THE CUL­TURE PAGES

Sharp - - EDITOR’S LETTER - By Peter Salts­man

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.

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