Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
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Eric M. Jones
Consulting Editor


Fiction

When Every Song Reminds You of a Dead Universe
by Karl Johanson

Side Effects of Yeah- Yeah Pills
by A.J. Kirby

A Breederax for Dalia
by Janett L. Grady

Cola
by Byron Barton

One of Our Starships Is Missing
by Terry Savage

Help Desk
by Robert J. Mendenhall

Toca la Guitarra
by Wayne Helge

How to Travel Through Time & Space
by Allen Quintana

Foreclosure
by Kevin Gordon

Articles

Bracing for a Brave New World
by Hunter Liguore

Sizing Things Up
by Eric M. Jones


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Addenda

 

Bracing for a Brave New World

By Hunter Liguore

WHEN WE TALK ABOUT SOCIAL science fiction, we’re discussing fiction that takes place in the future while addressing the social issues affecting contemporary society. It is fiction that tells contemporary society what the future might look like if changes aren’t made.

When did social science fiction begin?

Before writers sought to show readers the negative version of the future, there was a trend of utopian fiction writers who wrote books illustrating perfect societies. In a completely opposite way, utopian fiction suggested: this is what a perfect society looks like, and here’s how to achieve it. Some famous utopian writings are Sir Thomas More’s (England) “Utopia,” Frances Bacon’s (England) “The New Atlantis,” Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s (United States) “Herland,” Étienne Cabet's (France) “Travels in Icaria” and N. G. Chernyshevsky’s (Russia) “What Is To Be Done?”

There are several in-between books—ones that are satirical in nature, and aren’t quite utopian or dystopian. Examples of these are Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon.” The latter title is an acronym for nowhere, thus supporting the notion that a perfect society cannot be found. But even in utopian fiction, there is an element of presenting society as imperfect, while the writer attempts to point the way to a better system.

While the 19th and early 20th centuries saw plenty of utopias and satirical renditions, it wasn’t until the 1920s that social science fiction really makes a clear mark. Prior to this, at the turn of the century, catastrophe fiction made a splash with books that warned the final doom for the human race: books like H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” (1898), “The Time Machine” (1895), and “The World Set Free” (1914).

During the 1920s, although influenced by catastrophe fiction, social science fiction writers narrowed their focus; no longer concerned with the world at large, they turned to problems affecting the human condition right in their own cities. At the time, factories were pumping out cars and a variety of products. Concern that humans were becoming unfeeling or mechanized grew. Writers abandoned the notion of utopia, instead turning to its opposite, which seemed more achievable in the wake of a failing society.

The two most important books to arrive during the 1920s are “R.U.R.” by Czech writer Karel Čapek and “We” by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin.

From “R.U.R” or “Rossum's Universal Robots,” we get the word robot or robotat, a Czech word meaning to work. The story (written as a play) shows the first world takeover by robots and essentially warns, in the wake of dehumanized factory work, what humans could become if something didn’t change. The robots perform the everyday tasks of people, who in turn become lazy and unconcerned with life. Čapek, like Zamyatin a few years later, rails against the social issue of Taylorism, a system of workflows and labor created by Frederick Winslow Taylor; his ideas, if left unchecked, could materialize to a point where humans became machines. (During the 1930s, Charlie Chaplin reproduces the image of the robotic factory worker in his film “Modern Times,” a direct response to Fordism, which evolved from Taylorism.)

Zamyatin, “We,” and Russia

The publishing history of “We” reflects the sentiment of the times the author lived in, a prerequisite for social science fiction. Written in 1920, Zamyatin wrote “We” at the height of the Bolshevik Revolution. While his manuscript was announced several times, it was never published, and believed too dangerous to consider. Bootleg copies were dispersed in secret. In fact, “We” was never published in Zamyatin’s lifetime. During the 1920-30s all of Zamyatin’s works were pulled from libraries, and with Stalin’s consent he emigrated to Paris in 1931. After failing to produce a historical text on Russia, he died in 1937. Earliest consideration for the publication of “We” came in 1952 by Chekhov House Publishers. Later, in 1988, it was finally published in his homeland.

What was so dangerous about the book?

