essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
‘Seeing is believing’, we used to say, and, ‘the camera cannot lie’. Afterwards we became suspicious: Hollywood’s special effects, and Photoshop, made us doubt what we saw. In the 1930s Hitler had shown us how hysteria could be turned into hate through propaganda, and hate into control. And in the world we live in, exploitation of the poor is the greatest problem we face and largely unresolved.
Here is a quick survey of three authors who look at these situations and see them develop in an imagined future.
Philip K Dick
In his afterword to Philip K Dick’s The Penultimate Truth (1964), Thomas M Disch points out the historical context behind Dick’s novel. Nuclear war between Russia and the USA had just been narrowly avoided; and then President Kennedy had been murdered:
“at the time we were asked to believe that the deed was accomplished by a single bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald. Earl Warren, having been admonished by President Johnson that continued doubts of the scapegoat’s sole guilt could lead to nuclear war, was directed to write a scenario to this effect. The Warren Commission issued its report in 1964, the same year in which The Penultimate Truth was published…as a snapshot of the angst that characterised that period – and of the blackly humorous emotional antidote to that angst – The Penultimate Truth is an essential document”.
In the story nuclear war has led to a final solution:
“Man had built a weapon that could think for itself, and after it had thought a while, two years in which vile destruction had occurred…advanced varieties of leadies [robots]…had figured out that the best strategy was something which the Phoenicians had learned five thousand years ago. It was summed up, Adams reflected, in The Mikado. If merely saying that a man had been executed was enough to satisfy everyone, why not merely say it instead of doing it”?
A group of influential businessmen and politicians, together with a robotics team and a squad of advertising experts, construct a huge movie set in which robots appear to wage total war, while a renowned world leader, also a robot, reads inspirational homilies to raise the morale of the exploited masses, kept down below in the mines for their own protection, as they toil to produce luxuries for the elite, and who are force fed a continuous barrage of video ‘reportage’ of the struggle.
“ …the Protector, that’s a robot.”
“Not even a robot,” one of the other bearded men corrected. “… it’s just a dummy that sits there at that desk.”
“But it talks,” Nicholas said, reasonably. “It says heroic things. I mean, I’m not arguing with you. I just don’t understand.”
“It talks,” Jack Blair said, “because a big computer called Megavac 6-V or something like that programs it.”
Nicholas said, “But the war.”
“It’s been over for years,” Jack Blair said”.
The great leader, the pervasiveness of media and the ceaseless conditioning, the horrific enemy, the hate sessions, all come from Nineteen Eighty Four. The fear of nuclear destruction of the world, mistrust of politicians and their administrations and the resentment of advertising and media manipulation come from the world Dick lived in. You could believe in JFK, but somehow Johnson and Nixon weren’t as convincing (nor Ford and Carter). What if they’re not real, thought Dick (one of his constant imaginings). Then perhaps the war’s not real. Then the whole process depends on the media.
Even today, when as many as four or five multinationals control all communication media – TV, internet, radio, newspapers and ’news’ magazines, children and even some adults get confused between real and unreal, between a news broadcast and a police drama for example, a confusion imagined in The Penultimate Truth.
Philip K Dick’s novel, like much of his work, is full of mind bending possibilities and concepts that might easily be true. Do we still believe what we see? How manipulated are we, and can we think critically for ourselves?
In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1948), the world is torn by war between three super powers. Oceania, a socialist power, opposes both communist Eurasia and terrorist Eastasia. But the three powers are continually realigning, so the enemy of today is the friend of tomorrow. All this is broadcast to the entire population by the communication channel of the Ministry of Truth, called Minitrue in the official language of Newspeak. Minitrue has the only communication channel, the media monopoly, so no corroboration is possible.
The media in Nineteen Eighty Four is used to focus people’s emotions on the enemy power bloc and its leaders, and away from the shortcomings of leaders and life in the state of Oceania.
