VFD

It’s been a few years since I read Fahrenheit 451, the classic novel by Ray Bradbury.  Like so many dystopias, it’s seen a resurgence of interest since 45 was elected.  (I can’t help but notice the shared digits.)  Bradbury was a writer of his time.  So much, I suppose, could be said of all of us who write—how can we be anything else?  Still, it’s difficult not to see that his fear was of television decimating reading.  And intelligence.  We’ve got the internet now, so the effect has been magnified a bit.  The tale, despited being dated, is poignant.  The more electronic we become the more of what used to be termed “real life” we miss.  At this reading it was clear that The Book of Eli was largely based on the last pages.

When Montag confesses to his wife that he’s been secreting books away, and she finds him insane for doing so, he takes the book in his hand to a former acquaintance, Faber.  It turns out that the book is the Bible, perhaps the last in existence (see what I mean?).  On the subway ride he tries to memorize the Good Book.  Now, I’ve been on the New York City subway, and I know the delays can be long, but there’s an error of scale here.  The Bible’s a big book.  Still, he gets pieces of it down.  Now, in the 1950s, when Fahrenheit 451 was published, the Bible was known for its liberating qualities rather than its darker side.  Also the atomic end of World War II was clearly still a painful living memory.  The two may not be unrelated.

Given the age of the story, I won’t worry about spoilers.  In case, however, it’s on your list proceed with caution.  The war that’s been building the entire story takes place the night of Montag’s escape.  Along with the intellectuals forced out of the cities, he becomes part of a human library.  Each person is, through a memory recovery technique, capable of recalling the books they’ve read.  Montag becomes, appropriately enough, Ecclesiastes.  Perhaps the least evangelical book in the Bible, along with Job (with which most evangelicals find themselves cheering on Job’s friends), Qohelet has long been one of my favorites.  It’s an honest book.  The same can be said for Bradbury’s novel.  Primarily a short story writer, Bradbury didn’t sustain the narrative to novel length very often.  But when he did he fashioned a book that, particularly now, needs to be read.

Taking and Giving

Dystopias are among my favorite kinds of literature.  Things tend to go wrong in human society, and although we’ve made great progress over the past couple of centuries, in many ways we’ve set ourselves back.  Dystopias are searching, thoughtful ways of addressing that slippage and they warn us of what me might become.  (Especially if Republicans remain in power.)  Lois Lowry’s The Giver is young adult literature, but I’ve been curious about it for some time.  Set in an undefined time and place, a highly structured society exists where things seldom go wrong.  There are no animals and people take pills to eliminate “stirrings” so that sex won’t complicate relationships.  Families are constructed by algorithm and children are assigned from a pool so they will match expectations.  In order to continue this bland lifestyle, memories have to be repressed in the person of the Receiver—the keeper of communal memories.

At first things seem pleasant enough.  Life, however, lacks color and music.  It lacks emotional engagement.  Those who, in real life, idealize the 1950s as before the madness of the sixties began, have trouble conceiving of how societies go wrong.  The dilemma is that no society is perfect and as time goes on we look for improvements.  For a very long time in American history, for example, nobody had bosses.  The majority of people were independent farmers.  They prospered by luck and hard work, but they worked for no one but themselves.  Now we mostly work for bosses who have bosses who have bosses in some kind of endless regression of power.  Our ability to change things is quite limited, even in professional positions.  Is this better than the uncertainty of farming?  With all the rain this year it might seem so.  Of such things dystopias are made.

The Giver follows a protagonist, Jonas, who when he becomes twelve is assigned to become the new Receiver.  As he gains memories of how things used to be, he’s fascinated.  Learning his society’s darkest secret, however, spurs him to try to make a change.  A lot of questions remain at the end.  (The novel is part of a series, as most young adult fiction tends to be, but it can be read as a stand-alone story.)  Those of us who’ve been around the block a time or two might be able to guess where this is going, but for younger readers to be introduced into the way of human problem solving this is a gloves-off approach.  Those accustomed to dystopias will find themselves in familiar territory.  As will those who live under Republican regimes.

Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

Playing Piano

It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.

What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.

Zoo or Farm?

It comes as no surprise, I hope, that I read lots of fiction. While not every book I read makes it onto this blog, a good many of them do, along with some I haven’t read yet. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals is one of the latter. A suspicion is itching way down deep telling me that I’ll probably end up a fan. Part of my suspicion comes from having read a story on NPR about the book. First of all: dystopia. Need I say more? I admire those who try to paint a future with a lighter palette, but I’ve been observing the way those in power behave and it kind of makes me think optimism about improvement is just a tad naive. People are too easily lulled into apathy by things like sports and the internet. The Romans used bread and circuses. Meanwhile those in power help themselves to a bit more until you can’t even get on an airplane without a total stranger seeing you sans briefs. If I can’t be trusted by those I elect, what cause do I have for hope? But enough about me. The book’s the thing.

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Night of the Animals, according to the NPR piece, is kind of a reverse ark. The animals in the London Zoo are understood by a man and they ask him to release them. I don’t know what happens, but I sure hope to find out. When interviewers ask Broun what it was like to spend fourteen years working on a novel, he responded in a way that, I suspect, many writers would understand. He said that it was a spiritual journey. Writing this book was his search for God. Many of us must nod our heads to that.

Concentration is becoming a dying art. I’ve written a number of books in my life—by far the greatest number remain unpublished—and I know there’s nothing like the intense concentration you experience when lost in such a world. Yes, it is spiritual. It is also a cry to be heard. As George Orwell well knew, we are the animals hoping to be heard. Zoos represent entrapment. Broun states that he wanted to explore how people are trapped in his novel. Looking at a system that rewards greed and keeps workers in unfulfilling jobs just so they can keep the system going while their CEOs buy another hotel chain or sports team and decide to run for office, I begin to hear the oinks, whinnies, and neighs all around me. And I haven’t even read the book yet.

Pagan Virtue

We are products of our place of birth. One of the truly amazing things about human culture is how quickly it can evolve. As biologists have noted, populations separated by natural barriers such as mountains, big rivers, or oceans, tend to evolve in different directions. They adapt to their environment. So far the world-wide web hasn’t flattened our differences out completely with a cultural creole, and it may be best to celebrate it while we still can. In an article in The Atlantic, “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories,” by Colleen Gillard, answers her titular query with religion. The British, she suggests, are better attuned to their pagan past. In the United States children’s stories tend toward the moralistic, reflecting the Puritan values that some decry as absent from culture. British stories lean toward magic and earthiness in a way that American stories don’t.

Any generalization opens itself for criticism. (Including the generalization I’ve just made, I suppose.) Still, I think Gillard is onto something. Children are magical thinkers and have to be taught not to see what they think they see. We acculturate them into the dull, adult world of making money instead of magic. American kids get started on the entrepreneurial pathway with early moralizing about hard work and attaining goals—just glance at the titles mentioned in the article and see if you can disagree. Christianity arrived in Britain much, much earlier, of course. There it encountered a pagan sensibility that tempered its increasingly harsh edges. Puritanism took the remaining joy from the good news and made it into a very serious belief system, indeed, with eternal consequences that persistently threaten any enjoyment of life. You constantly have to examine and prove yourself. The British allowed their former earthiness to survive, as early epistles to Augustine (not of Hippo) demonstrate.

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The article ends by reflecting on recent American dystopian novels for young adults. These, Gillard suggests, reach toward fantasy in a way earlier efforts didn’t. I wonder if a bleak future is the natural consequence of founding a nation under the eye of an ever watchful, and vengeful, deity. Even a Trump may appear righteous with a Pence in his pocket. We’ve got to return to those old Puritan ways of subjecting women to men to make America great again. As this mass insanity continues to grow and infects the internet, dystopian futures appear to be strangely prescient. The C. S. Lewis of real life was not the grinning evangelical that modern-day candy Christians suppose. He knew a faun wasn’t what it seemed.

