As a teenager I read George Orwell’s  novel ‘1984’, a polemic warning of the sort of dystopian society Britain could become in 1984 (written post-world War 2), based on the totalitarian state of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The book is such an important warning from history, made a huge impact on me and it remains a useful tool to compare where we are as a society.

The UK government have implemented some very worrying surveillance legislation and are proposing yet more in the forthcoming ‘Snooper’s charter’ whereby individuals internet browsing history is recorded and monitored by the UK state. It is possible that such information can be effective in screening to uncover terrorist plotting. However, we are led to fear terrorist atrocities, whilst in reality we are more likely to be hit by a bus. The mass media, television, newspapers, the media, focus on these awful events and the everyday preventable loss of life through avoidable poverty is somewhat brushed aside. It does seem as though we are living in an Orwellian dystopia.

There is much evidence of this, from CCTV on almost every street, monitoring of our movements online and through our mobile devices. People have got used to be monitored, whilst we may not like it, it has become part of modern life. what scares me is that all this surveillance, with this proposed legislation becomes legitimate, legal. Once data is officially held it becomes a commodity that can much more easily be used by the state or corporations to influence our lives. For example, insurance premiums may be effected by accessing this data, potential employers may screen such data so only people from a certain demographic are able to assume positions of authority. It is like how only through ‘membership of the party’ can one live a decent life. It is genuinely concerning.

One of the most interesting facets of ‘1984’ was newspeak, how the totalitarian regime managed to change language so that dissent and rational though became more difficult. In the novel such phrases as ‘War is peace’ and ‘Freedom is slavery’ exemplified doublethink. The modern political realm is full of doublethink, In Modern Britain we accept that ‘Development is making things worse’ and ‘Planning is something you do after you’ve finished’. In party politics it is even worse, or should I say more developed, policy is rarely defended from criticism, rather critiques are attacked for who says them, whether they be members of the proletariat, academics, ‘liberals’, jews or black disabled lesbians, no-one outside the inner party/establishment is really allowed a say. Indeed when anyone who speaks up, there is a fear they they may disappear without trace.

It all seems very dark, when the ‘enemy’ of ‘islamic terrorists’, was itself created by funding of Arab groups by the Western establishment and then dodgy ill-advised wars begun with the result of fostering ‘islamic terrorism’. The establishment created their own enemy, whom there own proletariat are led to live in fear of, so we allow the establishment to monitor us, to watch over us through our webcams. Economically people are thrust at the age of 18 into debt to the state and financial industries (who are largely the same people), then to achieve a decent standard of living and repay these ‘debts’ we are encouraged to take jobs that pay well, yet exploit others, rather than do anything useful. If the 14 year old me could see the world of 2015, he would be very worried indeed and I am worried. Actually we are powerless to do anything about it, instead simply resist, and try to make the most of it.

Teenage Fantasy

Having recently dabbled into teen fiction, I thought I’d have a bit of a look around. I believe that children’s or young adult books can produce great literature as much as any other fiction ‘genre’.  There appears to be quite a sub-genre of dystopian fantasy. When I was a teenager I read George Orwells ‘1984’, which had a profound influence on my understanding of the world, it is one of the classic dystopian novels.

I love Science Fiction. I love to immerse myself into different universes. I believe there is value in using created universes to explore concepts and also to compare and contrast such societies with the real world. There is also the appeal of escapism and anything involving spaceships! I have also identified more with SF, as opposed to fantasy. The key difference between the two genres is that in SF the worlds strive to be coherent and possible within the universe, or possible with particular defined differences. With fantasy, anything is possible, which makes for great stories, however they are perhaps often less useful as social commentary, due to not trying to be possible.

Both SF and fantasy seem to appeal particularly to teenagers. If teenagers are defined as people engaged with discovering themselves, wider society and the process of fitting in with society. Perhaps due to the pressure of the process,  a desire to escape, to create a space outside of the process is sought. Fantasy fiction can provide this.

I was interested in exploring  contemporary teen dystopian fiction, from an older perspective.  I read ‘Divergent’ by Veronica Roth. I feel that is i had read this as a teenager i would have hated it. Hated, because it isn’t a coherent universe, the society described is not possible, as such as a teenager I would have struggled to make sense of it. However, transcending this incoherence and immersing with the story allows the reader to appreciate what the novel does say, even if a fantasy.

Spoilers. The society of ‘Divergent’ is a dystopia consisting of a society divided into five factions, which are purportedly stable, as each faction offers a way of avoiding conflict, though in the novel this stability is breaking down as the factions evolve away from their founding principals. The factions  are based on five  human lifestyle guiding principals: Knowledge, Honesty, Integration, Bravery and Selflessness. At sixteen members of this society choose which faction to join. However rarely, there are ‘Divergents’ who do not have a single dominant principle and divergents are alleged to be dangerous to the social order. This idea of rare ‘divergents’ is where the coherenece of the society breaks down , as the majority of people in our universe are divergent and value more than one thing.

Nonetheless the idea is appealing, perhaps particularly to the teenager, concerned with finding themselves, how to act in society and a fear of conforming to a disliked lifestyle. Indeed, much of the novel concerns the protagonist being initiated into a different faction from her youth, where the behaviours of the faction of her youth are discouraged and new ones encouraged. Essentially some aspects of the  individuals personality are encouraged and others repressed. Thus, individuals conform to their faction, which is what most people do in the real world. For the divergents, they learn how to act as members of faction do, rather than conform. So, the novel actually, effectively explores some of the major issues of being an adolescent. It is an enjoyable, fast paced, action adventure novel.

The lack of coherence of the world still irritates me, the fantasy, the unreality. This is an objection i have towards contemporary society generally. We are offered incoherent fantasies as opposed to balanced accounts of the world. From politicians, from the news media, from the internet and popular entertainments. To be fair, these problems were probably just as bad as when I was a teenager. Perhaps I am frustrated that the world hasn’t improved, so when I discover another fantasy, rather than a thought through coherent world vision, I am frustrated. This puts me into a cynical mode, so I see how in ‘Divergent’ the story panders to the teen ‘market’, rather than as a work of art.

It is very very sad, that the world is now so tapped into commercial culture, that art, books and music, have to be ‘commercial’. so much is there a compromise between quality and commercial appeal. Yes, artists need to make a living. Yes, many artists do an amazing job of balancing these two facets of their work in ingenious ways. The problem is that the pressure towards commercialism away from value seems to be increasing.