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.