In times of SOPA and ACTA, I thought of bringing to light a little essay I wrote on Brave New World and V for Vendetta.
‘A JAIL INTENDED TO OUTLIVE THEM ALL’:
DYSTOPIAN SOCIETIES IN BRAVE NEW WORLD AND V FOR VENDETTA
During the 1980s, the science-fiction genre became a great success among readers and cinema lovers. Hand in hand with this genre, came the dystopian mode, often referred to as a subgenre of sci-fi. Dystopian literature, by exploring the consequences of technology, repressive governments and controlled information taken to their limits, renders problematic the lives of citizens set in such societies. Deeply concerned with social issues, the dystopian narratives often display a society on its way to collapsing, immerse in tension and haunted by anything capable to threat its calm façade.
Unlike fantasy genres, which may use supernatural or magic elements and which are set in imaginary worlds, dystopian fictions are set in a world projected from our own reality, where advanced technology plays a very important role. Opposed to the utopian literature, dystopia explores a fictional universe in which people are dehumanized, deprived of freedom and unequal. According to Raffaella Baccolini:
Whether recovered through dystopia or not, however, what is important is the use of utopia, and dystopia, today – a use that perhaps utopia shares with literature and the imagination. We need utopia, as we need literature, because we still need to imagine better or worse worlds, and through those to think critically about and act upon our own world to change it. (2006, p.4)
Published in 1932, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, is one example of many dystopian narratives. Set into a distant future, the novel is, at first sight, the supreme realization of a governmental agenda: technology is used for the benefit of people; everyone has work, income and health; the government provides for all the needs; there are no social distresses and happiness is accessible. Under a closer look, we can perceive that the means by which such society is built are prejudicial and imposed on people.
Similarly, V for Vendetta, published from 1982 to 1989, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, also depicts a dystopian society, on its turn much more visibly repressive and controlling. The narrative is set in an imagined United Kingdom from the 1980s to the late 1990s which survived a nuclear war and is under the dominance of a fascist party. There are surveillance methods and people live in very poor conditions.
Here, I intend to draw a comparison between both novels, pointing out similarities and differences concerning their settings and heroes, and how dystopian realities are able to inform us about our own reality.
As it is common in dystopian fictions, both Brave New World (BNW) and V for Vendetta (VfV) are set in a future post-world-catastrophe. In BNW, the year is 632 AF (AD 2540) and part of the world was destroyed during the ‘Nine Years’ War’ by chemical weapons; the War was followed by an economic crisis. As a manner of restoring world’s balance, political leaders decided to unite all nations under the ‘World State’, slowly imposing new ideologies and lifestyles on people.
In VfV, we learn that in 1980s there was a world nuclear war which destroyed Africa and Europe – Great Britain survived, but feels the effects of the war on the climate changes which ruin the crops and leads the country to restrict food supplies. After the war, there was a coup d’état which led the fascist party to power; the Party organized a secret police force who controls all the actions of the citizens through audio and visual surveillance as well as propaganda.
It is interesting to note how in both narratives all access to culture – especially books – is forbidden. In BNW all museums and public monuments were destroyed after the War and the only one who reads the ‘banned books’ is John, the Savage, who is not a member of the World State; in VfV, V has an enormous library in his subterranean house (cleverly named ‘The Shadow Gallery’), which can often be seen throughout the graphic novel, full of titles common to us but unknown to Evey, for instance (the girl V saves from the secret police and chooses as his successor)*.
Deprived of books, people are deprived of thinking for themselves, of taking fictional actions and ideas as an example for real life. Depriving people of literature is inhibiting the imagination in them; it is forbidding in people needs, desires and yearnings for something they do not have. Literature is freedom and defiance and a totalitarian state cannot allow its citizens to access that.
Connected to freedom and cultural issues is the alienation, which both novels display as a feature of their characters. Alienation, in VfV, is caused by all social distress of the country: in a society in which one cannot be who they want, either one fights for their liberty or simply accepts the situation. The political and cultural consequences of the fascist regime – which organized a new Holocaust in the country, banishing the black, the Pakistani, the homosexual, the radicals, and the left-wingers, for example, and settled concentration camps where scientific experiments were held – led citizens into apathy towards their own destiny. Quite differently is the situation in BNW, where humans are now ‘decanted’ in laboratories as mass production items and whose education and training, from the very beginning of their existence, teach them not to care about anything and to be happily settle in their castes. Citizens are genetically programmed not to bother the government and not to question the system.
