1984 has topped the Amazon bestseller list. I repeat: a novel almost 70 years old, a science fiction novel at that, is the bestselling book of any genre on Amazon.com. It’s not hard to see why, it’s the same reason people are buying up John Steinbeck’s Winter of Our Discontent, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. It’s the same reason women and scientists are marching on Washington. It’s the same reason ordinary people are phoning their Congresscritters in record numbers and tweeting from Badlands National Park.
Because in this staggering, lurching new world, people want to understand, to make a cosmos out of the chaos. For that, they need data and they need narratives.
George Orwell was a committed socialist, who in woolier younger days wrote of English Socialism in sincere glowing terms. He’d served alongside Russian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, fought in battles no one knew and walked empty fields the day thousands of men supposedly died there. He watched truth die in the rolling Spanish arroyos, and by 1948, he’d seen the Germans, the Russians, and the English all take a hand in its killing, like the train car in Murder on the Orient Express*.
So he transposed the year numbers and told a story of the future, where truth was dead so long everyone had forgotten its name.
And now, seventy years later, we turn to his narrative to make sense of this world.
To my mind, any science fiction writer has three sacred duties. The first is to entertain, which science fiction shares with all storytelling. But the other two belong to science fiction alone. The second is to tell what may come to pass. And the third is to tell us ugly truths about the present.
By entertaining, I mean that storytellers must tell the best stories they can, to move their listeners and give them catharsis – whether that’s the dark catharsis of Winston Smith loving Big Brother or the triumphal catharsis of seeing Sherlock Holmes apprehend the crook and calmly explain how he knew. Telling stories is deep magic, it’s transforming yourself into other people and bringing your listeners into those masks with you. And we all of us who tell stories owe it to our listeners to make it a good story, so that when we are done, they smile, and say “thanks for telling that one.”
Science fiction is charged, as Orwell was, with telling stories of what may come to pass. Bradbury said that science fiction does not predict the future, it warns us against it. Orwell certainly did. Bradbury did. Huxley did. But there is another strain that shows us possibilities of what we may become, the likes of Star Trek and solarpunk and Jules Verne. And there are those ambiguous futures that are in some ways better and in some ways worse and in all ways weird, the likes of The Dispossessed and Futurama. And when the future does come to pass, as no one could have predicted, we can turn back to Snow Crash and Stranger in a Strange Land to make some sense out of the senseless, to form a cosmos out of chaos.
But most importantly, science fiction can tell truths about the present. Gene Roddenberry and his stable of writers understood this implicitly, that they could talk about white people and black people if they pretended it was green people and blue people.
The collection of masks that science fiction may wear is rivaled only by fantasy’s. And you can come out and say things like “right now, these people are being killed for the color of their skin, and we yet pretend this is an equal society” and “we are complicit in collectively forgetting unpleasant things” and “we are destroying the idea of objective truth, that 2+2=4, because it serves those in power.” And you can get away with saying this, because after all you are only talking about Cardassians and Bajorans, or about a speculative future England, or about a China that never was.
And this is exactly what Orwell set out to do. He was not writing about 1984. He was writing about 1948. And that is why his voice rings true in 2017…because he speaks to the pain and horror he saw around him, and those pains and horrors are with us still, like the stink of boiled cabbage in Winston Smith’s apartment block.
Yesterday, the President charged or detained a dozen American journalists. “Alternative facts” have become a buzzword alongside “fake news.” The government’s hostility to the media and to facts are well-documented.
The French became masters of satire and allusion because to speak plainly in the French courts of the ancien regime was to invite certain death. Just ask Moliere. The mandarins of Imperial China debated endlessly over Romance of the Three Kingdoms, because they could not criticize the Emperor or his minions, but they could speak of Liu Bei the White King and the dread warlord Cao Cao.
Now is the time to tell the truth, and for it to go masked. If you have a creative bone in your body, go write of the coming of the Great Orange One, or of the scientific Resistance and their invisible laboratories, or of the first Asian-American president. Tell your story, storyteller, and publish it. Make a cosmos of the chaos.
Give us your truths, your stories, your narratives, so we can make sense of the world.