In times of trouble, my first impulse is to look at things through the prism of literature and history. Many great minds have tackled the problems of authoritarianism before, in fiction and non-fiction. So in order to balance matters a bit, there are a few books on a little reading list that I’d like to suggest. These are some of the titles I expect to discuss in the coming weeks and months. They are just a few of the possibilities out there, but starting someplace is far preferable to not beginning at all.
The Iron Heel (1908), by Jack London
This early view of an authoritarian state might seem a surprising outing for London, especially if you know him primarily as the author of tales like The Call of the Wild and White Fang. But London’s writing covered a far-wider range than casual readers might suspect, and over the course of his short life, he was a prolific and imaginative author. I think it’s worth taking a look at this early attempt to understand the impact of despotism. Watch for a review soon.
We (1924), by Yevgeney Zamyatin
Zamyatin’s novel about a future OneState run by a Benefactor is an oft-cited early dystopian work, which is supposed to have been an inspiration for George Orwell’s later work, 1984. Although there are similar themes in We, it lacks the brutal immediacy and hyper-real probability that readers, especially those who first encountered the book in 1948-50, must have felt on turning the pages of 1984. However, Zamyatin’s views of the way in which a totalitarian-authoritarian state would use domestic espionage, technology, and regimentation to achieve order are first rate. The goal of the OneState itself? One can only guess at perpetuation and preservation, as anything more is never explicitly stated, so the reader never truly finds out what is going on.
My full review is posted here. (This title was added to the list on 24 March 2017)
Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited (1931, 1958), by Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s novel is part science fiction, part philosophical discussion, and is in many ways the prototype of the raft of dystopian (before that word had even been coined) science fiction novels that were to follow. It is also more shocking than you might expect, for all of having been published eighty years ago. Another volume devoted to imagining a seeming idyllic yet twisted future, Huxley’s book is a benchmark for authoritarian re-imaginings of reality. The accompanying collection of essays in Brave New World Revisited provide a further examination of some of the points that Huxley first made, along with the occasional notion of what he might have written differently, had he decided to write the book a quarter-century later. The review is up now.
The Shape of Things to Come (1933), by H.G. Wells
Known for his imaginative and trail-blazing speculative fiction in the forms of The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man (to name only the big three), Wells was also a popular novelist, historian, and social reformer. His History of the World was one of the most-read books of the ‘20s and ‘30s, and remains in print and a valuable (if occasionally dated) summary of the state of the world up to the Great War (there’s a Penguin abridgement, for those interested in reading it). In The Shape of Things to Come, Wells examines a future of political upheaval, climate disaster, Middle Eastern conflict and world war. It’s not as America-specific as some other titles on this list, but it is definitely worth considering as an examination of what happens when authoritarian states get started.
It Can’t Happen Here (1935), by Sinclair Lewis
When Lewis wrote this eerily prescient book, he predicted with uncanny accuracy a number of features of the American election of 2016. Obviously, the key players are different, as are some of the issues around which Lewis built his story, but the more general outline is worryingly similar. The book tells the story of a pseudo-Fascist takeover of the United States by a Populist candidate who abolishes pesky inconveniences like Freedom of the Press, the independent judiciary, and Congress. Of course, Lewis had ample source material in the form of the Chancellor of Germany, and a Louisiana populist called Huey Long. But his invention, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip comes complete with his own shadowy man in the background, in the form of Lee Sarason, a creature with an agenda of his own. Sound familiar? Worth re-reading, attentively. My review has been posted.
1984 (1948), by George Orwell
With so many people tossing around words like “Orwellian,” with regard to Orange Caligula’s tendencies to abuse fact, media, women, due process, and everything else that isn’t nailed down, it’s important, I think, to take a look at one of the best-known and most richly-developed conceptions of a world run by fascism. It’s all surprisingly contained in a single volume, written in a deceptively simple, straightforward, popular style. What does 1984 have to tell us about surviving in 2017 and beyond? In a nation where, in many ways, the sort of surveillance which Orwell saw as the cornerstone of an authoritarian state already exists, and we signed on to it freely and without any apparent qualms, what would “Big Brother Is Watching You” mean to us now? Apparently, people are curious enough about that to drive a 70,000 copy reprinting by Signet Books. If you’re having trouble finding a copy, don’t forget the second-hand bookshops!
My review of this title has been posted.
Fahrenheit 451 (1955), by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury’s tale of a future of mandatory book-burning may not seem to be completely relevant to our modern dilemma. There haven’t been any bonfires of “questionable books” after all… not yet, anyway. But given the Executive’s current anti-fact, pro-conspiracy inclinations, his disdain for answering simple questions like “what are you reading,” combined with the less-than-intellectually-honest nature of his adherents make it appear, to me, that the possibility exists for a very real threat to the simple fact of the ownership of books. Science fiction, when it is not too busy being silly or bowing at the altar of ridiculous special effects, can be a powerful means by which to question the status quo. I’m eager to have another go at Fahrenheit 451.
My review of Fahrenheit 451 is coming soon.
The Plot Against America (2004), by Philip Roth
Instead of addressing the 1936 election, like Sinclair Lewis (qv), Roth chooses the 1940 contest for the Presidency as the backdrop for the rise of his own nightmare scenario, in this case, one headed by the American “hero,” Charles Lindbergh. For me, the cover art is particularly telling, as the stamp depicted on the cover, inked with a swastika, is from one of my all-time favourite sets of American stamps, the 1934 National Parks series. Roth’s novel is also on my list to read and review soon.
…So that’s what I’m planning on reading, looking for clues not only as to what may happen next, but how to survive it. What have I missed out of my list? What is the best — and most illuminating — book about an authoritarian regime that you know? I’m sure that I’ve missed something… Comment below, and let me know.