Science Fiction Studies

#140 = Volume 47, Part 1 = February 2020


Patrick A. McCarthy

Reading Dystopian Novels in the Trump Era

Thomas Horan. Desire and Empathy in Twentieth-Century Dystopian Fiction. Cham, Switzerland: Springer/Palgrave Macmillan, Palgrave Studies in Utopianism, 2018. x+212 pp. $99.99 hc, $79.99 ebk.

John J. Han, C. Clark Triplett, and Ashley G. Anthony, eds. Worlds Gone Awry: Essays on Dystopian Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. vii+252 pp. $45 pbk.

In late January 2017 I was contacted by a Miami-based French journalist who wanted to videotape a class discussion of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), focusing on its return to the bestseller list thanks to the inauguration of Donald Trump ten days earlier. She included a link to a newspaper story that attributed the spike in sales of Orwell’s novel to the already brazen disregard for truth in the Trump White House, starting with Sean Spicer’s claim that Trump’s inaugural crowd had been the largest in history even after videos showed it was small compared to Barack Obama’s, and Kellyanne Conway’s defense of Spicer on the grounds that he was citing “alternative facts,” a term that reminded some commentators of Orwell’s Newspeak (Schaub). Trump likewise provides relevant material for Dorian Lynskey’s recent book The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s “1984.” Lynskey notes, for instance, the similarity of the vicious campaign against Hillary Clinton—“Lock her up! Lock her up!”—to the Two Minutes Hate in Orwell’s novel (261). A more sophisticated (and perhaps even more sinister) parallel may be seen in the attempt by Russian trolls to discredit reputable journalists by inventing a simplistic quotation, “The People Believe What the Media Tells Them They Believe,” and attributing it to Orwell. (Orwell never said that, and the fake quote even includes a term for journalists, “the media,” that Orwell never used.) As Lynskey notes, “The irony of Russian propagandists putting words into Orwell’s mouth in order to hijack his prestige as a truth-teller to erode faith in journalism is breathtaking” (263).1

The books under review here make similar points about the resurgence of interest in dystopian, including Orwellian, narratives. Early in Desire and Empathy in Twentieth-Century Dystopian Fiction, Thomas Horan calls Trump’s election a sign that “projected political fiction is ever more relevant to our daily lives” (2); he also points to the environmental disasters in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and the disastrous role played by the religious right in that novel as parallels with our age (169, 170).2 Later, Horan points to dystopian elements in Trump’s “hostility to a free press … and his administration’s rampant xenophobia” (203). The editors of Worlds Gone Awry open their collection with related points about the popularity of dystopian novels in the twenty-first century, both before and after Trump’s election. Other aspects of twenty-first-century culture that they say have contributed to the interest in dystopian narratives, especially among young adults, include pressures on them (either from peers or from parents) to conform and the “rapidly growing rate of technology emphasized in many novels”:

Today’s young adults were born into a digital age; specifically, young adults may identify with feelings of social isolation in these novels due to their largely disconnected social lives. Most of contemporary young adults’ encounters are online rather than face-to-face, a phenomenon that contributes to a declining sociability among peers. (2)

Although these books discuss the same broad literary genre and raise many of the same concerns, they do so in different ways and with distinct emphases. Horan focuses on a strain of dystopian fiction that he calls “projected political fiction,” which he defines as “speculative dystopian literature that is primarily political in focus” (1). Citing the first of Gordon Browning’s “standards for everlasting anti-utopian fiction,” Horan makes the case that futuristic dystopian works are more about the present than the future (Horan 1-2; Browning 18). The editors of Worlds Gone Awry make much the same point (1), but otherwise there is little critical overlap between these two volumes because they concern themselves with different fictional works: Desire and Empathy in Twentieth-Century Dystopian Fiction has chapters devoted to seven twentieth-century dystopias, starting with Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1910), while Worlds Gone Awry emphasizes more recent fiction, including many novels published since 2000. Margaret Atwood is the only author whose work is the subject of chapters in both books, but the Atwood chapter in Desire is a study of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) whereas the Atwood novel analyzed in WorldsThe Heart Goes Last (2015)—was published three decades later. Not one novel or story that is discussed at length in either book receives more than passing mention (if it is mentioned at all) in the other.

