Over at Schlock Magazine they are celebrating Dickens’ Bicentennial, his birthday was February 7, 1812, with a series of stories and a podcast that will be coming soon. Please check out “The Old Curiosity Schlock” set of illustrations and photographs at: http://schlockmagazine.net/
For the upcoming Schlock podcast the crew was contemplating connections between Dickens and Cyberpunk. I sat and thought about similarities between the two and came to the conclusion:
George Orwell is the Link Between Charles Dickens and Cyberpunk
Nothing is disconnected. Everything is part of a greater ecology. George Orwell is the link between Charles Dickens and the dystopic vision of science fiction that was ushered in with the postmodern science fiction genre of cyberpunk. George Orwell was the penname for Eric Arthur Blair who lived from 1903 to 1950. His seminal novel 1984 was published in 1949. Orwell’s works concerned social injustice and an opposition to totalitarianism. Orwellian has become a synonym for totalitarian.
While Dickens was very popular during his lifetime and was followed on book tours like a superstar, after his lifetime his literary reputation declined. For a long time he was considered a good read for children and young adults. The Russian novelists were considered superior and serious literary material, which is ironic because many of them drew inspiration from Dickens. Dickens’ was brought back into the literary canon of academic consideration because of essays written by George Orwell. The link between the two authors is easily made. Many of Dickens’ works, while written with humor, concerned the living conditions and the stratification of society during his lifetime. Throughout the eighteenth century London became more and more stratified with the poor shoved into the squalid section in East London and separated from merchant, professional, and gentry classes in the western part of the city. Gin shops were plentiful. The industrialization and urbanization of London swallowed swaths of the city, as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1854 “a squirrel would scarcely find a single tree to climb upon. All is pavement and brick buildings now.” The textile industry was the focus of the Industrial Revolution and the overcrowded, filthy slums of Victorian England sprung up to supply labor to the factories and mills. In 1851 half the population of England was crowded into London. Every room available was rented and often to a whole family. Sewers ran down the narrow streets. People took whatever work was available and even children as young as four or five worked in the factories for the few pence that would buy them food. Hordes of orphaned children were either brought into the workhouses to man the textile mills and factories or roamed the streets. Charles Dickens wrote about the conditions of his time. His novel Oliver Twist is about these children. He highlighted the deplorable condition of their lives while still making the subject matter readable. He discussed social injustice indirectly in his works and his villains were embodiments of Industrial totalitarianism.
Flashing forward to the 1980’s, the decade of Orwell’s 1984, a new postmodern literary movement started. Science fiction has always considered the future and technology, but in the 1980s this vision changed. Cyberpunk features the advanced science and technology typical of science fiction, but it also includes a radical breakdown in the social order. Totalitarianism is present in this Orwellian future that features such things as humans augmented with cybernetics and a meshing of the virtual world with physical reality. Government is ineffectual and subordinated to secretive mega-corporations that control and run everything. The conditions are a modernized version of Dickens’ London. The vision of the setting of cyberpunk is that of Blade Runner. Overcrowded, squalid streets. Violence. A place where life is cheap and you could imagine a child’s life being worth only the few pence for them to do a day’s work as it was in Dickens’ London. The vision is consuming and pessimistic. While both Dickens’ London and the world of cyberpunk could be said to be Orwellian, the vision of cyberpunk is far more amorphous, pervasive, and entrenched. Dickens’ villains are people who can be fought. How does a hero fight a networked and largely unseen corporation that not even the governments of the world have any control over? The villains of science fiction changed from being personal to being systemic.
Arthur Eric Blair’s definition of totalitarianism evolved beyond his Orwellian vision and rose up in the 1980’s to show how humanity could marginalize itself beyond mere exploitation to a vision that questioned what it was to be human and if this entailed any rights at all. In remembering Dickens I think it is important to remember what he was writing about and commentating on. It shows not only the conditions of his time but the ethics and morality of the mindset that would comment on those conditions. From the tragedies of the Victorian mills and textile factories came the first of the child labor laws restricting the length of a work day for children. Out of the horrors of the Victorian mines came child labor laws forbidding children under the age of 10 from going into the mines. Orwell gravitated to Dickens because he saw a kindred spirit. 1984 was published as the Truman loyalty-security measures that lead to McCarthyism were ramping up. The novel reflects the times it was written in—the rise of Mao, the Soviet Union testing an atomic bomb, and the fear of communism. It was a different kind of totalitarianism and 1984 was written not to predict the future but to prevent the future it portrayed.
In the 1980s the world also began to change, the first inklings of the power of computers to transform the world were just becoming apparent. Ronald Reagan was ushering in a new political paradigm that undermined labor and gave special tax privileges to corporations and the wealthy. The world and ethos of the 1980s and cyberpunk can be compared to the world of Dickens and both can be put in a framework of the social conditions that they represent. The future written of in science fiction from the 1980s changed and became scarier and less easily thwarted. It became much more pessimistic and subtle in its totalitarianism. How does one fight a system that is uncaring and all powerful? The comparison between Dickens, Orwell, and the science fiction that arose in the 1980s shows the reflections of what it is to be human in each temporal period, what the social conditions were and what moral boundaries were in place, and the mindset of the period that allowed the reflection and presentation of these contemplations. Just as Dickens’ novels illustrated the problems of poverty and child labor, cyberpunk showed problems with a world where people had little real control over their lives, governments had no ability to protect citizens, advanced technology was integrated into everyday existence, and only the wealthy had any real rights.
Does history simply repeat itself? Does social injustice and reforms move in constant cycles? Does exploitation get curbed and then reinvent itself? Following the cycles of history from Dickens to Orwell to cyberpunk one would have to say yes. Hopefully as the reforms restricting child labor in Dickens’ time came about, the reforms necessary to prevent a future such as that found in cyberpunk are yet to come.