Claudia Moscovici

Dystopic Utopias in Speculative Fiction and Art

 

There are several great novels associated with the dystopic utopia tradition, but without a doubt four of the most notable are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Such novels distinguish themselves from both fantasy and science fiction. In an interview, Atwood stated that she prefers the name “speculative fiction,” a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein, to describe A Handmaid’s Tale (NY: First Anchor Books Edition, 1998): “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships. Speculative fiction could really happen.” (“Aliens have taken the place of angels: Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction,” The Guardian, June 2005). Speculative fiction has become an umbrella term that includes utopian and dystopic fiction as well as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, some of which may also be considered to be science fiction or fantasy. The best speculative fiction, I believe, reveals what has already begun to happen and extrapolates with amazing lucidity how social and political ideals can turn into our worst nightmares. Every utopic ideology, from Marxism to eugenics and from primitivism to technocracy, has within it the seeds of its own dystopic undoing. Each one shows part of what has happened in our cultures and how things could get a lot worse.

 

Margaret Atwood’s novel illustrates what could take place in any culture or society where the women’s movement joins forces with the radical right to create a “purer” society.  In such a world, “freedom to” (dress as one wants, choose one’s profession and life partner) becomes “freedom from” (being a sex object, having too many choices of partners, location or profession). But “freedom from” is only a euphemism for lack of civil rights, for constraint, for invisibility itself (as women are enshrouded in a veil and even wear blinders on top of their heads, so they can’t see or be seen). It is a dystopic utopia; a contradiction in terms. Some societies have already implemented such a “freedom from” in the name of various religious or political ideologies. However, as Atwood underscores, no society—even the most seemingly open-minded and liberal–is immune to it. Totalitarian constraints can happen anywhere, even in the U.S, which, in fact, is the setting for her novel.

 

While Margaret Atwood envisions a danger that could happen, George Orwell describes a social experiment that did happen.  To many who have lived through the totalitarian phase of communism in Eastern Europe, as I have, Orwell’s 1984 is, in many respects, a historical novel: one that goes hand in hand with Robert Conquest’s monumental history, The Great Terror.  Newspeak, thought police, brainwashing; the physical and psychological torture of political prisoners to confess to nonexistent crimes and the show trials were all part and parcel of how the NKVD and other Secret Police organizations ruled  with an iron fist during communist dictatorships. O’Brien, the Thought Police agent in the novel, states the open secret of totalitarian regimes: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” (1984, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949,  p. 272)

Perhaps the only speculative aspect of Orwell’s utopic dystopia is, as O’Brien himself points out, that those put on show trials die purified of their thought crimes and convinced of the righteousness of the new regime. They often are not, as were the victims of Stalinist purges, the embittered martyrs of a lost freedom. O’Brien promises Winston: “I shall save you, I shall make you perfect” (251). Perfection in 1984 is a world with no objective parameters of truth and falsehood or of right and wrong. It is a world in which the past is a convenient fiction for the present; a world where the difference between fear and blind trust is obliterated.  The Thought Police aims not merely to oppress man, but also to gaslight him: to get him to accept relativism without question. “We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him,” states O’Brian (263). He pursues: “We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him…. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him… Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation” (263).

 

By their very nature, utopias are ideological and dogmatic. They often represent a reaction to one form of constraint or dogmatism with an equally strong reaction in the opposite direction.   Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (NY: HarperCollins, 1932) probes another aspect of ideological dreams that could easily turn into nightmares: the social experiments of eugenics and the supposed biological justifications for social hierarchies and castes. Written during a time when the Nazi party was already starting to implement eugenic policies—described, in some ways, in the novel–Brave New World doesn’t spare democratic societies its sharp social critiques either.   Huxley describes the dangers that capitalism and industrialization, if left unchecked, can pose for humanity. Human beings are reduced to little more than automatons, consuming mood altering drugs and engaging in ritualistic sexual activities to compensate for lack of thought and the superficial and impersonal nature of their emotional ties.

 

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (NY: Random House, 1953) issues a powerful warning against censorship: books are burned because of their dangerous, potentially conflagrating ideological effects. However, as the author states in an interview in the late 1950’s, the novel also touches upon the alienation among people caused by an excess of information and too much exposure to the mass media: “But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog… The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. … There she was, oblivious to the man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction” (quoted by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, NY: Ayer Co. Publishing, 1975). Obviously, the author’s critique can be exponentially multiplied today, when most of our human contacts are mediated by ipods, computers, twittering, Facebook and other technological gadgets and social/mass media networks.  The future is already here. Each of these speculative novels not only predicted it, but also critiqued it in a way that remains very current.

Why are these speculative novels still relevant and important today? I’d like to explore this question by using as my point of departure a few famous quotes by leading writers and intellectuals.

1.“Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world.” H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia

Any society is flawed; any political institution, no matter how inclusive or democratic, has some corruption, inequality and unfairness in it. Utopian visions hone in on those weaknesses and injustices to imagine a better world, a world without these flaws. They function, in some ways, as a magnifying glass that allows us to see better the problems with our societies and institutions and as a mirror to imagine their obverse side.