Between The Iron Heel and The Handmaid’s Tale, Horan’s book offers thoughtful and generally well-argued chapters on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937), Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). In the introduction he sets forth his basic argument: “these novelists emphasize the enduring ethical value of sexual desire, which correctly orients us toward ‘where we want to go,’ even when the novel concludes before the journey to utopia has begun” (4). Sexual desire, particularly transgressive desire of one sort or another, is crucial to Horan’s argument:

Because sexual desire works as a hub for subversion, each projected political fiction is plotted around an unlawful erotic relationship, which may or may not develop into love, between two characters: an orthodox character who either believes in the existing political system or has submitted to it without hope of deliverance, and a subversive, lascivious radical. (6)

Thus, for example, transgressive sexual desire in The Iron Heel involves a love affair that crosses class boundaries; in We and Nineteen Eighty-Four it features a man who either believes in the official government line (D-503) or has resigned himself to living within the system (Winston Smith) and a woman who seduces him either because she enjoys forbidden sex (Julia) or because she wants to recruit him for the opposition (I-330). That is clear enough, but I am less persuaded by an attempt to fit Brave New World’s Lenina Crowne and John the Savage into the same pattern, especially since John’s love for Lenina turns to disgust at the “impudent strumpet” (198) when she strips naked for him, thereby making it difficult for him to put her on a pedestal. Horan correctly notes that “At the end of the novel, John chooses God over comfort” but he adds that John “is only able to make this choice after realizing his sexual desire for Lenina and the promise of fulfillment her body brings” (81). I am not sure what Horan means by “realizing”—understanding? making real? achieving?—but if it means he believes John has intercourse with Lenina, I suspect that interpretation derives from a misreading of the late scene in which John, who is alone, again calls Lenina an “impudent strumpet” and imagines her as “a real presence, naked and tangible” (259)—as real as a character in a feely.3

Horan never mentions Brave New World in his chapter on Swastika Night, I assume because Burdekin’s novel does not appear to have been influenced by Huxley’s, but there is a brief passage in Swastika Night that might have led to a comparison with Brave New World (among other works) in one respect: referring to the traditional “Removal of the Man-child” from his mother’s care (at 18 months) that is practiced by everyone but the Christians, the narrator says, “Of course women were not fit to bring up men-children, of course it was unseemly for a man to be able to point to a woman and say ‘There is my mother’” (10).4 In Huxley’s novel it is shameful for a woman to be a mother or a man a father; in the anti-feminist dystopia of Swastika Night women are regarded as a subhuman species and fit only to bear male children (and female children who will be fit only to bear the next generation of males). One result, in both novels—regardless of whether people are “decanted” rather than born or males are separated from their mothers as soon as possible to prevent them from feeling any connection with the women who gave them life—is to undermine and, ideally, to abolish the family. As Horan notes in the next chapter, the family is a threat to the totalitarian state in Rand’s Anthem (138-39), but he does not mention that in Swastika Night the protagonist, Alfred Alfredson, has no family name, only a patronym (Swastika Night 90). Von Hess, the Knight whose family has the ancient book that proves the Nazis have falsified history, tells Alfred that the government has banned almost all family names so that “the common men, the Nazis and the subject races [will] have as little family feeling as possible” (133). Apart from the Teutonic Knights, only Christians, as far as we can see, are allowed to retain family names, apparently because (like the proles of Nineteen Eighty-Four) they are thought to pose no threat to the established order. But they might yet pose such a threat, for at the end of the novel the ancient book is entrusted to Joseph Black, a Christian whose kind (if condescending) treatment of women sets him apart even from Alfred. He is also the only man in the novel who has a wife and lives with her, and he is the only commoner in the novel with a family name. Yet Alfred seems to me to be the real hero of the novel, and in the crucial scene he holds his infant daughter, dotes on her, and comes to see her as “not dirt at all, but the embryo of something unimaginably wonderful” (163). What he desires for his daughter is that she have a better life than her mother could ever have or even imagine.

