The Umbrella Movement’s kaleidoscopic and iconic “Lennon Wall” featured drawings and hand-written statements (“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” among them) on colored post-it notes.—Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Los Angeles Review of Books, November 11, 2016
Largely absent from the coverage is a far more uplifting and meaningful visual: “Lennon Walls” bearing rainbow Post-It notes of hope and determination from Hong Kong’s residents.—Hana Meihan Davis, Washington Post, August 8, 2019
When we made plans to talk by phone a few months ago, having never met but having each read and liked short pieces the other had written, we knew what our first topic of conversation would be: Lennon Walls, a utopian feature of the Hong Kong protests that fascinates us both. The name goes back to a celebratory structure created in Prague in the early 1980s, the work of young activists who used paint to express their love for John Lennon. The original wall showed that the hopeful spirit of the song “Imagine” could survive Lennon’s assassination and stay alive even in a place of authoritarian rule. Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls—both the single 2014 one that became a key symbol of the Umbrella Movement and the many that have gone up in recent months—use Post-It Notes rather than paint, speak to local concerns, and sometimes include messages of anger and frustration, but overall have the same optimistic feel as their inspiration.
What we did not realize before speaking that first time was how quickly we would shift from utopian to dystopian themes. We soon discovered that, as different as our backgrounds and current situations are, Lennon Walls are not the only kind of creative work whose relevance for the Hong Kong crisis intrigues us. One of us may be a Californian who got his doctorate three decades ago and the other a Yale student from Hong Kong, but we share a deep interest in the dystopian vision of one writer.
Some might assume that the author in question, whose work we talked about by phone and have kept returning to in subsequent email exchanges, must be George Orwell. After all, Hong Kong protesters are pushing back against a Communist Party that is often described as running a Big Brother state. In addition, 2019 was a big year for Orwell, with the 70th anniversary of 1984 and events in Beijing and elsewhere proving him prophetic. And throughout 2019, as reports appeared detailing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the use of high-tech surveillance across the country, the adjective “Orwellian” was used with increasing frequency to describe the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to rule.
We certainly both admire Orwell, but his dark imaginings have not been the focus of our communications. Nor has it been the murky V for Vendetta universe dreamed up by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, though some protesters in Hong Kong and other places have donned Guy Fawkes masks associated with that dystopian world. We have also not been comparing notes on the creators of the Matrix films, though a powerful late 2014 Louisa Lim article for The New Yorker quoted a veteran of the Umbrella Movement describing the year coming to an end as one during which some locals felt they had taken the “red pill” that allows characters in the franchise to see the brutal side of how power is exercised in their world.
Where Hong Kong is concerned, 2019 was a Hunger Games year. Throughout the summer and fall, determined people, like Katniss Everdeen and other heroes in Collins’s series, took bold actions to try to overcome seemingly impossible odds. Some protesters were in their mid-teens, as Katniss was when she took on a leading role in the resistance struggle in Catching Fire, the second book in the series. Some were even younger. And there is clear evidence that the series was on the minds of some activists, for a two-part phrase that figures in the books became a common sight in Hong Kong in 2019: “If we burn, you burn with us.” This motto is similar in structure to, but has a radically different tone than, the famous “Imagine” line that we saw written out on banners and Post-It Notes in 2014: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
In exchanging ideas about the work of Suzanne Collins, we found that we both had The Hunger Games on our minds five years ago, around the time we each first caught sight of the original Hong Kong Lennon Wall. It was important to the elder of us then because that was the point that he started receiving blank looks in his classes when he spoke of it being useful to think of China as divided into regions where the boot-on-the-face mode of control associated with 1984 was the rule, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and locales where Aldous Huxley’s vision of control via hedonism and distraction a la Brave New World was more relevant. The problem was that some students, while familiar with Orwell, knew little about Huxley. The elder of us began experimenting with adding comments about The Hunger Games, saying Xinjiang and Tibet were like the tightly controlled district where Katniss grew up, while Shanghai and Beijing were more like the glittering Capitol. This worked well, given how familiar nearly every student was with the novels featuring youths forced to perform as gladiators who fought to the death in televised spectacles, and even more so the films based on them.
For the younger of us, the world of The Hunger Games was important in 2014 for a more straightforward reason: She was a teenager in a school where everyone seemed to be reading the novels and seeing the films. Like many of her classmates, she had devoured the trilogy of books and watched the first three of the movies with equal tenacity. She saw the third movie—part one of Mockingjay, the series-ending novel having been broken up into two films—nearly two months into the Umbrella Movement. And she loved it. She was looking forward to the release of part two the following year, which would show audiences what it looked like when Katniss and other young rebels managed to pull off a version of the David versus Goliath story, toppling the autocrats in the Capitol. The franchise seemed to her a symbol of hope.
Neither of us thought in 2014 that The Hunger Games had direct relevance to the Umbrella Movement. The fiery filmed battle scenes were nothing like the peaceful sit-in on a major downtown thoroughfare that was the main site of action. Yes, there were rare uses of the three-finger Mockingjay resistance salute in Hong Kong that fall, as there were earlier that year in Thailand. Still, to invoke a symbol associated with a violent conflict seemed far-fetched, especially on the largely peaceful Hong Kong Island, despite some police use of tear gas and pepper spray. With hindsight, though, we had to admit that the salute’s use in Mong Kok across the harbor, where some clashes involving not just police and protesters but also pro-government thugs, gave a foretaste of darker days to come. In 2014, the occasional nods that activists made to The Hunger Games and V for Vendetta seemed a minor—not major—part of the struggle’s symbolism.
But by the middle of 2019, much had changed. A clear sign of this was the proliferation of the phrase “If we burn, you burn with us,” a key line in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Sometimes, it would appear on posters showing film star Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss, who in a memorable scene shoots a flaming arrow. Sometimes, it would be painted on walls as graffiti or written out on banners. In still other cases, it would show up online beside images of real-life activists using low tech weapons, such as sling shots, which resemble those deployed by youths in the films as they fought against the more advanced armed forces of the rulers in the Capitol.
Some images coming out of Hong Kong have made The Hunger Games seem less like a dystopic fantasy than like an actual locale’s new normal. We are thinking of shots of bloodied protesters—as well as of passersby in the wrong place at the wrong time—juxtaposed with spotless police gear; of streets set alight by Molotov cocktails hurled by militant frontline protesters; of vandalized storefronts, often of buildings owned by government supporters; and of subway stations and malls filling up with tear gas, patrolled by officers with batons, guns, and darkened masks that shield their features.
And it is not just protesters who use terms that bring the series mind. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Yang Guang, the spokesperson of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, warned in a press conference in August.
The Hong Kong crisis has inspired many historical comparisons, with people citing parallels to past crises centered everywhere from Belfast and Berlin to Ukraine and South Korea. None of these references are a perfect fit. None tell us what will happen next in Hong Kong. But some can help us bring blurry aspects of the ongoing struggle into sharper perspective. The same is true for forays into fiction, including references to the anime series that have inspired some protesters. We definitely see value of this kind in the Hunger Games analogy. Unlike the series, there are no clearly defined leaders of the Hong Kong protests. There are also many reasons to doubt that the ending of the struggle on the streets will resemble the simplistic and satisfying conclusion of the trilogy in which Katniss and her beloved live happily ever after in a liberated land. Still, if used judiciously, the comparison has its uses.
The main value of keeping The Hunger Games in mind when thinking about the Hong Kong crisis lies in appreciating that many participants see themselves as taking a final stand. Here, the allusion to The Matrix, as mentioned above, is helpful as well. When Beijing and its local proxies refused to give any ground in 2014 over how the next Chief Executive would be selected, despite the widespread support for the Umbrella Movement and the moderate methods protesters used to press their case, this was an eye-opening “red-pill” moment for some local residents. More such moments followed between 2015 and 2018, serving as gradual but assured wake-up calls for many in Hong Kong. For some, it was when five local booksellers whose publishing activities displeased Beijing were spirited across the border into mainland China. For others, it was Beijing’s interference with a local court gearing up to decide whether two people elected to serve on the Legislative Council should be disqualified from office for the mocking way they took their oath of office; or when word came that it would soon likely become a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to show public disrespect for the Chinese national anthem.
Events such as these helped frame 2019 as Hong Kong’s last stand, giving protesters the sense that too many of their values had been stolen away. So, too, did two things that happened early in that year, well before tear gas began to fill the air in mid-June and the first Molotov cocktails were hurled weeks later.
One important development came in April. That was when moderate leaders of the Umbrella Movement were sentenced to months of jail time on charges dating back to the non-violent rallies of 2014.
The other, which was the specific trigger of the massive march of June 9 that set the current movement in motion, was Chief Executive Carrie Lam introducing an extradition bill. For millions of Hongkongers, this was seen as the first step in creating a situation where fear of retribution would govern the city: where all residents local or foreign would worry that engaging in behavior displeasing to Beijing could mean finding themselves at the mercy of the brutal legal regime across the border. If the bill went into effect, anyone could potentially be subjected to the sort of treatment that the booksellers had had to endure—with the difference that no force or subterfuge would be required to get them across the border onto the mainland.
In a piece appearing near the start of a year, it is worth ending on a forward-looking note. So, here, despite knowing how often Hong Kong has made fools of forecasters, are some cautious predictions for the year that has just begun.
First, an easy one, since Suzanne Collins has already announced her intention to do this. 2020 will see the publication of the first addition to the Hunger Games series in a decade. It will take the form of a prequel.
Second, in Hong Kong, by contrast, there will be sequels—not to the series but to the protests of 2019. This seems a safe bet because the sense that a final stand is underway has not yet dissipated. The final weeks of the last year saw everything from a peaceful march by more than half a million people, which one of us was on the scene to witness, to new acts of vandalism that damaged buildings and renewed police violence. The first sequels have already taken place, as there have been several January protests.
Third, while there are many reasons to view the current situation across the mainland through different sorts of dystopian lenses, and while both activists and independent-minded artists are finding less and less room to maneuver there, in Hong Kong, Hunger Games analogies aside, things will not be as bleak. There will still be at least momentary flashes of hopefulness among activists and artists, even forays into utopian creativity.
One reason we make this last prediction is that when police and thugs tear down Lennon Walls, people rebuild them almost instantly. Another is that on Christmas Day, there was another clear indication that the “Imagine” spirit lives on in Hong Kong.
Here is what happened on the 25th of December. Local artist Sampson Wong and his “Add Oil Team”—known for daring, playful, and often optimistic light projections—created a work that paid homage to the billboards that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had put up around Christmastime exactly 50 years earlier in a dozen cities around the world, Hong Kong among them. “War is Over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko,” was the wording on those billboards half a century ago. Wong and his colleagues, choosing as a fitting canvas the now blank concrete wall in the heart of Hong Kong Island that in 2014 was turned into the city’s first Lennon Wall, projected this variation on Christmas Day: “TYRANNY IS OVER! If You Want It. Happy 2019 from Add Oil Team, Hong Kong.”
Image: William Sauro/The New York Times Photo Archives
Donald Trump was hardly into his first full calendar year as president before a chorus of critics and pundits began to use the word “dystopian” to describe his administration and the social milieu that it seemed to precipitate. In March 2017, novelist John Feffer wrote, “Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.” Months later, Entertainment Weekly ran an article with the hypertext title, “How the Trump era made dystopia cool again.” The A.V. Club and Vulture both proposed that we had reached “peak dystopia.” Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described our era as “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.” (Not of, but “for.”) In early 2018, when the internet was briefly galvanized by talk of Oprah Winfrey running against Donald Trump in 2020, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane described that potential contest as “troublingly dystopian.”
What a curious, discomfiting situation we find ourselves in when the buzzword à la mode is 130 years old, and the literary genre we once relied on to explicate life behind the Iron Curtain is now apparently reflective of contemporary America. But what exactly is it about the Trump administration that makes us reach for such specific literary terminology? Is it the sudden resurgence of white supremacy and fascist sympathies in the American heartland, providing a speculative path toward American authoritarianism? Perhaps, but neither racism nor fascism are requirements of the genre. Are we terrified that this administration will instigate a world-ending nuclear conflict with North Korea, and/or Russia—and/or a devastating economic war with China, and/or Europe? If so, the relevant literary genre would be apocalyptic, not necessarily dystopian. Or do we say “dystopian” hyperbolically—reflecting our anxieties about a nightmarish social sphere of distress, confusion, and disorientation? That might be better described as surreal, or absurd. Are we alarmed by the hard pivot away from professionalism, decency, and decorum? Issues like these are more at home in the novel of manners, such as Pride and Prejudice. Or are we simply dismayed and alarmed by the convergence of an outrageous, semi-competent administration and a general mood of anti-intellectualism? That would be a job for satire. Trump himself—bumbling, bombastic, egoic, unaware, unpredictable, unread—would be more at home as the quixotic protagonist of a picaresque, or as a delusional child king in a fairy tale.
It is my suspicion that we call some things “dystopian” for the same reason we sometimes abuse correct usage of “gothic,” “ironic,” or “Kafkaesque”: We like the sound of it, and we enjoy invoking its vaguer associations. But if we’re going by conventional definitions, it is arguable that there was nothing specifically or egregiously dystopian about the Trump administration until last April, when the administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossing, becoming the first White House in memory to implement a standing procedure for separating migrant children from their parents, even as they attempted to surrender themselves legally in a plea for sanctuary.
Dystopia is a rich, heterogeneous, and dynamic category of film and literature. However, when we look at the most successful, enduring works of this genre, we find the same institution caught in the crosshairs of various fictional totalitarian regimes, again and again: the independent and autonomous nuclear family.
Dystopian fiction was preceded by utopian fiction, beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s novel Utopia. (The synthetic Greek toponym “Utopia” was simply More’s joking name for his setting—an invented South American island—as the word literally means “no place,” or “nowhere.”) Utopian novels were immensely popular in 19th-century England, as humanist philosophies and medical and industrial technologies at the tail end of the Enlightenment combined to suggest a better and brighter tomorrow. Theoretically, a fruitful Eden was almost within reach. Yes, dystopia is commonly described as the opposite of utopia, but this obscures a common trope in which dystopic future societies are presented as the aftermath (or consequence) of failed attempts to bring about an actual utopia.
Perhaps the precursor to dystopian fiction is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian novel Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. Dostoevsky’s skeptical narrator monologues at length on the preposterousness of the idea that science and Western philosophy were ushering in a radical new era of human progress: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Dostoevsky’s intention, partly, was to deride and pick apart Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian, materialist novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which characters make grand, romantic statements about the joyful founding of an eternal, collectivist utopia. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees two major flaws in this thinking. First, if given the opportunity to submit to rational prescriptions for a better life, people would rather be free to suffer. Second, idealism—when taken too seriously—tends to breed dissociation, distortion, and interpersonal alienation.
Today we associate a handful of qualities with the concept of dystopia: governmental overreach, unnatural social configurations, paranoia, state-driven propaganda, digitally panoptic surveillance, and other alienating technologies. However, none of these characteristics are intrinsic to the genre, just as dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily satirical or allegorical, regardless of the popularity of Black Mirror. Dystopia is such a diverse and mutable canon overall that there are no essential commonalities—with one possible exception: a significant distortion of family relations.
Nearly all landmark works of dystopian fiction feature an oppressive governmental order that interferes with what we might term the “natural” process of family-making: choosing a partner and raising a family freely and relatively unencumbered by external power structures. This is observed from the outset in the seminal dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in Russia in 1921. Set in the walled-off, hyper-rational future society One State, in which sexual liaisons are overseen by the government, the conflict in We is precipitated by a moment of illicit flirtation, and the principal transgression upon which the plot later hangs is an unlicensed pregnancy.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fetuses gestate in artificial wombs and are raised by the state. Here, too, an illegal pregnancy is a major plot point, and the word “father” is an epithet. In 1984, George Orwell’s Oceania allows marriage but prohibits divorce, as well as non-procreative sex. Winston Smith’s central offense is his illegal affair with Julia, and it is her whom he must betray to restore his safety and good standing. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s unhappy, alienating marriage is the consequence of an illiterate, spiritually unwell society. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, infants are not raised by their biological mothers but are assigned to families—if they are not summarily euthanized. Even in the bubblegum dystopia The Hunger Games, the action commences with Katniss’s motherly intervention on her little sister’s behalf, sparing her from certain death, allowing her to continue to have a childhood.
The most influential dystopian novel of this moment is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the Hulu miniseries adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, previously a different sort of feminist icon in AMC’s Mad Men. In Atwood’s novel, a near-future United States is replaced by an Old-Testament Christian theonomy in which healthy young women are forced to bear children for high-status men and their infertile wives. This feature of Atwood’s world-building can’t exactly be chalked up to pure fantasy crafted in the welter of creative genius. To borrow a phrase, we’ve seen this before. In an essay for Glamour last year, Jenae Holloway writes that she is “frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding”—in other words, that the show does not strike them as it strikes her: with a sense of “déjà vu.” Holloway’s essay reminds us that an even cursory look into slavery in the Americas reveals separations of children from parents, forced adoptions, and rape as standard to the experience. Breaking up families is not simply a systematic and normalized aspect of state control; it is a requirement to maintain the system itself.
Historically, human slavery may have been a relatively limited phenomena in Atwood’s Canada; however, indigenous families were routinely shattered by administrative bodies between 1944 and 1984, including 20,000 children in the “Sixties Scoop” alone. Conventionally, the non-academic reader or viewer only associates these phenomena with science fiction when the writer works in this palette explicitly—Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and her short story “Bloodchild” come to mind—but once one considers the potential for reverberations of chattel slavery in literary dystopias, one begins to see them everywhere: in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” wherein a teenage übermensch is taken from his parents, who later witness his televised execution; in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where citizens of an agrarian community cannot protect their spouses or children from ritualized public execution; and most obviously Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a perfect society enabled by the unending agony of a single imprisoned, tortured child.
None of this is to say that participation in a family is categorically “natural,” or what legitimizes one’s existence. The world has more than enough space for people who abstain from family-making. Nor does this observation require us to attempt to define what a family is. What is important is to note that our most successful, compelling, and enduring literary dystopias consistently present antagonists to the nuclear family dynamic. They create rigid legal frameworks around everything from sexual union to rearing of children. This is the dreaded commonality at the root of mainline dystopian fiction: the simple formula, “government authority > family independence.”
Whether you were raised by biological or adoptive parents, older siblings, or more distant relatives—or by a foster parent, or some other surrogate or legal guardian—what you share with the vast majority of humans is that you were once the object of a small, imperfect social unit responsible for your protection and care. This is the primary social contract, based not on law or philosophy, but on love and trust. For better and worse, our bonds to our families pre-exist and preponderate the accident of our nationality. Accepting this truth may be the first test of a legitimate state. It is the illegitimate, insecure regime that seeks to disrupt and broadly supersede the imperfect moral authority of reasonable, well-intended parents—in all of their many forms and situations.
