For the last few months I've been slowly trudging my way through George Orwell's 1984. I say "slowly" not because the book is bad (it's excellent) but because I'm a slow reader with a full-time job, a part-time weekend job, and a busy social calendar. I'm privileged, in every way--too busy managing my life to read a book. A book that I should have read years ago, particularly with my graduate thesis on dystopian literature, because Zamyatin's We was unquestionably (now, I see) not enough. It doesn't matter that it inspired 1984; the thinly veiled protest essay that is We does not quite engage like Orwell's classic. I'm not a fan of reading books just because they're classics--why should I read books by dead white guys who've never had a life like mine?--but I started reading 1984 for a reason I don't usually pick up books: because it was a classic, and I felt I should. If my work is dystopian, I should know dystopias. Particularly the book that everybody mentions when you say, "...and I don't mean The Hunger Games."
Today I saw President Trump (I, like so many of my fellow Americans--comrades?--flinch when I combine these words together) say he's putting an end to the war on coal. I watched him do other things, too, other times: brag about sexual assault, attempt to block legal residents from entering the country based on how they looked, destroy native American land, encourage violence.
In grad school, as part of my thesis work, I read The Handmaid's Tale. It is one of the most prominent dystopic works written by a female author, and I was obsessed with it. One of my grad school professors said that the third-grade girls we taught loved death and found it all very romantic, and I suppose the same was true for me as a third-grader: death was horrible, unfair, and poetic. While growing up I was particularly obsessed with mass, systematic, nonsensical murder. Serial murderers, the Holocaust, the mysteries of Roanoake. Haunted spaces with too many violent deaths to be comfortably explained; the dead planet of Miranda in "Serenity;" the purple Kool-Aid leaders who poisoned entire cities. The slave trade, the FLDS.
Today I saw Trump supporters comment on how The Handmaid's Tale is anti-Trump propaganda.
Here is an incomplete timeline of dystopias:
1924 - We [Zamyatin]
1932 - Brave New World [Huxley]
1949 - 1984 [Orwell]
1953 - Fahrenheit 451 [Bradbury]
1962 - A Clockwork Orange [Burgess]
1968 - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [Dick]
1974 - The Dispossessed [LeGuin]
1985 - The Handmaid's Tale [Atwood]
1993 - The Giver [Lowry]
1999 - Battle Royale [Takami]
2002 - Feed [Anderson]
2005 - Never Let Me Go [Ishiguro]
2008 - The Hunger Games [Collins]
2010 - Super Sad True Love Story [Shteyngart]
2013 - Wool [Howey]
The dystopia that I live in has helicopters flying past my safe little house at 10 PM. It has white cops beating black citizens; it has old men making legal bodily decisions for young women. In The Dispossessed I read about the horrors of capitalism, but LeGuin was careful not to make it too black-and-white, not quite the Hunger-Games-esque simplicity with which Collins handles her Capitol leaders and its ignorant residents. In 1984 I expected to read about the Party sheeple and the blandness of a false-communist England, but what I didn't expect was the violence. And today, I read this, after a chinless man offers a starving man a piece of bread while incarcerated:
The door clanged open. As the young officer entered and stepped aside, there emerged from behind him a short stumpy guard with enormous arms and shoulders. He took his stand opposite the chinless man, and then, at a signal from the officer, let free a frightful blow, with all the weight of his body behind it, full in the chinless man's mouth. The force of it seemed almost to knock him clear of the floor. His body was flung across the cell and fetched up against the base of the lavatory seat. For a moment he lay as though stunned, with dark blood oozing from his mouth and nose. A very faint whimpering or squeaking, which seemed unconscious, came out of him. Then he rolled over and raised himself unsteadily on hands and knees. Amid a stream of blood and saliva, the two halves of a dental plate fell out of his mouth.
And I remembered the violence.
The helicopter has gone now, but I wonder how long it'll be before it comes back. I feel safe now, but I wonder for how much longer before my head is on the chopping block, too. This is not my America; this is the America of dystopias, a place that Atwood and Orwell tried to warn us about, but that came despite our best efforts. All I want to know is how long until they dust off the gas chambers and start to feed us all through them; it would be a faster death, after all, than removing access to healthcare services.
Most of all, I want to know if that death is already written into history--or if it's avoidable.
PART OF THIS COMPLETE BREAKFAST
Blog not recommended for sober consumption.