Zamyatin had the belief that the future could be calculated, and the next revolution could be out-guessed. This premise is at the foundation of understanding the construct of “We.” One possible influence to his prophetic nature can be found in H. G. Wells, the English novelist, which Zamyatin was translating awet the time. Wells used science as a method to predict the future. His philosophy deemed if you could outline the shape of things to come, you were in some way a prophet. Zamyatin uses some of these basic elements from Wells in “We.” Essentially, Zamyatin creates a character akin to his own plight and existence, D-503, a man reporting on current events, who later runs into trouble for being different, and leads a revolution. The idea that revolution was impending is a Marxist principal. Zamyatin’s revolution was to free the people from the Soviet State, symbolized in the book by the One State. “We” if nothing else is Zamyatin’s attempt to play prophet, much like Wells, and cast a light on things he believed were to come.

When Zamyatin created “We,” Russia was at the embryonic stages of a new ideology—the ideology of industry. At the time, the Industrial Revolution introduced the world to better and quicker means to do things. At the forefront were Henry Ford and Taylor who implemented new production standards in making cars that cut down on time, but changed the worker into a more robotic form.

Ford employed the “division of labor” technology and adapted it to the assembly of a motor vehicle; he also implemented Taylor’s efficiency standards. Fordism had an immense effect on culture and society as well as the workforce and workplace. As car production turned into an assembly line with conveyor belts and automatic welding machines, a shift in time management and labor issues ensued. The continuous flow caused by the assembly line dictated a more disciplined work environment; workers were known to speak in the “Ford whisper,” that is, by not moving their lips, as regulations were implemented to discourage sitting, smoking, and talking. There was also a shift from skilled labor, (who set the work pace and were high priced), to unskilled labor, which made work mindless, easy to time manage, and paid less. The images and influences of Fordism and Taylorism were incorporated into “We” and evident in similarities of the mechanized One State in the “We” future.

Zamyatin was also influenced by the poet Alexei Gastev, who described Nikolai Aseev as, “the Ovid of engineers, miners, and metalworkers.” Aseev was a big proponent of Taylorism and time efficiency practices. During 1920, Gastev was the head of the Central Institute of Labor. It is believed that Zamyatin’s material for the One State came directly from Gastev’s experiments on Soviet workers. Here is a summary written by Orlando Figes in “Natasha’s Dance,” describing Gastev’s research:

“Hundreds of identically dressed trainees would be marched in columns to their benches, and orders would be given out by buzzes from machines. The workers were trained to hammer correctly ... Gastev’s aim, by his own admission, was to turn the worker into a sort of ‘human robot’ ... Gastev envisaged a utopia where ‘people’ would be replaced by ‘proletarian units’ identified by ciphers such as A, B, C or 325, 075, 0, and so on. These automatons would be like machines, ‘incapable of individual thought,’ and would simply obey their controller. A ‘mechanized collectivism’ would take the place of the individual personality ...”

It becomes clear that Gastev’s views would’ve been available to Zamyatin for which he would draw upon to create “We.” Seeing cars on the street would have been evidence that Gastev’s views were manifesting. Further, it’s clear that influencing the robotic nature of the workplace was due to the growing acceptance of Fordism and Taylorism around the world, but also important to Lenin as he geared Soviet Russia toward mechanization. With his interpretation of Fordism and Taylorism, Zamyatin suggests that if mechanism continued, people would lose their sense of free will and the individual human spirit; individualism would be traded for mass collectivism. In writing “We,” Zamyatin attempts to cast what the future will bring for the working people in this controlled, collective state.

But there’s more. And to understand the evolution of social science fiction—essentially how future writers will adapt and develop the social message, we need to see where it started. We need to go deeper.

During the time “We” was written, Russia was undergoing many changes with the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution. The 1920s brought about new ideas in the form of machinism, movies, radio, and the car. Petrograd was rebuilt after its destruction in World War I, while shortages for materials and food were widespread. While the cold winters and starvation depleted the population of Petrograd from 1,217,000 to 722,000 between 1918 and 1921, the Proletarian Cultural movement called the Proletkult was busy exchanging ideas about god-building, tectology, and human mechanization; ultimately they set out to spread their message. Of the half million members reported in 1919, Zamyatin was one. In fact, he took the title“We” from a collection of poems and plays the group produced.

The symbolism evoked in Zamyatin’s “We” depicts the political and cultural climate of his day. Zamyatin describes a society where the government has planned every aspect of a person’s life, with the sole purpose of making them happy. He also shows, in an allegorical and satirical way, what will happen to art and literature in a negative utopia, like the one in “We”, which mirrors the new ideology of the Bolshevik’s. As writing was becoming regulated and censored, those like Zamyatin retaliated by showing the inevitability of such censoring.