In separating migrant families seeking amnesty, President Trump brought us into dystopia at last. It is a small comfort that he clearly knew from the outset that this action was morally untenable. He told reporters that he “hated” the policy of family separation, claiming that it was “the Democrats’ fault,” the repercussion of a do-nothing Congress. In reality, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush separated migrant children from their parents as a standard practice. There is no law or settlement that requires detained families to be broken up, and the general legal consensus was that if Trump were being honest—if family separation had actually been an unwanted, pre-existing policy—he could have ended it, overnight, “with a phone call.”
As usual, executive dissimulation instigated bizarre performances lower down the chain of command: On June 18, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held an extraordinary press conference in which she denied the existence of an official family-separation policy while simultaneously arguing for its legitimacy. Nielsen’s denials were particularly astonishing as two months before her press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced—publicly and on camera—the instigation of family separation as a deterrent to improper border crossings. In fact, the DHS had already published guidelines explaining the system of family separation and admitted to detaining approximately 2,000 migrant children. The truth was that the institution of a heartless, zero-tolerance border policy was a calculated effort led by administration strategist Stephen Miller, who was also a key architect of the travel ban in 2017. Writing for The Atlantic, McKay Koppins characterizes Miller’s push for this policy as overtly xenophobic and intentionally inhumane, designed to appeal to Trump’s base while also sowing chaos among his opponents.
To our nation’s credit, outrage was abundant and came from all corners. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that family separation was “disgraceful.” Laura Bush wrote that the policy was “cruel” and that it broke her heart. Even former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described the policy as “inhumane” and “atrocious.” Governors from eight states announced they would withdraw or deny National Guard troops previously promised to help secure the Southwest border. Even Ivanka Trump, who has yet to be accused of hypersensitivity, allegedly asked her father to change course on family separations at the border. Condemnation also came from both houses of Congress, with Senate Republicans vowing to end family separations if Trump did not. On June 20, after repeatedly claiming that only Congress could end family separations at the border, Trump reversed course, signing an executive order that would ostensibly keep migrant families together during future detentions. Technically, this order allowed family separations to continue as a discretionary practice, until the ACLU brought a lawsuit before Judge Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, who issued an injunction that temporarily halted family separations and required all separated migrant children be reunited with their parents within 30 days—a requirement that was not met.
As far as steps down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism go, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy has been significant. Nearly 3,000 migrant children were traumatically separated from their parents, with some flown across the country. In Texas, children were routed to a detention facility in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville and a tent-city detention center near the border station in Tornillo—where summertime temperatures regularly approach 100 F. Some migrant children and babies were kept in cages—a term the administration resisted but could not deny, just as the smiling image of Donald Trump in the converted Walmart cannot be reasonably considered anything other than gloating propaganda.
For many migrants, significant emotional and psychological damage has already been done. Recently, dozens of female migrants in a Seattle-area detention facility were separated from their children, having to endure hearing them crying through the walls. One such detainee informed U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal that she told a Border Patrol agent she wanted to see her children, to which the agent replied, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here.” That same week, a Honduran man named Marco Antonio Muñoz, who had been separated from his wife and toddler after crossing the Southwest border, hanged himself in his Texas holding cell.
Not only has the executive branch of this government launched an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the family; they have simultaneously begun work to erode the permanence of citizenship, through a process of “denaturalization”—an action not attempted since the paranoid 1950s of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. This would transfer the authority to strip citizenship from the court system to law enforcement agencies, such as DHS, or ICE, who would presumably go looking for naturalized Americans who may have misrepresented themselves in some way during their application for citizenship. This situation would subject naturalized citizens to the paranoia and potential exploitation of an East German-like police state, in which they are under warrantless surveillance, threatened by informants, and potentially expugnable for nothing more heinous than a paperwork error. Simultaneously, conservatives such as Tucker Carlson have argued for a referendum on birthright citizenship, the foundation of the equality Americans purport to enjoy. This fits with the administration’s pattern of using diverse methodologies to thwart and rescind legal and illegal residency alike, in what has increasingly come to look like a new front in the multi-pronged effort to alter the racial and cultural demographics of the electorate. This, too, conforms to the genre of dystopia: the existence of a large and oppressed underclass living adjacent to privileged elites, who are sometimes floored to learn that not everyone perceives the status quo as the next-best thing to a true utopia.
If given even tacit approval, policies like separating families at the border will lead to an open season on immigrants—legal residents and undocumented migrants alike—as well as millions of other natural and naturalized citizens who are not both white and perfectly fluent in English. We will see an emboldened expansion of unconstitutional checkpoints at places like airports and bus depots. We will see the normalization of racial profiling. Our children will see their friends taken out of school without warning. They will be disappeared.
But if we’ve read our dystopian literature, we are prepared. To a degree, we are insulated. We can understand this moment in history, and how comforting it must feel to curl up inside the illusory sense of security offered by an impenetrable border, or a leader who boldly intones our weaker ideas and more shameful suspicions, or some fatuous, utopian aphorism about making a nation great again. We will remind ourselves and each other what is at stake. We will remember that the only thing we need to know about utopia is that nobody actually lives there.
Image: Flickr/Karen Roe
Science fiction often presents two nightmare visions of the future: one when the world has ended, and one when the world hasn’t, where “progress”—technological, typically—determinedly continues, for better but mostly worse. Whichever you find least frightening probably depends on your faith that humanity will make the right decisions when it has to, like deciding not to implant computers inside our brains or outsource our fate to algorithms. Sometimes, the world ending isn’t the worst thing in the, well, world.
The world ends twice in Nick Clark Windo’s new dystopian science fiction novel, The Feed. It ends first as society destroys itself, anonymous hackers wreaking havoc with the titular technology—the Feeds implanted inside (mostly) everyone’s brains. It ends again as society destroys the planet, exorbitant energy consumption—to power the Feeds—turning Earth into an inhospitable oven. Windo is most interested in these doomsdays and their aftermaths; how we get there, less so.
The Feed opens on the precipice of the first apocalypse. The Feed, for a moment, remains functional. Essentially a smartphone embedded inside the skull, the Feed provides an intracranial stream of information, content, and communication. Targeted advertisements appear behind your eyes based on fleeting emotions and the people around you. The Feed measures everything from your hormone levels to the revolutions of a looter’s heaved rock, and presents the world in an onslaught of personalized metrics. Memories are stored in the cloud and shared with others as virtual reality-esque sensory experiences. People let out “unintended real laughs” instead of LOLs. It’s the Internet, but if mainlined directly into a person’s consciousness.
Tom and Kate Hatfield, The Feed’s protagonists, sit in an upscale restaurant, going “slow.” They’ve turned off their Feeds for the evening, fighting addiction to the technology in their brains. A short while into dinner, the restaurant’s patrons panic as their Feeds are bombarded with videos of the U.S. president’s assassination—along with a helpful link showing where to purchase the sweater he’s wearing for yourself, hopefully without the bloodstains. Chaos ensues as people are “taken” in their sleep. With the Feed, getting hacked means being totally erased from your own body, like a wiped hard-drive. No one knows if the people inside their brothers, sisters, fathers are actually who they claim to be. More assassinations follow, perpetrated by the presumed taken. Society and the Feed quickly collapse.
Six years later, the remnants of humanity—those who didn’t kill themselves in the void left behind by the Feed’s absence—live in camps. Food is scarce, and electricity is nonexistent. Without the instantaneous access to information provided by the Feed, people have forgotten common words and rudimentary concepts of how the world works. They have to relearn how to use their brains, how to create memories, and Windo illustrates the struggle with computer terminology: brains “stall” and “judder,” feeling for the Feed like a ghost limb.
Eventually, the plot of The Feed stirs into motion. Tom and Kate’s daughter is kidnapped, and they must traverse their hollowed-out world to find her. What follows is fairly typical post-apocalyptic fare. There are cars overgrown with vegetation and foxes chewing on bones, run-ins with mysterious fellow survivors. Time travel is brought into the mix, and, subsequently, parallel dimensions. The Feed provides a rather literal deus ex machina.
Windo’s novel focuses most of its attention on this apocalypse the technology has wrought, rather than the technology itself. In The Feed, the nightmare is in the ending: the destruction of the Feed, those left grappling with the gaping hole it has left in their minds. The central question of The Feed is how to survive without it.
In a different novel with the same technological premise, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, published in 2002 with a Sean Parker-approved title, the question is how to survive with it. The technology is generally the same as Windo’s—ceaseless ads and lowest common denominator content beamed into the brain—presented in a satirical young adult novel narrated by a teenager named Titus, because Anderson understands that a generation’s technology is best experienced with teens as tour guides. The world of Feed is ruthlessly commercial: one character is described as the “little economy model” of another, suburban chain restaurants have made it all the way to the moon, and Schools™ have been taken over by corporations because it “sounds completely like, Nazi, to have the government running the schools.” In Feed, unlike in Windo’s novel, the Feed is very much working as intended.
Anderson’s satire is not always the most nuanced, but then again, neither is the world he is roasting—even less so 16 years later. In flashes of news stories intermixed with commercials, environmental disaster is ignored while the president defends big business and—as if Anderson had a premonition of the current POTUS—publicly debates the meaning of the term “shithead.” What makes Feed compelling, however, is when it reveals the future our data-addicted present portends.
