Thursday, May 2, 2013

George Orwell's 1984: The First Cyberclunk Novel?

One of the earliest terms for what we know today as science fiction was “scientific romance.” The term endured until Amazing Stories publisher Hugo Gernsback coined the word “scienetifiction,” which soon became simply “science fiction,” abbreviated by science fiction super fan Forrest J. Ackerman as “sci-fi,” and abused further still by cable’s inexplicably named Syfy Network.

But the romance never quite left it.

Frankenstein; or a Modern Prometheus, one of the earliest science fiction novels, or "scientific romances"  is as much about technology’s flaws as it is a romance. The “Prometheus” part of the title right away tells us this is a cautionary tale, as the romance of Doctor Frankenstein’s vision is contrasted with the grotesquery of his creation. It’s not just about science gone wrong—because Frankenstein achieves his essential goal—but science that doesn’t work quite how we want it to.

Later, Jules Verne would write an even more romantic scientific romance. Nemo’s Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is science as elegant in its conception as in its execution. And like the genesis of Mary Shelly’s monster, the source of that technology is electricity, which by this time was not the same mystery that it was when Shelly wrote Frankenstein. The book is surprisingly prescient--diving suits and a bomb that’s devastation mirrors the destructive power of a nuclear weapon. Once again there are references here to Greek mythology, in this case, Homer’s Odyssey, and like Frankenstein before him, Nemo is the quintessential mad scientist. But for all his madness, Nemo’s technology is streamlined and perfect, and the drawbacks are strictly in its repercussions rather than inherent in its design, a theme we see again and again in the science fiction that followed.

Verne’s other efforts ranged from the progressive use of technology existent at the time—Around the World in 80 Days—to the humor (if not satire) of Journey to The Center of the Earth, which contained both speculation and pure fantasy. But the essence of his stories, from the exploration of the sea, to space travel, was romance. More than Frankenstein, this is the model for later day science fiction, science fiction as futurism, as speculation about technology to come. Verne, in this way, is more the model for the works of popular authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov than Shelly.

H.G. Wells’ approach was similar to Verne’s, with one notable exception. In the majority of Wells’ work, the technology is still romantic in its depiction. Though the time travel device in The Time Machine is used as a vehicle to illustrate a dystopia that represents the ultimate consequence of class, the time machine itself is described as an elegant device. And though it predicts a second world war, the future world in The Shape of Things to Come is ultimately utopian.

The great exception is The Island of Doctor Moreau. Moreau parallel’s Frankenstein in his ambition, and as with Frankenstein,  the process is grotesque, involving skin grafts and surgery so painful it’s used as a form of discipline against his creations. There’s no brain surgery described in the process—the changes are all superficial manipulations of the flesh. The ultimate message is similarly Promethean, about our inability to turn the tide of nature, and how nature metes out its own punishment upon those who try. Like Frankenstein, Moreau succeeds in generating creatures that resent him for what he’s made them, but unlike Shelly's Frankenstein, Moreau knew that if he was going to achieve his goals the process would inevitably be crude. He embraced the imperfection of his initial results as a necessity, but overestimated its effectiveness. Morality tale aside, it was bad technology. His formerly animal creations returned to the wild. His efforts didn’t take. The Invisible Man follows a similar path of imperfection, but not nearly to the degree of Moreau. 

This is the compromise that all scientists and technologists have to make—technology is never going to turn out quite how we want it to. You have to accept the inelegance inherent in invention. It takes a long time to smooth out the edges, and you’re never going to smooth every corner. Though more emphasis tends to be placed on Moreau as a morality tale, I see it, more importantly, as a blunt and unfiltered illustration of this fact.

George Orwell’s 1984 and The Beginnings of Cyberclunk

After Wells we see two popular dystopias about totalitarian oppression, first Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and then, nearly a decade later, George Orwell’s 1984. These are by no means the first depictions of future dystopias (Even Shelly wrote one of her own) but both were significant for their criticism of the industrial class structure, and of the two, Orwell’s 1984 heralds a new kind of science fiction.

Huxley’s is a dystopian romance, a smooth running machine with technology that meets every practical need. Everyone is kept content with the ubiquitous happy pill Soma and encouraged to be good consumers. A eugenic system is in place that establishes both intellect and class at birth (echoes of Wells’ Time Machine). This is science fiction as futurism, and the vehicle is still smooth as glass technology.

 Orwell’s original intended title for his novel was 1948, a direct reference to the post-war era. Since Orwell’s book was written at the beginning of the Cold War it’s often assumed to be a critique of Communism, but like Huxley’s novel, 1984 was a critique on the growing power of corporate hegemonies. Every thought and every product is dictated by the state, and though this does parallel in many ways the Stalinist era of controlled communications and historical revisionism, it’s not even ostensibly a worker’s society. Consumerism is a peripheral issue, but that doesn’t mean that the populace is discouraged from consumption. There’s no explicit critique of capitalism. Conspicuous consumption isn’t an option to be considered. People take what they are given. Big Brother takes care of you.

As in A Brave New World, class is strictly divided between blue collar and white collar, another clear example of how 1984 had little to do with communism. The society of 1984 leans more towards the model of Structural Functionalism--the body of the society functions based on the assumption and acceptance of strictly reinforced societal roles. The simplified language of Newspeak is a satire of the conventions of technical and educational writing taken to the extreme. Newspeak is language as pure instruction and uninflected communication, another illustration of the ultimate consequence of the basic tenants of Structural Functionalism.

In 1984 the everyday hardships of life are oppressive and emotional connections are discouraged, but there’s no Soma to make the citizenry content with their plight. If it’s a smooth running machine, it’s one that performs in relative stasis. Technology hasn’t so much advanced as become distilled, and at the beginning of the book it’s established that the year is an arbitrary one.

“he did not know with any certainty that this was 1984. It must be round about that date, since he was fairly sure that his age was thirty-nine, and he believed that he had been born in 1944 or 1945; but it was never possible nowadays to pin down any date within a year or two.” 

Chronologically, to the contemporary reader at the time, 1984 was the future, but just as soon as the idea is posited, it’s discredited, because literal futurism is not relevant to the story that Orwell is trying to tell. Though the society that Orwell describes is not entirely outside the bounds of possibility, Orwell, in this brief passage, lets us know that that’s not what this story is about, or the point. In all likelihood, changing the title from 1948 to 1984 was a concession to a contemporary audience that had already grown to expect futurism in their science fiction. But 1984 is an exaggeration and sometimes satire of the time in which it was written. While Huxley firmly anchors his story in what he imagines to be a possible future, Orwell makes it clear that the year should mean as little to the reader as it does to its protagonist. He deliberately and decisively obliterates the conceit of futurism that had plagued science fiction up till this point.

With this simple passage, Orwell’s 1984 is the first true cyberclunk novel. It’s fiction about science, both technological and social, and how science affects society rather than a meditation on literal possibility. 1984 remains timeless because the literal, progressive evolution of technology, culture and politics is not directly alluded to. It’s easy to read 1984 on its own terms without having to discount false predictions rendered quaint by time. If at all dated, it’s dated in the same way that other traditional literary fiction is reflective of its era, not because of its failure to predict the future. Accurately predicting the future isn’t the obligation of science fiction in the first place, but as long as contemporary sci-fi continues to focus on literal futurism this fact will never be as obvious as it should be.