As scholar Edward Brown points out, Zamyatin wrote and rebelled against society in general when he wrote “We.”

“Zamyatin’s rebellion ... is not directed against any particular version of the modern mass society. It is not directed at Socialism or Communism as such but rather at the forms of regimentation which has resulted from the growth of a complex industrial civilization.”

Zamyatin’s fear was seeing Russian cultural life coming to an end and yet, there was no vision of a future socialist state for which he could attack. Zamyatin chose not to include the realism of famine and civil war as the backdrop of his book, but rather the culmination of ideas indicative of his time.

The main character of We D-503 symbolizes the average proletarian or worker, but more so a person that his current society was about to reject, one that would disappear under the coming changes. The main character, D-503, is a poet, an inventor, and a philosopher; (also qualities and attributes of Zamyatin.) D-503 routinely praises technology and machines, not because he has been taught or brainwashed, but because he is poetic; his admission reads like satire, more like something Gastev may have been a proponent of, which Zamyatin plays with and ridicules.

Another critique of “We” is that it proposed to reveal to the public (and warn) the dangers of the new Soviet government. Zamyatin was aware that conformity increased under Lenin’s rule, and depicts this through the mechanized and controlled world of the One State. Zamyatin used science as the primary drive in “We,” much like Lenin and the Bolsheviks used science and technology to change society. The glass-enclosed civilization in “We” is designed to satirize N. G. Chernyshevsky’s utopian society in “What Is To Be Done?” Lenin later writes his own treatise by the same name in an effort to define his new Russia in which he called for a new party type. Zamyatin presents a glass-enclosed society that is on the brink of a scientific marvel, and at the height of dehumanization, yet the protagonist D-503 succeeds in thinking on his own, and escaping to the wall outside the city, the wilderness, a land with little human interaction. Indirectly, Zamyatin answers Lenin’s (and Chernyshevsky’s) question what is to be done, with his novel “We.”

All in all, Zamyatin’s “We” set out to satirize the current sentiment of his day, while rejecting the ideology of the Bolsheviks. Zamyatin interpreted the growing sentiment of dehumanization and incorporated that into a dystopian world at the pinnacle of scientific mastery. While the world Zamyatin displays to the reader demonstrates the detriments of a controlled society, it also reveals the plight of the human spirit to overcome and persevere over the shadow of conformity and law, another attribute of social science fiction.

Aftermath of “We”

It’s important to point out that Zamyatin’s work goes on to influence writers for the next 90 years, right up until today. Most writers that name their characters with numbers, for instance, don’t actually realize what piece of history they’re drawing from, and simply imitate what the last writer has done. A sense of urgency fueled the author’s work. Zamyatin was arrested twice and was at the forefront of censorship; he wrote knowing the consequences and fear that came with it, another thing today’s writers may not actually face.

The books that “We” goes on to influence are numerous. But the two books most important to mention are Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

George Orwell’s “1984

Without a doubt, George Orwell’s novel “1984” serves as a primary example of dystopian literature today. Many of Orwell’s terms have become a part of society’s lingo, like Big Brother and Newspeak, and whether or not someone has read the book, they have a general idea of what it means. What they may not know is that Orwell wrote “1984” as a warning against the growing dictatorship of Stalin in Soviet Russia. He saw the role England played in combating Stalinism, as well as the growing trends of Capitalism, and together, he wove them into 1984a narrative taking place in the immediate future, a dystopia, where the people of Oceana, (Soviet Union) is controlled by the dictatorship of Big Brother (Stalin), a symbol modeled after Stalin’s branding image of his face on public buildings.

Orwell wrote the book in 1948, and simply turned the letters around to get 1984. Orwell put the book in the not too distant future in order to rouse people of his time to the possible and real dangers surrounding them. He believed people had the power to create change; the book then would serve as a motivation to create that change.

One of the most interesting aspects of “1984” is the idea that there is a continued war taking place with an enemy that becomes an ally, and an ally that becomes an enemy. Orwell’s inspiration for the three super powers that don’t defeat each other came from James Burnham’s “The Managerial Revolution.” Although a critic of Burnham’s, Orwell was inspired by the idea of a state of permanent war, with limited aims between combatants that can’t destroy each other, but rather where exists a struggle of territory and possession. The goal of the war is to use products of industry without raising the standard of living, as an increase of wealth would destroy the fabric of society and introduce a class system. Additionally, society could no longer be kept in poverty by restricting production since it usually brought about opposition; war then is a means to destroy the products of labor. Yet, each state appears to posses the objective of wanting to conquer the world, while ridding the world of free thought. While there are skirmishes, none of the states are willing to cross boundaries and risk loss. The world then, which Orwell paints, suggests that war as a continuous feature of society, (consistent with the Marxist/Communist ideology that revolution needs to be constant) ceases to be dangerous; it becomes commonplace.