We see that present in Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, a bestseller in 2016 that details how big data and its algorithmic tendrils already “encod[e] human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias” and “punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.” O’Neil works industry by industry to reveal how digital advertisers see consumers begging for targeted ads, how for-profit colleges use data to set up the most desperate students with predatory loans, and how companies use unregulated “e-scores” as a stand-in for job applicants’ employability. The data-driven programs and products O’Neil investigates “deliver unflinching verdicts, and the human beings employing them can only shrug.” Just take a look at the social credit scores already introduced in China that rank individuals’ eligibility for loans and dating apps. In 2018, your data is your fate.
Titus is the narrator of Feed, but the novel’s true protagonist is his girlfriend, Violet. She spends the book torn between resisting the Feed’s influence and succumbing to its pleasures, and ultimately suffers the fate that O’Neil shows us is not a far-fetched science fiction. Violet was implanted with the Feed as a young child—still late for her generation—because her reluctant father knew it was an economic necessity, that she would need to be a consumer to get a job. But her father could only afford the cheaper model, and so when Violet and the others are hacked (in a nightclub on the moon), it’s Violet’s feed that begins to malfunction, taking her brain with it. Feed follows as Violet deteriorates, losing control of her body.
Violet is left with one option: appeal to the megacorporations that dominate the world of Feed for surgical repairs that will save her life. But she has spent the novel “trying to create a customer profile that’s so screwed, no one can market to it.” She attempts, as John Herrman recently suggests in The New York Times Magazine, to “fool our algorithmic spies.” Herrman writes of the “intentionally deceptive,” antagonistic actions we take prompted by the knowledge of big data’s omniscience. This knowledge prompts Violet to browse for a disparate collection of products, never purchasing. She purposely eludes the Feed’s gaze, and this rebellion condemns her to death. Her request to the Feed’s conglomerates is denied, as explained by the Feed’s bot-like avatar, Nina:
Unfortunately FeedTech and other investors reviewed your purchasing history, and we don’t feel that you would be a reliable investment at this time. No one could get what we call a ‘handle’ on your shopping habits.
Instead, Nina suggests checking out “some of the great bargains available to you through the feednet,” telling Violet, “we might be able to create a consumer portrait of you that would interest our investment team.” The Feed’s answer for Violet is to become a better kind of consumer to survive.
It sounds a bit maudlin, but is it so different from the GoFundMe version of healthcare that has become so popular, where life-saving care depends on your virality? Only for Anderson, it’s faceless corporations we have to impress for medical care, rather than our fellow Internet users. This is the future Feed presents to us and O’Neil sees breathing down our necks: consumerism not as self-actualization, but as self-preservation.
Like the world of Anderson’s novel, The Feed is most interesting when providing glimpses of its pre-apocalyptic backstory. We see a world populated by QR codes that personalize each and every product to a person, while there are references to continental water wars and environmental decay. Post-collapse, Tom laments how people let technology “evolve faster than their morals could keep up,” their belief that “when self-preservation kicked in, when business and survival meshed…[that it] was just a question of when that solution would be found” to keep the Feed in check. In an early scene, Tom comes upon what once was a warehouse of memory servers, and another character reminds him, “these are people”—with a person’s essence stored on a microchip, Windo literalizes the idea of people as the sum of their data. The Feed ultimately hinges on an exploration of whether or not this is true, whether or not identity is the corporeal form we inhabit or the data—emotional, behavioral—we produce. In Weapons, O’Neil shows us how that question has largely already been resolved in the affirmative for big data.
In both Feed and The Feed, big data offers the possibility of salvation: a chance to rewrite the past, treatment for an otherwise terminal fate. In both novels, salvation is denied and devastation comes while waiting for the benevolence of the corporations behind the algorithms and content. The lesson, then, is clear: Don’t wait. (Although it’s perhaps too late for Windo to follow his own advice, as The Feed has already been sold to Amazon as a television series.) But Windo makes the drama of The Feed intensely personal. Tom’s father invented the Feed, and so our narrator is the son of Zuckerberg or Bezos; he’s resisting his family legacy. Tom plays a personal part in the time-shattering twist that comes mid-book. The characters of Feed, in contrast, are commonplace. They’re any of Facebook’s billion users, any of the millions of Amazon Prime subscribers—people just trying to be the right kind of consumers. In this way, Feed is more immediate. It’s easier to imagine ourselves binge-buying pants online as consolation than ransacking our way to the penthouse apartment of the Feed’s CEO in search of time-travel-assisted resolution.
Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death provides the two ways, as he puts it, “culture may be shriveled.” There’s the fate of George Orwell’s 1984, where “culture becomes a prison,” or the fate of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where “culture becomes a burlesque.” Postman published Amusing in 1985, before technology remade our cultural landscape yet again, into the world O’Neil’s Weapons shows us. Now, there seems to be a third option: culture as math problem, stores of data and finely tuned algorithms dictating what we see, what we do, and what we are. “The only thing worse than the thought it may all come tumbling down is the thought that we may go on like this forever,” Violet says in Feed. It’s both teenage melodrama and science fiction dichotomy: The Feed finds horror in the former, Feed the latter. As for the rest of us—well, I’m sure there’s an algorithm to sort that out.
Over the past few months, bookstores have seen a spike in the sale of dystopian novels. George Orwell’s 1984 reached the top of Amazon’s bestseller list in January, followed soon after by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Predictably, this news was fox chased by trend piece writers — who then became the target of protesting think piece writers: “Forget Nineteen Eighty-Four. These five dystopias better reflect Trump’s US” shouted one; “Grave New World: Why “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is not the book we need in the Trump era,” claimed another.
Meanwhile, away from the mud and scrum, in the hothouse of independent publishing, French author Antoine Volodine’s eighth book in English translation, Radiant Terminus, was released by Open Letter. Deftly translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, it’s the first major apocalyptic novel to come out in a year stacked with books in the genre, notably Omar El Akkad’s American War and David Williams’s When the English Fall.
As with most titles without big marketing budgets, Radiant Terminus may struggle to find its way into popular discourse. This is a shame. Not just because it’s the most stylistically courageous, entertaining dystopian novel in recent memory, but because of all possible scenarios leading to our cataclysmic end, the one imagined by Volodine might be among the timeliest. Rather than caused by the direct result of aggression, he envisions the world ruined by a bright idea.
Far in the future — keep following, this shouldn’t take more than a minute — engineers of the Second Soviet Union beat warheads into sizzling fuel rods, transforming their planet into a hive of energy self-sufficient cities, resource extraction centers, and prison camps, each powered by a nuclear reactor. But after generations of implied slack and harmony, the reactors fail, a cascade of nuclear meltdowns follow, and this “project of the century,” born of the purest egalitarian spirit, collapses society. Entire continents become uninhabitable. Dog-headed fascists lunge from their dens. Counter-revolutionary armies raze oblast after irradiated oblast.
It’s here that Radiant Termius begins. And where the fun begins.
Narrowly escaping the fall of the last fortified city, comrade-soldier Kronauer flees into the Siberian taiga. In scenes evoking visions of present-day Chernobyl — birch roots wedging cracks in irradiated concrete, atomic heaps steaming under evergreen canopies — he seeks help from a settlement believed to be across the steppe, within a dark wood.
As if stumbling into a folk tale dreamt by Strugatsky Brothers, the crippled kolkhoz that Kronauer enters is nuclear-powered yet primordial, existing in a fabulist realm between dreams and reality. This community of “Radiant Terminus,” whence the book gets its title, is led by the monstrous Solovyei, “a gigantic muzhik in his Sunday best, with a beard and a wreath of hair sticking out here and there as if run through by an electrical current.” Unfortunately for Kronauer and all those who meet him, Solovyei is a jealous giant, a twisted psychic tyrant. In the words of one victim:
Nobody was permitted to exist in the kolkhoz unless he’d gotten control over them in the heart of their dreams. No one was allowed to struggle in his or her own future unless he was part of it and directing it as he wished.
Rather than fell Kronauer with his axe, Solovyei makes him a prisoner of the communal farm. Expected to work on pain of being cast as a drain on socialist society, Kronauer meets Radiant Terminus’ residents: Solovyei’s three grown daughters, all prey to their father’s incestuous, oneiric violations; a handful of shambling proles; and Gramma Ugdul, the witchy keeper of a radioactive well, two kilometers deep, at the bottom of which lies a reactor in eternal meltdown. Together they join in the endless labor of gathering and “liquidating” irradiated items by hurling them down Ugdul’s abyss.
The book’s heroic narrative progresses with dreamlike logic, leading, as most would expect, to an almost unbearably tense confrontation between Kronauer and Solovyei. What results isn’t an end. Instead, it precipitates a pivot in the narrative — or, better described: a concussive break of the central narrative, cracking the skull of the story, opening a consciousness unable to differentiate between nightmares and waking life, declamations and ramblings, physics and shamanism, she and they, he or I.
If this all seems odd, it is — in the best sense. Part of the joy of the book is the playful seriousness with which Volodine goes about his world building; another is spotting his influences. Samuel Beckett is clearly one. So are the aforementioned Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, perhaps best known for their 1971 sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, adapted into the feature film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. The nightmarish, irradiated atmosphere of that world — a world in which the most terrifying perils lie unseen, often imperceptible — is reflected in Volodine’s. So too are other fantastic elements, including Solovyei’s psychic projections.
In Radiant Terminus, what Volodine brings to the French — and now, through Zuckerman, to the English — is perspective on a genre that’s refreshingly distinct from the two or three upsetting novels America read in high school. Unlike 1984 or Brave New World, he evokes a post-urban dystopia — a communal, agrarian dystopia, slowly receding into an apocalypse of open steppes and endless woodland. This may seem unprecedented, but not within the Russian tradition.
