT–the movie does not have the same ending as the book.
Basically, the movie is a classic Hollywood tale with a flawed but sympathetic main character who reaches an epiphany, and everyone–well, almost everyone–lives happily ever after.
But the novel tells a darker story. It is the tale of an average person who became ensnared in a cult that is controlled by a charismatic leader. It is well worth reading because it takes Big Brother to the ultimate level, and it’s not about some distant possible future–it is happening now.
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.
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.
At Midnight April 20 – in whatever time zone you’re in; I won’t be anal about it – my virtual book tour for A Friend of the Family ended. It was a fun three weeks, but it was also lots of work, so I’m ready to move on to other things.
Today I conducted the final bit of business for my blog tour, awarding two $25 Amazon gift cards. One card went to J.A. Beard, whose Unnecessary Musings blog received six comments, the most of any blog stop. When deciding on a winner I included my own comments, which consisted of thanking my host and responding to any comments posted by readers, hosts, etc. This wasn’t an unfair advantage; if I took my comments out of the mix, J.A. Beard still would have won.
To award the other card I put the names of everyone who left a comment on the tour into a bowl. I didn’t put in my own name, of course. If a commenter left more than one comment I put his/her name in for each comment he/she left. I thought this was fair for two reasons:
I believe the people who left two or more comments should have improved odds, as if they had bought more than one lottery ticket
It increased the pool because even with the duplicate names, there were only 17 chances to win
I wrote each name on a piece of paper, folded it, and put it in a bowl. I held the bowl above my head, and my son Sean drew a name. The winner was Louise Wise. Louise is the owner of Wise Words, a stop on my blog tour. She also left two comments – the most comments any one person left was four, so in this case the greater odds weren’t that great of an advantage.
The good thing about doing a virtual blog tour is that the interviews and guest posts will be anchored in cyberspace until time itself comes to an end.
Okay, maybe I’m being melodramatic. The interviews and guest posts will be anchored in cyberspace until (and if) someone takes them down. So if you missed any of the stops, here is the schedule.
Now I’m taking a break from my novel work long enough to write a short story. We’ll talk again soon.