Stations, Everyone

Station11There has been a movement, of late, among some sci-fi authors, to envision a more optimistic future. I have always been a fan of dystopias, myself. Perhaps it’s the working-class mentality backed up by being raised in poverty speaking, but sometimes I feel that collapse is more fair than progress. What passes for progress, anyway. Maybe I’m thinking this way because I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. This book has been on my radar for some time since it is one of the more hopeful dystopias out there. The story of a group among the very few who survive banding into a traveling troop of musicians and thespians is about the most hopeful outcome I can imagine. Not a day passes when I don’t feel the effacement of humanity that has been slowly taking place since I first became aware of the world. Sure, I do appreciate the strides made in medicine. Of this internet, which is the only place anyone ever really sees me, I’m less sanguine. It has its benefits, but even Mandel mentions the cell-phone zombies that are all too real and as omnipresent as an omnipotent deity used to be.

Station Eleven has, as many dystopias do, a religious sect that emerges after society collapses. This element of bleak futures is actually very accurate, I anticipate. We’re constantly being told by the “intellectuals” of the public variety that religion is for weak-minded dreamers with milquetoast aspirations for fantasy. The fact is the vast majority of people in the world are religious. The numbers are nowhere even near close. If a pandemic were to wipe out all but one percent (and hopefully it wouldn’t be the one percenters that survive) those who remain would, without doubt, turn to religion. People are easily led in this area of life. Mandel gives us The Prophet. His vision of the world is not helpful, but he has no trouble gathering a following. He’s also somewhat messianic: child of a single parent, raised in Israel, he comes to bring a sword to a nation already prostrate in the dust. This is powerful stuff.

Societies that try to rebuild themselves after traumas quite often rely on religion. This is hardly surprising as civilization itself began as religions coalesced into temples and their priesthoods. What is surprising is that so many intelligent people today can’t see just how important religion is to our species. As I suggested before, part of this is that religion defies simple definition. It’s easy to belittle “magical” thinking when it’s assumed religion has to do only with the supernatural. Religion, however, reaches into whatever we believe. Some ideas in modern cosmology, derived from physicists and their mathematics, can look sort of religious when viewed from a certain angle. As those who write dystopias know, religion is complex. It may lead to massive destruction. Chances are, however, that if there are any human beings left to crawl out of whatever pit we dig, they will do so with religious ideas in their heads. As usual, the writers have foreseen it.

Looking Ahead

HistoryFutureA History of the Future is a great title for a book. Classified, I suppose, as a dystopia, James Howard Kunstler’s novel is set in upstate New York, not too far from now. A war in Israel has led to the destruction of major US cities and our electronic, consumptive way of life suddenly comes to an end. Small pockets of people, such as those in Union Grove, try to reconstruct a way of life where executives now have to become farmers and those who were used to having plenty still can’t manage without thinking of others as servants. It is a quiet and disquieting world. Perhaps the most striking thing about Kunstler’s vision is how prevalent religion is within it. An entire swath of the middle of the country has followed a former televangelist back to pre-Civil War ideals and seeks to make white supremacy national policy. Other pockets of governments resist the growing strength of this backlash, but most people are just trying to get by, uninvolved in large-scale politics.

The most sympathetic group in the novel, at least in my reading of it, is the New Faith Covenant Brotherhood Church of Jesus, run by Brother Jobe, himself a former southerner. This church moves, lock, stock, and barrel, into Union Grove and begins to build a commune that, unlike those of the local Presbyterians and secular rulers, manages to thrive. Brother Jobe has mystical abilities and his heart is in the right place. As things continue their decline amidst the everyone for him/herself attempts to restore order, this fellowship manages to pull itself together through common belief and perhaps a bit of divine intervention. In the future these aren’t so easily teased apart.