After witnessing the Terror Famine of 1932 and 1933, Andrey Platonov wrote The Foundation Pit, a brilliant short novel brought to English by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson in 2009. Unpublished in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, it follows a team of rural workers tasked with excavating the foundation of an unimaginably brilliant edifice, a “future building for the proletariat.” With little prospect of seeing the project realized, they spade deeper into the clay, oblivious to the pit’s semblance to a mass grave. Meanwhile, in the village where the workers are barracked, an activist hurries along the process of total collectivization — culminating with the gathering and liquidation of the region’s kulaks.
The satiric atmosphere of The Foundation Pit is so toxic with jargon and slogans that the prose itself mutates; description becomes sooty with language from official mouthpieces: “Most likely the rooks felt like departing ahead of time,” the narrator muses as a worker scans the sky, “in order to survive the organization collective-farm autumn in some sunny region and return later to a universal institutionalized calm.” In Radiant Terminus, Solovyei’s psychic intrusion into his subjects’ minds, his joy at “walking supreme throughout [their dreams]” seems only a fantastic reframing of what Platonov’s diggers experience when they return to their barracks, “furnished with a radio … so that during the time of rest each of them might acquire meaning of mass life”:
This oppressed despair of soul from the radio was sometimes more than Zhachev could endure, and, amid the noise of consciousness pouring from the loudspeaker, he would shout out: “Stop that sound! Let me reply to it!”
Adopting his graceful gait, Safronov would immediately advance forward.
“Comrade Zhachev, that’s more than enough…It’s time to subordinate yourself entirely to the directive work of the leadership.”
This same imperative hits Kronauer when he first steps into the boundary of Radiant Terminus, halting at the sound of a piercing whistle. Hands over his ears, he looks to his guide, one of Solovyei’s subordinated daughters.
Her eyes were obstinately focused on the tips of her boots, as if she didn’t want to watch what was happening.
—It’s nothing, she said finally. We’re in one of Solovyei’s dreams. He’s not happy that you’re here with me.
Kronauer walked up to Samiya Schmidt and looked at her, aghast. He kept his ears covered and he found it necessary to talk loudly to make himself heard.
Within the communities of both novels, truth is subservient to the barreling pace of activity: neither Solovyei nor the unseen spirit of Stalin would pause to consider the objection to a posited statement: in company, with frenetic movement and reprisals, they act as their will dictates; in seclusion, behind doors barred to dissent, they recuse themselves from question. Unlike the urban 1984 and Brave New World, where rigid control is needed to maintain the hard science fiction of the state, the rural setting of these two microcosmic dystopias can tolerate facts that counter its leaders. They’re simply ignored or dismissed, brushed away by hapless followers. Existing within a cycle of work and days, the power of these tyrants becomes as intemperate and natural to them as the weather — even, to some, as entertaining.
All considered, it wouldn’t be wrong to view the kolkhoz of Radiant Terminus as reconstruction of the village of The Foundation Pit. Stolen from the Russian, charged with psychosis, radiation, and incest, Volodine rebuilt it slat by slat, hut by hut, within a darker world.
In his foreword to the novel, Brian Evanson reminds us that Radiant Terminus is just one book in a forty-nine volume set that, when complete, will form Volodine’s ambitious, interconnected “post-exoticist” project. “One of the key features of [his] work,” Evanson explains, “comes in the echoes that operate both within individual books and between books.” Certainly, within the book’s last quarter, these echoes rebound — becoming as taxing on the reader as they are to Volodine’s characters:
—It’s just repetition, Noumak Ashariyev insisted. It’s hell.
—It’s not just hell, Matthias Boyol corrected. It’s more that we’re within a dream that we can’t understand the mechanisms of. We’re inside, and we don’t have any way of getting out.
Long after the point is taken, the book persists, nearly to the point of page-flipping exhaustion — the same exhaustion that meets every reader of Bouvard and Pécuchet — but it would be cruel to dismiss Radiant Terminus on this charge.
In truth, to be fair — what other conclusion could we expect? “Death occurs,” John Berger wrote, “when life has no scrap to defend.”
At the end of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, as either implied by or explicitly stated in their respective appendices, future academics discover the texts or recordings that form the books’ core narratives. But in Radiant Terminus, in a future irreversibly collapsed from the start, there are no academics — only snow, steppes, a shamble of survivors, “existences wasted and millennia gone for nothing.” Without the ability to rebuild civilization, the novel, its world, and its world’s inhabitants lose common language and temporality: overcast months become years, years become decades, decades become “one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six years or more.” As humanity atomizes and recedes, surrounded by Platonov’s “universal enduring existence,” its narrative deltas into a frozen sea.
As Ben Ehrenreich wrote in his exploration of Volodine’s “post-exoticist” project for The Nation, “this, you’ll remember, is literature of defeat”; Radiant Terminus offers nothing in the way of hope. But perhaps an injection of French pessimism is warranted — overdue for those who still assume the spirit of humanism to be indomitable. Volodine reminds us of a truth we can easily forget, distracted, as we often are, by the luxuries of technology and moral outrage: namely, that the civilization we’ve inherited is an heirloom so terribly precious, at risk of shattering into one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six irreparable pieces, yet in constant motion — passed and plundered from generation to generation, hand to shaking hand. At the height of the Cold War, in his speech to the Swedish Academy, Solzhenitsyn claimed that the massive upheaval of Western society is “approaching that point beyond which the system becomes metastable and must fall.” Over the decades that followed, most considered his prediction delusional. Today, to many, it seems less so.
Future scholars may agree or disagree, but only in the chance they exist. As Radiant Terminus demonstrates, Kafka’s axe — the axe of a book that can split the frozen sea — is useless without the knowledge to wield it as a tool. Present circumstances considered, the thought alone makes Orwell and Atwood seem cheery.
On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure:
It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
When someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered.
But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books.
After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time — after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today — consumerism, consumption — and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example.
In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley’s own interest in “reform eugenics” at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book — one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers). Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel — and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint — they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power.
I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves — these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor.
There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study.
We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term.
Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline — the “savage meeting civilization” — that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre — what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification — Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.”
Satire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins:
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.
Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children…he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.”
I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort — it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel.
So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance — that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed — and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy — that which brought Donald Trump to the White House — at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it.
People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.
I’ve always loved recommending books to people. At parties, I’ve been known to hold hostages in front of my bookshelves. I have, however, always preferred to let the books speak for themselves. I like sharing passages more than impressions, and I think that’s the best route to take.
I read some great books in 2011. Below, I’d like to share some with you. Think of this as me standing in front of my bookshelf, pulling out some titles as I ramble on, and then opening to pages I think you should read. Don’t worry. I’ll hold your drink.
The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich — A book that grew in my mind after I finished it. I remember opening my mouth a lot as I read it, nodding unconsciously, losing focus on the narrative to admire the prose. To read Krilanovich’s book is to be hypnotized. Now, months later, I recall bits of phrases, such as how one drug-addled punk’s eyebrows fluttered and raised like a manic toilet flusher. That’s the language she used.
Excerpt: Our town is doomed. We’re just hanging out waiting till it turns into the next thing, then we’ll go to sleep. Just build your shit around us, we’ll only go out at night anyway… The town slipped in and out of consciousness, depending on where you went. All the little twigs scraped at the ground like lace fans spread at the sun.
Buckdancer’s Choice, James Dickey — Dickey’s best known work is the film adaptation of Deliverance. In particular, his best known work is that one scene from Deliverance. Less known but nonetheless incredible is the man’s verse. A true American master, Southern or otherwise. These poems will inhabit you, and you’ll return to them often, and be better for it.
Excerpt from “The Firebombing”:
But in this half-paid-for pantry
Among the red lids that screw off
With an easy half-twist to the left
And the long drawers crammed with dim spoons,
I still have charge — secret charge—
Of the fire developed to cling
To everything: to golf carts and fingernail
Scissors as yet unborn tennis shoes
Grocery baskets toy fire engines
New Buicks stalled by the half-moon
Shining at midnight on crossroads green paint
Of jolly garden tools red Christmas ribbons:
Not atoms, these, but glue inspired
By love of country to burn,
The apotheosis of gelatin.
The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley — Everyone knows Brave New World, but few have read Huxley’s historical nonfiction. Primarily about a French Jesuit priest’s sex scandal turned witch hunt turned public execution, The Devils of Loudun is also an interesting glimpse into Huxley’s ruminations on religion and mysticism before he experimented with mescaline. The work he wrote immediately after this one was The Doors of Perception, and you can see the beginnings of those thoughts here.
Excerpt: Sex can be used either for self-affirmation or for self-transcendence — either to intensify the ego and consolidate the social persona by some kind of conspicuous “embarkation” and heroic conquest, or else to annihilate the persona and transcend the ego in an obscure rapture of sensuality, a frenzy of romantic passion or, more credibly, in the mutual charity of the perfect marriage.
If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino — This book will hurt your head in the best way possible.
Excerpt: You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
The Avian Gospels, Adam Novy — A man and his son can control birds. A judge is out to get them. War is perennial. If you’ve watched this video of a murmuration of starlings, you understand the beauty of bird swarms. If you read the book’s opening passage, you’ll want to read more.
