Science Fiction Studies

#36 = Volume 12, Part 2 = July 1985

Editorial Introduction

The so-called Year of Orwell came and went unacknowledged in these pages except for the notices we ran about the multitude of conferences and symposia devoted to him. Our silence was largely deliberate: being averse to jumping on bandwagons or following fashions, we decided in advance not to give over an issue of this journal to 1984.

That decision proved to be fortunate. We anticipated a flood of essays on Orwell, and instead got barely a trickle. Nor do we have reason to suppose that the attention he received resulted in any number of first-rate analyses which somehow never came our way—at least, not if the few papers we heard represent a fair sample. Their authors seemed content for the most part to traverse ground that had been covered many times before.

It should not be totally surprising that those who have written about Orwell over the past year or so have produced little which is new and even less which is startling. Most of us, after all, could still say of him what William Empson once remarked of T.S. Eliot: "I do not know how much of my own mind he invented." To be sure, the rest of Empson's sentence "let alone how much of it is a reaction against him or indeed a consequence of misreading him" may be more applicable to Orwell now than it was in the 1950s or '60s, for example. But in any case, 1984 has had an influence comparable to—and first concurrent with, then replacing—The Waste Land's.

The dearth of fresh and objective assessments of Orwell no doubt testifies to his (continuing) impact on how we view our world. At the same time, it bespeaks a failure of critical imagination which is perhaps not wholly attributable to his readers. The déjà vu, and déjà entendu, quality of so many of the recent essays on 1984 may thus reflect something in the book itself.

Nadia Khouri suggests as much in an account of Orwell which is, we think, provocatively novel. Dealing with the "interdiscursive life" of 1984, she indicates something of the extent to which its author appropriates a reactionary "discourse" already detectable in anti-utopian fiction from the middle of the last century and fully apparent by the time of Zamyatin. In so doing, she also establishes a context for evaluating 1984's reception. Here her point is cognate to one that figures as a sardonic aside in Boris Eizykman's "Temporality in Science-Fiction Narrative" (for which, see SFS No. 35): that the global phenomena of political repression have imparted "a halo of political lucidity" to anti-utopian visions which are in fact ideologically tendentious and mystifying.

The two essays that immediately follow Khouri's bear upon the truth of this last observation by lending themselves to inferences which confirm it. Jacques Lemieux argues that the utopian (and anti-utopian) fiction published in the US since the '50s defines itself in relation to, and usually more or less mirrors, the interests and concerns of what he names "the scientific and technical petty bourgeoisie"; and this implies that an ideological bias attaches to the (sub)genre at large. Peter Fitting considers "social relations" in a different sense and from a different angle: concentrating on a set of texts which partly overlaps with Lemieux's, he invokes their utopian visions to make an impassioned case for revolutionizing the social roles of men. In the process, however, he in effect calls attention to something that is virtually absent from 1984: utopian possibility. Given that absence, we might properly term Orwell's book dystopian rather than anti-utopian (taking over and slightly modifying the distinction John Huntington makes in The Logic of Fantasy and in his essay on "Utopian and Anti-Utopian Logic. . ." in SFS No. 27); for the dialectical evocation of utopia characteristic of anti-utopian fiction prior to Orwell he displaces (as Khouri points out) with an "ancestral" nostalgia which is not truly utopian in spirit at all.

The two essays preceding Khouri's likewise have pertinence to her thesis. Marc Angenot's analysis of French anti-utopias of the 19th and early 20th century clearly complements what she has to say about Emile Souvestre and David Parry, especially in regard to the ideological strategies and literary formulas such writers (anticipating Orwell) have recourse to. Patrick Parrinder, focussing on A Modern Utopia and using it to bring together the utopian and metautopian elements scattered throughout Wells's other fictions, at the same time throws new light on him as Orwell's antecedent by demonstrating that Wells was a writer who perpetually questioned not only the utopian visions of others (and principally, William Morris's) but also his own.

The five essays mentioned, with Khouri's as their nucleus, constitute and (we hope) justify this Special Issue, "To 1984 and Beyond." But you will also find other things which have some pertinence to our topic in the following pages. Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733), which Paul Alkon probes as the would-be originator of the Future History (had Samuel Madden not suppressed it), has its utopian elements; and both Carmela McIntire's review of Thomas More and Stephen Fjellman's of The End of Utopia, along with portions of Franz Rottensteiner's compendious survey of SF criticism in Germany, will likewise be of interest to students of utopian fiction.

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