Caroline Spalding, Features Correspondent

Reading Your Way Through Lockdown

H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells
In the midst of a pandemic, it might seem counter-intuitive to reach for a dystopian novel to find escapism. However, they can be immensely thought-provoking, allowing us to rise above the current crisis to ask deeper questions about humanity, and at the very least, distract us away from reality for a time, to draw comparison between the unique reality of the current quotidian and that which was imagined, or predicted, by writers before us.

An obvious place to start is H.G. Wells. Wells’ work is fascinating: considering when the writer was alive (1866-1946), you can’t but wonder whether his work was purely a product of the imagination, or of a propensity for prophecy. But that question is evasive – you cannot begin to understand the man by reading his fiction alone.

When the Sleeper Wakes, published in 1899, is the story of Graham who awakens in the year 2100, after 203 years in a slumbering trance, to a world that is ostensibly utopian, but quickly reveals its true colours. The modern reader will be as staggered as Wells’ contemporaries by his descriptions of moving walkways, aeroplanes and even machines that are comparable to TVs or the internet, the so-called “Babble Machines” – because these things now make up the practical furniture of our own lives.

What I find most interesting are his forecasts about the development of humanity. In the same way that the Victorian era saw a boom in industrial towns, with more people flocking to them for work, by 2100, Wells’ cities are dominant, surrounded by dilapidated scrubland. The rich are wealthy and powerful; the working classes are the underdogs of society working in conditions not far removed from those of the workhouses of the Victorian era. We see capitalism in extremis alongside an undercurrent of a seemingly socialist revolution of the masses. The “Babble Machines” broadcast propaganda to the workers in a manner not dissimilar to that prevailing in Maoist China sixty or seventy years after the book was conceived.

E.M. Forster
E.M. Forster
It’s not a positive commentary on humanity, but an observation or warning of what might happen. It seems to say that humans are fundamentally flawed by their innate characteristics, are driven and distracted by greed, and that there consequently will always be societal inequality – exacerbated by rapacious capitalism, mixed up with politics and left uncorrected by interchangeably dubious leaderships. And it also therefore asks whether humanity’s flaws serve to undermine social revolutions; whether revolutionary leaders can stay immune from the corruptibility of power and not fall victim to the same avarice of those they seek to condemn and overthrow. Curiously, despite Wells’ forward-thinking mentality, the book unfortunately retains the institutional racism of the late Victorian era, yielding the subtextual suggestion that perhaps some cultural attitudes are so deeply ingrained that it will take more than intellectual analysis to throw them off.

Lovers of a Passage to India and Howard’s End might be surprised to discover that E.M. Forster also ventured into the realm of dystopian fiction. His short story, The Machine Stops, published in 1928, is again a rather sobering comment on humanity and its possible future. Humans have created “The Machine”, which controls all aspects of life, but not as we know it. Everything is delivered at the press of a button (sound familiar?) and consequently humans need not venture from their subterranean rooms, or even physically engage with others, as all communication is undertaken through glowing blue plates – Forster’s version of videotelephony.

The story’s title gives away the denouement and whilst there is not much substance to the plot (it is only fifty seven pages long), it poses many questions about our own future. Forster’s version of humankind comes to worship the Machine as a god, and is therefore utterly dependent on it for existence. Should we therefore read the story as a warning about Artificial Intelligence – a human invention that even Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned could ultimately destroy us?

John Lanchester
John Lanchester
Finally, John Lanchester’s The Wall (2019) is a modern perspective on dystopia. Here we have the UK, its coastline surrounded with a great wall, patrolled by sentinels conscripted to their duty for a compulsory two-year term of service to keep out “The Others”. This is life after “The Change”. Sea levels have risen, global trade has inevitably ceased and the parents of those on active duty live with a sense of guilt that the Change happened on their watch.

Written from the point of view of Kavanagh, a newly conscripted sentinel to the Wall, it took me several chapters to accept his rather naïve and youthful narrative, but he and his story mature with the novel. He learns alongside the reader the reality of his society. It’s a brutal existence; the “Others” who cross the Wall are either killed or become, essentially, slaves. The guards who fail to keep them out are themselves put to sea. Corruption inevitably exists, society is divided (the Elite occupy positions of power and influence) and human instincts are rendered transactional (people can opt to become “breeders”).

With many questions left unanswered, we may draw from the novel parallels with the spectres of climate change, refugee crises, and even isolation in a post-Brexit world. Reading the novel today one might even say that it hints at an unfortunate proclivity for the assertion of national self-interest in times of crisis, with only a very reluctant willingness to cooperate with l’étrangers. Perhaps we are closer to this vision than those future worlds depicted by Wells and Forster; yet, as we bear witness to current events, we may never be truly prepared for what is in store.

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