2. “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Almost every speculative novel is, in many respects, more multidimensional and more lucid than any political ideology was or ever could be. It captures both sides of the coin: the utopic vision and its dystopic, more realistic downsides. As Hawthorne puts it: both the ground you build a better society upon and the place you segregate its outlaws and its casualties.

3. “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Toni Morrison, Online NewsHour interview, March 9, 1998

Utopic visions offer the best vantage point for social critiques. As Morrison points out, they are almost always correctives for hierarchies and injustices in the real world of the have’s from the perspective of the have not’s.  Since each society has so many distinctions and hierarchies, the have’s and the have not’s are not a binary dichotomy (between races or classes), but more of a fractal of many social and cultural dichotomies.

4. “Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache… Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” George Orwell, Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun

Utopic visions will always exist because nothing in our world can ever be perfect. We will always suffer from the “toothaches” Orwell alludes to. There will always be something wrong with our social and political institutions, no matter what they are. The need to imagine a world without whatever specific flaws we choose to focus on in our societies is therefore also inevitable. We will temporarily see in those utopic visions a better society. However, as Orwell points out, in reality, we might only be exchanging a toothache for a headache, or one problem for another.

5. “In the next few years the struggle will not be between utopia and reality, but between different utopias, each trying to impose itself on reality… We can no longer hope to save everything, but… we can at least try to save lives, so that some kind of future, if perhaps not the ideal one, will remain possible.” (Albert Camus, Between Hell and Reason)

As a counterpoint to Orwell’s cynicism, we can safely say that not all utopias (or dystopias, depending upon your perspective) are equal. Some hells are hotter than others; some political and social structures worse than the next. Utopic visions offer a horizon of possibility. They enable human beings to at least try to aspire to creating better social institutions and governments.

6. “Life without utopia is suffocating, for the multitude at least: threatened otherwise with petrifaction, the world must have a new madness.” E. M. Cioran, History and Utopia

A world without utopic visions is a world deprived of imagination, where one only sees what is and remains blind to what could be. Utopias enable us to dream and envision another way of life, perhaps a better world. They are healthy fantasies and necessary regulative ideals: as long as we remember their dangers and undersides, as each of these great writers reminds us.

 Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

 

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July 21, 2011 Posted by | 1984, Aldous Huxley, Alex Bustillo, Alex M. Bustillo, Bataille, book review, book reviews, Brave New World, Claudia Moscovici, communism, controlling women's bodies, controlling women's sexuality, critiques of the veil, Dan St. Andrei, dystopic utopias, Eastern Europe, Eroticism, Fahrenheit 451, fantasy, fiction, George Orwell, historical fiction, history, Holocaust, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, mainstream fiction, Margaret Atwood, Myopia, photographer Alex Bustillo, photographer Dan St. Andrei, Ray Bradbury, Romanticism and Postromanticism, science fiction, speculative fiction, Story of the Eye, The Handmaid's Tale, utopia, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

America’s Obsession with Vampires

 

As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued–and, frankly, somewhat baffled–by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend. It seems like vampire novels and movies are growing in popularity, even as they’re being spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies! From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: what are some of the reasons behind America’s obsession with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:

1. Exoticism. The setting of the original Dracula legend is a country whose history and traditions are foreign to most American readers, who find Romania distant and exotic. By way of contrast, to most Europeans, Romania is relatively familiar. It’s a place plagued by its devastating totalitarian history (first the rule of the Iron Guard, then its lengthy communist period). It’s a place struggling to emerge from its dark past, faced with enormous economic and political challenges. To the French, at least, it’s also a place known for immigrants from both sides of the social spectrum: the gypsy exodus, which is often linked to pick-pocketing and a nomadic lifestyle, and some of the most intriguing European intellectuals and artists. But when you say that you’re from Romania to most Americans, the first thing they’ll think of is not Eugene Ionesco or Mircea Eliade, but of Dracula. Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler (the ruler of Wallachia between 1456 and 1462) captivates readers with his notorious inhumanity. He’s infamous for the sadistic punishments he imposed upon his Turkish ennemies as well as upon anyone who violated his laws. Legend has it that he’d enjoy his supper watching prisoners being impaled before his eyes.

2. Which leads me to my second reason: the lure of evil. Vampires–these liminal beings between dark spirit and bad human–represent the powers of evil, over which we have limited control. Evil seduces us, only to later destroy us. The vampire bite is closely associated with unbridled sexuality. Vampires, like social predators, suck the vitality or life blood of healthy human beings before moving on to the next victim. But then, I wondered, why don’t we read about them in their human form, such as the Scott Petersons of this world? Why do we prefer to view and read about them as our Others?

