Sunday, August 12, 2012

Is Nineteen Eighty-Four Science Fiction?

Science fiction fans have often been rather expansive in their definition of the genre and in their claiming of marginally scientifictional "mainstream" novels as part of it.  Literary highbrows have, with a few exceptions, been just as tireless in their efforts to protect "classic" or canonical works from the taint of the SF ghetto.  The poem sometimes heard at SF conventions – "'SF's no good'/ they shout 'til we're deaf/ 'But this is good!' / 'Then it's not SF'" – expresses fans' impatience with teachers and critics who enjoy playing No True Scotsman with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.
            What makes a work science-fictional is an implied but unexplored question in these exchanges.  Our anonymous tweedy highbrow defines SF as crap fiction, possibly having something to do with science.  More usefully, the critic and SF author Norman Spinrad has opined that SF is whatever was published as science fiction, which sounds like circular reasoning but does indicate that the genre is to a large extent socially constructed.  Other critics have called SF a ghetto, which, if we redefine it as "restricted community," makes Spinrad's point more broadly and usefully.  Science fiction has always been a community – a "lodge," in Vonnegut's words – with its close, often love-hate relationship between producers of SF and their readers, and the obsessive enthusiasm of the latter for the works of the former. One might even call science fiction a religion, with its devoted fanatics ("fans" for short), its public ceremonies of communion (conventions), and its priesthood of anthologists and editors who define the boundaries of the written genre.  A science fiction writer, then, is one who has communed in some way with this "faith": she has been a fan, given readings at conventions, edited an SF collection, joined SFWA, etc.  Someone like Vonnegut, who generally avoided science fiction fans and conventions even though he wrote several novels about technology and society (and one out-and-out planetary romance), wasn't really an SF writer, at least not in his later career.  Neither is Margaret Atwood, despite the dystopian novels she has written.
            The answer to this essay's title question, regarding George Orwell, would therefore seem to be "no."  Orwell did read and admire H.G. Wells as a boy, but in his adult life he considered himself a journalist and mainstream novelist, not a genre writer.  He had no contact of which I'm aware with American or British SF fandom (which in any case was still quite small when he died), and he expressed contempt for the juvenile adventure stories from which the SF genre sprang in the 1920s and '30s.  Orwell's novel 1984, while set in the future, explained that that future was not a very technologically advanced one.  Its inhabitants lived shabby and impoverished lives, scientific research had largely ground to a halt, and the advanced technologies employed by the military and police either existed in Orwell's day (helicopters, rocket bombs) or were minor modifications of existing technology (Floating Fortresses, telescreens).  Moreover, the novel's protagonist, Winston Smith, is very far from a model sci-fi hero of the Flash Gordon or James Kirk type: he is passive, malnourished, past his prime physically, and prone to taking refuge in an imaginary past.  (This is, of course, a large part of Smith's appeal as a character: he is a realistic type.)
            Orwell was not writing 1984 as an adventure story or a reflection on the interaction between technology and society; rather, it was a speculative study of totalitarianism.  He set his novel in the near future, rather than an existing dictatorship, partly as a warning to English readers of the "it can't happen here" stripe, and partly because he wanted to create a totalitarian state that had perfected its craft: destroying the independent individual.  1984 in some respects is a reflection on individualism, insofar as Orwell's state of Oceania devotes considerable energy and effort to destroying or perverting those relationships and institutions that define the individual: family, friendship, private property, and private pastimes.  Winston Smith believes that only the "few inches inside your own skull" belong to the individual.
            The most sinister feature of Orwell's police state is its determination to penetrate that last private sanctuary, the human mind, and it is in describing its methods of doing so that Orwell wanders toward the boundary between mainstream literature and science fiction.  Like contemporary totalitarian regimes, Oceania used propaganda to manipulate its subject's emotions and censored media to control their intellectual lives – and, Orwell argued, their memories.  (Vide Smith's attempt to recover the "real" memory of the past by interviewing an elderly prole, whose recollections are a hopeless jumble.)  More originally, Oceania developed a new language, Newspeak, whose structure and lexicon made disobedient thought impossible.  "In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it," says one of Newspeak's lexicographers.  Finally, and most frighteningly, the jailers and interrogators of Oceania devised a variety of methods to "capture [the] inner mind" of their prisoners.  Some of these were old techniques – pain, fear, coerced betrayal of friends and family – designed to break down the individual's mental resistance to reprogramming.  However, Smith's principal interrogator, O'Brien, also has access to a machine, for which there was no analogue in Orwell's time (or our own), that is capable of controlling and emptying its subject's mind:

"There had been a moment…thirty seconds, perhaps – of luminous certainty, when each new suggestion of O'Brien's had filled up a patch of emptiness and become absolute truth, and when two and two could have been three as easily as five."

