Making a terrible world beautiful

There is a strange comfort of reading dystopian fiction. 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale are not just about unchecked authoritarian regimes. They are also about human hope, optimism and the role of the individual

February 12, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

“Life is short, though I keep this from my children.” These are the first words of ‘Good Bones’, a poem by Maggie Smith that often gets reposted on social media. The poem goes on to reflect on the terrible things that can happen in the world: cruelty to animals, child abuse, violence. And yet the poet chooses to conceal this information from the children. Because, flawed, noisy and ridden with hazards though it is, this is the only world we have, and this is what we will hand over to our children. How do we teach our children to love the planet as it is? Like a real estate agent showing a dump to potential buyers, the poet urges: “This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.”

Over the decades

Dystopian fiction is currently reported to be experiencing a resurgence on bestseller lists. This is in addition to the steady readership it has had over the decades. Thomas More’s Utopia describes an excessively regulated community set on a fictional island. George Orwell’s 1984 describes a totalitarian regime of oppression with its artificial language of “Newspeak” and its ruthless control of “Thoughtcrimes” to stop people from even trying to think independent thoughts. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is set in a world where firemen are tasked with the duty of burning books, and where there are people who memorise entire books in order to save them. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is about an authoritarian, theocratic world where women are regarded as inferior to men, and where women’s behaviour as well as their bodies are controlled by the state.

I first read Orwell’s 1984 when I was in high school. The novel was chilling in ways that I couldn’t even fully understand at that point, and I was glad to get to the end. Many years later, I read about the difficult period when Orwell had written the novel. I wonder what he thought as he wrote the chapters of 1984 , up there in the remote Scottish island of Jura in the Hebrides. The Second World War had ended. Orwell’s wife had died the previous year in what ought to have been a routine surgery. There was no electricity in the cottage in Jura, just paraffin lanterns and a camp bed. It was bitterly cold, and Orwell’s lungs were shattered with tuberculosis. His child Richard, Richard’s nanny, and his sister came to join him at Jura. There was finally some hope for his lungs with the then new experimental drug of streptomycin, but it had terrible side effects. Eventually he had to get admitted into a sanatorium. He died soon after the novel was published. For all its bleakness, I think 1984 was both a warning and a beacon of hope to his son’s generation. Words mean things. Watch out for when they stop having any meaning. Learn to tell the difference.

In 1984, living in West Berlin and in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, Margaret Atwood began writing The Handmaid’s Tale . It is a powerful and terrifying novel; all the more terrifying to think that while writing it, Atwood had decided to include only things that had in fact taken place at some point in history, somewhere in the world, or for which the technology did exist. None of the things in the novel, therefore, were outside the bounds of human imagination or capacity. The Berlin Wall came down some years later, but the long struggle for women’s equality continues in different ways across the world. The novel’s title itself has now become a disturbingly familiar phrase: “Like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale ” is shorthand for anything that aims to control women and women’s bodies.

When I read that one of Ray Bradbury’s ancestors was a woman tried for witchcraft in the 17th century Salem trials, I thought of Atwood’s principle for The Handmaid’s Tale : that she would include nothing that had not already happened somewhere in the world, at some point in time. Dystopian novels force us to confront the darker excesses of human history and remind ourselves that we should never let them happen again.

Ray Bradbury only went to high school and had no formal education beyond that. He sold newspapers on street corners before becoming a successful science fiction writer. To get away from a house filled with the commotion of two young children, he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rented ten-cents-an-hour typewriter in the basement of the library at the University of California, Los Angeles.

All of this surely contributed to make Fahrenheit 451 the classic that it is. In an interview with Dana Gioia, former Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Bradbury said that the idea of burning books in the novel had come from the Nazis. “When I was fifteen, Hitler burnt the books in the streets of Berlin. Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning five thousand years ago. That grieved my soul. Since I’m self-educated, that means my educators — the libraries — are in danger.”

Bradbury wrote in the library to get away from the children but of course he was writing the book as a specific warning for his children and their generation: Be careful when they go for the books and the libraries. Don’t let them burn the books. Value knowledge.

Most recently, a novel resonating with many readers is Philip Roth’s counterfactual historical novel The Plot Against America . Published in 2004, the novel imagines an America in which the Nazi supporter Charles Lindbergh, and not Franklin Roosevelt, becomes President in 1940. Narrated by a fictional adult narrator named Philip Roth, it is the story of a Jewish family living in Weequahic, New Jersey, which is where the real-life Philip Roth grew up. The family members Herman, Bess, Sandy and the child Philip all bear the names of Roth’s family members in real life. Along with the story of how fascism takes over a nation, it is the movingly narrated personal history of how a close-knit family fights to stay close during the darkest of times.

Old novels, new readers

These novels have had classic status ever since their publication, but they are clearly finding a new reading public today. I don’t think this is only because they are cautionary tales about unchecked authoritarian regimes. They are also about human hope, optimism and the role of the individual. They are about valuing freedom, and not taking it for granted but cherishing and supporting it. They are about integrity, civic engagement and the work of strengthening democracy.

What dystopian fiction says to readers, repeatedly, is this: This is how things could be. Things could be terrible, and in many ways, they are. But there are things we can do to make it beautiful, and we should.

Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the IAS and is currently based in Bengaluru.

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