Friday, September 16, 2011


    George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948. By switching the numbers he came up with a future that must have seemed far off, though it was only 36 years away. In any case, the supposed case of futurism was not so much a futuristic vision as a regurgitation of the past, in particular the world of the totalitarian police state, the deformed child of the marriage between the Utopian ideologies of fascism and communism. 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Stanley Kubrick movie based on the Arthur C. Clarke novel (written while the movie was in production), was similarly un-ambitious in its choice of future, since the year of the title was not that far away from the year in which he movie was made (1968). And what about Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and The Minority Report, two sci-fi classics that deal with realities that might have occurred or could soon occur? Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (which popularized the word “cyberspace”), Samuel Delaney’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (which anticipated the web), Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Stanislav Lem’s Solaris and any of the works of Ursula K. Le Guin could also arguably be regarded as reportage, albeit of a philosophical cast, like one of those three-part series the Times sometimes runs about the devastation wrought by wars or climate change.
    There is nothing too futuristic about science fiction, and in fact nothing too futuristic about the future itself. Of course there are novels that take place in futures that are tens of thousands of years away, but it is a curiosity of most science fiction that the worlds created, whether they are wish fulfillments or not, have irrefutable relevancy to the times in which they were written. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days were not so much fantasies as reflections on the Age of Exploration, which culminated at the end of the 19th century. Is Hal, the computer at the center of 2001, a character of escapist fantasy or a piece of sociology that is merely unsupported by any data? And what better forecast of the anonymity of technological society than H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man?
    Science fiction is not harmless escape. It’s dangerous because of its propensity to tell the truth. That was what Orwell was hinting at by simply rotating the digits for his classic novel. Isn’t Orwell really saying that the dyslexic reversal of two numbers only hints at their identity, that 1984 is really 1948, and vice-versa, with Big Brother still in command? Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is neither brave nor new but chillingly close to our present-day attempts to control and manipulate the gene pool. Newspapers might be rendered anachronistic by the ubiquity and speed of electronic media, but there is one thing faster than television and the Internet and that is the imagination of the science fiction writer, which distills the undercurrents of reality, turning them into parables that can easily be said to contain the real headline stories of the day. Remember Tiresias?

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