If you were an adult in 1984, you probably felt a little schadenfreude delight that year as you realized that the world you lived in wasn’t a nightmare of government control. “Take that, George Orwell. You were wrong,” many of us thought with a certain amount of smug joy.
For the truth was that English teachers had seen to it over the years that many otherwise uninterested people had read George Orwell’s classic 1984, and pretty much everyone else had needed to skim it well enough to take a test or write a paper about it. It is an amazing book, and my sixteen year old self certainly sunk deep into the horror of having my every thought and moved watched by Big Brother. That response still helps shape my politics and choices, and I suspect that I am not alone.
Today it occurs to me that in spite of the many legitimate complaints about government intrusion into our lives, thanks to George Orwell we are considerably less likely to live in an “Orwellian” society. He didn’t predict the future. He, and an army of teachers, shaped it. What an amazing thing.
Fast forward to 2015.
I also read a tremendous amount of science fiction by choice in the 70’s and early 80’s, which means if it was written between 1955 and 1980 I probably read it. But I missed much of the older stuff, including Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants, written with C.M. Kornbluth in 1952. An old copy of it landed in my hands recently by way of my father.
Normally I can’t read the novels of others while I am writing, but the strident 50’s tone of the prose is so different than my own that I gave this one a try. I’m a third of the way into the story, and am I glad I did. Pohl envisions a society every bit as creepy as Orwell’s. In his future, the government is a fairly powerless puppet of the very rich, and the average human lives in fear of the warring corporations that fight with guns and advertising for the dollars of every consumer. It is the same dark vision of hopelessness, but presented with a villain that is the polar opposite. Unregulated free enterprise has turned the planet into a wasteland and left unprotected citizens addicted to products laced with additives to ensure “product loyalty”.
I’ve got quite a bit of reading left to do on this one, and don’t know if Pohl and Kornbluth can sustain this story line for the entire novel, much less for the sequel The Merchant’s War written in 1984 and included in this volume as well. I suspect it never reaches the heights of prose that 1984 did, and that’s a shame. For while an entire society learned a deep-seated fear of government control from George Orwell, that society never developed the equally important visceral distaste for a world in which no regulations at all allow citizens to be equally abused by those with power and no scruples.
It is true that the theme of “evil greedy corporations” often makes its way into popular fiction and other entertainment today, but no poet crying out for sensible consumer protection from industry and greed has captured the imagination of the general population in the same way that George Orwell did. Perhaps more importantly, no such novel has endeared itself to the teachers of literature, and found itself in the hands of so many who would not otherwise have chosen to read it. No one frets about how we might be becoming a “Pohlian” society, at least not in circles I frequent.
I think that is too bad, and sad for all of us. There is more than one way for our freedoms to disappear and for our time on this earth to be made joyless, and as a society we would be better off if we shared a deep distrust of all dystopias. How different would our world be today if Pohl and his horrific vision of the future were as ingrained into our collective psyche as Orwell’s vision?