3. Mediated evil. Human evil is inescapable. It’s everywhere around us. We read about it in the pages of history books and we see it on the news: ranging from the haunting memories of the Holocaust, to the Stalinist purges, to the latest serial killers on T.V. Because we’re exposed on a daily basis to the inhumanity of social predators, we’re not as intrigued by them as we are by their un-human counterparts, the vampires. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but boredom. At the same time, evil in its human form makes people very uncomfortable. We don’t want to imagine that social predators could enter our neighborhoods, our houses and our lives, to harm us or our loved ones. Vampires, these liminal beings between human and demon, give a more bearable expression to the evil we know, in the back of  our minds, exists in the world and can reach into the intimacy of our lives. They enable us to contemplate evil while holding it at arm’s length.

4. The widespread appeal of genre fiction. Compared to most Europeans, Americans have very little leisure time. Europeans get weeks, if not months, of vacation a year. Your average American gets only about two to three weeks. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry, I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique style. Most vampire novels, though well-written, place most emphasis on plot. They’re perfect for readers who have little time and want to delve immediately into the action rather than being distracted by stylistic experiments or bogged down by a long-winded, Proustian style. Of course, there are some vampire novels that harmonously blend several genres, to offer readers the best of all worlds. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which combines a beautiful style, historical erudition about the Dracula legend and a fast-paced, intriguing story.

5. Education. My teenage daughter reminded me yesterday that she and her friends read the Twilight series in fifth grade. This was their first exposure to narrative fiction that both adults and young adults enjoy reading. In Europe, on the other hand, the curriculum places emphasis (from a very young age) upon the literary canon. I remember being exposed to Tolstoy, Baudelaire and Flaubert early on, as opposed to reading either in school or for school the latest popular novels. While American students do sample the literary canon as well, that usually starts later–in high school–and even then, they’re exposed mostly to the Anglo-American tradition. But, unlike most European students, they discover the pleasure of reading by delving into popular contemporary fiction right away. This sticks with them and most likely shapes their literary taste later in life as well.

All this to say that I suspect that our obsession with vampires in the U.S. is not a fluke. There are real reasons why vampire thrillers became so popular here and why they’re probably not going to disappear from sight anytime soon. Having experienced evil first hand, however, I prefer to depict it as it is: all-too-human even in its worst inhumanity. When I was a little girl and complained to my parents about being afraid of monsters in my room, they told me that the only thing I should fear is evil human beings. Monsters, like vampires, don’t exist and can’t harm us. But it seems that some human beings are capable of immense evil, limited only by the worst of their desires and imaginations. It’s this real, human, evil that I wrote about, both in my novel about totalitarian Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009) and in my second novel, The Seducer, about a sociopathic predator. Sometimes, the monsters we imagine in fiction pale by comparison to the evil created by the monsters in our lives.

Claudia Moscovici, Notablewriters.com

You can see sample chapters of my new novel, The Seducer, previewed on Neatorama’s Bitlit, on the link below:

http://www.neatorama.com/bitlit/category/the-seducer/

You can also watch video previews of The Seducer on youtube, by cutting and pasting the following links:

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici?feature=mhum#p/a/u/0/IaZj4bceDpE


 

January 11, 2011 Posted by | Bram Stoker, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, David Israel, David K. Israel, Dracula, Eclipse, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Neatorama's Bitlit, new fiction, novel, novels, Romania, seducer, seduction, social predators, sociopath, sociopathy, Stephenie Meyer, The Historian, Twilight, Twilight series, vampire fiction, Velvet Totalitarianism, Vlad Tepes | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Book Review of Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives

I used to teach Alan Bullock’s “Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives” in courses about totalitarianism. Contrary to many other college textbooks, which tend to date rather quickly, this history book seems timeless. Bullock offers a monumental social biography of two of the most evil dictators in human history as well as an epic sketch of an era. Although the author specializes in Hitler, his grasp of Stalin is equally impressive. It rivals, in fact, Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror” in its thoroughness and depth.

As the title suggests, Bullock alternates chapters on Hitler with those on Stalin.  He reveals how each dictator relied on his powers of manipulation, deception and opportunism to rise to power. They spread totalitarian regimes meant to wipe out the human spirit and large parts of humanity itself across the world.  The book also explains how Hitler and Stalin initially operated within the systems which they later (mis)used for their own selfish and nefarious goals. Whatever their rhetoric and ideology, both sociopathic tyrants ultimately craved power for its own sake, at the expense of everyone else, even the causes (and allies) they initially claimed to support.

Bullock’s “Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives” gives us a detailed, compelling and extremely informative portrait of the faces of evil. It is an indispensable book for all those who want to understand how totalitarian regimes function and the role sociopathic dictators play in changing the course of history. As luck would have it, sociopaths are too self-serving and power-hungry to form lasting alliances. Had Hitler and Stalin not turned on each other, totalitarianism might have triumphed across the globe.  As Winston Churchill famously stated in a speech after the German invasion of the Soviet Union: “If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

December 1, 2010 Posted by | Adolf Hitler, Alan Bullock, book review, Book Review of Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, book reviews, Claudia Moscovici, communism, history, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Joseph Stalin, literature salon, literaturesalon, totalitarianism, Winston Churchill | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Book Review of Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives