Dystopian literature and science fiction are two literary genres that, beyond inspiring some remarkable movies, creating memorable characters, and gathering a handful of brilliant writers, have also managed to summon a wide range of different universes, each and everyone of them as suggestive, rich and elaborated as they are varied.
Whether taking place in utopian societies or totalitarian regimes, whether by colonizing planets or by surviving in a post-apocalyptic earth, whether being set in the middle of a galactic war or letting their plot be developed inside a laboratory or even inside our own minds, each and everyone of these works offers us a certain universe whose interest lies precisely in the fact that it could be, somehow, plausible, feasible, even if it was probably closer to what is just possible than what is more or less probable. This is how these two literary genres show quite often a more acute and suggestive nature that pure fantasy literature, because while not having anything to envy in terms of imagination or preciousness, they also criticize current human societies by creating a fictional future in which they place an acceptable reality based on what we nowadays are or do as a species. And by doing so, science fiction and dystopia turn out to be not actually genres focused on the future, as many might think, but on the present.
In a series of articles we will take a brief look at some of the most interesting worlds ever created by science fiction and dystopia, focusing mainly on their genesis and their descriptive characteristics rather than going into an in deep analysis of their plot or their characters. Thus, this guide will serve equally well whoever might be reading any of these books nowadays (needing perhaps a small outline while doing so), those who just might want to refresh some of their previously acquired ideas from previous readings, those who want to focus exclusively on historical, political and sociological basis, or those who want to find inspiration for, perhaps, putting together a bunch of words or a footage someday.
George Orwell and his anti-totalitarian life-stage
It is true there are many books this series could have perfectly began with, but it was perhaps kind of natural to start with a particular dystopian work one should probably never judge by whether it is the best among all or not, but by the fact that it is widely accepted as probably the best known among the common public: Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Created by the famous English writer born in India, George Orwell, this novel was first published in 1949, shortly before its author’s death, and set in a stage of his life in which, already carrying strong leftist and anti-colonial leanings, Orwell had been strongly marked by the rise of authoritarianism across Europe, as well as by his own experiences within the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War and later by the events of World War II. Specially because of the war in Spain first, and the World War right after, Orwell had begun to think, act and write against totalitarian regimes, particularly, and according to his own historical time, against Stalinism and Nazism. As a reflection of the fear and obsession this phenomenon inflicted on his persona he created Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopian society ruled by strict thought control, omnipresent surveillance and an extreme oppression that has even created its own sociological term: the idea of an “Orwellian” society.
The ultimate expression of twentieth century´s totalitarian regimes
Let’s start with a general overview: The world in Nineteen Eighty-Four is set on the date that gives its name to the title, and is divided into three great superpowers (or, as the book calls them, “superstates”) spreading around the globe as follows: Ingsoc rules over the territory called Oceania, which would be all America, the British Isles, Iceland, south Africa and Australia; Eurasia is extended over the rest of Europe and all Russia, and it is governed by Neo-Bolshevism; and Eastasia, which would become Japan, the Koreas, China and parts of Central Asia, is governed by an obscure philosophy called “death-worship” or “obliteration of the self”.
Ideology, economics and social organization of these three “superstates” are extremely similar and yet those three nations have been engaged for decades in an on going and endless conflict where no one comes to prevail and in which all three regimes ally interchangeably allied with each other just to betray themselves afterwards depending on the situation. Contrary to what one might think, however, actually none of them is actively pursuing victory. In fact, all three sides have long time ago come to the conclusion that this war has no ending, but they keep it alive anyways in order to facilitate their own internal stability, in a manner that will be explained below.
The rest of the globe, that is, the part corresponding to the northern half of Africa, much of the Middle East, South Asia and Indonesia, meanwhile, lives in a constant state of “no man’s land”, an area disputed by the three great powers, constantly occupied, abandoned and reoccupied, and intermittently sacked and subdued by some of the three “superstates”.
