Trouble In Paradise

It’s not a Radio Times recommended programme this week, but the second installment of The Martians and Us is as well put together as the first, albeit a bit more obvious in its limitations. There may be an element of personal prejudice here: the theme this time around is utopias and dystopias, which I have to admit is not my specialist subject, or even one of particular interest to me. Much as I love Brave New World (and I do love it dearly), there’s something in most ‘topian fiction that stops me from being hooked. Perhaps it’s the sense of streamlining, of paring down the actual complexity of the world a bit too fa while sidestepping whatever catastrophe or other events led there — although, ironically, “Trouble in Paradise” builds a not-unbelievable case for ‘topian fiction as much more grounded in the real than most sf, presenting it as perhaps the most pure, naked expression of the central dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century that we have.

There are some differences to the first episode. This one spends noticeably more time focused on writers; which is not to say that the works get short shrift, but just to point out that the makers take pains to describe the personal and social contexts from which these works sprang in a way that they didn’t last week. Another change of emphasis can be seen in the selection of talking heads: alongside returning favourites such as Kim Newman, Nigel Kneale, and Brian Stableford, this week saw soundbites from John Carey, Will Self, Iain Banks, Ken Macleod, Margaret Atwood (!), Bernard Crick and Nicholas Murray. This is not a list that in any way effaces genre sf, but it doesn’t half give a lot of weight to more mainstream voices, with the inevitable undertones of “pay attention, this is the respectable bit!” that that engenders. And the presence of Crick (biographer of Orwell) and Murray (biographer of Huxley) hints at the weight that’s going to be placed on their two works — which is, of course, not surprising, but I’m not sure it’s the most interesting way to frame the argument the programme wanted to make, and it seems to thin out the story of British ‘topian fiction in much the same way such fiction seems to me to thin out the world. In this episode, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are the poles around which all else revolves.

Other texts do get a look-in. After a brief primer on Thomas More and Francis Bacon, and a link to the evolutionary/progressive argument for the development of sf aired in last week’s episode (“Darwin had rewritten the past […] writers believed they could predict the future”), we move on to Wells’ A Modern Utopia and The Shape of Things to Come (I don’t know exactly how accurate the description of Wells’ view of eugenics is; it certainly seemed a bit more extreme than other accounts I’ve heard), before arriving at the Two Big Books. We stay there for most of the rest of the episode, with brief (and again, admirably catholic) sidebars on Swastika Night (which I must read), The Year of the Sex Olympics (which I must see), A Clockwork Orange (which I didn’t really get on with), 1985 (which I have no real interest in reading), Judge Dredd (which I haven’t read much of), Doctor Who (which in the 1970s “came as close as anyone has to mass-producing dystopias”, says Kim Newman), Brazil (which is truly wonderful, isn’t it?) and, closest to the present, The Handmaid’s Tale (on what grounds, it’s not entirely clear).

But it’s Brave New World and Nineteen Eight-Four that occupy the lion’s share of the time. The points made range from the slightly fatuous, such as Peter Carey’s assertion that love is a threat in dystopian fiction because if you love someone else, you can’t love the state, which may be true in some books but doesn’t seem to me a very accurate reflection of the complexities of human emotions, to the more insightful, such as the discussions of the aversion to mass culture embedded, in different ways, in both Orwell and Huxley’s books. (Although there is discussion, inevitably, of reality tv, there’s no specific reference to Big Brother — except, cheekily, in the closing eye that marks the scene transitions.) I don’t want to downplay the importance of either novel, since if nothing else the way Orwell and Huxley react to each others’ texts is fascinating. Orwell said that Brave New World had “no relation to the actual future”, and went off and wrote Nineteen Eight-Four; much later Huxley read it, and wrote Orwell a patronising letter saying that that’s all very well, but it’s not how the future is really going to turn out. It was somewhat surprising to me to see how committed to their futures both writers seemed to be, how real their disagreement of vision was. They may not have intended them as straight-down-the-line prediction, but they certainly appears that they intended them as something more than just an argument about possibility, more than just another cautionary tale.

But in a couple of ways, I think the programme simplifies too much. Following through on the point about prediction, Margaret Atwood’s remarks near the end are telling: “For a while it looked like it was going to be Nineteen Eighty-Four,” she says (I paraphrase), “then the wall came down and we all thought it was going to be sex and shopping, and now the pendulum is swinging the other way, and Big Brother is watching over us more and more.” It’s not particularly helpful or particularly accurate to see history in this sort of binary light, I think. And in terms of a discussion of British ‘topian sf, it’s ludicrous to not even mention the Culture in passing — until you realise that the episode isn’t actually making an argument about British ‘topian sf in particular, it’s making an argument about the affect of British sf in general, one built around class and fear — not an invalid argument but one that in this iteration is very selective about its examples. There’s an interesting moment, in the middle of the narrator’s description of how dark and nasty British futures are, when Iain Banks says something along the lines of “Of course, while American sf was all gung-ho and can-do, British sf was very dour and maybe a bit dreary.” I didn’t get the quote down, so the adjectives are almost certainly wrong, but the thing I want to point out is that he was making a past-tense remark, and the programme took it as present-tense. It’s not just the Culture, in other words; all the British sf that (I suspect) most people are reading this are most familiar with, the stuff from the 90s and onwards that is so frequently expansive and extravagant, might as well not exist at all.

