Sunday, 9 March 2008


I've just been reading Predictions (A.S. Barnes, 1956), John Durant's book of American newspaper and magazine art, largely from the late 1800s, portraying the future as it was envisaged at the time. Largely, this work was not intended as literal prediction, but as satire on current trends; many of the pieces are unpleasantly sexist and racist visions of the horrors of gender role reversal, or of America being taken over by negroes, the Irish, Germans, Jews, and so on. There are occasional stabs of brilliant prescience of things that hadn't yet happened, such as worldwide mass communication, anti-aircraft weaponry, and routine nudity on the theatrical stage. Largely, the artists got it wildly wrong, a particular error being the idea that personal air transport would become universal. If you like this kind of failed prediction, the Paleo-Future blog runs a continuing compilation.

Much the same applies in literature. Some works are deliberate attempts to predict: I've previously mentioned here the accuracies and inaccuracies in HG Wells' The Shape of Things to Come (see ... and roads not taken). Others are clear satire: it's the reviewers who insist on phraseologies like "a chilling prediction". A particular case in point is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's very worth reading Anthony Burgess' 1985 - reviewed here by Martin Amis - which apart from its own dystopian tribute to Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a series of essays on the roots and themes of Orwell's book, such as a reflection on the language of IngSoc, and the connections with Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We, which also may have influenced Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
Burgess argues highly convincingly that Nineteen Eighty-Four is a very dark satire on the period it was written, a period in which wartime alliance with Russia had turned instantly into the Cold War (akin to the shifting but officially nonexistent alliance shifts in Nineteen Eighty-Four). Anyone from that era, Burgess writes, will remember the rationing, the shortage of razor blades, and the Bennett Correspondence College with its post-war "Let me be your big brother" advertisements. * Room 101 was a hated conference room at the BBC's Broadcasting House.

Burgess's 1985, incidentally, is itself no exception to the rule of predictions being wrong; it is partly right, though many years late, in its portrayal of the importance of Islam, but completely wrong in its expectation of trade union dominance, which in the real world was dismantled in the Thatcher era.

Addendum inserted 31/7/208: I highly recommend Dr Ralph Harrington's paper ‘The old enemy’: Anthony Burgess and Islam, which is a detailed analysis of Burgess' views on Islam, which in 1978 were remarkably prescient.

Of peripheral interest, I notice that the Sylvester Stallone film Demolition Man is on UK television this week. If you're of a mind to do so, it can be read as an adaptation of Brave New World (among other explicit allusions, one main character is called Lenina Huxley) though the relationship is even looser than that between Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Nineteen Eighty-Four that inspired it.

Addendum #2: 9/12/2008. * I'm getting a mild attack of scepticism. It's repeatedly mentioned that "Big Brother" comes from post-WW2 ads for the Bennett Correspondence College, when the kindly elder "Let me be your father" Mr Bennett died and his brutal-looking son took over with the slogan "let me be your big brother". This story, which first appears in 1978 in Burgess' 1985, is proving difficult to verifty. The pre-war ad of the older Bennett was easy enough to find (see left); but pictures of the revised ad with the younger "Big Brother" Bennett are elusive. There's no particular reason to doubt Burgess, but propagation from one secondary source with no primary source is a little iffy research-wise. Can anyone help?

- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment