We're still here!

 

It's January 3rd, 2000, and we're still here. Perhaps I just haven't noticed that the Beast has slunk into the frame and the four Horsemen have appeared on-screen. Perhaps Big Brother and his Thought Police will start to round up the misguided any minute now, and take them to Room 101 where the process of re-integration (learning, understanding and acceptance) will be completed.

But hang on a minute. Big Brother? That was 1984, which came and went 16 years ago. And even when the year 2000 dawned, people got up the next morning and put on the kettle for a nice cup of tea.

So what was all the fuss about, way back in 1949, when Orwell predicted a grey, drab world of fear and conformism, in which children are trained to betray their parents, and the Ministry of Love is controlled by violence? Seventeen years earlier, in 1932, Aldous Huxley had published Brave New World, his own vision of dystopia, projected 600 years into a future in which babies are not born but bottled as embryos and later decanted; in which the world language is English and where strawberry ice-cream and soma tablets have replaced the wafer and wine of the Christian communion service.

Although both men chose very different means of dealing with the same idea - Huxley's often witty absurdism is in contrast to Orwell's dark pessimism - each novel was derived from the same loathing for what had gone before and unease for what seemed to be on the way.

Both products of the dysfunctional Public School system - a prerequisite, perhaps, for early recognition of dysfunction in other spheres - Orwell and Huxley were born within 10 years of each other, either side of 1900. Both experienced the aftermath of the Great War, witnessed the debilitating unemployment of the masses in the 1920s and watched, with dread, the twin rises of capitalism and the right-wing. Small wonder that the future was a beast that had to be contained within the pages of a novel. Bringing the nightmare to life, they sought to warn others of what, to them, seemed inevitable.

However, there were other, more personal factors which contributed to this doom-laden vision. The middle years of Orwell's childhood were miserable. At the age of eight he was sent to a boarding school where he was beaten and humiliated for being a bed-wetter. Eton came next, followed by a stint in the Indian Imperial Police, from which he quickly resigned, preferring to devote himself to recording the lives of the oppressed rather than perpetuating the evils of colonialism.

In 1939, Orwell contracted tuberculosis. Six years later, his wife died. The following year, he went to live on the damp Scottish island of Jura - not a good move for someone with TB - and it was here that he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, remarking that it might not have been so gloomy had he been in better health. The book was published in 1949 and he died the following year, aged 57. All his life, he had been self-propelled towards misery and suffering. Nineteen Eighty-Four is the culmination of a literary life that could never be described as cheerful.

Huxley, too, endured personal suffering. A month after his arrival at Eton, his beloved mother died unexpectedly. Two months later, he fell victim to an eye disease which left him virtually blind - though this did not prevent him gaining a first at Balliol College, Oxford. Two years previously, his brother had committed suicide, bringing to three the number of major losses Huxley had endured before the age of 20.

Add to these personal tragedies the Wall Street crash, the rise of Hitler in Germany and of Mussolini in Italy and we have the seeds for a disaster novel sown in ground already fertile.

Ironically, Yeats had been moved in the other direction, viewing the Russian Revolution and the spread of Marxism as evils akin to the antichrist he expected to appear in the second millennium: And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

With his townie's dream of a bee-loud glade, his twitchy seance sessions and his ambivalent attitude towards the women he felt should be his partners, he completes the trio of renowned English-language writers who felt the world was heading for disaster.

Yet, here we are, at the end of the century, with Hitler defeated, the state of Israel set up, apartheid wiped out, Stalin knocked off his perch and a few other tyrants brought to book as well. Add to these the growing concern about the dominance of multinational corporations, the increasing global awareness of the sinfulness of child labour, of the iniquities of domestic violence, of the destructive nature of chemical farming, of logging, of over-fishing, of carcinogenic agents - and we have a world which, in parts, is far better than anything predicted by Yeats, Huxley or Orwell.

The parts that don't measure up - the Depression, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, homelessness and world-wide poverty - must continue to stand as indefensible. For the people who have lived and died through these terrible times, it is the written word made flesh. Yet there are some writers who have dealt with the future in a more ambiguous manner - which suggests the possibility of a resolution of personal as well as institutional conflict.

In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a novel in which the feminist voice is clearly heard, Offred - the main character - exists solely for reproductive purposes and her story (she is already dead at the start of the novel) survives due to a redemptive male voice. This is a major step forward from the portrayal of woman as Eve - which occurs in Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, the futuristic novel to which Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four owes so much.

In We, the mind of a docile, card-carrying mathematician is awakened by a seductive female called 1,103 - the archetypal devil woman. The different treatment is due not only to the gender of the authors but also to the times that were in it. Atwood's world was very different from the Russia of 1922 which was Zamyatin's. The most recent literary attempt to forecast the future has been Maggie Gee's The Ice People, a novel published last year in which women take over the running of the country, make as much a mess of it as the men did - with whom their relations are as cold and as bleak as the snow and ice which has enveloped the barren, childless land they inhabit.

Such despairing images of a future devoid of warmth are all excellent fodder for the doom and gloom merchants, who point triumphantly to the predictions that have already come to fruition: test-tube babies, surrogate parenthood, the creation of life in the laboratory, genetic engineering.

This is a road we could all walk while crying lack-a-day for the sins of our fathers but, as we cruise into the new Millennium in what can never be anything other than an imperfect world, my preferred toast is that affirming growl of Beckett's, a writer whose fineness of vision gave him a handle on the absurdity of the whole thing: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."