Saturday, February 27, 2010

1984, 1985, and Beyond

Long live Big Brother! But what happens after he dies?

[Continued from last week.]

George Orwell may have imagined the world of Big Brother, but Gy├Ârgy Dalos actually lived in it. The Hungarian poet was educated in Moscow. In 1968, while the Cultural Revolution was going on in China, he was accused of "Maoist activities." Imprisoned and tortured just like the fictional Winston Smith, he was eventually released but booted out of the Communist Party and kept under police surveillance. I don't know when he first read the novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he must have thought, "This is about ME!"

Dalos is only four years older than I am, so roughly a contemporary. But while I was reading the book and watching the movie, he was growing up under the exact kind of despotic totalitarianism Orwell had depicted. Later, while making a living as a translator and poet, he ventured to write a sequel titled, appropriately enough, 1985 (Pantheon, 1984). This slim volume is a wonderful gloss on history, with resonances reaching back to Orwell's novel and the then-recent Cultural Revolution, and forward to the events that we now know were soon to follow: the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the other States of the Eastern Bloc.

The book pretends to be a compilation of memoirs and official reports of the years following the death of Big Brother and the collapse of Oceania. It begins with the official account of BB's death, in itself a wonderful satire of colorless reportage by committee. The leader is admitted to the hospital for "a temporary indisposition." During treatment first one limb, then another is "temporarily removed." Then one lung is "temporarily removed." His condition goes from Critical to Improved, then to Critical and Unchanged, then Unchanged and Critical. Finally he perishes "as the result of a temporary indisposition." So the condition of the leader becomes symbolic of that of the State, kept alive only through the most extreme measures.

If that's not enough to cheer you up, Oceania then suffers a crippling military defeat which causes it to sue for peace with its rival Eurasia. The collapse of its government soon follows, after an interim struggle for power in which the late BB's wife leads one faction, much the way the wife of Chairman Mao became part of the Gang of Four. By now it is apparent that the author has mimicked the way Orwell reversed the roles of foreign and domestic politics. His description of the corruption and demise of Oceania (the West) is clearly about the immanent fall of the USSR.

One fact that brings this home is the way it is revealed that Eurasia is vastly superior in technology. Their foreign delegation declines the limousines that meet them at the airport and instead levitate their way to the hotel with the aid of some kind of devices in their clothing. Later a multifunction ballpoint pen is found to also serve as a radio. (Commonplace now, this was futuristic in 1980.) By comparison, remember how hard it was for Winston Smith to find razor blades, not to mention food, in Oceania.

This reminded me of a revealing article that was published in the 1980's in a US computer magazine. The author had been to Moscow and had managed to get hold of a Soviet personal computer. At the time this beast was so rare it had seldom been seen in the wild. Not only did it not work very well, but disassembling it revealed a spaghetti mess of hand-wiring inside, evidence of abundant errors and problems with the printed circuit boards. The device was selling for the equivalent of $10,000 if you could even get one. Meanwhile in the US, Apple was designing the first Mac.
Analysis of the Soviet microchips revealed they had been directly copied from Western designs. Engineers had actually opened up the chips, used a photographic enlarger to blow up the circuitry, cleaned it up, and shrunk it back down again for production. They had not even bothered to remove the manufacturer's logo and code numbers. However, due to some distortions introduced by the copying process, they could not be reduced to as small a size as the originals. This led to a gag boast that "Soviet microchips are the largest in the world!"
The really interesting bit was that at the same time China had begun to mass produce very serviceable and inexpensive clones of the IBM PC. In the three-way race for technological supremacy the Chinese were catching up, while Russia was falling farther behind. The writing was on the wall (pun intended) for all to see.

Just as interesting as the politics are the personal stories in 1985. Winston Smith and his lover Julia both emerge as revolutionary figures, and even form a bizarre partnership with O'Brien, the same officer of the Ministry of Love who had overseen Winston's torture. The Chestnut Tree Cafe, frequented by those recently released from brainwashing, becomes the center of revolutionary discussions and partisan debates.

