Local author’s dystopian political novella will ring with familiarity

It has been nearly 70 years since George Orwell published 1984, and so profound was its impact, it’s now nearly impossible to imagine a literary landscape in which his insidious dystopian allegory was not around to inform every futuristic, cautionary tale that followed. Orwell’s book was a “next logical conclusion” premise extended to the Nth degree: how far would society go if there were no constraints on the power of the state? Books (and inevitable movies) like this always feel exaggerated in their time; it’s only later when they usually reveal themselves as prescient. Everything from Network to Blade Runner to The Truman Show seems outrageous …. until you tune into FoxNews, or visit Tokyo, or watch Big Brother (which, of course, was named for a concept in 1984).

Elaine Liner — a Dallas native with an estimable writing pedigree in journalism — is a smart lady. She’s read Orwell. And Ray Bradbury and Shakespeare. Even more, she’s woke — politically savvy and trenchant in her Cassandra-like pronunciations, which coalesce in the intentionally referential novella 2084 (available online in print and e-book forms). She even subtitles it An American Parable, as if to shake the readers by the shoulders to say, “I’m not kidding here!! PAY ATTENTION!”

What she posits is a world of the not-so-distant future in an America run as a right wing Christian theocracy. The nation’s capital has been renamed Jesus City. Prayers are enforced five times a day by siren-and-loudspeaker dictate; subversives (basically anyone expressing a non-state-approved opinion) are sent to “retraining camps” for “creatives,” from which they never return. Sound outrageous? Then consider the backlash to taking down confederate monuments, or how minarets are used even in Muslim countries, or gander at North Korea (and even the United States’ own penal system) and get back to me.

Liner slathers it on thick, but with clear purpose. The evil overlord is named Rex Evangeline (“Rex” is Latin for king, of course, though he is putatively the president). The heroine’s best friend is Winton Nesmith, a near anagram of 1984’s hero Winston Smith. She wants you to “get” it quick, and pick up the comparisons to Orwell — it helps with the heavy lifting when the readers’ pumps have been primed with suspicion and nervous anticipation of what the future holds if insanity continues to prevail politically. The messages in 2084 are not subtle; subtlety is for people who have time to spare. Liner is saying, “We don’t.”

The anti-Jesus-freak sentiment runs deep in the book. Our young heroine, Katnis… I mean, Waring Foster has known little of life that wasn’t state-run, fake-news, privacy-denying autocracy. And yet, she craves more. She’s still hopeful that her parents will return from their gulag, though she acknowledges that no one ever has. She’s not a cynic — she’s Anne Frank, believing in the good of mankind while Nazis stalk Jews in the streets of Amsterdam.

I think Liner could have dialed back the elbowing slightly with misdirection (like she does when anti-privacy laws are passed under the name Privacy Protection Act, or describing torture as “laying on of hands” or worse, “baptism”). But Liner paints word pictures with deft and evocative writing. “Like all buildings in the capital city, the main branch of the Bureau of Encouragement was both grand and sinister,” she opens one chapter, and you’re hooked. The plotting is brisk and inventive, the imagery evocative (although the twist that the jacket promised I’d “never see coming” … I did). There’s even a gay thread that she sneaks in, because of course sexual orientation is not up for debate in Trumplandia… well, Jesus City. Same diff. Just look to our vice president, and tell me you don’t see the potential for her ideas to become reality. It’s enough to make you vote.            

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 15, 2017.