‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ does villainy so well its antagonists are part of our language: from the treacherous shopkeeper to the harsh genius O’Brian; from Big Brother to Winston himself as he willingly becomes the thing he hates.
Prize for most hateful bastardy in ‘2084’ goes to the mysterious organisers of EJ Swift’s ‘The Endling Market’. Like Big Brother, we do not meet them, but their facile pronouncements and almost mindlessly evil deeds inform every aspect of the story. The Endlings of the title are the last animals of a species, particularly beautiful ones like snow leopards. The Endling Market peddles cod-Chinese nonsense about the properties of wild animals, especially the predators we so fear and admire despite our slaughter of them to extinction. Here’s a bit from the sales pitch for a sawback angel shark: ‘Sawbacks are particularly effective against vengeful spirits, coastal inundations and drowning’. There’s climate change and rising sea levels again, as well as the dig at collective guilt with ‘vengeful spirits’, because the Endling Market has only come about because of human predation over many years. Like ‘Degrees of Elision’ this story has a powerful media theme; as well as the Endling Market ads, it describes the abortive attempt to film a snow leopard, takes the form of an interview and is thus a few removes from reality.
Further out still are the characters in Oliver Langmead’s ‘Glitterati’, adrift in a rarefied media universe as untethered from the actual world as O’Brian’s soap bubble. If you’ve ever found yourself reading the ‘Standard’ because you’re on the late train and too pissed to do anything else, you may have noticed the anachronistic ‘society pages’, filled with the vacuous, entitled muppets we’re all meant to aspire to. Well, ‘Glitterati’ puts them in charge of the world. While there’s much sly humour at work in the collection, ‘Glitterati’ is the only actual comedy, which is perhaps just as well. A grotesque tale of those at the far reaches of reason, it’s also very touching in the way it depicts its hero’s terror at putting on the wrong coloured suit one morning. The rules of this asylum-in-anything-but-name are as random and absurd as anything Winston Smith cuts and pastes together in the Ministry of Truth. The last line is very affecting too, harking back to themes of memory and significance explored elsewhere in the collection.
There’s another great joke in Anne Charnock’s ‘A Good Citizen’, in which there is a compulsory referendum every week. Whether these referenda actually change anything is never made clear; they seem to focus on making small adjustments to allowances. However, the offer of euthanasia to life-term prisoners taxes the decent but naïve heroine who appears to want to do her civic duty, but really just wants her thoughts to herself. Her friend Roly has a good solution: he always just votes for Option 1. Who is right, really? That Roly ends up kicked out of his flat and sent to a grim dorm suggests it isn’t him. ‘But we haven’t taken a vote’ blurts the narrator, as if that would make a difference. There are also sly digs at things like ‘fitness fascism’ and ‘A Good Citizen’ is not the only story in the anthology to show how we have absorbed Orwell’s language and made it acceptable with irony that quickly wears thin. Although life for the narrator is not exactly pleasant, this subtle tale keeps the grinding misery in the background; like our own likely near-future, it’s similar to now but just a bit more rubbish.
I’ve mentioned the love story and thriller elements of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, but it is also superlative horror; indeed, for me among the best ever written simply because of its lacerating emotional and political honesty. At the other end of the horror scale from the bleakly familiar confusion of ‘A Good Citizen’ is ‘Fly Away, Peter’ by Ian Hocking. Sometimes you feel an author needs a really good cuddle, but it probably wouldn’t help in this case. If ‘The Endling Market’ deals in distorted bits of folklore, ‘Fly Away, Peter’ is ‘Hansel & Gretel’ filtered through a dystopia informed by that famous ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ image of a boot stamping endlessly on a human face. What makes ‘Fly Away, Peter’ so devastating is its understandable message of how brutality and abuse will always beget more of the same, in ways that can never be predicted. Worse still is the profound empathy, even sympathy, we feel for all the characters. I had to have a lie down after this one.
Tales involving artificial life are always a good means of exploring humanity, or the lack of it, and there are three such stories in ‘2084’. ‘The Infinite Eye’ by JP Smythe is about an unemployed man called Pietro who signs away his physical self in order to blend his mind with a surveillance drone. This story echoes ‘Babylon’ and ‘Here Comes the Flood’ in that Pietro is an immigrant and thus unemployable because however well he completes the required forms he is never accepted. The fake camaraderie of his notional employer, Adam, reflects the chapter in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ in which Winston observes that the most important element of the fact that half the population’s children are without shoes is that the Ministry of Truth knows about it. That caring/not caring Doublethink becomes a problem for Adam once Pietro finds ways to make the surveillance machinery work for him There’s hope in the proles all right, but is it hope of the approved sort?