Both novels display their mottos at the very beginning – a sign of order and respect – words ruling all actions performed under the domain of the system. In BNW, they are ‘Community, Identity, Stability’, indicating the governing system of such society: ‘community’ as people live in communion, sharing their tranquil lives; ‘identity’ as all citizens are aware of their role in the community and it is up to them to commit and do their parts; ‘stability’, finally, as the ultimate goal of all people, for no one have the necessity or impulse of being better than anyone or behaving greedily (for ‘every one belongs to every one else’); thus, such a rational and organized society can only thrive. Personally, my reading is ‘community’ for people should not spend time alone; ‘identity’ for knowing who you are and where you belong is the key to an easygoing life without major concerns; and ‘stability’ for people should know their roles in the mechanism and play along so that economy can remain in motion and fine.
The words of order we see on the walls of VfV’s London are ‘STRENGTH THROUGH PURITY; PURITY THROUGH FAITH’. Here, State and Church appear very much engaged in the domination and repression of citizens, for ‘purity’ and ‘faith’ are immediately linked to religion. ‘Purity’ of soul and thoughts; ‘purity’ supported by ‘faith’, the belief of some greater, bigger power over humans – probably, the most deceiving of ideologies, for we see what the ‘purity’ of the clergy is during the scene in which the Bishop tries to molest Evey. The same Bishop used to work as a spiritual councilor at the concentration camps, witnessing all barbarities perpetrated there; he remained silent so that to achieve a high and prestigious status in the system as the voice of the Church in the Party.
HEROES AND VILLAINS
Bernard Marx from BNW and V from VfV are the typical heroes from dystopian fiction: unfit for their realities, aware that something is not right within the system, and willing to change it. The difference between them lays on the fact that Bernard is anxious to be part of that society which despises him – he wants to belong despite him being conscious that all he sees around him is forced onto people through scientific methods. So much so that when he achieves popularity for bringing John back from the Reservation, Bernard gets intoxicated by the feeling of being accepted and, for once, a real member of the World State. In a world where he is, perhaps, the only one who can see clearly how things are, Bernard yearns for being equal to everyone else.
On his turn, V, being the one who sees how bad things are going under the dominance of a totalitarian state, wishes people not to be equal, but to have the right of being different. V wants to change things, not for his sake, but for a greater good, for those oppressed and silenced, unable to fight alone. While Bernard’s position towards his reality is somewhat selfish (for he considers, mostly, his own situation as an outsider), V plans and succeed attacking the system. He hopes to achieve the ‘Land of Do-as-You-Please’, the perfectly functional anarchist state commanded by people’s will and consent. His methods allow us to see V as both a hero and a villain for we cannot pretend his strategy is not one of a terrorist. Villain or not, V looks for the destruction of all order for the sake of freedom – not only his own, but also his fellow countrymen’s.
Both Brave New World and V for Vendetta offer the reader different readings of an oppressive state: in the first one, we can hardly tell that things are not going well (for it all works as it is supposed to) while in the second one, things seem wrong from the start. It is also clear that the dystopian reality dehumanizes people – either by making them quasi empty bodies who live a meaningless life, consuming, working and supposedly having the time of their lives, or by repressing them for being who they are and monitoring all their movements, thus depriving them of freedom.
The reality presented by Brave New World is not at all that distant from us: capitalism, legalized drugs, lack of emotional attachment, training and conditioning for fitting positions and fulfilling duties – maybe that is one the reasons why, at first glance, it all seems to work just fine in the system. Bernard’s actions were not even capable of shaking that reality – and he most likely would not take the chance to do so as he wanted to belong there.
V, on the other hand, risks everything – he sees in the catastrophe a possibility for restarting building an equalitarian society – he is a dreamer, after all. The reality presented by V for Vendetta is not that distant from ours either: controlled information, nuclear conflicts and scientific experiments, climate changes, religious dominance, homophobia and prejudices.
Dystopian realities present themselves as prisons, as traps we are not free from falling into. It depends on us, indeed, to settle what kind of future we want to have; looking around, I am afraid we are closer to a quite dystopian one.
* A thorough annotation on the artistic references in V for Vendetta can be found in BOUDREAUX, Madelyn. An Annotation of Literary, Historic, and Artistic References in Alan Moore’s Graphic Novel, V for Vendetta. Web. Access on November 14, 2011. Available at http://www.enjolrasworld.com/Annotations/Alan%20Moore/V%20for%20Vendetta/V%20for%20Vendetta%20Revised%20-%20Complete.html
HUXLEY, Aldous. Brave New World. Web. Access on November 11th, 2011. Available at http://www.idph.net/conteudos/ebooks/BraveNewWorld.pdf
MOORE, Alan; Lloyd, David. V for Vendetta. New York : DC Comics, 2005. 286p.
BACCOLINI, Raffaella. “Dystopia Matters: On the Use of Dystopia and Utopia”, Spaces of Utopia: An Electronic Journal, nr. 3, Autumn/Winter 2006, pp. 1-4 <http://ler.letras.up.pt > ISSN 1646-4729. Web. Access on November 9th, 2011. Available at http://ler.letras.up.pt/uploads/ficheiros/3056.pdf