Over the course of the book, as history is erased and rewritten, the main character, Winston Smith, is faced with the shapelessness of his life. He begins a metamorphosis which the reader understands as questioning the existence of the human free spirit. Winston is taught with reoccurring signs that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. The reader assumes this logic could never really happen, but as Winston succumbs to defeat in the tedious destruction of his free spirit, love, and mental capacity, it doesn’t seem as foreign.

It is the incorporation of doublethink that makes Orwell’s message even more real. Doublethink is described like this: “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneous two opinions which cancel each other out ...” Doublespeak is a type of mental cheating that satisfies the person by realizing reality has not been violated. Today’s reader can quickly relate to the idea of doublethink. Knowing that it is possible to be fooled, to hold more than one thought, to be led, and misled, adds to the eerie prophetic warning attributed to “1984.”

“1984” is often viewed as having an anti-Capitalism message. It is evident that the war is fought to expunge the products of labor, but in the society in which Orwell lived, government and corporations would’ve been behind the selling of war goods, and thus could stake a profit from waging war; which still exists today. Orwell may have been pointing this out as a means to show one aspect of the detriments of Capitalism, but the notion of Winston’s non-conformity for a time, speaks clearer to individualism which is part of the ideology of Capitalism.

Orwell and truth

Another aspect evading Orwell’s “1984” is the important message of truth. Orwell plays on the notion that one truth can become a non-truth. This was mentioned in one way above with the discussion of doublespeak, yet the symbolism of truth was meant to signify Stalin’s interpretation of truth and his treatment of truth, most specifically in the ’30s with the Terror. Orwell raises the question of what is truth and is depicted in many ways throughout the book, like the changing of enemy and ally in the end, or the history Winston changes, or even the love he thinks he possesses and loses. The character of O’Brien is in one sense his salvation, then in another his rebuker, and then in the end his redeemer. Which O’Brien is the true archetype? Orwell uses these opportunities to show the unbalanced nature of truth and more specifically the biased nature of Stalin’s truth.

Orwell’s “1984” serves as an example even today of what can happen if power is usurped by one party or state or dictator. Orwell predicted the continued detriments of Stalinist Russia, and what could happen if all sense of humanity was wiped out. His message is a stark reminder that democracy, as an alternative to collectivism, allows for the people to have an important voice.

Ayn Rand’s “Anthem

A few years before Orwell’s “1984” another writer had similar interests in showing what the future world could be. In 1946 Ayn Rand published her novel “Anthem,” a dystopian world were one man asserts his individuality from the collectivity of the populace. She wrote the book in 1937, the same year Zamyatin died. The narrator of “Anthem” writes, “We are known as Equality 7-2521,” from a city run by the World Council. The main character expresses his own individuality and sneaks to an underground railroad that is abandoned and invents a light source that will ultimately change society. He bravely takes his invention to the Council, but is rejected, aanthemnd is forced to flee or risk imprisonment. Additionally, the main character falls in love, another individual human quality that sets him apart. He leaves to start a new world with a new lover, each recognizing their own individual qualities.

Ayn Rand grew up in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. She possesses much of the same ideas as Zamyatin during this time period and was known in her lifetime to be an advocate of Capitalism. Capitalism may have been her answer to collectivism. The idea for “Anthem” originated in the early 1920s as a play; she was a teenager at the time. In her words: “It was to be a play about the collective society of the future in which they lost the word ‘I.’ They were all calling each other ‘we’ and it was worked out as much more of a story ...” Her sentiments of Russia were that it was depraved and she was not surprised it took up the Communist ideology, but maintains she “got out and found a civilized country.” Rand’s dystopia is no less a warning against world organizations that would reap power over the individual.

“Anthem” demonstrates the Capitalistic quality of individualism, whereby the main character develops a product which could be marketed and sold to benefit the people. This same premise underlies the theme of her later work “Atlas Shrugged.” Rand’s Capitalism is one that benefits the people and exists for the people, which aren’t the same as Orwell’s Capitalism, one that profits at the expense of war and the people.