Sadly, Dalos did not dare to imagine the groundswell of popular support that was to buoy Lech Walesa into office in Poland, or that would support Boris Yeltsin against a possible counter-revolution in Russia. But no doubt that was due to his experience of the abortive uprising in his native Hungary in 1956, when they had failed to get the support of the West and were crushed by Soviet tanks.

What's left of Oceania -- now stripped down to the bare essentials of the British Isles -- ends up as a struggling socialist state of which Julia is a prominent minister but from which Winston has been ousted as overly radical. One imagines this was both the hope and the worst fear of the author, that change might come that was not much change at all. Indeed, things have not gone swimmingly in Hungary since the regime change, and conditions in the wake of the global financial meltdown are now critical, as Dalos reported in his recent article, "A Peaceless Democracy."

Needless to say, 1985 could not be published in Hungary back when it was written. It appeared first in German and French translation in 1982, and in English in -- when else? -- 1984. What a year.

Orwell's novel was of course forbidden throughout the Soviet empire, but I know how at least one copy made its way in. I once met a man who had been with US Army Intelligence in Germany during the 1960's. He used to cross into East Berlin sometimes, and once smuggled a German translation of the novel across the border for a friend. 
"Weren't you afraid of being caught?" I asked him. He replied no, because he knew the border guards were mostly green kids conscripted from the farms. All he had to do was to place some West German skin magazines on top of the book in his bag. These, of course, they immediately confiscated. What about the book? "I'm practicing my German," my friend told them. "Oh, that's all right then," they said, their eyes bulging with visions of naked breasts. And so the empire falls.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Back When 1984 Was the Future

"Who controls the present controls the past ... who controls the past controls the future ..."

- George Orwell, 1984

One night back in about 1956 when I was only nine years old, my father roused me from my sleep and invited me to stay up late with him to watch a movie on TV. It was the original film version of 1984, starring Edmund O'Brien as Winston Smith, and Dad knew I wouldn't want to miss it because I was so fond of science fiction. (This is how I got to see things like Destination Moon and The Man From Planet X on our fuzzy gray 17" screen.)

A tale of life under a brutal dictatorship which includes brainwashing and torture might not be the sort of entertainment most parents would inflict on their children. But my dad, who almost certainly had read the book and knew what it was about, trusted me not only to withstand it but to understand it as well. He was introducing me to one of the core myths of our age.

In those days of Cold War hysteria the producers of the film felt obliged to present it as a cautionary tale about what life might be like if the Communists were to take over, just to insure that they couldn't be accused of questioning the authority of our own government. After all, Big Brother ruled over not just England but the rest of "Oceania," which included North and South America. The story implied not only that the USSR might absorb all of continental Europe into "Eurasia," but that the US and its allies would be transformed into a regime just as ugly by the demands of decades of prolonged conflict.

My dad, having recently fought a war against Germany, was more concerned about Fascism taking over -- perhaps in the person of a demagogue like Joseph McCarthy, who was currently raking people over the coals, destroying careers, and driving people to suicide in the halls of Congress. So Dad was attuned to the intentions of author George Orwell, who had clearly imagined the tripartite "balance of terror" that would hold sway over most of the rest of the 20th century.

Orwell's dark vision, in which civilization descends inevitably into a state of permanent war and the enslavement of populations, has haunted us ever since. But for much of my early life 1984 was in the distant future. To a child, 30 years from now might as well be forever, in another lifetime.

As we lived through the real history of those years, events played out both better and worse than Orwell dreamed. On the home front we seemed to still have democracy and freedom, at least in our personal lives. Life was good, food and entertainment were plentiful. Orwell seemed to have got the idea of the "telescreen" completely wrong. Instead of it watching us, we watched it. Instead of citizens having their privacy invaded, the government seemed to be under a public microscope more so than ever before. Television got Kennedy elected, brought the Vietnam War into the living room, called the Nixon administration to justice, and changed history.

