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  • Harry Vavasour

2020: the year when dystopias stopped being disturbing

Illustration: Alex Abadjieva

One of the most extraordinary experiences to come out of the recent exams fiasco that left thousands of teenagers worrying for their future was that of Jessica Johnson. Having been denied a place at the University of St. Andrews by what the Prime Minister is now calling a ‘mutant algorithm’, Jessica made national news for having predicted the crisis.

In an award-winning short story for the Orwell Youth Prize the previous year, Jessica had written about students’ results being determined by their social class to critique the disparities that plague our education system. Yet, as her own results day came around, she became a victim of just such an algorithm, one of the many students to have their futures ripped from underneath them before a government U-turn attempted to resolve the issue. It is a common occurrence when analysing dystopian literature to compare the fictional existences with the real world.

Perhaps no text has suffered as much from this as George Orwell’s seminal work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the genre’s most famous novel. With its reference to an exact year, commentators have long noted the speculative elements that Orwell ‘got right’. Seventy years after the novel’s original publication, it is easy to see snippets of Orwell’s terrifying world that have become staples of our everyday lives.

Telescreens are the clearest of these examples. Placed on the wall of every flat and house, they enable the all-seeing, all powerful Party to watch its citizens at every moment. While the idea seems scary, there are little differences in the televisions, laptops and smart speakers which follow us everywhere. Even the government’s hopes for the track and trace system to help us defeat the Covid-19 pandemic are founded on the assumption that each person’s phone can pinpoint their location at any time. Yet, while predictions such as telescreens can be put down to inevitable technological advances, the more terrifying aspects of comparison are the similarities between our government and the Party of Orwell’s Oceania. This is not to accuse the Conservatives of undercover culls or the imprisonment of political opponents, but one can recognise the similarities in their thinking. Orwell’s Oceania was defined by its invention of ‘memory holes’ and the rewriting of history, which made sure the Party’s view seemed unwavering through a series of changes. The past six months, littered with U-turns and hypocrisies, have seen our nation become a mirror of Orwell’s nightmare. Time after time, the government has stated one plan before enacting another, manipulating science to fit with their agenda and revoking claims that they previously trumpeted. While the media have held them to account, figures such as Dominic Cummings and Gavin Williamson have made mistake after mistake, contradicting facts and guidelines, without a hint of remorse or responsibility. Instead, exceptions have been made or regulations have been changed, which reveal a government full of obnoxious elites insensible to the tide of public opinion, convinced they will retain support. Stopping short of erasing the past, they have become what Orwell most feared; a government with unbounded power. As the failings of Oceania become echoed regularly in our reality, the dystopia loses its potency and Orwell’s insight changes from a hyperbolic warning to a faint divergence from our lives. Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the only novel to suffer from the plight of our extraordinary times. In his recent foray into dystopian fiction, The Wall, John Lanchester, whose Capital captured the discontent of a nation in the wake of the financial crisis, suffered from adopting a plot that seemed too plausible to shock with its differences. Building on the growing exclusionist narrative of British politics in the wake of Brexit, Lanchester imagined a world where the younger generation, trapped by the choices of their parents, were forced to serve their country in defending a wall that protected the British borders from the dangers of climate change and foreigners beyond. Not only did the idea seem closely related to the Night’s Watch of Game of Thrones, but the unjustified hatred of the ‘Others’ beyond the wall, inherited from elders rather than experience, was only a short stretch from the most vociferous views of Leavers that have dominated our news cycles in recent years. Now, with Priti Patel determined to push back against new asylum seekers arriving on these shores, Lanchester’s dystopia has moved another step closer to our future. To send the Navy to forcibly refuse dinghies of desperate people shows a coldness in the heart of our country’s decision-making. Yet, determined to enforce Britain’s isolationist agenda, Patel has continued unabashed by claims of inhumanity, proving more resolute than any of Lanchester’s Defenders. So, the author’s shocking position has become mainstream politics, downgrading his prescience to a run-of-the-mill headline. However, Britain is not alone in its dystopian tendencies. An eye cast across the Atlantic shows a deranged President devoid of decorum, firing off soundbites of hatred at political opponents while his compatriots protest a broken system. Like President Snow in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games novel, he is unable to understand those who rebel against him. Fuelled by frustrations about racial injustice, the horror of police killings and rising unemployment, riots have risen from single incidents to spread from state to state, challenging a society they no longer trust. The deluge of destruction is no longer shocking, filling our screens each day just as the uprising took hold of the fictional Panem. Unmoved, the President shifts the blame, refusing responsibility for the nation he represents. While Trump is unlikely to face the full-scale revolution that Snow did, the discontent shows a situation beyond his control. As November’s Presidential elections draw nearer, the pressure will only rise. The need for change is obvious and Trump’s persistent rebukes and rages only further the feeling that he is incapable of overseeing it. Whether Joe Biden, trapped in his basement bunker by Covid-19, is the person to heal America’s wounds is debatable, but after Trump’s callous, confrontational approach to the Presidency, he can only hope to do better. Yet, even Trump’s defeat is far from certain. In these strange times, turning around a ten-point poll deficit is perhaps the least remarkable event. At least we have seen that happen before, unlike lockdown and furlough and Covid. Our unpredictable age is shown in the publication of Peter May’s Lockdown, which for fifteen years was thought too unbelievable for publishers to touch. But, as we were confined to our homes, the thriller, set during a global pandemic, was rushed into print, suddenly not fantastical but the norm. So, young Jessica Johnson is not alone in 2020 matching her worst expectations. As our world becomes more like a distorted dystopia, there is little left to surprise us. This year has been lying dormant in the novels that we cherish, but at a fictional distance that we could admire. Now, we have been forced to live it and the world seems a more daunting place with the remedy residing beyond our reach. Perhaps the changes 2020 has brought give meaning to one of Orwell’s great paradoxes: ‘ignorance is strength’.

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