“It was nearly eleven hundred, and in the Records Department, where Winston worked, they were dragging the chairs out of the cubicles and grouping them in the centre of the hall opposite the big telescreen, in preparation for the Two Minutes Hate…
“As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen… And all the while, lest one should be in any doubt as to the reality which Goldstein’s specious claptrap covered, behind his head on the telescreen there marched the endless columns of the Eurasian army — row after row of solid-looking men with expressionless Asiatic faces…
“Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room…The sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other…
“In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.
“The Hate rose to its climax… But in the same moment, drawing a deep sigh of relief from everybody, the hostile figure melted into the face of Big Brother, black-haired, black-moustachio’d, full of power and mysterious calm, and so vast that it almost filled up the screen”.
Could this scenario actually happen? The USA for example has a truly diverse ethnic structure. About 56.1% are of largely European ancestry from 11 different European countries, 16.3% are Hispanic, 12.6% Afro-American, 4.9% Asian, 1.1% Native Americans, Alaskans and Hawaiians and 9% other (Wikipedia quoting the 2000 US Census figures).
Yet the USA is a hotbed of racism. Since Colonial days the USA has attacked Native American peoples, Africans (for slaves), Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Libyans, Afghans, Iranians, and is now turning against Arabians (referred to as ‘Muslims’) and the Chinese. In some states people of African ancestry are at considerable risk, of murder, violence and removal of their civil and constitutional rights (see Caleb Gee’s site https://ushypocrisy.com for related news stories).
Organisations such as the National Policy Institute (alt right), the Christian Identity Movement and the Ku Klux Klan actively promote racism, the belief that there is such a thing as a white race, and that it is superior to races of other colour. They have thousands of followers.
We read books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, and think what great books these are, then accede to racial violence and listen to diatribes asking us to hate people of other cultures. That’s Doublethink. Nineteen Eighty Four is a chilling reminder how easily this could get out of hand.
In HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) a scientist invents a device that moves him through time, and travels to England in the year 802,701 AD. He discovers an advanced civilisation, where great inventions and miraculous seeming technology have transformed society and the world. But something is wrong. The civilisation seems in ruins, the machinery that maintains it is on rapidly fading automatic function. The traveller meets the Eloi, the charming but ineffective people who inhabit this almost perfect world but who seem to know little about it. And then he meets the Morlocks, descendants of the technicians who once made and operated the underground machines that made life so pleasant above ground.
The wealthy, like the Party inner circle in Nineteen Eighty Four or the technocrats in The Penultimate Truth, have successfully isolated the poor, and victimised them as underground labourers, so they themselves can enjoy the good things of life. Then been so successful they lost that ability to exploit, allowing the system to decay.
“`…gradually, the truth dawned on me: that Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals: that my graceful children of the Upper-world were not the sole descendants of our generation, but that this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all the ages.
`..So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.
`The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of to-day. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and their fellow-man… But even on this supposition the balanced civilisation that was at last attained must have long since passed its zenith, and was now far fallen into decay. The too-perfect security of the Upper-worlders had led them to a slow movement of degeneration, to a general dwindling in size, strength, and intelligence.
So I say I saw it in my last view of the world of Eight Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One. It may be as wrong an explanation as mortal wit could invent. It is how the thing shaped itself to me, and as that I give it to you”.
HG Wells was a key figure in the development of SF, and of ‘futurology’. His ideas have inspired many great works of SF including those of Orwell and Dick mentioned here. Despite his prescience, or because of it, he was pessimistic of mankind’s future. We do exploit others, generally the poor, but could things go as far a Wells supposes? Perhaps a racist leader preaching a hate crusade dominated by media misrepresentation?
Three books, three uncomfortable ideas. Philip K Dick’s The Penultimate Truth suggests that international conflicts can be created, or at least exaggerated, by the way they are presented in the media. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four depicts the way feelings, and perhaps votes, can be orchestrated through misrepresentation, and how satisfying that can be, and how dangerous to some groups in the community. HG Wells’ vision of the future in The Time Machine describes how society had been divided into two classes, the haves and the have nots, and how an elite had managed to rule through this division, something we can see beginning in society today.
There is a lot more to these books than these particular points. And if one were to look, there would be more than one example of them in history. But luckily we learn from our mistakes.
©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.