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.
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.
I heard a speaker at a writing conference remark recently that many talented writers remain unpublished while the works of many marginal or bad writers find their way into print. Writers who keep sending their work out will eventually be published.
Among the rejection slips I’ve received, my favorite was from a science fiction anthology: a full-page drawing of a dragon dabbing at his eyes with a kleenex as its tears flowed down. It was much funnier than these meager words can describe. I once showed it to a friend, also a science fiction writer, who didn’t find it quite as amusing. It’s a matter of attitude; I couldn’t do anything about the rejection, and it was a change of pace from the usual, uninspired form letter.
If you have trouble staying motivated in the face of an expanding file of rejections, perhaps this list of the receptions of some famous authors and their work will help.
Crash by J.G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
Dr. Seuss: “Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway: “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish this.”
The San Francisco Examiner, rejecting Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
Lust for Life, Irving Stone’s historical novel about Vincent Van Gogh: “A long, dull novel about an artist.” Sixteen publishers rejected the novel. When it finally saw print it sold more than 25 million copies.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: “Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback.” The novel eventually sold to Avon Books and racked up sales of more than 7.25 million copies.
Tony Hillerman, best known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels was advised by publishers to “Get rid of all that Indian stuff.”
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells: “An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would ‘take’ … I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.'”
Although Emily Dickinson published only seven poems in her lifetime, an early rejection advised her: “(Your poems) are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
Animal Farm by George Orwell: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
So many publishers rejected The Tale of Peter Rabbit that Beatrix Potter published it herself.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding: “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
One publisher to another on John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: “You’re welcome to le Carre–he hasn’t got any future.”
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel: “We are very impressed with the depth and scope of your research and the quality of your prose. Nevertheless … we don’t think we could distribute enough copies to satisfy you or ourselves.”
The Deer Park by Norman Mailer: “This will set publishing back 25 years.”
Carrie by Stephen King: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”
And my favorite:
Sanctuary by William Faulkner: “Good God, I can’t publish this!”
Fiction editing is a subjective process. There will always be editors who think your writing is crap, but there are also editors who will be enthusiastic about it. You just have to find them. And the only way to find them is to keep sending out your work.
"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." - Ray Bradbury.
"If they give you ruled paper, write the other way." - Juan Ramon Jimenez.
“I disagree with the advice ‘Write about what you know.’ Write about what you need to know, in an effort to understand.” – Donald Windham
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”
The stories in the mini-collections ELEVATOR, PROSPECT STREET, and BALL OF FIRE are published together in THE MOANING ROCKS AND OTHER STORIES.