Comparisons between “We,” “Anthem,” and “1984”

One of the differences between “Anthem” and “1984” is that Winston succumbs to collective power, which eliminates his individualism. He accepts Big Brother, and even loves him. While Rand was determined to show that even in the bleakest hour the human spirit can survive. Rand’s dystopia is more reminiscent of Zamyatin’s: both expound on the idea of human reason in the wake of scientific discovery. In “Anthem” this occurs when the main character invents a device to better society, while in “We” the main character was an inventor and is responsible for the welfare of the space ship. “Anthem” and “We” end with both main characters finding an unknown place, and freedom in the wilderness; they also have love waiting for them.

By the end of “Anthem” the main character no longer refers to himself as the assigned number, another feature similar to “We.” Rand ends the final pages stating that the people were whiplashed to their knees by the word “we,” a confirmation of the similar sentiment of Zamyatin’s book. Interestingly, all three books attempt to show the detriments of the collective state. Rand and Zamyatin having lived through the revolutions, while Orwell wrote from the development of those revolutions to what became Stalinism.

Other important dystopias

When we look at “We,” “Anthem” and “1984”, we can draw a straight line through the world’s political climate, the social circumstances, and then the written work. We can also make a triangle to show how one book (“We”) directly influenced the other two. In the realm of social science fiction there are plenty of other books that attempt to show the shape of things to come. Let’s look at a few. (This list is in no way meant to be complete.) The important thing is to notice how governments and issues facing society, over the years, show up in each novel.

1930-1940s

1950s

1960s

1970s-1990s

2000 to the present

Social science fiction and the future

Writers will continue to write down the issues facing them each day, giving voice to the warnings that often go unheard. The current trend in dystopian fiction today leads us mostly into teen fiction, where it’s thriving. But is it still shedding light on societal concerns? Catastrophe fiction is also going strong, as writers continue to show Earth’s doom through environmental carelessness. While the last 10 years has seen a plethora of future scenarios, many that echo worlds like the 1920s don’t seem to draw directly from a historic place. The U. S. leads the world with dystopian writers, yet democracy and free speech are ever present and thriving. What are American writers pointing a finger at? Whom are they speaking for? What anti-utopia are they witnessing in the world? And more so, where is the path to a hopeful future? It’s one thing to show what the world can be—essentially what it is today veiled in a what-if scenario—but how do you fix it?

How can we change the course of the shape of things to come?

Social science fiction has grown up through worldwide war and technological advancements and changes, even through the rise and fall of governments. It will continue to grow and evolve, as long as writers are willing to address the social issues and not be timid. It is my hope that writers will veer away from catastrophe doomsdays, away from a future where human flesh is on the menu, and rather begin to show a truly brave world, one where compassion and acceptance of differences prospers. infinity

Further Reading

Atkins, John. George Orwell. John Calder Press, 1954.

Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Greenwood Press, 1994.

Brown, Edward James. Brave New World: 1984 and We, an Essay on Anti-Utopia. Ardis Press, 1976.

Carden, Patricia. Utopia and Anti-Utopia: Aleksei Gastev and Evgeny Zamyatin. Russian Review, Vol. 46, No. 1, 1987

Chapple, Richard, and L. Soviet Fiction in the Soviet Satire: Or Can’t Anyone Around Here Write? The South Central Bulletin, Vol. 37, No. 4, 1977.

Flink, James, J., The Automobile Age. MIT Press, 1988.

Ginsburg, Mirra. A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970.

Malia, Martin. The Soviet Tragedy: a History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991. Free Press, 1994.

Orwell, George. 1984. Penguin, 1977.

Parrinder, Patrick. H. G. Wells and the Fiction of Catastrophe. University of Nottingham Press, 1984.

Rand, Ayn. Anthem. Penguin, 1995.

Resch, Robert Paul. Utopia, Dystopia, and the Middle Class in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Boundary 2, 1997.

Suvin, Darko. H. G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction. Bucknell University Press, 1977.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny; Randall, Natasha, transl., We. Modern Library, 2006.

Hunter Liguore, a multi-Pushcart Prize nominee, earned a MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Her work has appeared in “Bellevue Literary Review,” “Mason Road,” “The MacGuffin,” “Strange Horizons,” “Steampunk Tales,” “SLAB Literary,” “Rio Grande Review,” “Barely South Review,” “The Writer's Chronicle,” and more. She is the editor-in-chief of the print journal, “American Athenaeum.”

 

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