Nick Spencer: Are we listening to the dystopians?

30 August 2019

There are parallels with the biblical prophets, says Nick Spencer

Channel 4

Elizabeth Moss in the Handmaid’s Tale

Elizabeth Moss in the Handmaid’s Tale

DYSTOPIAN fiction has done famously well over recent years. Sales of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale have spiked. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has been cited as a warning to our own new world of bio-engineering. The iconic clothing of Atwood’s handmaids has been appropriated and paraded by pro-choicers in the US. And now Atwood herself has penned a sequel to her 1985 classic, due for release next week.

Dystopian writing is really about the present rather than the future. We, written by Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921, and a model for Orwell’s masterpiece, was animated by the totalitarian-isation of society. Huxley was terrified by its “Ford-ification” in the 1930s. Orwell was exercised by its Stalinification nearly two decades later. Anthony Burgess’s 1962 A Clockwork Orange was motivated by growing fears of youth crime, Atwood’s Hand­maid’s Tale by the emerg­ing power of a biblically literal religious right. Every time, tomorrow is simply the scorched black shadow left by today.

That is the reason why such books are all so hopelessly off-target when it comes to actually predicting the future. Taking a bit of today — worse: the bit you fear most — and megaphoning it into the single controlling principle of your future vision is a recipe for getting it wrong. The future has not turned out to be the logical mechanisation of We, the vast genetic factory of Brave New World, the boot stamping on a human face of Nineteen Eighty-Four or, in spite of efforts to claim otherwise, the theo-misogynist nightmare of The Handmaid’s Tale.

But that does nothing to reduce the value of these tales. Rather, it places them squarely in the category of prophecy.

The prophet, in popular understanding, foretells the future. “Bible prophecy fulfilled? Sea of Galilee earthquakes signal Jesus Christ’s Second Coming”, broadcast the Daily Express last month. The future is set. The people are passive. The prophet is a kind of cosmic satnav.

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Biblically, prophecy had more to do with warning about the future than predicting it. Addressing the whole of the people — at least, from the eighth-century prophets onwards, admonishing them for their iniquity, and warning them of its consequences — prophets understood tomorrow in the dark light of today, and attempted to drag the nation back on course.

The parallels do not end there. The tradition of dystopian fiction has its roots in utopian novels that preceded it, in much the same way as prophets could condemn current practices only in the light of God’s grace and law. There is no dystopia without a vision of how things should be.

Moreover, it is striking how often the abuse of power, the threat of violence, the manipulation of sex, the corruption of language, and the contortion of worship feature in modern dystopias, from Huxley’s compulsory promiscuity to Atwood’s grotesque surrogacy, and from Orwell’s eradication of words to Burgess’s Russified “Nadsat”. None of these features is exactly alien to the biblical tradition of prophecy.

It would be naïve and simplistic to call dystop­ian writers the biblical prophets of our day. The latter claim no connection with God, and their summons to repentance is — and can only ever be — implicit, deeply buried in the horrors of their prose. But they have much to tell us, and we would do well to treat them with more respect than the prophets received.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.

Paul Vallely returns next week.

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