            It is in these interrogation sequences that Orwell's mission in writing 1984 intersects with – indeed, forecasts – the interests of a large part of the SF community in the 1950s and '60s.  What interests Orwell here is the possibility of artificially reading or controlling someone's mind, a goal which Oceania's scientists were assiduously pursuing, "testing the truth-producing effects of drugs, shock therapy, hypnosis, and physical torture," according to "Emmanuel Goldstein's" secret history.  Mind-control and mind-reading, and the development of so-called "psionic" powers, would shortly become obsessions in the science-fiction community, or more precisely obsessions of the influential SF editor John Campbell, who gave psi-oriented stories sympathetic treatment in the 1950s.  (Isaac Asimov later grumbled that it was impossible to publish a story in Amazing magazine in those years unless it was about extrasensory powers.) 
I would argue that this was less because SF writers were following Orwell's lead than because the "real world" was, however unwittingly, following Orwell's lead.  Just a few years after 1984's publication, Americans began to receive disturbing reports of POWs taken during the Korean War who were refusing to come home or who were denouncing the United States.  They had been reprogrammed by their Chinese captors, through sleep-deprivation and relentless propaganda, to sympathize with the Communist cause.  Their interrogators unknowingly adapted a term from 1984, "brainwashing," to describe this process.  Fear of and fascination with "Communist mind control" led the U.S. Army and CIA to experiment with "mind-control" drugs, notoriously including LSD, in the 1950s.  It almost certainly helps explain SF readers' and authors' fascination with "mind powers" in the 1950s and '60s, a fascination reflected in the fiction of Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, and Anne McCaffrey, among others.
SF authors differed from Orwell in that they spent as much time exploring the liberating potential of psi powers, whether innate or mechanically produced, as they did warning of their potential to enslave.  This brings one back to another feature of Orwell's 1984 that sets it apart from the sci-fi of his day: the author's highly ambivalent attitude toward technology.  Orwell was no Luddite – his lifelong Socialism derived in part from his belief that the Industrial Revolution had made poverty unnecessary – but he had little interest in living in the sterile, steel-and-glass future envisioned by early-20th-century technophiles. Moreover, he repeatedly warned, toward the end of his life, that modern technology was as likely to enslave the individual as liberate him.  Print media and the radio, he observed, made modern propaganda possible; the then-new technology of flight made it possible for nation-states to seal their borders (through aerial surveillance); the brand-new nuclear bomb, which was both appallingly powerful and extremely expensive, appeared likely to concentrate global power into the hands of two or three super-states, rather like Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia.  Orwell first raised these points in his 1945 essay "You and the Atom Bomb" (in which he also coined the term "Cold War"), and incorporated them into the essay "Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism" in 1984.  They were not sentiments shared by most of the early practitioners of science fiction, though thanks to the aforementioned atom bomb, healthy skepticism about technology would become a more prominent theme in SF after 1945.


None of this quite answers my title question, so let me close with this: I don't think George Orwell thought he was writing science fiction, and in 1948 most SF writers weren't interested in telling the kind of story Orwell told.  However, Orwell's interests - dystopian futures, skepticism about technology, mind-control techniques - reflected or prefigured obsessions that much of the world, including science fiction writers, would share in the 1950s and '60s.  The boundaries of the genre thus expanded to include novels like 1984; had Orwell published his story twenty years later I suspect he would have been on the final ballot for the Nebula Award.  (Whether he would have deigned to come to the United States to accept the award is another question.)  Sometimes, if you want to know the direction a genre is going to take, it helps to look at the mainstream.

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