The last time I went to a talk at Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation, I was very nearly late – a consequence of my terrible sense of direction.
I tried to blame it on the dark and hint of snow, but that poor taxi driver knew I had no idea where I was sending him. The talk was on British Dystopias, the specialism of Professor Steven Fielding. Last week I had the chance to chat with Fielding about Orwell’s 1984, Nigel Farage and all things dystopian.
Dystopia fiction seems like a niche area for the University of Nottingham’s Professor of Political History, and perhaps it is. By his own admission, Fielding found this particular interest almost by accident.
“I found there was evidence that how fiction depicts politics does influence how people think about politics,” he says. “I was very interested in why it was that people disliked politics and disengaged with it, why people have this impression that all politicians are a waste of time.”
According to Fielding, dystopias are borne out of the context in which they are produced, and project forward the fears of the author about what’s going on in the present day. I guess it makes sense, then, that a political historian would wish to engage with them.
And engage he has. Fielding’s new book, A State of Play, examines dystopian fictions from the past 100 years or so. “I was interested in the dystopias that depict things like elections, popular opinions of politics and voters, not the kind of ones that are set so far into the future that they almost become science fiction. I looked more at the dystopias about the day after tomorrow. Things are still recognisable, but society has moved in a different direction, and it’s a wrong direction.”
Surely there are certain themes that crop up time and time again?
“Naturally. There have been left-wing versions and right-wing versions. But the basic fear, the main theme in them all, is that democracy isn’t really democracy and is going to be used against the people.”
The themes may be similar, but the contexts certainly differ. “Richard Littlejohn looks at UKIP and political correctness in To Hell in a Handcart, whereas the film V for Vendetta examines a fear of Muslims. Anthony Burgess writes about how a socialist government under the thumb of trade unions would work, but then people have also looked at the influence of America and the capitalist system.”
A varied genre, then, but which dystopia has been the most successful in engaging a mass audience? It’s as this question is asked that George Orwell’s 1984 finally comes into the conversation. I’m surprised that it took so long for Fielding to get onto what he calls “a very special dystopia”.
That said, I can’t help but wonder why Orwell’s novel in particular had such success. Thankfully, Fielding can offer some explanation. His reasons are three-fold. Firstly, Orwell himself became a very significant figure, a feat that was only helped by the skill with which the story was crafted. The second reason is slightly less obvious.
“Orwell saw the emergence of the Cold War and two power blocks around America and the Soviet Union. So he was writing about that, but it was appropriated by the Right of politics in Britain and the United States to say ‘this is Orwell warning against socialism,’ which wasn’t actually his intention.” An interesting point, made all the more so by Fielding’s third reason. “1984 was unique in its mass appeal and the size of its audience – the fact that it was transatlantic, it was turned into a film and taken up by schools and book clubs and so on.”
Speaking of audiences and the writer’s intentions, how easy is it for dystopias to be misinterpreted? Apparently, not as easy as you’d think. “A lot of the time people will seek out works that confirm their own prejudices. I don’t think many people on the Left would have read Richard Littlejohn’s book, where the country is run by lesbians and Trotskyists. It was serialised by The Sun so I imagine people already on that wavelength would have read it.”
Ok, so that’s novels, but what about films – was it just 1984 that was taken out of context?
“No, 1984 wasn’t alone in that. The film adaptation of V for Vendetta was based on an illustrated novel from the 1980s, and while the film is about how right-wing governments are using Islamophobia to reinforce authoritarianism post-9/11, the original context was the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and nuclear weapons. Funnily enough, Alan Moore, who wrote the original, was very critical of the film.”
It’s clear that Fielding knows his stuff when it comes to dystopias. Having studied almost a century’s worth of dystopian fiction, he must have one work that stands out as the worst, the one he’d really hate if it ever came to fruition? His answer doesn’t disappoint.
“In 1984, there are the Proles and then the Party and the Inner Party. I’d always hoped that I’d somehow manage to be in the upper tier of society, the Inner Party of any dystopia. So, I suppose my worst dystopia would be one where that’s not the case. The one I’m thinking of isn’t British, it’s actually a Hollywood dystopia, but it was called Idiocracy. It projected about 500 years into the future, when all the stupid people had out-produced all the clever people, who always thought of reasons not to have children. You’ve got a wrestler who’s President of the United States, crops are being watered with Gatorade, and so everything is utterly ruined.”
So, if Fielding was to write his own dystopian fiction, based on today’s political situation, what would the man who’s read more dystopias than most, and therefore must be pretty critical of politics, include?
“It would essentially be a dystopia in which a Nigel Farage figure is running the country because people are all so anti-politics that they only elect politicians who run against convention and consensus. The point would be that, while in public he was seen as a politician of the people, behind closed doors he would be the most politically-motivated, evil-minded and unrepresentative of them all. He’d be a supercharged Farage – an amalgam of all of those types – a bit of Jeremy Clarkson, maybe. Britain would be like North Korea, but under UKIP. It would be completely destroyed.”
Speaking to Fielding opened my eyes to a whole range of fiction I’d somehow neglected. I doubt I’ll have time to read or watch everything he referred to so I asked him for a ‘Top Three’ to tide me over:
** Edge of Darkness
A TV series from 1985, about privatisation, the nuclear power industry and the threat of a nuclear holocaust. There’s an American version with Mel Gibson, but that wasn’t so good.
** The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess
Written in the early 1960s, this novel looks at a Malthusian crisis: the population is too big, crops are dying off and the Government is trying to control how people reproduce. It’s kind of funny because obviously in the 1960s to be gay was deemed a bad thing, and public figures who were gay tried to hide it. But in this novel people are encouraged to be gay so that they don’t produce children. Burgess clearly didn’t think being gay was a good thing, but that wouldn’t actually be seen as a dystopia today. So it’s an interesting case of how public opinions change over time and, as such, dystopias change their character.
** 1984 by George Orwell
You couldn’t have a top three without this – it’s just so well done. There’s a reason why it’s the most referred-to dystopia.
If you want to find out more about dystopias, the work of Anthony Burgess or attend talks, visit The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. Tours of the archives are available about once a month.
Photo of The International Anthony Burgess Foundation by Kim May