Not a typical action-packed dystopia with raging violence, Kunstler sketches a more gentle apocalypse. It’s not a final disaster and big government has not yet reemerged to stamp its will on a malleable people. Women and men relearn what it means to work by hand and to live with less. In some ways the vision is comforting. Still, those who will have been patrician in the past manage to become feudal lords, of a sort, in this new world. Not everyone can fit into that pattern. The overall picture in what seems to be a parable is that pre-industrial society did, in fact, work. It wasn’t perfect, of course. Monasteries and lords embodied different values where no one could truly claim to know what this was all about. The future, it turns out, is mostly the past.

Addam’s Evve

MaddAddamDystopias can be optimistic. I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, and came away from it strangely at peace. The third of its eponymous trilogy, the story takes place in a future that is simply a continuation of where we are at the moment. Things have gotten pretty bad—most of humanity has been wiped out, genetic engineering has taken dreadful liberties with creatures human and non, and corporations have fulfilled their dreams and have taken over at last. The few good people left are tormented by those society has made into sociopaths. Global warming has proven the naysayers false, and yet, despite all this, there is room for hope. Tying together the various strands from the previous two books, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam is probably the most eco-conscious trilogy on the planet.

Apart from the many obvious biblical allusions (I often wonder what it must be like to miss so much, for want of familiarity with holy writ), the book also introduces a fully functional faux church. Atwood can be at her best when taking on the charlatans of piety. Cynical and calculating, “the Rev,” father of two of the ensemble cast, is everything a televangelist is, and more. Indulging in all that he denies his flock, even Elmer Gantry would have trouble keeping up. The Church of PetrOleum represents the most damaging of industries in a world already suffering the consequences of the greenhouse effect. Corporations make it rich while the Rev takes out his personal issues on his wives and children. Instead of being on the side of paradise, the church introduces chaos.

Through the gloomy scenario she’s foreseen, Atwood is able to see glimmers of a future that has possibilities. The protagonists are the members of a commune of a green religion, earth-centered and bearing a resemblance to both Wicca and monastic Christianity. That spiritual tradition, an offshoot of more established churches, is seen as dangerous by the corporations. And with good reason. Despite what televangelists tell us, spiritual truth is not on the side of big business. Jesus was no trickle-down economist. Reagan was no messiah. Corporate greed leads to blocking laws to clean up our world. We do not have control over what geneticists are doing, and, in fact, most of us have no idea what we’re eating or wearing any longer. Or what it is they’re packaging our food in. We are the consumers. Taught always to consume more. And the more that we are told to consume is the very planet that gave us life. My hat is off to Atwood, who still seems some possible cause for hope.

Holy Trilogy

AtwoodAlumni magazines, thinly disguised appeals for money that they are, seldom merit much time. This doesn’t stop me, in any case, from sending notices of my new publications or blog, since I, like most fellow alumni, have never been cited as notable. One of the thousands who graduated and amounted to nothing. Once in a great while, however, I feel a slight twinge of pride when one of my three mothers does something of which I’m particularly proud. Most often this is Edinburgh University, although once in a while Boston University also catches my attention. A recent copy of Edit—an alumni mag that began some time after I graduated, American-style—has a familiar face on the cover. Well, not familiar in that I know her, but familiar in that I’ve read several of her books and feel like I know her. Margaret Atwood was given an honorary degree by my old school, and I am pleased to be a, albeit lesser, co-alum.

Over the holidays I picked up a copy of MaddAddam, the third and long-awaited conclusion of the trilogy of the same name. As my regular readers know, I have a soft spot for dystopias. In spite of attempts by many writers to paint a brighter future, it seems that given how far we’ve let things go, collapse before reform feels inevitable. The apathy I find when we read about the vastly disproportionate disparity between haves and have-nots, and the surging of deep, animalistic, primate, rage at injustice doesn’t seem to me a healthy mix. Atwood, although I can’t yet speak for MaddAddam, envisions collapse before florescence. The same may be declared about A Handmaid’s Tale. Complacency, it seems to me, is the real enemy.

