Monday, December 07, 2009

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (7)

Writers who locate themselves outside the science-fiction genre tend to employ the dystopian mode when they write about the future. They don’t think of it as a real place - somewhere you can get to from here, somewhere that can be plausibly mapped and explored, somewhere that’s as varied and contradictory as the present. No, for them it’s a convenient blank screen on which they can project burlesques and dreadful warnings about the awful consequences of technological progress or the failure of a cherished ideology or the triumph of its antithesis. A place where the fears of the present are scaled up to nightmarish proportions.

In Britain, from the Second World War onwards, the best dystopian writing has been inflected with black comedy. Its futures are as seedy and down-at-heel; its tyrannies may be ruthless and absolute, but it’s underlain by the kind of petty rule-making and make-do-and-mend bureaucratic muddle that infected every British institution during and after the war. In the end, there isn’t much difference between 1984's Ministry of Truth and Brazil’s Ministry of Information (or, come to that, the real Ministry of Information).

Case in point: Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome: A Love Story. First published in 1941, its depiction of how the lives of the inhabitants of a sleepy Gloucestershire village are shattered when the neighbouring aerodrome takes control combines a comic coming-of-age story with an allegory about fascism. The narrator, Roy, is an orphan raised by the village’s Rector and his wife. Roy enjoys the uncomplicated life of the village, revolving around pub, church, and the feudal authority of the Squire, but also admires the aerodrome’s power and ruthless efficiency, and this ambivalence is exposed and reflected in every twist of the complex, soap-operatic plot. After the Rector is shot by Roy’s friend the Flight-Lieutenant during a machine-gun demonstration at the village Agricultural Show (‘I say, Roy, something rather rotten has happened. I’m afraid I’ve potted your old man.’), Roy is revolted by the brusque unfeeling funeral address by the aerodrome’s Air Vice-Marshall (imagine Peter Cook playing General Jack D. Ripper), but takes advantage of situation to get married to his sweetheart. Roy’s happiness is short-lived: he’s rapidly entangled in a love-triangle involving himself, his wife, and the Flight Lieutenant that’s complicated by the secret of his origins - which is also the key to the ideology of the Air Vice-Marshall, who takes Roy under his wing after Roy, at the urging of his sweetheart, joins up.

As Michael Moorcock points out in his introduction to the current Vintage edition of the novel, the violent and arrogant behaviour of the airmen in The Aerodrome is clearly modelled on Nazi Blackshirts, but the novel may also have been written in reaction the H.G. Wells’s Things to Come, in which global peace is maintained by a technocratic elite inspired by a mysterious airman. But although Warner was deeply suspicious of claims that science could solve all human problems, he was also a committed left-winger who at Oxford was part of W.H Auden and C. Day Lewis’s circle, and his portrayal of the village’s bucolic life is not suffused with the kind of rosy nostalgia peddled by reactionaries who love to quote Orwell out of context. There’s much drunkenness and casual violence, and the villagers accept the authority of the aerodrome with the same baffled, slightly resentful passivity with which they accepted the feudal authority of the Squire; Warner convincingly argues that it’s this very English quality (‘Mustn’t grumble.’) that makes us peculiarly susceptible to totalitarian rule.

After Roy joins the aerodrome’s cadres, the Air Vice-Marshall gives a long speech that parodies not only the power fantasies of German National Socialism, but also the kind of the technocratic solutions proposed by Wells and other left-wing intellectuals in the 1930s (or, indeed, a troubling number of science fiction novels):
‘Remember that we expect from you conduct of quite a different order from that of the mass of mankind. Your actions, when off duty, may appear and indeed should appear wholly irresponsible. Your purpose - to escape the bondage of time, to obtain mastery over yourselves, and thus over your environment - must never waver. You will discover, if you do not know already, from the course which have been arranged for you, the necessity for what we in this Force are in process of becoming, a new and more adequate race of men.
‘Please do not imagine, gentlemen, that I am speaking wildly. I mean precisely what I say and in course of time you will come to understand me more than you do at present... Science will show you that in our species the period of physical evolution is over. There remains the evolution, or rather the transformation, of consciousness and will, the escape from time, the mastery of self, a task which has in fact been attempted with some success by individuals at various periods, but which is now to be attempted by us all.’
There’s a great deal of calculating advice about dealing with women, too, which Roy fortunately ignores. The human mess of a second love-triangle, involving Roy, the Flight-Lieutenant, and Eusticia, the wife of the aerodrome’s chief scientist, and his discovery of the circumstances of his birth and the identity of his parents, brings him to a crux in which he rejects the Air Vice-Marshall’s ideology:
I began to see that this life, in spite of its drunkenness and its inefficiency, was wider and deeper than the activity in which we were constricted by the iron compulsion of the Air Vice-Marshal's ambition. It was a life whose very vagueness concealed a wealth of opportunity, whose uncertainty called for adventure, whose aspects were innumerable and varied as the changes of light and colour throughout the year. It was a life whose unwieldiness was the consequence of its immensity. No skill could precisely calculate the effects of any action, and all action was dangerous.
At the end, after the Air Vice-Marshall’s dreams of power are curtailed by a very human act of revenge, and Roy realises that although the new order has been broken, the old order could never be restored. Like all good dystopian novels, The Aerodrome doesn’t describe in any kind of detail the new world that rises out of the ashes of the old, but its last pages, and its thrillingly beautiful last line, exactly catch the postwar idealism that swept Churchill from office and put in his place Attlee’s Labour government, which promised to build a New Jerusalem on the ruins of the old order. That it didn’t succeed, (although it did, amongst other things, create the National Health Service), is also prefigured in Warner’s fine dystopian allegory.


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