But at the same time we lived increasingly under the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Orwell failed to include nuclear weaponry in his arsenal, but even in this he may have been accurate. In his view it was never the intention of the superpowers to destroy one another; instead, the rulers of each one used the continual threat of destruction as a tool to maintain power and control over their own populations. And so, even though the bombs never fell on us, they were always hanging over our heads and keeping us in line. With slogans like Better Dead Than Red and My Country, Right or Wrong, the rabid right could defend almost any actions in the name of curbing the spread of Communism.

Still, the closer we came to the fateful year, the more 1984 seemed to be a vision of some other reality than our own, an alternate "what if" universe in which things had worked out differently. It was like a story about how things would be if Germany had gotten the Bomb or the South had won the Civil War.

In 1982, all grown up now, I started making plans to have a 1984 party to commemorate the difference between the prediction and the reality. We would celebrate Ronald Reagan as Big Brother, discuss the politics of Emmanuel Goldstein (the fictional false enemy of the State), and drink Victory Gin.

I was dismayed when some of my friends told me they would come in costume as Alphas, Betas, or Gammas, revealing that they had confused 1984 with Brave New World, Aldous Huxley's variation of a dark future in which humans were "decanted" instead of born and were genetically altered into graded subspecies suitable to their roles in society. On reflection I decided this meant it was time to put the fear of 1984 to rest. People seemed to have forgotten to be afraid, which was the surest sign it had not come to pass. It seemed fitting that it was now Huxley's future that haunted us, because it seemed more like where we were headed, and because, well, it was still in the future.

A new version of 1984 was filmed -- in London and in 1984 -- with John Hurt as Winston Smith. It was very well done, but went largely unnoticed by the public. However, in the same notable year a sequel was published by a citizen of our Eurasian adversary ...

[Next time: 1985 and beyond.]

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Back 2 Space

Let's see what the tea leaves have to say ...

Since back before the turn of the century (I know, that used to mean about a hundred years ago, but now it's only ten) I've been dabbling with predicting the future, so it's about time for a reality check. How am I doing, anyway?

Well, last January I dared to speculate on what the first year of the Obama administration might look like, and I can now claim to have been correct about two of the most wild leaps of fancy. First, on the financial front, I said: "By year's end financial experts will begin noting with some surprise that the stock markets have actually had a pretty good year. All those who waited too long to get out will suddenly realize they have waited too long to get back in."

Within weeks of this pronouncement the Dow began a plunge of over 1,000 points, and even the most optimistic investors would have been justified in having serious qualms about the rest of the year. Nevertheless, by December 31 the market had not only recovered the loss but ended around 30% higher than at the start of the year. Not bad!

What's that? You'd like to get in on a return of 30%? Sorry, too late. They tell us that the last time the market did that well two years in a row was at the beginning of FDR's first term. But remember, that was coming off the crash of '29 and it was a Depression, while what we had in '08 was merely a [subliminal: worst in our history since the Great Depression] "Recession."

The other limb I went out on was to predict a major shift in the role of NASA, with spacecraft development and operations being farmed out to private corporations. This new policy has just been announced, as reported in Astronomy magazine, following another one of the Obama administration's exhaustive reviews in which they actually tried to find out what was the best thing to do.

Return with us now to those thrilling early years of the airplane, where the likes of Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart, and Howard Hughes blazed new trails. Now it's time for the airlines to become spacelines, and for free enterprise to figure out how to finance our move into the wider solar system and beyond. Don't be surprised when the Chinese get to the moon and start mining operations, or some private venture decides to move mineral-rich asteroids into Earth orbit where they can be chopped up and refined into raw materials. We have passed the era of Columbus and Magellan. Now it's time for the East India Company to reap the rewards, and for the colonists to create the societies and interplanetary nations of the future.

Stay tuned for further developments.
[And check out this slide show to get an idea of how many players are already getting into this game: http://news.zdnet.com/2346-9595_22-390897-1.html?tag=content;col1]