And universities continue to send me alumni magazines that instead of inspiring me, rub my face in my own mediocrity. I spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours on my education and I am paid less than most janitors at most colleges. Not that I was ever in it for the money. I did, however, envision a hopeful future where I’d be teaching, perhaps at a small college somewhere, writing my thoughts in books rather than blogs, and having a modest impact on the world for good. Instead, I have found myself living in a dystopia. As I roll over and see that 3 in first position on my bedside clock on a table with the legs broken off, I know it is time to face the cold of a drafty apartment so I can await the bus to pay for another day’s privilege. My comfort is that Margaret Atwood made an impression on Edinburgh University, and will soon be making another impression on me.

Divergency

DivergentSelf-denial, no matter what its motivation, is a religious ideal. In its more extreme forms it becomes martyrdom, but most religions agree on the value of taking less for yourself so that others might have more. This has been running through my head since seeing the movie Divergent. I read and posted on the book some time ago, but having recently seen the movie—a fairly faithful adaptation to the novel—I was forcefully reminded that this is a dystopian parable. In the future, society is divided into different factions, based on a person’s predisposition. This is done to keep the peace, and the factions seem to get along until suspicion grows about the group called Abnegation. The Abnegation faction is moved by pity and compassion for others. They are the consummate self-deniers, not thinking of themselves to the point of limiting time they can spend looking in a mirror. Others are the focus. Naturally, those who see the utter selflessness of others wonder what they’re really up to. Suspicion grows that this group is after wealth, in the form of food, secretly stockpiling it for themselves. Nobody would give up for themselves so that others can have more.

As I watched the movie I thought about religious groups that preach self-denial. Granted, I’m only one person, but growing up that was the message I continually heard loud and clear in the teachings of Jesus, according to the Gospels. Deny yourself so that others might have more. The deeper I became involved with the church, however, the rarer I found such behavior. By the time I reached college, I still hadn’t figured out that religion had become an industry, like any other. A service industry, to be sure, but it still had CEOs and treasurers and, increasingly, political power. The political seduction of religion already had a history by the time I became aware of it, but I still believed that self-denial was at the core of true religion. Perhaps the factions I heard whispering around me were right. Perhaps there was something more driving all this.

In Divergent, the belief in selflessness leads to self-sacrifice. In many feel-good movies, this leads to an expected resurrection. Here the future is bleak, and the dead remain dead. There is a kind of resurrection as the Dauntless faction comes out of its stupor, but the movie leaves the viewer wondering if there is a future after all. Is there a place in the world for those who legitimately want everyone to share? I think that every time I find myself driving. Behind the wheel, selfish maneuvers that lead to little, if any, ultimate gain seem to be deeply embedded in those who want to get there first. Abnegation, it seems, is a danger on the road. Driving, it seems to me, is a real test of someone’s religious convictions. Perhaps it is that one has to realize that the vehicle in front of you contains another human soul. Or perhaps it is that the fragmentation of society has already gone too far and those who don’t take for themselves are not emulated, but consumed.

2015

New Year’s Day seemed to me, as a child, an odd choice for a holiday. We’d just had Christmas a week before. Of course, at the time I did not realize that the date of New Year’s was a symbolic one for the Christian calendar, and the celebration seemed no more significant than getting to stay up until midnight. The systematic changing of the years felt just like the regular progression of numbers, and what was there to celebrate about that? Of course, time cures even itself, and I came to see New Year’s as a time of new beginnings. Resolutions never sat well with me, since improvements, I’ve always believed, should be implemented as soon as the problem is noticed. Waiting until the dead of winter hardly seemed like an inspiration to get things done. Unless the resolution was to get more sleep. Still, we can all use new beginnings.

