Bradbury’s Prophecy

Earlier this year I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) with a sense of quiet unease. The book, if you haven’t read it (and you really should!) depicts a life where books are banned. While there are pockets of people who keep a library, their neighbours are quick to report on them and a fireman’s job in this dystopia is to burn the stash.

When reading it, I couldn’t help but see comparisons with our own conservative government and those who reign globally. I’m sure it’s hardly a surprise that I vote left. In Canada, provincial power governs such things as health care and education, and so they have a lot of power when elected. And despite the signed declaration that, if elected, the conservatives would not dismantle health care, it came as no surprise that less than a year after taking power they cut funding to both health care and education. The party and the premiere have openly stated that universities are “outdated” models, and that they want to return the education system back to the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Their education mandate is to remove all “liberal-agenda” from the curriculum. And by “liberal,” they mean the capacity to reason and question; critical analysis, scientific reasoning, sociopolitical consciousness = these are all seen as “liberal agendas.” Or, to state it simply, we have a government that actively refutes climate change and LTBQ+ rights. They have spread a propaganda campaign where public sector workers (health care providers and education workers) are greedily stealing money from the “real” hard-working Albertans. Or, in other words, we have a legally elected fascist government who is acting to further dumb down the population. And I’m sure that statement is true of a lot of states and nations.

So, of course, I couldn’t help seeing specters in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But, it was an image that I scoffed at. It was the start of 2020, and the future seemed bright. I was uneasy with the state of the world, but blindly optimistic that things don’t happen like they do in a book.

And then the pandemic hit.

And we’ve seen governments not only struggle to cope (justifiably so), we’ve also seen leaders who have outright denied there’s a problem, or acknowledge the problem but then staunchly ignore the advice of medical professionals (and science in general). But while it’s easy to blame this incredible mismanagement on incompetent leaders, it’s important to remember that we, the public, put them there.

“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its accord.”

Bradbury, p. 87

Re-reading that phrase now, I feel nauseated.

Could this pandemic have been avoided? Doubtful. Given the ease of international travel, a sickness of some sort was bound to spread sooner or later. Could things have been handled better? To give the benefit of the doubt, no one was prepared for the scale of this event.

But. Do we live in a world where – even today – people are doing all that they can to take the pandemic seriously? We have anti-vaxxers and science-deniers who are insistent that this is a government conspiracy to enforce vaccination – or that the pandemic was caused by science and medicine in the first place. We have news outlets who give equal voice to the opinions of Karen on the street as they do to the expert in the field. There are those who gather(ed) in large groups despite all warnings not to do so. We have governments who toed the line with declaring an emergency for fear of harming the economy. And those who use the pandemic to continue pushing through their own right-wing agendas.

In Alberta: contracts with doctors and other medical professionals were ripped up and then “put on hold until the pandemic is over” (read: made redundant after this emergency is all over); just this weekend the party suspended environmental reporting (reporting of contaminants in air, land, and water) for reasons that I don’t quite understand but are somehow pandemic related; 25,000 education workers were laid off just days before the premiere found $7.5 billion in the budget to fund the oil pipeline; university funding was cut despite the fact that this also includes cuts to a team who are right now working on a cure.

Public health continues to come last, despite all that is occurring. But more aggravating, disheartening, and, indeed, terrifying, is seeing corrupt officials using a global pandemic to continue dismantling public services.

And, I am absolutely confident that, despite everything, the voting public will continue to put these parties in power.

Given the year+ prediction for when a vaccine may be found (if at all; after all, the common cold still doesn’t have a cure), it is likely that societal structures may dramatically shift. But, will we see the end of late capitalism, into a more socialist, utopian reality? Or will we be like Bradbury’s bibliophiles: hiding, on the run, condemned for being different from the rest of society because of our love of questioning; reasoning; critically analyzing?

Cover of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 - 50th Anniversary Edition

There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly thing we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember every generation.

Bradbury, p. 163

That’s Bradbury’s way of saying “history repeats itself.” But, while Bradbury aims on a (tongue-in-cheek?) optimistic note, right now I’m feeling less confident of the resilience of humanity.

A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharata, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.