And maybe it is to Waits, rather than Orwell or Huxley, that we should look for wisdom on our current predicament. On Thursday, the N ew York Times published a wonderful series of interviews featuring Waits, Beck, and Kendrick Lamar, each speaking at some length on the subject of writing songs. Or approximately that: Waits, as is his habit, told a funny and poignant story that is true (and may even have happened) about his (purported) career as a fireman in his youth. After all the drills and practice, he was ready for something dramatic, and finally got called to his first fire. The air, he says, was full of the familiar smell of fried chicken: His squad had been called to a burning chicken farm, and Waits describes, in his poetic way, the poignant contrast between the couple watching their home and livelihood go up in literal flames while Waits and his fellow fireman made mad and hilarious efforts to hose down flaming chickens.
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The word utopia comes from Sir Thomas More’s novel Utopia (1516), and it is derived from Greek roots that could be translated to mean either “good place” or “no place.” Books that include descriptions of utopian societies were written long before More’s novel, however. Plato’s Republic is a prime example. Sometimes the societies described are meant to represent the perfect society, but sometimes utopias are created to satirize existing societies, or simply to speculate about what life might be like under different conditions. In the 1920s, just before Brave New World was written, a number of bitterly satirical novels were written to describe the horrors of a planned or totalitarian society. The societies they describe are called dystopias, places where things are badly awry. Either term, utopia or dystopia, could correctly be used to describe Brave New World.