(World map in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Wikipedia)
Oceania and Ingsoc
These three hegemonic “superstates” are all totalitarian systems which, as already mentioned above, are actually quite similar, but the novel takes place specifically in a gloomy and futurist London corresponding to the domain of Oceania, so it is the regime of Ingsoc the only one this novel really explains in detail.
Oceania is a collectivist state controlled by a single party called, at that time, simply “the Party”. In its territory there is no predominance of some province over another, or a hierarchy between races. The lingua franca is English, there is no capital, no centralization, and indeed no one even knows where the “Big Brother” lives, who is the great leader whose bust and speeches can be found everywhere, and whom total worship is due, even though no one really knows whether he actually exists or is merely a product of the Party´s propaganda.
Within the Ingsoc regime there are no rights or laws, which means there is no stable reference about which actions should be taken or avoided or what kind of behaviour is legal or illegal. Risk of torture, harassment and death is constant for the disaffected, and absolutely anyone can be considered as such, without guarantees. When purges are undertaken their scope is not simply to eliminate dissidents but, very often, to swept whole groups of individuals that perhaps someday may come to oppose the system (or may not). There are public events whose attendance is mandatory and where fanaticism and hatred are encouraged, and control, propaganda and surveillance devices are so ubiquitous that can be found even within private homes, which by law cannot have any room, hollow or point of view hidden from the ubiquitous “telescreens” (TVs with integrated listening devices), all this in order to control their tenants at all times.
(By: Nirwrath, Wikipedia)
A strongly hierarchical society
Society in the Oceania ruled by Ingsoc is organized and designed by the Party, and is divided into three main groups:
The “inner Party” or upper-class, and elite composed by a minority of intellectuals attached necessarily to the Party and focused on governing and ruling the country. They are the ones who really have a true notion of what is happening and live quite distantly from the rest, enjoying a certain degree of luxury and comfort, although they are no immune to the internal power games and infighting that cause, from time to time, the fall from grace and subsequent disappearance of some of its members. Party control of this group, which gathers around 2% of the total population of Oceania is, at least, ironclad.
Right after comes the “outer Party” or the Party´s bureaucracy, another social minority yet a bit broader than the previous, of about 13% of total population which, as the regime´s middle-class, is allowed to live in some comfort, still way more restrained than the upper-class, and which is subject to an alienating propaganda and surveillance similar or even more intense than the one used towards the “inner circle”.
In the third level come the “proles”, an uneducated working-class which represents over 85% of the total population, left in near-to-misery living conditions, and constantly entertained and brutalized. They are workers and peasants, those who perform manual labour, and those for whom Party´s control is merely limited to superficial suppression by mere violence, since they are considered little more than animals without any real ability or willingness to rebel.
Admission to any of the branches of the Party is done through an exam at the age of 16, although in practice there is very little social mobility from one sector to another, completely absent in the case of the “proles”, whose minimally intelligent members are systematically eliminated as soon as they are individualised.
Gubernatorial work is articulated through different ministries, among which are, for example, the Ministry of Love, responsible for punishing and torturing, and retraining individuals who are not sufficiently adept to the system; the Ministry of Peace, in charge of war; the Ministry of Plenty, planning the necessary rationing and starvation for the subsistence economy that roles over the country; and the Ministry of Truth, responsible for implementing censorship, propaganda and historical revisionism, this is changing and corrupting memory and historical documents depending on the current interest of the Party.
The power for the sake of power
The Party does not care about blood or race among its members, but just about its self-preservation and the total ideological affiliation of each and every one of its acolytes. Its control over society is total, and its power is ubiquitous and unchallenged, even reaching people mind´s control. In fact, its stated goals are global control by means of war and total control of the way its members think, without any exception. It is considered that while “big brother” is all-powerful, the Party, meanwhile, is infallible.
It is expected from every member of the Party a lack of private emotions and an enthusiasm that does not cool down at any time. Any member is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred towards foreign enemies and inside traitors, in a triumphant celebration of their victories and in absolute humility and surrender to the power and wisdom of the Party. In fact, even though its members are part of the most privileged sector of society, as seen before, compared to the standard of living of the early twentieth century middle classes even members of the “inner Party” follow a quite austere and laborious life.
