Review: Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen

Disclosure: I got an ARC of this book for free through the Librarything Early Readers program.

(Am I endorsing ABBA? No… but this is a book about the 70s, and mentions this performance specifically. It weirds me out that this performance was something like a month after I was born… so amateur, and yet, somehow it annoys me less than, say, Lady Gaga or whatever else young people listen to bob their heads to now. Yes, yes, I’m sure it’s just childhood exposure.)

The title says it all: I knew Philip K. Dick was a big paranoiac back in the day. I had no idea how representative he was of general culture across the Anglophone world in the 1970s. Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed paints a shockingly clear picture of a badly-dressed and even worse-wallpapered era.

The 70s: I was born then, and almost halfway into the decade, so while I grew up amid the detritus of that decade, I never formed a clear picture of it as anything but the time before the 80s. As Wheen writes near the end of the book, “If the 1960s were a wild weekend and the 1980s a hectic day at the office, the 1970s were a long Sunday evening in winter, with cold leftovers for supper and a power cut expected at any moment.”

This book, basically, blew my mind. All that stuff about Richard Nixon? The blossoming of conspiracy theories in the USA about Kennedy’s assassination? The Baader-Meinhof Complex? (Yes, I saw the film.) The flowering of all kinds of nutball conspiracies against government and mainstream society by paranoiacs, and the converse paranoia on the side of law enforcement about the nutter conspiracists? A number of governments run by kooks — Wheen discusses Mao, Idi Amin, but also Nixon and several unfortunately batty British Prime Ministers — and a pop culture saturated by paranoiac fantasies and, more chillingly, paranoiac realities? And at the same time, a Britain that would prosecute indie magazine makers for the same crime that got Socrates killed, while mainstream magazines sported more skin than ever before? Uri bloody Geller?

I had no idea British life in the 1970s was so dominated by power cuts and the need of candles. I had no idea the popcultural explosion of New Age and of pseudoscientific trash in the 1970s was so tied to bigger cultural trends, to the paranoia of the movies, the nervous breakdown that modernity apparently underwent in the 1970s. I had no idea, in other words, that Philip K. Dick was such a good representative of (though obviously not a product of) this era.

In a sense, the 1980s now make a kind of sad, sick sense. Not that it excuses Reagan, Reaganomics, the haircuts or the ugly sweaters or the crappy music. But I get it, now, how a culture could end up like that. And Wheen’s right to hold his mirror at two different angles: yes, the 1970s do look something like the paranoiac, fantasy madmanland that is North Korea… but also look like the increasingly schitzo mainstream of today.

I personally can’t help but wonder how our own time will look 40 years from now: the constant prattling about terrorists and terrorism (and the rights we’ve given away in fear of them); the economic insanity — mortgages on houses did what? — and the vapid consumption of fossil fuels; the idiotic willful ignorance of climate change and the vapid ranting about president’s birth certificates; the collapse of many things that should not have had to collapse, sung to the tune of ABBA and Paulo de Carvalho and played out in three-day weeks (holy crap! really?).

Wheen’s book is funny, and scary, and quite sad at all at once. It felt like science fiction to read, and it feels like science fiction when I hold it up to reflect our world today. Yes, uneasy familarity, an eerie sense of, “Damn, forget been-there-done-that, we are now being-there-doing-that even as I read this!” But more… one begins to wonder if human beings are always this bloody ridiculous, this bloody bizarre. There’s a beauty to it, but it recalls, for me, Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. Wheen’s book reads like an alternate history of one of those doomed civilizations, which somehow averted disaster at this point only to crash into it full throttle a century or so later.

One wonders, with a smile on one’s face that might baffle one if it were less obvious that Wheen put it there, whether this old species can manage one or two more such feats of avoidance. But if we are whiling away the last bit of time before oblivion, then this is the book to read to figure it out. Not why… just, whether the writing was on the wall before, where it was, and what the exact words were.

But don’t blame me if it leaves you with a hankering for more Wheen, or, perhaps, a little PK Dick. It certainly has me eager to read his How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World as well as, more surely, his biography of Marx.

2 thoughts on “Review: Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen

  1. No worries! I hope you enjoy it. I am looking forward to getting into his book about the 1980s as well, sometime… but not for now. I have plenty of books to look at for the moment.

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