Fiction of Prediction?
Claire Jones explores the prominence of dystopian fiction to our current political, social and cultural landscapes. Questioning if such texts are merely fiction or perhaps prediction?
1984. Freedom did not exist. Equality was scarce. Integrity was at a standstill. No, I am not referring to George Orwell’s famous novel. This was reality. Or should I say is? It’s been over half a century since Orwell’s novel was first published, and more than three decades after the real 1984, and it’s safe to say that nothing has really changed. Orwell’s envision has become actuality, much like Margaret Atwood’s predictions for our future in The Handmaid’s Tale. Her fictional society of Gilead presents cruel oppression and extreme misogyny; women are essentially human incubators with limited independence, lacking fundamental rights. Sound familiar? Atwood’s and Orwell’s novels do not only emulate the past, but also seem to prophesy a future of immoral leaders abusing their power and escalating inequality, demonstrating how their fiction is now appearing to be a prediction.
We can’t call Orwell and Atwood fortune tellers, but their accuracy in horrifying predictions of our future are far from occult visions, and in actuality predict a factual and realistic dystopia that we currently exist in. Did Orwell foresee that 1984 would be a year in which a corrupt leader governed, innocent civilians suffered at the hands of reckless superiors creating futile wars, and harmless people were brutally punished due to their sexuality, religious beliefs, or rightful opinions? And with history inevitably repeating itself, Orwell’s predictions can also be seen to be reflective of contemporary society, his 1949 novel leaving its fictional pages and becoming a reality in today’s world.
“Orwell's book is not merely a novel of its time but a brilliant work of modern mythology that allows us to name some of the monsters and madness bedevilling our world.”
Michael Shelden, 1999
Last year saw the sales in Orwell’s novel soar after his fictional terms ‘newspeak’ and ‘doublethink’ began to emerge as a reality when Donald Trump’s adviser used the expression ‘alternative facts’ to endorse the American President’s lies. Kellyanne Conway’s infamous phrase caused uproar, and who can forget Trump’s notorious obsession with ‘fake news’? These so called Orwellian phrases show the alarming similarities between the fictional totalitarianism society in 1984 and today’s political climate. Naming evident lies ‘alternative facts’ shows the sheer manipulation and lengths of corruption that authority figures are willing to go to in order to alter the opinions of their many inferiors.
Trying to pass an outright falsehood as a different version of the truth is strikingly similar to the haunting events in Orwell’s text. ‘Doublethink’ refers to simultaneously holding two opposing thoughts whilst believing both of them, essentially mirroring Conway’s belief that Trump is simply uttering ‘alternative facts’, despite her being exposed to the truth. Did Orwell therefore predict that his fictional concept of ‘doublethink’ would be exposed as a reality in the 21st century, with one of the world’s most powerful figures being at the forefront of this controversy?
The so called world’s most powerful man is ironically the perpetrator of ‘fake news’, a term recently appropriated by Trump which he uses to describe credible reports of himself that he essentially doesn’t like, claiming that the news presented to the world is fraudulent. The American president is abusing his immensely dominant status by utilising destructive language in order to shape his inferior’s beliefs and manipulate their ways of thinking, stealing their independent thoughts and limiting their control, allowing him to gain even more supremacy. This bears an extremely uncanny resemblance to 1984, alluding that Orwell’s fiction is more so a concerning prediction. Despite Orwell’s passing in 1950, he disturbingly foresaw his novel coming to life almost 7 decades on. 1984 is a mirror image of the society we live in today; the unsettling oppression, unjust hierarchy, and amoral executive power that the novel presents is simply a foretelling of the future that Orwell anticipated: our present. The year 1984 may be long gone, but the novel does, and will inevitably continue to, remain as relevant as ever.
But, let’s not be too somber. 1984 also brought us legendary music, incredible fashion, and not forgetting Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s novel shares many traits with 1984; both texts detail a harsh dystopian society that is based upon a totalitarian regime, they have both been unjust victims of enforced government bans, and both novels also appear to predict the future of our real world. A ban on literacy is a recurrent theme throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, immediately revealing how Atwood’s book is a reflection of true contemporary society as the restrictions imposed upon the women in fictional Gilead are existent within the real world. This is not the only mirror that Atwood places within her text as many of the horrifying aspects of Gilead’s culture have already occurred at some point in real life.
The most disturbing concept in Atwood’s text is the representation of fertile women existing only for breeding purposes. Hard to imagine, I know. The handmaids’ duty is to bear children for their male superiors who own them, becoming victims of systematic rape, and their children being immediately stolen from them as property of the males who abused them. An undeniably traumatising thought, yet it is not a foreign concept in contemporary society as this has happened only decades ago across multiple Western nations. During the 1960s the president of Romania ordered the fertile female civilians he governed to have at least 4 children each in a dramatic attempt to increase the country’s population. Women who did not comply with this outrageous regime were consequently criminalised, and childless women were taxed. Undercover police were instated across Romanian hospitals, access to contraception and abortion were severely restricted, and sex education was altered to display the benefits of motherhood in order to brainwash the younger, and perhaps oblivious, people of Romania. The Handmaid’s Tale emulates a true appalling and shameful past, but as our world is changing and history inevitably repeats itself, the novel also appears to have prophescised our future.
2017 seemed to be a year in which women were positioned even lower on the hierarchal ladder with the new American president causing extreme controversy with his dangerous opinions on women and their rights. Maps for the presidential results were shown on Twitter, displaying how the U.S. would look if only men voted (it was mainly red to represent the Republican party), and then how America would look if voting was only completed by women (unsurprisingly the map was a complete contrast, mainly being blue to represent the Democrats). This caused uproar on Twitter (what doesn’t these days?), creating the hashtag #RepealThe19th, referring to the 19th amendment which allowed women to vote. And so in the 21st century, even in the contemporary Western world, women are still striving for equality, to be seen as human beings, a message that heavily absorbs Atwood’s novel. The text is an epitome of unsettling history, but is also a reflection of women’s positions within society today, seemingly predicting the future of women and humanity as a whole.
“Is it entertainment or dire political prophecy?”
Margaret Atwood, 2012
Dystopian texts such as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale take elements of our history and display them in the most dismal yet memorable way to create an impacting, fictional read, when in reality they are just documentaries of our past. This past being cyclical and recurrent to give the impression that the fictional works of Orwell and Atwood are predictions of our future, mirroring the present in which we currently exist in. Orwell and Atwood seemingly reflect on the past in order to warn us of future possibilities. Has anything really changed then, and will anything ever change?