Horan perceptively remarks, “Starting with We, projected fictions become truly nightmarish because the characters are internally as well as externally altered by totalitarianism” (51). Of course, We is a special case among the works that he investigates: although The Iron Heel, Anthem, and The Handmaid’s Tale are all first-person narratives, even they do not convey their narrators’ changing perspectives on a day-to-day basis as sharply as Zamyatin does by presenting his story through the diary of D-503.5 I think there is something to be gained by devoting more attention to the formal elements of these novels, including their narrative perspectives, and at times Horan points to this: for example, he comments that The Iron Heel takes the form of an edited manuscript and relates that to the appendices of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale, both of which consist of scholarly inquiries into the dystopian societies of the main text (28-29). But he seldom follows up these observations, instead reverting to thematic analyses. Another intriguing point that might have been pursued a bit further may be found in the chapter on The Handmaid’s Tale, when Horan quotes a passage in which Offred recalls the Commander’s having said “Women can’t add,” which he explained by saying that for women, “one and one and one and one don’t make four” but are always just a series of ones (195). Horan compares this to the scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Winston is forced to agree with O’Brien “that two plus two can sometimes equal three and sometimes five.” He notes that in Atwood’s novel “the same basic equation yields a different result based on one’s gender [which] signifies the importance of believing that men and women differ intellectually” (196), a belief central to the official doctrine of male superiority. Perhaps there was no room to add that the basic formula used here, or something basically the same, did not originate with Orwell: he put his own stamp on a motif he adapted from Zamyatin’s We, one that Zamyatin had taken from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, in both of which “two times two makes four” is associated with inhuman utopian perfection. It is the sort of point that might have been developed in an endnote, but there are few notes in this book.6

Despite my quibbles, I certainly recommend Horan’s study of these famous twentieth-century dystopias. Worlds Gone Awry is harder to assess, in large part because it contains essays on diverse subjects with little to connect one piece to the next, but it is a solid collection and is especially useful because of the range of authors and titles covered here: C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945); William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954); Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners (1959); Kurt Vonnegut, two stories from Welcome to the Monkey House (1968); “Richard Bachman” (Stephen King), The Long Walk (1979) and The Running Man (1982); Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992); Lois Lowry, The Giver (1993); William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999); M.T. Anderson, Feed (2002); Scott Westerfeld, Uglies (2005); Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006); Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy (2008, 2009, 2010); Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, The Strain Trilogy (2009, 2010, 2011); Alexander London, Proxy (2013); Dave Eggers, The Circle (2013); Alena Graedon, The Word Exchange (2014); Elaine Dimopoulos, Material Girls (2015); and Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (2015). In the last essay, “Here’s Looking at You, Kids: The Urgency of Dystopian Texts in the Secondary Classroom,” Michael A. Soares offers intelligent, practical advice about how and why to teach dystopian texts in US high schools to counter some of the dystopian elements of the world the students know. Those forces include a broad loss of privacy, school shootings, an educational system that relies far too heavily on standardized tests, and educational leaders who are “often suspicious of the progressive pedagogy” that they assume underlies the teaching of dystopian narratives (239).

There are too many articles in Worlds Gone Awry for me to comment individually on even a representative set, but I should say that although it begins with a small error—a reference to Plato’s Republic as one of the “Roman literary models” (122) for Thomas More’s Utopia—Jane Beal’s “Ending Dystopia: The Feminist Critique of Culture in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy” is an especially informative study, particularly on the sources for her novels in Roman history and the Vietnam War. The quality of the essays is high, and the editors deserve credit for producing a volume that appears to have been scrupulously proofread (as is Horan’s), but inevitably a few passages deserving of a raised eyebrow slip through. Three crop up in one of my favorite essays, Natasha W. Vashisht’s “‘A Secure but Partly Demented Society’: Reconsidering Human Depravity in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.” In a passage that clearly refers to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, she says “a tall boy and a fat man established a peril that made torpedoes, airships, metal detectors, radars, barbed wires, and dynamites look like a dumb show” (40). She is thinking of the bombs’ nicknames, Little Boy and Fat Man; but how did Little Boy become “a tall boy”? The statement that “Stalin’s gulags in Siberia were replicas of Hitler’s camps in Europe” (42) overlooks the fact that Stalin’s Gulag system can be traced back at least to 1929, before Hitler’s rise to power. And the reference to the “‘war to end all wars’ (1939-45)” (43) uses a common (but obviously inappropriate) term for the First World War to refer to the Second. Each of these small errors should have been caught.

