Rereading 1984

By David Michael Newstead.

Last summer, I unexpectedly found a first edition of George Orwell’s 1984 in a used bookstore in Washington D.C. The novel had been buried in a pile of miscellaneous paperbacks, hiding in plain sight. For how long? I’m not sure. So when I realized what it was, I immediately grabbed it and headed to the register. I guess I was surprised to even see something that rare. Then again, finding the book in 2016 might have been an omen of things to come. Eagerly, I bought it and re-read it. The story, of course, was the same: Big Brother, the Thought Police, and the rest. The difference was that the world around me had changed since the last time I’d read it. It’s a book that only becomes more relevant with each passing day. And in some countries, it isn’t far from reality as it is.

Besides the narrative though, the paperback itself started to intrigue me: the look, the feel, how the pages smell, how it fits in my hands, the original cover art, and the signs of wear and tear from over the years. This particular copy was slightly beat up, but still in good condition for something printed in the late 1940s. And that’s when I thought about it more. Here’s an object – almost 70 years old now – that’s an analog relic in an increasingly digital world. It is a lingering connection to and a warning from the distant past. When it was first printed, World War Two had just finished and the Cold War was in its earliest stages.

Plenty has happened since then and who knows where this book was for all those years before I got it. Regardless, today some Orwellian themes are just a description of disturbing norms across the planet: widespread government surveillance, propaganda, and political doublespeak. Maybe the methods have been updated overtime, but there’s a reason 1984 and other dystopian novels have had skyrocketing sales lately. George Orwell, for his part, fought against fascism and oppression and passionately believed in objective truth. Safe to say, that battle continues.

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How Social Media Became Forbidden Planet

By David Michael Newstead.

What if a machine could manifest people’s thoughts? In the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (and the Crichton novel Sphere), scientists stumble onto a device like this. It’s of alien origins and it materializes thoughts into reality. Powerful and with limitless potential, the machine could make the world a better place. But instead of this device leading to a new and enlightened chapter in history, it just amplifies the worst parts of people’s psyche: fear, anger, paranoia. In the story, violence and chaos quickly ensue as the characters’ unconscious runs amok.

Unfortunately, the social media landscape is starting to look a lot like Forbidden Planet, more dangerous than it is enlightening. But when platforms like Twitter and Facebook first launched, the idea that they would one day be overrun with rabid misogynists, white supremacists, stalkers, personalized threats, and propaganda would have seemed far-fetched. We have this notion, after all, that technology always makes things better. In this case though, it’s like social media removed the polite veneer that masks everything under the surface of our culture: swallow materialism, intense insecurity, sexism, and racism. The problem didn’t start overnight, of course. No one joined Twitter thinking they were going to get doxed. But like a tidal wave, problems began moving from the comment section into the real world. And vice versa. Now, the carefree early days of social networking seem wildly naïve. And our optimistic vision of an interconnected world may be the biggest piece of science fiction of them all.

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The Wisdom of the X-Men

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By David Michael Newstead.

Way back in the 1990s, talking about the latest episode of X-Men was the thing to do in my elementary school cafeteria. In case you were wondering, Wolverine was most people’s favorite character. And even twenty years later, the Fox animated series still holds up pretty well. But while some of the social commentary was probably lost on me as a kid, the foundation of the X-Men franchise is hard to miss. X-Men is about mutants struggling to coexist with humans who are often fearful, suspicious, or hostile to their very existence.

This became the vehicle for numerous analogies to minority rights issues around the world such as racial and religious intolerance, ethnic cleansing, and more. The group’s leader, Professor X, is a Martin Luther King like figure, while characters like Magneto take a more radical and sometimes violent stance. There is a version of the KKK called the Friends of Humanity. And mutants everywhere often live in fear that the government is going to round them up at any moment.

Skip ahead to my adulthood and X-Men isn’t as fictional as it used to be. The X-Men were concerned about flying robots that could kill them, government databases tracking them, and something nefarious called the Mutant Registration Act. Today, the real tragedy is that I can copy and paste that last sentence almost verbatim and I’d be describing reality. But just as comic books and cartoon shows have gotten me this far in life, it’s worth considering how the X-Men confronted the challenges facing them.

  • First, working towards peace and mutual understanding is the way to go since violence only begets more violence.
  • Second, it’s important to remember that every team member has a backstory, a special talent, and a way of contributing to the cause.
  • And finally, the fight for equality never really ends – not in comic books and certainly not in life.

Over lunch nowadays, I guess things haven’t changed much since elementary school. People talk about the latest show they’ve been binge watching. They mention the characters they like and what they did over the weekend. But now current events make for a strange backdrop to every conversation. It’s a world that’s not so distant from the X-Men and where things go from here is up to us now.

 

My Failed Writing Projects

By David Michael Newstead.

This is a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kind of post. For many years, I’ve brainstormed a lot of different writing projects. And I followed through with some of those concepts, while other ideas just never materialized. I bring it up now, because some of the stories were supposed to be so weird that they’d be impossible. They were basically intended as a vehicle for conveying an interesting thought experiment about the world and the people in it. I would make elaborate notes on my idea and I tried to write some drafts, occasionally mentioning it to friends as a “What If?” or “Isn’t this clever?” But not really believing that the world would be where we are now. Two specific examples come to mind and I think they’re pretty relevant. The only problem is, there isn’t any reason to pursue these ideas anymore since the real world has already made whatever point I was trying to make and is far weirder than I could ever be!

The first was called Pangaea. And it was about if the prehistoric super-continent of Pangaea reformed overnight in modern times, reducing the Atlantic Ocean to a small river and closing the geographic distance that separates humanity. All of a sudden, Europe would be directly next to North Africa, Brazil would border Nigeria, and Morocco would sit just off the coast of South Carolina. Then as people began to realize what happened, cultures would clash. Refugees would pour into more affluent countries. Walls would be erected, but eventually the old order would breakdown against the unrelenting tide of change. The world would become more interconnected and globalized and hopefully things would change for the better.

The second was entitled Bat Shit Nation. And the main character was a paranoid, conspiracy theory loving member of the Birther movement who was trying to write a science fiction novel in his spare time. The idea being, the story would shift between the main character’s actual day-to-day life and his post-apocalyptic novel about America’s future. In his book, Barack Obama had become an African-style president-for-life who established a tyrannical left-wing kleptocracy and signed peace treaties with terrorist groups and dictatorships, while arresting his critics. And in this fictional future, any and every nightmare scenario had been realized, requiring a committed band of freedom fighters to come together and save the day. Of course, one of the jokes was that these conspiracy theories were absurd fiction. The other joke was that the main character was basically supposed to be a Bizarro version of myself – doing, saying, and believing the exact opposite of me at any given point in the story.

In both cases, reality defies all expectations. For one, Pangaea doesn’t have to reconstitute itself for cultures to clash or migrants to cross borders. And it turns out, conspiracy theories are standard fare these days and the main character from my story would probably work at the White House now. Today, plenty of people might wonder where we go from here. And far down on that priority list, I think it’s also worth asking what writing fiction even means in a post-truth world.