9 thoughts on “Trouble In Paradise

  1. Would someone like to tell me what Margaret Attwood’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’, respective of its quality, doing in a programme about British SF?

    I note also that the word utopia was used a bit freely in the first part of the programme. I’m pretty sure that both 1984 and Brave New World were never meant to be portraits of utopias!

    They showed their lack of a wider knowledge of British comic book writers. I didn’t agree with what they said on Burgess, either…

  2. I really have no idea about The Handmaid’s Tale. I mean, it could be that someone thought “hey, we have Margaret Atwood available!” or I suppose it could be a Commonwealth thing — Canadian writers are eligible for the Booker Prize, after all. And I suppose she won the Clarke Award …

    I note also that the word utopia was used a bit freely in the first part of the programme. I’m pretty sure that both 1984 and Brave New World were never meant to be portraits of utopias!

    The more I think about it, the odder the structure of the episode seems. It was sort of, “here’s a history of British utopias up to 1935, and then a history of British dystopias after 1935”, and never the twain met.

    On comics, yes, obviously if they were only going to mention one, you’d think it would be V for Vendetta. But I suppose it’s better that they’re mentioning one than none.

  3. This is not a list that in any way effaces genre sf, but it doesn’t half give a lot of weight to more mainstream voices, with the inevitable undertones of “pay attention, this is the respectable bit!” that that engenders.

    This still seems like a bit of a ghetto mentality. A literary arts programme of any stripe is rare enough and to me that seems like quite an exciting list of contributors. Those talking heads have a weight that, I don’t know, Steven Baxter perhaps doesn’t. I guess I just don’t see those undertones. Even if it did carry those undertones would that be such a bad thing?

    Later you say that “the programme simplifies too much”. I don’t think you are wrong to challenge this but I would say your position and expectations are substantially different to many potential viewers. I think it is unarguable that science fiction has an image problem. A programme like this can only be helpful in correcting this.

  4. This still seems like a bit of a ghetto mentality.

    Well, of course it is. But behind it I’m actually getting at the same issue you are. I think that last week’s episode absolutely was helpful in correcting sf’s image problem; I’m much less sure the same is true of this week’s episode.

    And part of the reason is the contributors and the works they’re asked to talk about. On the one hand, where last week there were plenty of works that BBC4 viewers were probably unfamiliar with, this week most of the works discussed were probably over-familiar. As I say, it was still interesting, and nice to see those books discussed as parts of a tradition … but I can’t help being a bit disappointed there was no room for Alan Moore, or Iain Banks’ work, etc. (John Brunner, anyone?)

  5. Torque Control (Niall?): on familiarity with HG Wells, the Washington Post recently felt it needed to explain to its readers who Mark Twain was.

    There is a funny double assumption in all this, that what is new and contemporary is not significant (yet), and that what is older is forgotten. Neither is automatically true for all that they may have elements of truth.

  6. They made that point about British Sci-fi being relentlessly downbeat last week too… then Clarke was presented as being very much the exception to the rule.

    The thing that is coming to annoy me about this series is how limited its scope is. While they know enough about the genre to invite contemporary writers to serve as talking heads, they’re seemingly not all that interested in anything that’s happened in British Sci-fi since the 70’s or so.

    For example, the political ‘topias they’re talking about are largely the creation of the 20th Century’s huge ideological battles. There’s nothing on the modern politics of British Sci-fi, including the Culture (even though that’s actually quite a-political when viewed from the inside) and the work of McLeod who’s done a lot to create a variant of ‘topian fiction based on contemporary political economic theories.

    If this were a documentary series about music or theatre it would be unheard of to essentially stop 20 to 30 years ago and present that as what the current scene is all about.

  7. Well, in terms of 1950s British sf, Clarke is an exception, because he was writing with much more of an American sensibility than others such as Wyndham. I might almost be prepared to say that Clarke isn’t really a British sf author at all, that’s just where he grew up …

    As for Margaret Attwood, to be fair I think it came across that she knew that the duality between Brave New World and 1984 isn’t a useful way of looking a tthe world.

  8. Huxley’s Brave New World always gets a mention, of course, but his other utopia, the more traditionally “utopian” The Island, published at the end of his life, rarely does and didn’t here (unless I missed it).

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