Sunday, July 30, 2017

Fortnightly Book, June 30

In undergrad in days of yore, I had a period in which I read a lot of feminist utopias and dystopias -- all the ones I could find in the library or through local interlibrary loan. Utopias and dystopias are very difficult to write well, particularly if you are deliberately out with a message, and thus, unsurprisingly, many of them were rather dubious to middling. (The middling ones usually had a really good idea somewhere and just never found an exciting way to develop it.) The best utopia, hands down, was Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, which I've done for the fortnightly book before. The most famous dystopia, of course, is Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which was middling; a weakly structured and poorly thought-out work, I've always thought, but one which is written unusually well, stylistically. Some readers read mostly for style -- the 'literary fiction' reader, which it is fine to be if you come by it honestly -- and it essentially caters to that crowd. But there was one feminist dystopia that was utterly unique. I've been wanting to go back to it for the fortnightly book for a couple of years now, and since this summer I've been taking a rather relaxed attitude to selecting books, it seems like a good time to do it.

In the 1930s, a number of fiction works, largely satirical of modern society or critical of the fascism rising at the time, were published under the name Murray Constantine. Because several of the works had a fairly strong focus on the status of women, it was speculated by critics at the time that they might have been written by a woman. This was discovered in the 1980s to be true; the author's real name was Katharine Burdekin. She had already written a few works, and possibly started publishing under a pseudonym to protect her family from any political repercussions that might arise from her more critical fiction. The best-known of these works, published in 1937, was the chilling work, Swastika Night. In 1937, Hitler was firmly in power, but the rest of the world was still trying to find a compromise with him that would allow peace. And Burdekin looked at it all, and asked the chilling question: What if you took the Nazis at their word? What if the Nazis got exactly what they had already said in public they wanted to get?

That's how you do real dystopia. The problem with Atwood's work was always that there is no one in the universe who actually wants a society that works like that; it's a patchwork of completely different views that don't come together in real life, you could never get enough people to accept it voluntarily, and the mechanisms she provides for it fall well short of being able to explain its existence. But a dystopia that really hits the mark is one that shows you exactly what people are aiming for, either intentionally or unintentionally. World War II had not quite begun. The full extent of Nazi atrocity had not yet been unveiled. But Swastika Night describes what various Nazi spokesmen and propagandists had already promised, and Burdekin really thinks through what would be involved. It has been noted that it has a lot of similarities to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, published twelve years later; as Orwell was an extensive adapter of ideas, it is almost certain that Swastika Night was one of its influences.

The story picks up seven hundred years into the thousand-year Reich. The entire world is divided between Germany and Japan. The Nazis have ruthlessly uprooted every history but the lies they want people to learn. Religion has been Hitlerized, with only some scattered Christian groups, without rights or status, barely surviving, repeating their faith in garbled form. The whole of society is built on the Mystery of Blood, with blond-haired, blue-eyed Germans as the master race. Everything has become subordinated to the state. It is a picture quite as dark as it sounds -- a long and terrible night of civilization.

And yet, unlike with most dystopias, there is hope. Even terribly flawed men can have a spark of something else inside. And there is one thing that can break the whole centuries-long nightmare, the thing that the Nazis had set out to eliminate in the first place. It can be obscured, cut down, smashed; sometimes nothing is left of it but a glimpse someone sees through a distorted mirror or out of the corner of their eye; but the real truth is very hard to destroy completely....

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