When books are banished or school is trademarked: dystopian novels in our libraries

Did you know that Senate House, the striking high-rise building next to the main UCL campus, features in two different very dark futuristic novels: The day of the triffids by John Wyndham (1951) and 1984 by George Orwell (1949)?

Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is at the heart of a totalitarian superstate, the ultimate place of disinformation and oppression. A recent staged reading in the same building brought the classic text to life; eerie bluish light in a large dark room illuminated scenes of torture and brainwashing, with the latter no less unsettling than the former. You can still watch the show online at the Orwell Foundation’s website; just dip into those eleven and a half hours of terror…

Many of you will recently have watched dystopian visions of the future, perhaps various movies of The handmaid’s tale and Bladerunner; but have you read the stories which inspired them? The first cinema film of Bladerunner was based on the quaintly-named novella Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

The handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood, of 1986, is thoroughly disquieting for women in particular and, as we can see from the news stream about systemic sexual exploitation, as relevant as ever.

Drawing of imagined spacecraft and space station, 1953.To envisage creatures which may or may not be humans or robots, or else animals or robots, in 1968, as Dick did, was quite a feat. To conjure up monstrous hybrid plants as a result of genetic engineering and biological warfare in 1951, as Wyndham did, is no less astonishing.

Similarly, radios plugged into your ears, television screens filling your walls, and soap operas with audience involvement seem almost ordinary to us, but to describe them in 1953 was truly prescient. This is what Ray Bradbury did in Fahrenheit 451, a book mainly known for the scenes of book-burnings, but less so for the audio-visual technology replacing print.

In his American cities there are also, apparently, secret databases of the citizens’ every step, every word, even of the chemical composition of their bodies: total surveillance for total control. If you commit a crime, if you behave in a suspicious manner, you can be tracked down, hunted down – and it may be broadcast live on TV, as a deterrent and as entertainment for all.

Bradbury lived to over ninety years, well into the 21st century, and must have been bemused to see his bold visions materialising. Even the nuclear weapons which threaten the ragged remains of our civilisation in Fahrenheit have not, as we are constantly reminded once again, vanished with the Cold War.

If Nineteen eighty-four is widely studied and Fahrenheit 451 also well-known, why does the more recent Feed by M. T. Anderson remain obscure? Will we elevate it to cult status only when it is almost too late? When the internet has taken over our lives and our minds and any resistance, whether from inside or outside the loop of ceaseless entertainment and advertising, is bound to fail?

Hungarian stamp with spaceship, mid-20th c.When people let the forests and seas die, protected in their glass bubbles: their domed suburbs and personal aircraft, their shopping-malls and night-clubs on the earth and on the moon? When your health insurance is exclusively based on your customer profile and School™ is openly marked as a commodity?

Anderson, too, must be bewildered by the degree of realisation already emerging as time passes since he published his science-fiction in 2002. The idea of an incoherent and uncouth, patently inept or corrupt US President named Trumbull is positively prophetic. Pupil-teacher interaction replaced by holograms and curricula rewritten by corporations do not seem far off, either!

This gripping story, told from the view-points of fifteen-year olds in their slang is likely to appeal to any teenager, surely even those who do not normally read fiction. If you are a teacher or tutor, include it in your programme: it is the text that we need now, before it catches up with us.

The links in this article lead you to copies at the Newsam Library, UCL Institute of Education, but there are more at other UCL libraries and probably in your local library. Of course, on our library catalogue, UCL Explore, you will also find DVD’s of the films and plenty of background material. You can link to Senate House Library from your search results or search their catalogue directly and borrow from them… and while you do that, have a look at the stupendous building!

Illustrations: Drawing of imagined spacecraft by Helmuth Ellgaard on magazine cover of 1953 (CC BY-SA 3.0). – Hungarian stamp with spaceship. (Scanned by Darjac) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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