I thought we were done with utopias and dystopias, but...here we are again.
Angmar sent me a comment this week about contemporary dystopias (and there are so many I didn’t want to touch them because I know I haven’t read the ones you’ve read and there’s so little guidance about what’s good and I can’t remember their titles and I packed the damn things in boxes last year when I cleaned out my library and they’re in the barn and it’ll take me a day to find them and when I do I just know they won’t be the ones you’ve read so we’ll be talking past each other and I hate run-on sentences don’t you and his heart was going mad and I said yes I will Yes)
Anyway, two holdovers from last week kept plucking at my sleeve. One was Angmar’s prescient query (thanks, Angmar!) about whether people write dystopias in good times and need diversion in bad times; the other was the artificial separation I imposed between lived reality and literature. For the purposes of discussions of the literature, the latter makes sense, but at the end of the discussion we’re left with an unsatisfied itch: yes, it’s true that Huxley’s Brave New World is more analogous to our current culture than Orwell’s 1984, but 1984 is the scarier vision, bleaker and more emotionally relevant to our current national mood. Why shouldn’t we talk about panoptics and the intersection of literature and social reality? We should. So tonight we can do that.
After all, in two weeks American culture has been turned inside out and everything whipsawed so quickly that we haven’t even begun to catch up. Orwell tops the bestseller list, “serious people” are talking seriously about abolishing the average citizen’s rights to everything from privacy and opportunity to voting and the right to see publicly-funded information. Matt Stone and Trey Parker from South Park announced they will no longer satirize Donald Trump, not because they’re afraid of reprisal but because they can’t keep up—the President of the United States beats our greatest national satirists in pushing the outrage envelope.
So tonight, please feel free to draw lines between fiction and reality. It’ll be cathartic. It’ll also recharge our collective batteries and develop contemporary reading lists that can’t be beat.
That’s the Second Point, but What About the First?
Yes, the first point, the one Angmar posed, (dystopias for the good times, escapism for the bad) I think there’s something to it. When we’re hip-deep in sewage, we don’t need art to tell us how we got there—we need art to point the way out. As Ursula Le Guin said, we need artists of the greater reality, artists of the imagination, to sustain us in hard times. Don’t think of it as escapism—think of it as nourishing the spirit.
But dystopias in good times, dystopias as harbingers—that view of the literature makes a lot of sense.
Dystopias are not meant to be reflections of current conditions (Young Adult dystopias notwithstanding ) but warnings about potential future realities. After all, Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 (and the link leads, not directly to the novel [which is available everywhere] but to Atwood’s retrospective about the book and its meaning. In 1985 Christian Dominionism was not a political force, not yet. Back then Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was starting to take over evangelical Christianity and impose its own peculiar interpretation of scripture. [An aside: the rebranding of evangelical faith, the rise of the 700 Club, and the promotion of televangelism also gave Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman pause, and inspired him to investigate the many ways through history that the Gospels have been mistranslated to suit someone’s political agenda in a breezy tour of textual scholarship, Misquoting Jesus. Terrific book—you’ll learn a lot even if you go into it resolved not to absorb anything. I recommend it highly.]
Anyway, back to the main point—Atwood saw where mainstream evangelical Christianity could go, recognized nascent Dominionism, and warned us about it in The Handmaid’s Tale. When we read Atwood, we don’t expect that Gilead will replace the US government. But when Mike Pence starts talking about women’s roles in society, we remember Offred and ideally we will rise up to make sure that particular circle of hell doesn’t manifest on earth. And in the worst case scenario (think President Pence) Atwood’s postscript in The Handmaid’s Tale assures us that the nation of Gilead was a temporary aberration and a situation that could not endure. It’s intended to comfort us.
At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Pondering which point has brought me around to what I particularly don’t like about dystopias: they’re didactic.
If you spend much time looking at the history of literature, you’ll identify two poles that mark the extremes in justifying the reading and writing of fiction. On the ancient side, you have didacticism—the art of teaching, of instructing under cover of entertainment; it served as justification for thousands of third-rate novels from the Eighteenth century to the present day. If you want to see its modern incarnation, go to a Christian bookstore and ask for a good novel. I guarantee you won’t get C. S. Lewis, but you might be handed Rachel Hauck. The market for Christian novels is built around teaching moral lessons first, providing a compelling read second. Very traditional. It goes all the way back to Aesop and Aeschylus.