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

New Year’s, however, has taken on a more somber tone of late. As an adult, I often brood over the past year, and it seems that just when hope may be on the horizon, we find new ways to make the situation worse. Much of it comes down to politicians and the economy, two things that no resolutions ever seem to fix. Although I didn’t see the point of it all as a child, I did look to the future with optimism. It has gotten so bad now that science fiction writers have to make a case for trying to have a positive outlook. Dystopias are popular, I believe, because they are believable. Given the performance of politicians and church leaders (with the obvious and large exception of Pope Francis) we’ve seen little to suggest that our institutions have the will or the means to improve our lot. Even the Pope has made enemies by being a nice guy.

Already we’ve begun to hear that some apocalyptic groups have targeted 2015 as the year the world will end. We’re just getting over 2012. I think what is most disturbing is the sameness of it all. Another year means the continuation of a job that keeps food on the table, at least it is to be hoped. Beyond that, we will have more antics to watch that, were they not so fraught with consequences, might be thought funny. I haven’t lost my capacity to dream. Those who think me a pessimist don’t know me very well. Dreams are, however, futures that we have to take into our own hands. We can’t spend 2015 waiting for politicians and corporations to suddenly change for the better. In what sense is “business as usual” ever new?

Guy Fawkes

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,” so begins the poem that haunts my every autumn with V for Vendetta. As a colonial, I never really peered too deeply into the Gunpowder Plot. We were all told that Guy Fawkes was the bad guy and that he got his in the end. Recently I delved a bit deeper and learned that this was a religious conflict. Part of a conspiracy to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne of England, Fawkes was captured as he guarded the actual gunpowder of said plot, and the rest, as they say, evolved into V. The iconic Guy Fawkes mask, sometimes sported by members of Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements, has moved away from its Catholic roots and on into the realm of wider social justice. We know that blowing up our enemies is not a viable solution (we too remember, remember the eleventh of September), but the metaphorical destruction of oppressive systems may be the only way to vindicate the demands of social justice.

Dystopias have been heavily on my mind lately. Looking across the socio-political landscape I see many concerned people with no power to displace the impacted one-percenters. Politicians court money, and sociological studies show that young people don’t bother to vote and have no interest in entering politics because it is so widely known that it is a corrupt and inefficient system. While laws are easily enacted to protect extreme wealth, social security finds itself on the block as seniors are increasing in poverty almost as fast as they are increasing in numbers. In my own life I have experienced being cut off from retirement plans because I wasn’t “vested,” which I translate as “saving money for those at the top.” Still, we blithely press on, wondering if V really exists at all. We don’t need to seek out dystopias. They will discover us.

November is that graying period between the colorful burst of vindictive playfulness that is Halloween to the long night of the solstice. During this time we will vote in vain and await a better future that never seems to come. We, like V, have been an experiment of the state over the freedoms of the individual. The market, we’re told, has recovered. The average citizen has not. Every year as the evenings grow longer and the winds begin to howl, I come back to V for Vendetta and hope against hope that corruption will meet the fate of Guy Fawkes. Ironically, few turn to religious organizations any more in the never-ending search for social justice. The trenches in which many denominations have chosen to die are those of sexuality and male dominance. Meanwhile, women and men both are aging, and the very structures we put in place to ensure they could rest after lives of hard work are being eroded. Behind every mask, it seems, hides the face of a politician.

Photo credit: Vincent Diamante, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Vincent Diamante, Wikimedia Commons

Dystopian Paradise

Dystopias resonate with me. As I ponder why, two factors seem to rise to the surface: dystopias are inevitably populist in orientation, and I was raised religious. Each of these factors requires some explanation, but so does the choice of addressing dystopian topics on a cheerful September day. In an article by Debbie Siegelbaum in the BBC News Magazine, Project Hieroglyph is featured. Project Hieroglyph, which involves some people I know, is an attempt to write a more optimistic future back into science fiction. To understand my reservations, I have to confess to having grown up as a nerdy science fiction reader. The stories from the 1950s and ’60s to which I had access (growing up poor, and buying books at Goodwill and second-hand shops) tended to be optimistic—people colonizing other planets, creating great labor-saving inventions, traveling time itself. In the meanwhile I slept in torn sheets in a ratty room and had to work to buy my own school clothes, inevitably cheap. For a few years our house didn’t even have a bathtub or shower. It wasn’t an easy existence, and I found solace in religion and science fiction, both of which promised a better future.