I have one more observation, or rather a question that occurred to me as I read these books: why has Nineteen Eighty-Four influenced later dystopian works far more than Brave New World? This question returns to an argument Neil Postman made over a generation ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), a critique of public discourse in the United States. Postman noted that the year 1984 had come and gone without any “Orwellian nightmares,” at least in the Western democracies, but little attention had been paid to Huxley’s “equally chilling” vision. He put the options in stark terms: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one” (vii). The history of Europe in the twentieth century makes it easy to see why Europeans would focus on Orwell’s brutal future rather than Huxley’s vision of drugs and vapid entertainment, but in the United States, at least, a future of superficiality and irrelevance seems more likely. Writing in 1984, the year when Ronald Reagan was reelected, Postman noted that the former Hollywood actor had made so many “misstatements” that, according to the New York Times, people had lost interest in the truth or falsehood of his statements (108). Even so, Postman concluded that “in America, Orwell’s prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley’s are well under way toward being realized” (156). That seems to have been true in the 1980s and, for the most part, until 2016; but if Neil Postman were alive today I suspect Donald Trump would give him many reasons to revisit Nineteen Eighty-Four.

1. I am indebted to George Packer’s review of The Ministry of Truth for directing me to this important study of Orwell.

2. Horan broadens his critique slightly when he argues that “The Handmaid’s Tale anticipates the twenty-first-century worldview of Mike Pence” (171).

3. Significantly, John shouts “Strumpet! Strumpet!” while he whips himself “as though it were Lenina (and how frantically, without knowing it, he wished it were), white, warm, scented, infamous Lenina that he was flogging thus” (260).

4. Horan also overlooks Burdekin’s earlier novel, Proud Man (1934), in which—as Daphne Patai says in her introduction to Swastika Night—“Burdekin criticises Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for its assumption that human beings would be the same even under totally different conditions” (vi). In Proud Man (226-27), the genderless narrator, a visitor from the future, follows this brief critique of Brave New World with a commentary on Point Counter Point (1928), without naming either of Huxley’s novels.

5. The narrative technique of Zamyatin’s novel might best be compared to the diary narratives of Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959) and Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon (1966).

6. See Dostoevsky, Part I, Chapters III (12), VIII (28), and IX (30-31), and Zamyatin, Twelfth Entry (66). The implications for Dostoevsky and Zamyatin of this formula have been developed by several critics, including William Steinhoff (173-74), whose book Horan cites in his introduction (4), and most recently by Lynskey (108-109).

Browning, Gordon. “Toward a Set of Standards for Everlasting Anti-Utopian Fiction.” Cithara 10.1 (1970): 18-32.

Burdekin, Katharine. Proud Man. 1934, as by Murray Constantine. Rpt. with Foreword and Afterword by Daphne Patai. New York: The Feminist Press, 1993.

─────. Swastika Night. 1937, as by Murray Constantine. Rpt. with Introduction by Daphne Patai. New York: The Feminist Press, 1985.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Notes from Underground” and “The Grand Inquisitor.” Ed. and trans. Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1960.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1932. Rpt. with 1946 Foreword by Huxley. New York: HarperPerennial, 1989.

Lynskey, Dorian. The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s “1984.” New York: Doubleday, 2019.

Packer, George. “George Orwell’s Unheeded Warning.” The Atlantic 324.1 (Jul. 2019): 40-42.

Patai, Daphne. “Introduction.” Swastika Night by Murray Constantine (Katharine Burdekin). 1937. New York: Feminist Press, 1985. iii-xv.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking, 1985.

Schaub, Michael. “Not an ‘Alternative Fact’: George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Tops Amazon’s Bestseller List.” Los Angeles Times. 25 Jan. 2017. Online.

Steinhoff, William. George Orwell and the Origins of “1984.” Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1975.
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. 1924. Trans. Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Avon, 1983.

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