From politics to pop culture, the present feels more like a grim sci-fi version of reality than ever before. Welcome to Dystopia Now!, a collection of stories about our darkest timelines.
It’s tempting to say we live in a dystopia already. Actually, it’s tempting to say we live in all the dystopias already. Donald Trump’s persona manages to fuse so many classically dystopian insights that there’s very little in the genre that doesn’t seem, in one way or another, to predict him. He projects 1984’s sense of the big lie and the power of huge heads on screens; Brave New World’s sense that the real desire of modern society is not freedom but entertainment; The Hunger Games’s sense that a repressive order can be maintained through the purgative spectacle of reality TV; It Can’t Happen Here’s sense that populism is really the sheep’s craving for stronger wolves; Fahrenheit 451’s sense that free expression is the most dangerous enemy of social control; The Time Machine’s sense that upper-dwelling pale people are at risk of being eaten by lower-dwelling brown people; The Handmaid’s Tale’s sense that misogyny is still a dominant cultural force; and Planet of the Apes’s sense that it would be cool to bury the Statue of Liberty under thousands of tons of sand. Then there’s the whole strain of dystopian movies — call it the Mel Gibson, Leather Hamlet subgenre — that want you to think the best hope for a fallen Earth is one lone savior-badass paving the road to the future with the corpses of his enemies. Trump’s got that down, too.
Or take The Running Man. Do people still watch that movie? The Running Man stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a wrongly accused helicopter cop who has to slaughter his way through a violent reality-TV competition hosted by a deranged game-show emcee played by Richard Dawson. Outside, the world is burning after an apocalyptic economic collapse; on the show, convinced criminals battle WWE-esque enforcers in a fight for survival that turns civilizational collapse into fuel for runaway ratings. (The story is based on a novel by Stephen King, incidentally.) It’s 1987’s white-knuckle view of 2017, and Donald Trump — who started out as 1987’s white-knuckle view of itself — is every single male character in the movie. He’s the brutish cartoon-chainsaw killers (remember when he dabbled in pro wrestling?) and the grim hero snapping necks and one-liners to win over a hostile audience, and he’s the leering, mic-swinging host who wants you to be afraid, truly afraid, of the world outside your door — not because he plans to fix it, but because it means you’ll tune into his show.
I’m not playing cute slideshow-y games here. These qualities are literally the building blocks of Trump’s political success. One of the most common themes of dystopian fiction is that people are stupid easy to trick with obvious authoritarian tactics. A reasoned speech about how the color green, while a fine shade on the whole, has some qualities we should perhaps consider, perhaps with the result that we might deliberate upon the comparative advantage of blue — that’s boring and ineffective. But jab your jaw at the audience and growl “Green is blue now!” and half of them will look up at the jade sky and believe you. Responsible citizens in a democracy look at this as a reason to safeguard the traditions of free speech and debate. Trump looked at it and saw a roadmap.
So yes, it’s tempting to say dystopia is upon us. And some days, if you’re following the news with any degree of closeness, it can really feel that way. But one of the central characteristics of dystopian fiction, as opposed to real life, is that it’s never really about historical process. The moment of fatal transformation has already happened when the dystopian story begins. There was a Before, when things were different; now there is an After, when things have drastically and perhaps irreversibly changed. How we got from Before to After may be a question for which the story sketches an answer, but it’s rarely the central concern of the story itself. It’s background. What matters to the story is that the whole world has gone terribly wrong, and now here is a girl named Katniss with a bow.
Unlike utopias, dystopias tend to be projections into the future of cultural trends observable in the moment of their creation. The process goes something like this. One day a writer notices that people are spending a lot more time chewing gum. Gum sales are up. At the same time, no one reads Shakespeare anymore. Hmmm, the writer thinks, perhaps I can say something about this, via the medium of my Imagination. So she extrapolates a little, and imagines the world of 5,000 years from now, when gum-chewing is the basis of all human thought and culture. Temples of Gum proliferate in cities shaped like giant bubbles, their mindless inhabitants chewing like cattle to satisfy the whims of the Trident Overlords. If you’ve recently begun dabbling in gum yourself, this is scary to say the least. But the point isn’t to depict the world as it actually exists, or even as it might actually exist. The point is to depict this one aspect of modern society in a pure and exaggerated form, with all the other stuff — all the historical messiness and disagreement and false starts and stops, all the counter-gum voices and the people who prefer peppermints and the pockets of New Hampshire where they haven’t heard of gum at all — removed. The idea is that this clarity and lack of muddling detail will help us think about whatever the creator wants us to think about: freedom, entertainment, dusty leather jackets, etc.
(How this differs from utopian fiction should be pretty obvious. Utopian fiction, instead of projecting into the future the civilizational traits its creators worry we have too much of, tends to insert into the future the civilizational traits its creators think we don’t have enough of. Instead of Look how horrifying the world will be if you keep chewing all this gum, it says Look how perfect the world would be if only you ate more asparagus. The fact that the basic aim of both utopian fiction and dystopian fiction is to make the present look bad is one of those places where the human condition accidentally says a lot about itself.)
A dystopian world may be perceived as bad by its denizens (as in The Hunger Games), or they may perceive it as a lovely place to live (as in Brave New World), but there’s never any doubt that they live in the world of After. In real life, of course, the danger lies in the During — in the slide, the transition, the between-time when all those extraneous and unpredictable elements that dystopian fiction excludes might converge to change society for the worse. In a way, that’s a more urgent place to be than a dystopia, precisely because nothing is settled and everything can still be changed.
In the stories we’ll be publishing in this section this week, we look at some of the ways in which dystopian projections can help us understand our current moment of During, in its strangeness and uncertainty and stress. For many of us, if we’re lucky, it’s easy to say, “Well, I have plenty of food and Emma Watson is smart and cops are not actually kicking down the door — sorry, but you’re overreacting with this Trump/dystopia stuff.” But that’s precisely why thinking along these lines matters. Because the trouble with living in dystopia is that in real life, you almost never do.