THE CULTURE PAGES
Dystopian fiction is, not surprisingly, making a comeback. Turns out that’s not such a bad thing.
April’s dystopian fiction arrives at the right time
IIN THE WEEKS after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, Nineteen Eighty-four was the most-searched, most-sold book on amazon.com. George Orwell’s 68-year-old novel instantly became one of the most talked-about books of the year. And for good reason.
Nineteen Eighty-four was published during the dark, tense aftermath of World War II; the Allies had just defeated one maniacal strongman and, as Western Europe struggled to put itself back together again, democratic nations were forced to confront the true nature of another, this time in the form of Joseph Stalin and his increasingly malevolent Soviet regime. Orwell’s book imagined a depraved — but not so unrealistic — future, one in which the former Great Britain (and much of the world) is ruled by a tyrannical government under the watchful eye of Big Brother. Citizens are monitored and surveilled. Free thought and individualism is outlawed and persecuted. Propaganda reigns.
Many who disdained Trump’s first actions — including a spate of malicious executive orders — found solace, or at least understanding, in Orwell’s novel. He may have had the dates wrong, but his vision of unbridled authoritarianism and devastating nationalism was prescient. It was meant as a cautionary tale. Well, we’re listening now.
In fact, dystopian worlds feature prominently in this spring’s slate of cultural offerings. Though most of these new novels, movies, and television shows were conceived — and in some cases produced — long before Trump was even elected, they are evidence of a changing tide in American politics, and a fear in the hearts of (typically left-leaning) culture-makers everywhere. Had the election gone the other way, these works would have been merely theoretical. But that’s the thing about context: it’s inherited, not chosen. Here, in the twilight of Trump’s first hundred days in office, these works can only be read from the darkest perspective, a future most of us never thought we’d be living in. And the future as portrayed on our screens looks undeniably bleak.
On the relatively mild side of the dystopian spectrum is The Circle, a movie adaptation of the 2013 Dave Eggers novel of the same name that imagines a Big Brother-like future in the making. The story takes place in a simulacrum of Silicon Valley, a world where technological progress is privileged above all else. Mae (played by Emma Watson in the movie version) lands a job at The Circle, a tech company whose products — especially the eponymous Circle — are built for constant surveillance and privacy-derailing data collection.
Of course, in a world without privacy, someone is inevitably watching. As Mae finds out — almost too late — the technological advancement she’s been promoting is being used for nefarious purposes; a totalitarian regime is poised to take over the government, using this constant digital surveillance to keep the population in check. The movie ends before all hell has a chance to adequately break loose — but not before offering a glimpse into how that can happen when we let down our collective guard.
Further down the speculative line, April also sees the release of The Handmaid’s Tale, an adaptation of the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood. The book first appeared at the height of Reagan-era conservatism and the outsized influence of the Christian Right, and it instantly made Atwood famous as both a literary stylist and a cunning social commentator. In her world, the United States has been overtaken by an ultra-religious totalitarian regime and becomes The Republic of Gilead. The new country is governed by perverted Old Testament laws; secret police patrol the streets; women are subjugated and abused; pollution and disease run rampant, and have made much of society infertile.
The mini-series stars Elizabeth Moss as Offred, a woman snatched from her peaceful pre-gilead life and sentenced to servitude as a handmaid. As a rare fertile woman, she’s handed over to The Commander and his wife Serena Joy (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski)
to take care of the household and, ultimately, produce a child.
In 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale takes on an entirely new context. Reproductive rights featured prominently in Trump’s campaign (though there’s little evidence to suggest he fully understands what he’s talking about on the issue); he has made every effort to appease religious voters by limiting the rights of women, and has said he would look at repealing Roe v. Wade. One of Trump’s first executive orders, just days after he assumed the presidency, was to suspend money going to international organizations that perform or advocate for abortions. From this vantage point, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which women don’t have any say over their reproductive organs. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which hardline, ultra-conservative politics rule the day.
Then again, Offred is not a passive victim. She aligns herself with a resistance movement, and fights against the oppressive regime. She is a heroine — of the kind many millions of women around the world became when they marched against Donald Trump on the first full day of his presidency.
The main lesson so far from the election is just how divided a country America really is. Factions on the right and left have never been so partisan, and never so much at odds. It’s a dangerous position. The journalist-turned-novelist Omar El Akkad takes this one step further. In his new novel, American War (published by Mclelland and Stewart, out this month), the United States of the 2080s is in the midst of its second civil war. The conflict emerged out of changing energy policies and an outright federal ban on fossil fuels — which the north supported and the south protested. Climate change has ravaged the country, flooding low-lying coastal areas, displacing millions of people, and bringing with it disease and destruction. El Akkad imagines a world that is not so far fetched (especially as Trump moves to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency and continues to deny the existence of climate change). It’s a dark vision, even for those inclined to believe doomsday scenarios. But like many other cultural touchstones this month, the novel solicits one indisputable rallying cry: watch out. The present may not be what we imagined — it may be grim and even scary — but the future is, ultimately, up to us.