Today, forward-looking literature tends to be pretty bleak. With reason. Optimistic futures are the luxury of the elite. The average working person labors under a constant threat of unemployment and no jobs to replace the one you have. Hey, some of the people I see begging in Midtown are not dressed in the rags of the classic ne’er-do-well. Their signs asking for help are articulate and neatly written. The elite may look to a brighter future, but from street-level things appear a bit more challenging. There’s no question that politicians long ago lost touch with the commoner. They have no idea what life is like for most of us. Same is true of most university folk (cited in the article); unless they’ve been cast out, I suspect, they can conjure a pretty rosy future. With tenure.

That’s the populist angle. Now for the religious. The basic idea of Project Hieroglyph is as old as Buddhism, or perhaps even older than that. Salvation. Religions promulgate the idea that people require salvation. Otherwise it’s pretty difficult to get people up on a Sunday morning and convince them to drop their money in the plate. Look, however, at what has been happening to mainstream churches. So technocrats and other elites think technology, rather than the gods, will save us. Those devices of optimistic 1950’s and ’60’s sci fi have turned on us, and we have become slaves to our own technology. Gee, it’s awfully gloomy in here! Perhaps we need a brighter vision of the future where technology makes things better. It sounds like a return to the stories I read as a child. Still, I can’t help noticing all the closed churches I see, and how much the penmanship of the indigent has improved with the passing of time. If only I could decipher hieroglyphs my future might look shinier too.

Is this paradise or what?

Is this paradise or what?

Two Roads Divergent

DivergentOne of the most hopeful signs for culture is the quality of young adult fiction on the market. Since I’m now in the book industry, Publisher’s Weekly is required reading. I always take a look over the fiction lists as well as the non, and over the past several months a couple of “teen fiction” books have been near the top for regular bestseller lists as well as for demographic-specific ones. (That is, adults seem to be reading them too.) One of those books is Divergent by Veronica Roth. While movie tie-ins certainly don’t hurt, as many of us opine, it is difficult to do justice to a complex story on screen. Divergent is one of those books that stays with you after you’ve closed the cover, and that suggests to me that something deeply meaningful is going on. What about dystopias is so compelling?

I’m not indulging in any spoilers to say that Divergent is a dystopia. Set at an indeterminate time in the future, civilization still exists—at least in Chicago—as society has fallen into five factions: Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Amity, and Abnegation. Each group has its own beliefs as to why civilization collapsed, based on philosophical dispositions. Abnegation, the self-deniers, are the leaders of government. And clearly, the idea of Abnegation is a form of quasi-monastic Christianity. In fact, among the factions, Abnegation is the only one that seems to mention God. The other groups, stressing bravery, intellect, honesty, and peacefulness, don’t really have much need for the divine. To deny oneself, however, requires a powerful motivation. Even the protagonist’s name, Beatrice, is taken from its favored status among early Christians. I know little of Veronica Roth, but I have to wonder whether Dante is in the background here.

In the acknowledgements to the novel, Roth first gives thanks to God. As a high school convert to Bible-based Christianity, I suppose that’s only natural for a writer who is, at the moment, only twenty-five. Writers for young adults often have their religion close to the skin. Stephanie Meyer’s Mormonism translates into moral vampires. Orson Scott Card provides Ender Wiggin with values from the same faith tradition. People are, despite the logical implications, inherently religious. That doesn’t prevent Divergent from being a page-turner. Full of action and personal development, the first book of Roth’s trilogy bristles with self-sacrifice and belief in something better to come. Even if it’s a world we have to make ourselves. And like most human enterprises, it comes out as a well-meaning dystopia that underscores the value of reading for us all.