Excerpt: So many buildings had already been destroyed, the solitary walls like ruins submerged in flames, the city like an ocean of flames. Circles of maniacs prayed in the middle of the streets, and flapped their arms like birds. Teenage conscripts lay trapped beneath rubble, crying for their mothers, while comrades tried to get them out. Cats hauled their kittens through the ruins, and vultures swooped to seize them; a donkey gave birth inside a restaurant where dogs sipped at puddles of champagne, and cut their paws on broken bottles. Explosions shook the Earth; Katherine hardly kept her balance. Cobblestones zoomed past her head. A girl tried to carry a newborn foal on her back. Whoever won the war would rule ruins, be the king of stones and buzzards. Fires hurled themselves against the sky, as if in rapture, the city a cathedral of flame, flames like penitents to the sky. An elderly man thought his beard was in flames, and slapped at his face as he ran, calling, It burns! It burns! Men writhed on spears which had been rammed into the ground in perfect rows, a field of pain. Women carried infants like footballs. Birds choked on smoke and died mid-flight, raining in a deathstorm.
Blood-Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, John Jeremiah Sullivan — When I read the much-deserved hype pieces about Pulphead, I was disappointed by their failure to mention this book. Blood-Horses is, like most of Sullivan’s writing, a memoir that feels like it’s about you. It’s about horses, yes, but it’s also about a young man and his father, about the concept of bloodlines, and about the pursuit of beauty and perfection in the natural world.
Excerpt: There is a passage on the tape [of Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont win] that I noticed only after watching it dozens of times. It occurs near the end of the race. The cameraman has zoomed up pretty close on Secretariat, leaving the lens just wide enough to capture the horse and a few feet of track. Then, about half a furlong before the wire (it is hard to tell), the camera inexplicably stops tracking the race and holds still. Secretariat rockets out of the frame, leaving the screen blank, or rather filled with empty track. I timed this emptiness — the space between Secretariat exiting and Twice a Prince entering the image — with my watch. It lasts seven seconds. And somehow each of these seconds says more about what made Secretariat great than any shot of him in motion could. In the history of profound absences — the gaps in Sappho’s fragments, Christ’s tomb, the black panels of Rothko’s chapel — this is among the most beautiful.
Packing For Mars, Mary Roach — I’m a sucker for well-written science books. Susan Casey’s The Devil’s Teeth explained scientific fact in a way I could grasp: she has a line about sharks predating trees. Roach writes like she taught Casey everything she knows. This book was a delight.
Excerpt: You never think about the weight of your organs inside you. Your heart is a half-pound clapper hanging off the end of your aorta. Your arms burden your shoulders like buckets on a yoke. The colon uses the uterus as a beanbag chair. Even the weight of your hair imparts a sensation on your scalp. In weightlessness, all this disappears. Your organs float inside your torso. The result is a subtle physical euphoria, an indescribable sense of being freed from something you did not realize was there.
Orientation and Other Stories, Daniel Orozco — I wanted to dislike this book. I always feel cheated when a publisher releases a collection of stories I’ve read before, and I feel doubly cheated when the author is mostly famous for a single story he wrote more than a decade ago. (“Orientation,” by the way, is only the second most depressing thing about office life I read this year. Early in January, I found Theodore Roethke’s “Dolor.”) The point is that I went into this book hating it. I was proven so, so wrong. Read “Shakers” and you’ll know why.
Excerpt: When they hit, rats and snakes hightail it out of their burrows. Ants break single-file ranks and scatter blind, and flies roil off garbage bins in shimmering clouds. On the Point Reyes Peninsula, milk cows bust out of feed sheds and bolt for open pasture. Inside aquariums in dentist offices and Chinese restaurants and third-grade classrooms, fish huddle in the corners of their tanks, still as photos of huddled fish. Inside houses built on the alluvial soils of the Sacramento Delta, cockroaches swarm from behind walls, pouring like cornflakes out of kitchen cabinetry and rising in tides from beneath sinks and tubs and shower stalls. Crows go mute. Squirrels play possum. Cats awaken from naps. Dogs guilty of nothing peer guiltily at their masters. Pigeons and starlings clatter fretfully on the eaves and cornices of buildings, then rise en masse and wheel away in spectacular rollercoaster swoops…
Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, Philip Connors — Reading this book was an exercise in personal restraint. Resisting the urge to read too rapidly, as I wanted to savor the experience. Restraining my jealousy for Connors’ apparently marvelous life. Resisting the urge to drop what I was doing, pack my bags, hit the Gila Forest, and embark on a career in fire watching.
Excerpt: As in Frisbee golf, so in hiking: the movements of my limbs help my mind move too, out of its loops and grooves and onto a plane of equipoise. I have been followed all my life, in the chaos of my thoughts, by a string of words: song lyrics, nonsense phrases, snatches of remembered conversation, their repetition a kind of manic incantation, a logorrhea in the mind, and all of them intermingled with sermons and soliloquies– the spontaneous talker weaving his repetitive spell. At other times, tired of words themselves but intrigued by their internal mechanics, I find myself unconsciously counting syllables in sentences, marking each one by squeezing the toes on first my right foot, then my left, back and forth in order to discern whether the final tally is an even or an odd number. (Eighty. Even.)
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov — This book is one everyone knows but few have actually read. (Moby-Dick is the exemplar of this type.) I’m actually glad I put off reading this one for as long as I did. I feel like its significance was built up so high– my expectations were built up so high — that when the book met and exceeded all of these things, it was all the more impressive. Much is said about Nabokov’s linguistic acrobatics, and his artistry is a highlight of this book, but less is said about Nabokov’s ability to wax terrifying and then suddenly hysterical within a few pages. This book is wickedly funny, but it’s also just wicked.
Excerpt: We came to know the curious roadside species, Hitchhiking Man, Homo pollex of science, with all its many sub-species and forms: the modest soldier, spic and span, quietly waiting, quietly conscious of khaki’s viatic appeal; the schoolboy wishing to go two blocks; the killer wishing to go two thousand miles; the mysterious, nervous, elderly gent, with brand-new suitcase and clipped mustache; a trio of optimistic Mexicans; the college student displaying the grime of vacational outdoor work as proudly as the name of the famous college arching across the front of his sweatshirt; the desperate lady whose battery has just died on her; the clean-cut, glossy-haired, shifty-eyed, white-faced young beasts in loud shirts and coats, vigorously, almost priapically thrusting out tense thumbs to tempt loose women or sad-sack salesmen with fancy cravings.
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Danger on Vampire Trail. This was the first Hardy Boys book I ever read. I believe I was in second grade when my next-door neighbor and I each decided to read one of the blue-spined mysteries that sat on his older brother’s shelf. The books were remnants of the older brother’s grade-school reading, I suppose, which he had never bothered to remove from his walls and pile into boxes in the basement (or sell for a dime apiece at a garage sale, or foist off on Goodwill, or trade in for Tom Clancy novels at the used book store), being altogether too engrossed in programming his Atari 800 computer, and other important high school things that would certainly never involve the brothers Hardy. He had apparently never become terribly interested in Frank and Joe, even in his pre-Atari days; he had only five or six Hardy Boys books and—embarrassingly—a few assorted Bobbsey Twins adventures. I could never understand why he had these facile, yellow-spined things with unarresting titles like “Mystery at the Seaside” or “The Missing Pony.” In fact, I could not fathom who would be at all interested in the series, which seemed to be merely the Hardy Boys, Jr., a concept which had no place in the cosmos occupied by both the Hardy brothers and Nancy Drew. The Hardys were for boys, Nancy for girls; for whom were the Bobbseys meant? Preschoolers? Maybe. But unsurprisingly, the name of the “author” of this doomed series escapes my memory, while the names Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene come promptly to mind.
These authors’ names relate to an important benchmark in any Hardy or Drew fan’s reading life. It took me four years or so before I finally admitted to myself that neither Mr. Dixon nor Ms. Keene were real people, that in fact the eighty or so adventures of Bayport’s finest (eighty death-defying adventures crammed impossibly into Frank and Joe’s high school years) were not all written by the same person. The single-author theory seemed entirely plausible at first, when my experience with the Boys encompassed only a few books which, though somewhat dated, still contained copyright dates in the 1960s. Mr. Dixon, then, was an aging but still prolific man, who perhaps got up early every morning at his home on the east coast (yes, that seemed right—he should be able to look out at the ocean while orchestrating Frank and Joe’s escape from an elaborate death trap in Egypt, a locked magician’s box in Scotland, a tiger in India) to write five chapters or so. My faith began to crumble, however, as I checked out older editions of the books from my grade school resource room, editions with yellowing paper, which lacked the familiar blue spines and were bound instead in beige covers with brown lettering and, on the front cover, an iconic silhouette of two Hardy Boy-ish figures crouching with flashlights, a sad substitute for the exciting, customized illustrations that graced the newer editions. These editions contained even more outdated language than the blue-spines, using passé terms for African Americans that seemed to place the stories in the 1930s. Indeed, a glance at the copyright page confirmed this estimation.
The single-F. W. Dixon theory was seeming less likely. Even if he had begun writing the mysteries at the age of 20, the secretive (there was never an “about the author” at the end of the books) Dixon would still be in his seventies, much too old to be writing at the rate at which the Hardy novels were churned out. Finally, I came to the uneasy conclusion that there may have once been a real Dixon in the ’20s or ’30s, but he had since passed away, and his series had been edited, updated, and continued by a panel of ghostwriters at Simon & Schuster (I threw out theories which included a single ghostwriter or a Franklin Jr. carrying on his father’s tradition) who used the pseudonym for any number of reasons: to preserve the continuity of the series for youngsters who would be wary of a Hardy Boys tale told by Brian Reynolds or Suresh Desai, or to ensure that all Hardy Boys books would be shelved together in both library and bookstore, rather than scattered about by zealous alphabetizers.
