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Archive for February, 2008

 

Yesterday, there was a Tzar and there were slaves. Today, there is no Tzar, but the slaves are still here. Tomorrow there will be only Tzars. We walk forward in the name of the free man of tomorrow, the Tzar of tomorrow. We have gone through the epoch when the masses were oppressed. We are now going through the epoch when the individual is oppressed in the name of the masses”

 

Utopia means ‘no place’.

 

Dystopia means ‘bad place.’

 

The major difference is this, or so says the Wit: a utopia is the kind of place you’d want to live in.

 

Dystopia is simply that place lived by someone else.

 

A dystopia is therefore a vision of someone else’s ideal society imposed upon you, usually extended out to a nightmarish pitch for the specific purpose of satire. Many of you would find my ideal state and my ideals, applied to the real world, to be your own private little hell: dystopia, though really, it is good for you, I swear. The traditional interpretation of dystopia, and its literary use as satire, tends to assume that the flexibility, understanding and sympathy that temper our opinions, morals and ethics has been thrown aside; in many ways Dystopia is a ‘bad place’ where all sense of what is decent and normal has been tossed about; this is the moral attitude of Ayn Rand’s Anthem or Huxley’s Brave New World. Of course, and we so often forget this when uttering panegyrics to Orwell’s prophetic powers that he was not telling the future but reading the present. Orwell, as well, grasped that the morality, ethics and laws that a moralist like Huxley believed allowed society to work were supplemented, supplanted or dominated by humanity’s tendency to hierarchy, fear, sloth and the bewildering size and complexity of late capitalist economies and bureaucratic governments.

 

As I speak of Orwell, it’s worth pointing out, though a bit fruitlessly, like all utopias, dystopias have a tendency to be interpreted both by contemporaries, or consistently misused by later generations for their own purposes and for their own goals. George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most famous examples of a piece of literature, a dystopian novel indeed, but also a grim, hyperbolic satire, frequently misinterpreted. Lefties overuse the novel as if it were some sort of fetish, brandish Orwellian about and yell at everyone that we are being watched and controlled…and then confide in everyone that Orwell was a genius and a prophet. He was neither, and wasn’t even a particularly well written novel, and not even all that interesting. But it was a satire, something the right doesn’t get either. Whether we have the idiotic editorials in my local right-wing newspaper, The Source, that by-laws against dogs crapping on peoples lawns as Orwellian and the pathetic triumphalism of the Right who use Orwell to attack and denigrate all socialism. Of course, they ignore that Orwell was a socialist himself, an elitist true, with a slippery tendency to change tacks, rat out his friends and take a dim view of women and browner peoples (no wonder Christopher Hitchens likes him so much) but a socialist nonetheless…or he wouldn’t have wrote that “if there is hope, it lies in the proles.” 1984 is as much an attack of the weakness and easily led intelligent classes, that the best educated are often the easiest to lie too, against all forms of oppression.

 

 

we.jpg

 

What does this have to do with Zamyatin’s We? Well, two things: one, Zamyatin’s novel has also been lauded as an anti-Soviet, anti-totalitarian masterpiece, and two, Orwell was heavily influenced, and almost certainly cribbed several story ideas from Zamyatin, including the idylls in the countryside that play so important a part in both books. Both men viewed unspoilt nature as being a place free and untainted by politics and oppression.

 

 

 

Zamyatin’s novel is also noted as being a science fiction novel, one of the first science fiction dystopias. Both utopia and dystopia have been a particularly well studied as literary phenomena, and indeed Utopian Studies is a particular field outside but related to both Literature, with a bent on the science fiction, and Politics, as such. One of the more famous students of utopia is Marxist and hater of post modernism Frederic Jamieson, whose work Archaeologies of the Future is both something I want to finish reading and a very nice descriptions of what science fiction is and what utopia can be. Jamieson’s main contention, though highly obfuscated, and I fail to do it justice in any way (it is a tome, and a tomb, for any one not versed in houti-touti intellectual Marxism) is that all political programmes, especially of the left, are utopian in some way, and that because they are utopian, they are not in fact flawed, but much more powerful, because they have the imagine to construct a new systems based on something other then weary exploitation or realpolitik. Science fiction is the primary literary mode for expressing these utopian desires, because amongst all genres it has the fluidity and lack of critical ‘observation’ to get away with the wildest fantasies of a better world.

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Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – ‘Sealand’ from Architecture and Morality (1981)

Suffer Machine –
‘Heaven’ from Heaven in the Strangest Places (1990)
Saint Etienne –
‘Fascination’ from Travel Edition 1990-2005 (2004)
New Regime
– ‘Seduction’ from 12″ Single (1982)

Heaven 17 – ‘Let’s All Make a Bomb’ from Penthouse and Pavement (1981)
Section 25
– ‘Be Brave’ from Always Now (1981)
Burial –
‘Shell of Light’ from Untrue (2007)

Pulp – ‘Glory Days.’ from This is Hardcore (1998)
Fear of Dogma
– ‘I Believed’ from Fear of Dogma EP (1986)
Sheep Look Up –
‘Falasha’ from Sheep Look Up, Part 2 (1986)

!!! – ‘The Step’ from !!! (2000)
the kettle black
– ‘All Work and No Play’ from Was Wollen Sie Mehr


Bat for Lashes –
‘What’s A Girl to Do?’ from Fur and Gold (2007)
Jane Vain and the Dark Matter – ‘We Must Destroy’ from Love is Where the Smoke Is (1998)

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Every form and genre of literature has developed a canon, a list of the best, most representative or critically acclaimed authors, poets or artists, as established by self-appointed guardians of culture, high and low. Of course, most of us bump up against these canons, and are told that Dali is the canonical surrealist, or Hammet and Chandler are the canon of noir, or in English classes where Shakespeare is relentlessly drummed into our heads without any decent explanation or comparison as to why he, amongst all the other playwrights of his time, was unique and therefore essential (as it turns Marlowe’s work, Shakespeare was just more eloquent and thoughtful about royal incest and slaughter!) Inevitably, Science Fiction has its own canon, one of which, in a discussion with some friends, they recreated without any effort, naming in a flurry of thoughts every major Anglo-American Science Fiction Luminary of the last fifty years.