The ultimate meaning of the Party, according to one of the characters in the book, is none other than holding power, without disguising or justifying it through utopias or beautiful ideas as other regimes used to do long time ago. The Party “seeks power entirely for its own sake. It is not interested in the good of others; it is interested solely in power”. This power is based on its ability to break and rebuild wills, as well as and inflict pain and death. “When the revolution is done”, says one of its followers, “power is taken to establish the dictatorship, and not vice versa.”
However, the power of the Party is collective, and it is understood that the individual only holds power while he is no longer an individual, because while individual members of the “inner Party” do not have, despite their privileged position, a big deal, the whole of that class owns everything in Oceania. Whenever he is alone, provided that he is free, man is defeated, it is claimed on the book, so that freedom is actually slavery.
The real point of having a “perpetual war”
As already mentioned earlier, one of the elements of internal stability for Ingsoc, as well as for the other two “superstates” at stake, is based on deliberately maintaining a situation of “perpetual war” against the other two great superpowers, a mechanism through which those three regimes can get perpetuated indefinitely. This war, which in the book is described as a “sham”, is nothing but a struggle for limited objectives between fighters incapable of destroying each other strategically speaking, with no real materialistic causes for fighting, and who are not divided by clear or even serious ideological differences.
Although the fighting did not stop being enormously cruel on the battlefield, the truth is that, except for limited professional soldiers units, actually very few people are directly aware of that war, except for the rationing, some prisoner parades, official news releases or communicates or some rocket bombardments which causes, most of the times, very few victims. Casualties are also quite limited in the trenches, as large offensives and risky manoeuvres are commonly avoided, even if there are technological advances they occur at very low speed, and although the three powers have manufactured nuclear weapons they deliberately choose not to use them. In fact, there is a tacit agreement among them to limit war within those disputed areas of the world and respect, for the rest, a kind of “cultural integrity”, that is, not to invade certain areas considered to be cultural heart of a “superstate”, because by doing so the invader would have to face soon or later the costly process of exterminating the entire local population and replace it with a more congenial one.
What we have in reality with such a “farce” is the point of maintaining a status quo that benefits those three powers domestically, this is within their own borders. The dominant ideology in each territory is similar to that of the other two, and given the large territorial size of each “superstate” none of them has a real need for raw materials or workers, as each power has huge resources of any kind within its own borders. This human and material abundance, ideological and technological similarities between all sides, and the vast territory controlled by each one of them, mean that there is a sort of stalemate, as each “superstate” is, by itself, unconquerable by the others, so it is precisely thanks to the war that each regime can live isolated from the rest because, of course, for the duration of those eternal hostilities citizens are not allowed to come into contact with foreigners or learn any other languages. This mutual isolation, along with the military deadlock, means that there is no real danger of defeat, eliminating the need for these three “superstate” to be realistic, technically efficient or learn from history, so their respective governments can arrange their own programs of internal mind control and repression towards their population without fearing any external threats.
In addition to nullifying each other externally, internally the existence of a never-ending war feeds the morale of a strongly hierarchical society: On one hand, allows the existence of an external enemy to be blamed of any ills as a perfect scapegoat, while it also shows as a natural condition for survival to deliver full power to a small caste able to lead the fight in an apparently effectively way. On the other hand, by maintaining a huge war industry, the economy can be planned in such a way that the bulk of the population (“the proles”) have to live subdued to a constant situation of subsistence and rationing, not using most of the products machines and factories manufacture to raise the standard of living of the population but wasting them on the front. And finally, the war also modulates the morale of the members of the Party, delivering more fanaticism and rage to the cause, carrying them away by fear and hatred, and by getting constantly excited with the idea of a final victory, which never comes. The effect of a perpetual war is, for the Party, equal to a lasting peace.