With this decision (this all took place long before the current era in which one can merely Google Dixon’s name and learn that he was never anything but a pseudonym) I passed into a more mature appreciation of the series. I recognized that I was in some way being deceived, but I accepted the deception, as the theater-goer accepts the deception that what he or she sees on stage is real; I knew that there was no wizened Hardy patriarch writing the books somewhere on a misty coast; I knew they were most likely written by some guy in a suit and tie in a cubicle in a glass office tower, or maybe by a team of such people, brainstorming about where the next book should be set, about what should be stolen or who should be kidnapped. I knew this, but it didn’t really matter, and I didn’t think about it too often, aside from the occasional reverie about what it would be like to write Hardy Boys novels myself (and never getting credit for it). It might not be that bad as a career. Though creativity would be somewhat stifled by the formulas that must be employed in writing the books, it would still be rewarding to see my own episodes sitting in a line with all of the others (I could look at a shelf in the bookstore and say, “I wrote numbers 27, 45, and 78”) and think that maybe at least one of them was the personal favorite of some avid young Hardy reader.
I must say, however, that Danger on Vampire Trail would not be included in my list of personal favorites. I remember nearly nothing of the book, except that it involved vampire bats (though these were not central to the plot; in fact, I think I remember feeling vaguely exploited by Mr. Dixon, who obviously chose an exotic title to invite readership of a book which was in actuality not at all fantastic) and a camping area full of recreational vehicles. This seemed to be the trend among the first set of Hardy Boys novels: exciting titles, intriguing cover art, the promise of an exotic location and the threat of death (clearly an idle threat: I do not recall anyone dying in those blue-spined Hardy adventures, not even villains; though the Hardys may be locked in a trunk in the basement of a burning building, their survival is never in doubt, no matter how many chapters end with “We’re trapped!”)—all designed to lure readers to rather boring, outdated stories probably written several decades earlier (though with this disclaimer on the copyright page: “In this new story, based on the original of the same title, Mr. Dixon has incorporated the most up-to-date methods used by police and private detectives.” But what did that mean? Perhaps a few glaring anachronisms eliminated, or an added chapter in which Frank and Joe dust for fingerprints or reconstruct a suspect’s face using their very own police sketch kit).
To be fair, the trend does not really start until around the tenth installment of the first set of Hardy books. Witness some titles from those first ten: The Tower Treasure, The House on the Cliff, The Shore Road Mystery, The Secret of the Caves. Nothing to falsely arouse a youngster here. These early titles matter-of-factly relate what the story is about; they are not advertisements.
This matter-of-factness disappears with the tenth Hardy mystery. It assails the potential purchaser with the irresistible question of What Happened at Midnight. Like a science fiction novel that propels the reader through 600 closely-printed pages by the promise of a spectacular revelation at the end, #10 impels the reader to purchase or borrow the book to find out what indeed happened at the witching hour. And thus began the titillating tease of the blue-spines. I myself was taken in by #11, While the Clock Ticked, and by its terrifying cover, which depicted the teenaged detectives bound and gagged in a dimly-lit room, straining frantically, sweaty-faced, looking wide-eyed at an insane, white-haired man—presumably their captor—emerging from a secret room behind a grandfather clock. The book was not carried in my local B. Dalton; I ordered it, and my anticipation was almost unbearable the day the store called to tell me it had arrived. Though I finished the book in two days, the normal period required to polish off those unfailingly 170-page-long volumes, it left me disappointed. The details of the story escape me, but the routine was all too familiar: the brothers track down a criminal in Bayport, are placed by the criminal in an unnecessarily elaborate death-trap, but they manage to escape in Chapter XX, just in time for an amusing epilogue and a look ahead to their next case, conveniently plugged like so: “The boys laughed, and gazed up at the huge clock. Silently, they wondered when another case might come their way. Sooner than they expected, they were to find out, when Frank and Joe spotted strange footprints under the window.”
Though I must have read 30 or 40 of the original blue-spined books, not one retains a bright spot in my memory. F. W. Dixon tried his best to innovate and add new elements to the tales. He sent his protagonists to exotic ports-of-call—war-torn Central America in The Mark on the Door, Scotland in The Secret Agent on Flight 101, India in The Bombay Boomerang, Africa in The Mysterious Caravan, and the depths of the Yucatan in The Jungle Pyramid. But no matter where the Hardy siblings traveled, I found their adventures invariably lackluster. Though they may have engaged a pre-teenage boy in the late 1960s or early ’70s, they were hopelessly insufficient to leave me any permanent pleasant memories. I would never stay up until one in the morning reading The Mysterious Caravan.
Happily, however, the executives at Simon & Schuster must have realized the dwindling audience for F. W. Dixon’s original series, and with #59 the Hardy Boys entered a new era. The last of the fifties—Night of the Werewolf—launched the brothers onto a more exciting trajectory. The post-58 bunch, written in the late 1970s and early ’80s, satisfied my desire for a more contemporary thrill, and I soon devoured the entire set. The covers presented Frank and Joe in modern coiffure and wardrobe, though they continued to change their features after each adventure (perhaps to avoid recognition by paroled crooks from past episodes): in #63 the boys appear as trim, intellectual sweater-wearers, while in #64 they wear tight short-sleeved shirts, are shaggy-headed with a hint of hair on their slightly exposed chests; still stranger, in #77 they seem to be neat yuppies out on a company picnic (though an out-of-place tiger growls menacingly from a rock behind them). Perhaps Simon & Schuster hoped to appeal to a wide range of white males and changed the Hardys’ appearances to approximate those of their readers. (I myself had a more definite resemblance: the first name of the elder Hardy sibling.)
Despite the variability of the boys’ appearance, their adventures became consistently entertaining. I still fondly recall such gems as Mystery of Smugglers Cove (#64), which took the Hardys into the backwaters of the Everglades after being wrongly accused of stealing a valuable painting. In the seventy-third Hardy adventure, strange happenings at a local Bayport theater combine with a plot to hold the president of the United States for a Billion Dollar Ransom. Who could forget the snowy intrigue and danger of #78, plainly entitled Cave-In, with a cover depicting the brothers hanging perilously from a cable over a snowy Lake Tahoe slope, a Sno-Cat creeping menacingly towards them? The Four-Headed Dragon actually did keep me up until one in the morning, with its gripping tale of a mysterious mansion in the woods surrounding Bayport, of criminals bent on using a newly-developed laser gun to sever the Alaskan pipeline.
Unlike their predecessors, these new adventures always lived up to the thrills promised by their titles. The Demon’s Den delivered a devilish plot hidden in the placid Canadian timberlands—a diabolical scientist (see the terrifying illustration on page 190) bent on creating a race of supermen to compete in the Olympics for an unnamed eastern European country. These ubermensch, named “Alpha,” “Beta,” and “Omega,” allude to history and literature both: the eugenic schemes of Hitler and the fancies of Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. Clearly the ghostwriters at Simon & Schuster were getting more ambitious. Even titles like The Roaring River Mystery concealed, behind their bland covers, compelling tales of bank robberies and foul play on the white-water rapids of Maine.
But the zenith of the Hardy middle period (for we have not yet come to the final incarnation of the adventures, the sexy “Hardy Boys Casefiles”) came in my favorite of the books: Revenge of the Desert Phantom. Though abnormally brief—only 157 pages and 15 chapters—this book packed in all of the elements which later made the Casefiles so appealing: foreign countries (France, along with a fictional African nation called Zebwa), beautiful foreign heroines (Niki—the daughter of the assassinated leader of Zebwa), villains who had committed murder and were prepared to do it again (previous bad guys, though always vowing, “I’ll get you, Hardys,” never seemed quite serious about it), technology (the book puts the Hardys at the helm of an armored car, called the Rhino, which can also float), and Agatha Christie-like plot twists and surprises (the real assassin turns out to be Akutu, the leader of the loyalist forces). However, at the end of this book we can see the ridiculous direction in which the series is headed; from Chief Collig of the Bayport police the boys receive a van which they will soon equip with surveillance equipment and other gadgetry inappropriate even for the far-fetched Hardy series. The Hardys could never be the Scooby-Doo gang with its Mystery Machine, nor have a Hardymobile in which to pursue criminals. These developments surely offended other Hardy purists as much as they offended me; as the old series wandered off into outer space (literally; in #85, The Skyfire Puzzle, Frank and Joe man a space shuttle flight), a new beginning was clearly needed; the slate needed to be wiped clean.
Before revealing (to those unfamiliar with the first of the Hardy Boys Casefiles: Dead on Target) exactly whose slate was wiped clean, a brief note about the supporting cast of the Hardy adventures. First, the Hardy family: famous father Fenton, the brilliant but frequently absent detective-dad; slender and attractive Laura Hardy (whom one can imagine as an older but no less perky and vivacious Laura Petry from The Dick Van Dyke Show), hardy, hearty Hardy mom, undaunted by the many nights of sleeping alone while Fenton solves crimes in New York City; and lovable Aunt Gertrude, “a stern, angular woman,” Fenton’s spinster sister who often stays at the Hardy home. No matter what dangers the Hardys may encounter, they always have this warm trio to support and love them.
But the Hardys are no homebodies; they have plenty of chums. Perhaps their best friend is stout Chet Morton, a “roly-poly youth who preferred eating to danger,” but who often joins in their adventures and provides comic relief by dropping a bowl of batter on his head, sitting on a pin, or merely driving by in his memorable yellow jalopy. Frank and Joe are friends with the jocks as well (and find time between their many cases to play for Bayport High’s baseball team): lanky, rangy Biff Hooper, tackle on the Bayport High football team, whose heavy fists can always be counted on to assist the Hardys should their adversaries get physical. The Hardys’ diverse group of friends has room for “olive-skinned” Tony Prito, whose father owns a construction company and who himself owns a motorboat called the Napoli, and even for Phil Cohen, a quiet Jew, “dark-haired and slender,” who “enjoyed reading as much as sports.”
Finally, no discussion of the Hardys’ social lives can omit their steadies (though it must be difficult to have a maturing relationship when one’s age remains fixed at seventeen or eighteen, as do Joe and Frank’s, respectively). Fortunately, their girlfriends remain similarly stuck in time. Frank’s favorite date is the blonde, brown-eyed Callie Shaw, and Joe finds himself hopelessly devoted to the “vivacious, dark-haired” Iola Morton, slimmer sister of Chet. These girls appear in the early stages of an occasional Hardy adventure, just long enough to participate in a beach party or barbecue, perhaps make an insightful comment or two (blushing as they do so), but infrequently enough to imply anything more than chaste, healthy relationships with the opposite sex.
Nevertheless, powerful emotions are shared between the Hardys and their wholesomely attractive gals. The degree of that power is demonstrated, tragically, in the inaugural volume of the new, sleeker Hardy series. “Get out of my way, Frank!” Joe screams at his brother in the first line of Dead on Target as he hopelessly lunges towards the flaming wreckage of the Hardys’ yellow sedan, the explosion of which the brothers have just witnessed in the parking garage of their local mall. His suicidal struggle towards the burning car is a desperate attempt to save the life of Iola, with whom he had recently quarreled, and who had, with horrendous misfortune, retired to the sedan a few minutes before the explosion. As Callie notes later in the book: “I guess he really did love Iola, in spite of his wandering eye.” In any case, what a beginning for the new series! The violent death of a main character—in the first chapter no less—signaled a dramatic change of direction for Simon & Schuster’s teenage gumshoes. I remember the day after I purchased Dead on Target and Evil, Inc. (the second in the new series). It was April Fool’s Day, so when I told one of my fellow fifth-grade fans that the Hardys had been reincarnated, he refused to believe me and was put out that I would so cruelly toy with his emotions. He soon acknowledged the veracity of my claim, however, and came to love, as I did, the stylishly designed, compact Casefiles, with their titillating titles—Deathgame and Edge of Destruction were later examples—and stories that always made good on the titles’ promises. Under each title was an added bonus: an epigraph which wittily hinted at the thrills to come. “Revenge is always a personal matter,” noted the cover of Dead on Target. Other standouts: “A murder contract is always binding”; “Terror has many faces—all deadly”; “In the cult of the Rajah, death is a way of life.”
The Hardys had modernized, inside and out. Whereas a beach party was the hippest thing the Hardys and their friends could think to do in the past, they now listened to Led Zeppelin, hung out at diners until well past midnight, and traveled to locales more exotic and exciting than ever before. In trying to avenge Iola’s death, the brothers become involved with a secret government agency called the Network and end up battling international terrorism, represented by an Arab assassin named Al-Rousasa. In Evil, Inc. the brothers go undercover to bust an organized crime ring in France. After reading this pair of adventures, I feverishly anticipated the next installment—Cult of Crime—a excerpt from which had been included at the end of Casefile No. 2.
Cult of Crime. The very title spooked me, calling to mind images of Jonestown, of Satanists who kidnapped children and engaged in midnight acts of bestiality in storm drains. Even the cover of the book exceeded my expectations. Frank and Joe flee from a pack of torch-bearing cultists, one of whom fires a gun in their direction. I was so taken with the image that I even considered getting my hair cut like Joe’s.
The new Franklin W. Dixons (I imagine top management at Simon & Schuster laying off the old stale Dixon crew and bringing in a fresh batch of Franklins, recent graduates of Ivy League schools who were ready to pour their intelligence and energy into making the Casefiles the Hardy books they themselves never had as adolescents. However, S&S must have given the stale Franklin W.’s some severance work, because the middle series perpetuated into further idiocy; clearly all of the publisher’s real energy was thrown into the Casefiles.) were not taking their job that seriously, however. The relative realism of the third installment contrasts sharply with the science fiction of The Lazarus Plot (No. 4), in which the Hardys get their first hope that, impossibly, Iola Morton may still be alive. As it turns out, the Iola the brothers see is only a clone created by a laboratory staffed by “the most diabolical team of scientists ever assembled.” The book was good, though, and the college grads went on to turn out a series of classics, from Edge of Destruction, in which the Hardys traipse through the sewers of New York City to thwart an organized crime boss who threatens to unleash a deadly virus upon the Big Apple, to Hostages of Hate, in which a group of terrorists takes hostages, Callie Shaw among them, on an airplane in Washington, DC. Callie performs admirably under this immense strain and, while on television delivering the terrorists’ demands, sends Frank a secret message using the personal sign language the two have developed to talk to each other during class. Thus Frank, by watching Callie’s blinking patterns, receives messages like “Only two on plane,” and “Bomb real.” Apparently Callie is not the airhead she appeared to be at all those beach parties.
Sadly, the creativity of the new series did not last. After the unexpected dullness of The Borgia Dagger and its successor, No. 14, Too Many Traitors, I lost interest in the series. It is hard to say whether I simply outgrew it or the Ivy League Dixons had burned out. My parting with Frank and Joe was neither bitter nor regretful; we had been tight pals for several years; indeed, I was at least as faithful as Biff, Tony, Phil, or Chet—but we had now grown apart, and I was beginning to move in different circles, spending late nights with the Stephen King-Dean Koontz crowd. The Hardys, as always, moved to the beat of their own drum, however repetitive a pounding it may have been. Inertia kept the long line of Hardy adventures on the top level of my bookshelf until I finally packed them all in a box and packed the box down in the basement, exhumed only when I decided to eulogize the brothers here.
In truth, though, the Hardys need no eulogy; in a used book store I came across Casefile No. 101. I forget the title (it looked unsurprisingly banal), but even the cover was a bore: instead of a drawing which re-imagined Frank and Joe’s appearance and fashion sense, this one featured only a photograph of two 90210-looking males, supposedly the legendary boy-gumshoes, and an enthusiastic note encouraging us all to catch the new Hardy Boys television show. The Hardys and I have clearly parted ways, and while I’m tempted to re-read a few of the old Casefiles for nostalgic value, such a reunion would not be quite valuable enough to spend the time on, so our paths continue to diverge.
My path and that of my neighbor, I believe, first began to diverge as I read Danger on Vampire Trail. While I devoured Danger in a day or two, my reading partner and friend plodded along with his installment, and I don’t think Dave ever finished The Secret of the Lost Tunnel. As I moved ahead, purchasing some of the books, borrowing others from the library, above all reading them, Dave confided to me that he simply didn’t like reading. While I ordered Night of the Werewolf from the Scholastic book order form we were offered at school, Dave stuck to Choose Your Own Adventure books, Hot Dog and Dynamite magazines, and posters of action figures and cute pets. When I moved on to King, Koontz, and Co., Dave concentrated on computer games, reading only what was required for school. Whereas for Dave the Hardys were a passing, boring diversion, for me they became a habit. The Hardys were like training wheels, easy and enjoyable exercises that helped me develop the balance necessary for a lifetime of reading books. Though I probably would have been better off practicing on more classic childhood favorites—Robert Louis Stevenson, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so on—I turn to the third-to-last paragraph of Too Many Traitors, the last Hardy book I ever read, for reassurance:
“It’s okay,” Joe replied. “We met girls, we went swimming, we went boating, we saw a lot of scenery and sights. I’ve had enough vacationing for a lifetime.”
M. Ryan Calo is a residential fellow at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet & Society. He frequently appears in radio, press, and online to discuss new technology.Everyone knows Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. First published in 1953, Bradbury imagined a world in which government “firemen” could enter your home at any time and burn your books “for the good of humanity.” This deeply dystopic vision has, thankfully, not come to pass. Nor could it. In the U.S., the First and Fourth Amendments project against unreasonable government intrusion, especially where it implicates ideas. The state will never be able to enter your house and burn your books, even in an age of terrorism. I really believe that.That’s why I was so disturbed to learn that Amazon has managed to “burn” two other famous dystopias, these ones by George Orwell, without implicating the Constitution. According to reports, people who had purchased Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm for the Kindle woke up to find that Amazon had erased the ebooks remotely.Jonathan Zittrain has warned about this phenomenon – which he calls “software as service” – wherein people no longer own what they buy. Digital products become evolving and hence unstable services that a company may alter or even destroy at whim. Like many things that happen first on the Internet, the death of ownership is also happening offline, as when car dealers leave GPS devices in vehicles so as to make it easier to repossess the vehicles later.Ebooks evoke dystopian novels in a second way. It is rapidly becoming impossible to peruse or buy a book without leaving a digital trail. Law enforcement has already reportedly asked Amazon to hand over customer purchase history; it is a matter of time before the government approaches Google Book Search. It is no accident that common to practically every dystopian novel is the abrogation of privacy. This is clearly true of Bradbury and Orwell. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the buildings are all made of transparent glass. In Huxley’s Brave New World, the biggest taboo is solitude. Bernard Marx tells us that an aversion to being alone is, of all state messages, repeated the most times during sleep conditioning.I don’t mean to overstate. In many ways we live in a historic zenith of freedom. And Amazon zapping books for business reasons is a far cry from state sanctioned book burning. But we nevertheless must get a handle on the issues of ownership and privacy that ebooks raise, lest we wake up one day to find they have disappeared.