As a piece of the Nineteenth-Century Aesthetic Movement’s revolt against “useful literature,” came along Oscar Wilde, the poster child of the “Art for Art’s Sake” school of thought. To the Aesthetics, art should not be primarily useful; it was far more important that it be beautiful, beautifully-wrought, delightfully-constructed, to the point where Wilde could spend a whole day contemplating the placement of a comma in one of his poems, and not be facetious about it.
Most literature steers between the two poles—seeking to be relevant to readers while also entertaining. The act of reading fiction today is primarily an aesthetic one, and most literary writers hew closer to the Ars gratia artis pole.
Who writes closer to didacticism? Dystopists. And propagandists. And sometimes there’s crossover. There has to be; if you’re writing to warn of a certain outcome, given current social trends, you risk sliding into Galt’s Gulch of Propaganda.
I want to be clear—I am not saying that all dystopic fiction is propaganda, although I’m not above implying that some of the not-very-good dystopias I’ve read recently would fall into that category. I had a run of a half-dozen unmemorable ecologic dystopias last year that left me in a bad mood, indeed. All of them were about the effects of global warming—increased civil unrest, scarcity of goods, rationing of water, brutal repression of the masses, overpopulation, pollution. None of the authors (who shall remain nameless) were guilty of overt commercialism, and some of the books weren’t terribly written. But all of them sacrificed art for message; they were polemics, not novels, and I was ready to wash my hands of the whole mess.
But then Angmar sent me a link to a roundup of contemporary dystopias that look….well, they look good. More than that, they look important, and apparently they take seriously the mission of fiction to delight as well as instruct. I haven’t read any of them yet, but I will.
If you’re not inclined to follow the link Simon Willmet’s roundup of digital dystopias (book, film, small screen and video games) the recommendations include Gary Shteyngart Super Sad True Love Story, Dave Eggers’ The Circle, Andri Snaer Magnason’s Lovestar, and the British series Black Mirror available in the US on Netflix, which wins my personal Red Serling Award for Postmodern Creepiness. In these novels, as well as in many of the episodes of Black Mirror, government is not the controlling force in the dystopia, but corporations which have taken their place. Of the novels, The Circle has gotten most of the buzz, and is the basis for a major film to be released later this year. It’s garnered significant critical attention, too, including reviews from Edward Docx and Margaret Atwood herself, in a spoiler-filled review that is well worth reading, if you don’t mind spoilers. [Note: Brecht, be warned.]
In The Circle, the controlling force is a corporation strikingly akin to Google, and may indeed be meant to send-up Google’s stated goal of collecting and organizing all the information in the world, Atwood writes of the corporate image:
Both the reader and Mae [the protagonist] encounter the Circle first through its logo, which is obligingly depicted on the book’s cover and then described through Mae’s eyes: “Though the company was less than six years old, its name and logo—a circle surrounding a knitted grid, with a small ‘c’ in the center—were already the best-known in the world.” Looked at by someone unfamiliar with it, the logo would surely suggest a manhole cover. I certainly hope Eggers intended this: as a flat disc, the thing might imply a moon or a sun or a mandala—something shining and cosmic and quasi-religious—but as a portal to dark, sulphurous, Plutonian tunnels it is much more resonant.
Finally, and recognizing the cross-pollination between books, film and gaming, Willmet reviews Playdead’s game Inside as a great example of a game that “do[es]n’t just imagine surveillance, but force[s] the player to experience it.”
In wrapping up my thoughts about contemporary dystopias, from the digital dystopias anticipated by Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and fulfilled in Black Mirror, I keep coming back to the essential questions: why do we read them? what’s their real function? And most importantly, as our own social outlook trends toward dictatorship and corruption of the American experiment itself, do dystopias give us tools to endure and triumph? They might not be especially pleasant to read, but do current conditions justify the investment?
That remains an open question. Still, it’s important to remember that the worst injustice a writer can imagine doesn’t endure forever. Cormac McCarthy nothwithstanding, and just as Samwise recognizes that, “Above all shadows rides the Sun,/And stars forever dwell,” Atwood notes that
Even Nineteen Eighty-Four, that darkest of literary visions, does not end with a boot stamping on a human face for ever, or with a broken Winston Smith feeling a drunken love for Big Brother, but with an essay about the regime written in the past tense and in standard English.
Even The Road, that most apocalyptic novel of its dark fraternity, ends with a gleam of hope. Although the father dies, the boy is saved, and where there’s life, there’s hope.