The list we made is the same, as often represented in, for instance, the Cambridge Guide to Science Fiction, or other such illustrious tomes, whether they consider themselves encyclopedia, best of lists or critical books by SF authors like Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree. Here is that list, both what we arrived at and what is generally slammed on there:

Aldous Huxley
Robert Heinlein
Kim Stanley Robinson
Stanislaw Lem
Neal Stephenson
William Gibson
Arthur C. Clarke
Isaac Asimov
Philip K. Dick
Ursula K. Le Guin
John Wyndham
Octavia Butler

There were some other votes in our discussion for A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, and Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, and Margaret Atwood got in there, though strictly speaking she doesn’t like to be considered a science fiction author, so I’ll leave her out. Octavia Butler has not been received as Canon until recently; same goes for Samuel Delany, one of the beardiest, most tattoed, old homosexual black science fiction writers out there; they both end up seeming like the token black tacked on at the end….as I have done here. Oops. I’m not accusing the SF community of being racist, because, well, Neal Stephenson or Kim Stanley Robinson usually doesn’t make the Canon lists either, but generally, they are often discussed within the context of race, gender or sexuality, rather then as SF authors in their own (which is partly a result of what they write about, I know!)
Quibbles aside, that leaves a pretty solid list of the best SF writers we could all come up with, and it’s a pretty damn good list, we all agree. These authors, except for maybe Butler, Robinson and possibly Lem, have been pretty damned influential; they are names we associate almost automatically with science fiction. The ideas postulated in their works are often still be grappled with today, especially in Asimov’s and Heinlein’s case (Asimov for robots, Heinlein for politics) Gibson defined a whole genre. Le Guin produced some of the most intellectual works of their kind, and Dick and Clarke, well, we got Blade Runner from Dick, and 2001 from Clarke; for those movies alone, their names are secure.
Every canon has its detractors, and I would argue, from personal taste that Heinlein and Asimov are overrated in the sense that their shadow tends to eclipse other, less famous authors, and because their Canon status as A BIG DEAL has made it harder, in many cases, to question the weakness, as literature, or as speculative work about human society, of their body of works. Asimov’s disgust with democracy and the ‘mob’ surfaces in many of his novels, often petulantly, and Heinlein, well, Heinlein is Heinlein, he has been called both an anarchist and a fascist, and a misogynist and a creepy apologist for temporal incest, and really, he was all and none. I think Gibson was a one note wonder, essentially, and that Wyndham also tended to write very similar novels, often not very impressively. Clarke started writing sequels, and everything went down hill thereafter, but his classic novels (Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama) are still excellent. Huxley lectures in his novels, and we all know…ahem…how boring lectures can be in fiction.
The point remains, however, that Heinlein and Asimov deserve to be on the list (much, much less certain about Wyndham). I do, however, have two points to make about this list: that it is made up of authors from the last fifty or sixty years, and that almost all of them are white, male English-speaking and generally American or British in some way. There is one non-British European, two women, one of whom is black. Several major authors didn’t make it, specifically Jules Vernes and H. G. Wells, to whom most of the writers on this list owe a great debt, as they are generally writing in response to these two authors initial works. The inclusion of Jules Verne, often considered the first major science fiction writer, is important, because he is usually the token European on any list of essential science fiction, or in a history of science fiction.
There has traditionally been a deep chauvinism in much established science fiction criticism, from the Cambridge History of Science Fiction down to illustrated encyclopaedia’s, pop histories and ‘best of’ lists that pop up on the internet. The assumption hasn’t changed since the days of Kingsley Amis and his study of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, repeated, for instance, in Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, that science fiction is essentially an American and British enterprise, with a few European forefathers, true, but mostly, especially after 1950, something that only the English-speaking world could produce or produce the best, the French, Russians and Japanese being just pale imitators. The popularity of manga and anime has broken some of this cultural monopoly, but it still remains, the idea that the science fiction literature of the English-speaking world is the most essential, the best written, fully representative of the world at large. Of course it isn’t, but this chauvinism, or perhaps ignorance, runs very deep, and extends to fiction of all sorts: the Random House/Modern Library list of the best books of the century includes NO book that wasn’t composed in English, although a few books by non-Britons, Canadians, Australians or Americans found there way on (http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100rivallist.html)
That, my friends, is not a good library.

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African Brothers – ‘Self-Reliance’ from Want Some Freedom (1970-1978)

Fifth Flight – ‘Sugar Mountain’ from Into Smoke Tree Village (1973)
Tragically Hip – ‘Vapour Trails’ from Phantom Power (1998)
Lou Reed – ‘Men of Good Fortune’ from Berlin (1973)

Miles Davis – ‘Yaphet’ from Bitches Brew (1969)
Gustav Holst – ‘Neptune, the Mystic’ from The Planets (1923)

Valley of the Giants – ‘Claudia and Klaus’ from Valley of the Giants (2004)

Wax Mannequin – ‘A Message for you from the Queen’ from The Price (2004)
Sleater -Kinney – ‘You’re No Rock and Roll Fun’ from All Hands on the Bad One (1998)
The Pop Group – ‘We Are Time’ from Y (1979)

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