2044 starts where George Orwell's 1984 left off. 1984 is about Big Brother and the leviathan government. But history didn't turn out that way. The government didn't take over. It got taken over.
Nowadays, the private sector is in control. Everything is produced en masse and for profit, from clothes to music to political campaigns. Amazon.com knows what I read. Exxon-Mobil drives our energy policy. ToysRUs tells my kids what they want.
2044 is sort of like a sequel, in a different direction. The bad guy is Big Brother Inc., and the all-powerful marketplace.
That's the setting. So what's the story?
The story is about water. Fresh water is scarce enough right now. By the year 2044, people will die and countries will go to war for water. The hero in 2044 discovers a cheap, easy way to take the salt out of seawater. The discovery could benefit millions - actually, billions - but it also threatens business interests who are happy the way things are.
Therein lies the plot.
Simply from looking at the world. Check out the fights over health care reform and the federal budget! Big Pharma gets this. Agribusiness gets that. Lockheed Martin gets the rest.
One day I said to myself, somebody should write a sequel to 1984, with the updated warning. The idea didn't go away. Eventually I stopped waiting. I decided to do it myself. My precise inspiration: "You've read a lot of crappy books. You can probably write one that's no worse."
I was aware that I was setting myself up to comparison to a master, and writing a sequel to a masterpiece — not a good setup. But I thought the 1984 —> 2084 notion would provide instant recognition and marketing traction — so I tried it. (My original idea was 2084, titled to keep the parallel. But upon setting to work, I thought 2084 was too far away. Readers would expect spaceships and Mars colonies. I considered 2024 but some people advised that it was too close, and readers would expect familiar characters and brands. So I settled on 2044, roughly the same distance out that 1984 was when Orwell wrote it).
I didn't find this book to have a happy ending. Was that a difficult decision to make? Americans love David and Goliath stories where the good guy ultimately triumphs.
Think back to the end of 1984. The hero loses. He betrays his love and his ideals. The final sentence is the kicker. "He loved Big Brother." That was my goal. (My book has occasional direct references or parallels to 1984. The opening and closing lines are among them).
Many people didn't like the ending, especially publishers. More than one agent told me they couldn't sell the book unless I changed the ending. Somehow, that seemed unfair to the great original."¨"¨The good news is that this book is intended as a warning, not a prediction. I like to think that the world will not end so unhappily. But it could. I want people to think about it.
People have lots of lousy choices in your book. They can be loyal employees, subsuming their own needs and desires for the good of the company, or they can buck the company and get obliterated in the process. Yet, even now, there are plenty of instances of innocents getting caught in the system and being destroyed.
Some cases in point: the targets of the DoJ under Bush, including the state's attorneys who got fired for not pursuing Democrats zealously enough. We have those investigated, and anyone connected to them, facing legal action, financial ruin and often jail time. We also have loyal workers whose employers have decided to ship their jobs overseas, often adding insult to injury by forcing them to train their overseas replacements. We have people with health insurance coverage who become sick, only to discover that they are suddenly out of luck. So, how different really is the present from what you describe thirty five years from now?
Yup, people face lousy choices people face now. The most troubling, to me, are not the honorable career prosecutors who lose their jobs after a White House purge - but the people who don't rise to that level. The millions of people working long hours for low wages, without sick leave or vacation time, slaving away at meaningless jobs for bosses who don't care. They can't choose to spend more time with their children or pursue an advanced degree. They can't advise the company about a more efficient way to stock inventory, even if they see one, or about how much improving the restroom would improve worker morale.
They wake up early to go to work, do their assigned task all day without complaint, get home in time to pay some bills and shuttle children to their next destination, then go out again for an evening shift at different job. In between, they catch maybe ten minutes of news. Probably on Fox. Probably some meaningless drivel about celebrities or division. Living in such a small cabin, choice becomes less meaningful.
Yes, it's like that now. But it could get worse. Every year it does.
One thing I try to do in 2044 is make the slavery more comfortable. It's not a naked dystopia of armed guards and overseers with whips. It's orderly and friendly. The world as one giant Walmart. As long as you punch your time card and put things back on the shelf, you'll be okay. You might even get a coupon for a free dessert.
Most people go along. That's what's spooky. That's what I try to take to the extreme ... and another thing about choices. People's choices these days are circumscribed in all kinds of ways. Even in our world of robust free speech, it's hard to find decent information and corporate media controls the airwaves. The latest Dan Brown novel is declared a "bestseller" before it even hits the bookshelves, as independent booksellers go out of business and new authors can't gain entry.
Consumer choice is the same. I wear eyeglasses, and prefer round lenses (think Ghandi or Harry Potter) but the world of fashion has decided that lenses should be oblong. So I have hundreds of choices of oval or rectangular, but nothing close to round. As Jessica realizes in Chapter 15, "A person at a table with five foods would freely choose the food they liked best - but the person with power was the one who set the table."
Let's break here, Eric. When we come back for the conclusion of our interview, we'll talk about how your experiences influenced your work and your writing.