I never really thought of The Last Policeman and its sequels as being “dystopian”, but they have been put in that category—just as they have been put in the science-fiction category, though I never thought of them that way, either. The thing is, if you have a giant asteroid in your book, your book is sci-fi (like it or not), and if you have a slowly disintegrating government, your book is ipso facto dystopian.
Someone whose work perhaps fits more squarely into the genre is Adam Sternbergh, whose grim, riveting, and hysterical book Shovel Ready launched in hardcover this past January. (Although his book is also, like mine, a bit of a detective story—and, like mine, it’s in the first-person, present tense, a formal choice I find endlessly interesting…but that’s a whole other blog entry…) Adam is also a busy journalist, moving just now from a position at the New York Times Sunday magazine to one at New York Magazine.
He’s well positioned, then, as both author and cultural observer, to inform and enlighten on the subject of dystopias, both literary and actual.
I was originally going to hold forth on my love of crocuses (or croci), but then I realized Ben had already teased this post with the promise of something “creepy and dystopian.” And it’s true that I have a taste for all things postlapsarian, from Adam and Eve’s mishap with fruit to anything remotely zombie/virus/economic collapse/catastrophic weather event/dirty bomb-related, so here goes:
Imagine a story set in a world in which potentially irreversible climate change is threatening entire economies, coastlines, even countries. Now imagine a coastal city in that world that’s been ruled over by its single richest citizen for roughly the past 12 years. Imagine that this fabled city is increasingly split between the superrich and the also-rans — shiny new apartment towers rise, Babel-like, to unforeseen heights over the skyline, even as the city’s homelessness problem explodes down below in the streets, with some even taking to subterranean living in subway tunnels.
The other citizens of this city — those who subsist, barely, in the middle —make hardly any move to protest these developments; most of them either imagine they too will one day live in a glass penthouse, or they’re continually distracted by electronic devices that they carry on their persons at all times. These devices—which aren’t issued by the government, but which citizens purchase willingly at great expense—track their locations, their communications, their purchases, their preferences, their interests, their every whim. In exchange, the devices allow people to play a maddening game about grouchy fowl.
Thankfully, it’s not like the government is running secret programs that tracks all this ready information — oh wait, yes, it is. But it’s all done in the name of staving off a shadowy foreign enemy whose specter is evoked constantly. Meanwhile, native militias prepare — oh wait. I’m sorry. I got confused. The assignment was “creepy and dystopian,” not “creepy and non-fiction and now.”
As readers, we may be witnessing the advent of Peak Dystopia, at least as far as fiction is concerned — when my own quasi-dystopian* novel, SHOVEL READY, came out last January, it was released the very same day as another dystopian novel, SUCH A FULL SEA by Chang Rae Lee. (*I say quasi-dystopian because, on the Grand Dystopic Spectrum, it’s closer to, say, the bombed-out New York of “The Warriors” than it is to the baby-roasting wasteland of “The Road.”)
We not only have an abundance of dystopian YA novels, but we have competing dystopian YA novels that are almost identical in their premises. (Future society in which people are split into clans and forced to choose champions to fight in massive gladiatorial spectacles.)
You might think all this reflects some rising tide in our collective anxiety — that we’re telling ourselves so many dystopian stories because we’re unprecedentedly grim about our future. But is it really safe to assume we’re more pessimistic, or reflexively neurotic, than, say, the world that lived under the rise of fascism? Or the post-atomic threat of nuclear catastrophe? Or in a country openly split by tensions over civil rights that spilled into frequent and ugly violence? If anything, our recent age has been marked, in some corners at least, by a relentless, even gleeful, optimism — a belief that, thanks to all the recent technological advances, the future will be nothing but better, faster, shinier, more. So why are we also in such a freaking bad mood about tomorrow?
Maybe the answer lies in that opening parable, above — the details of which, of course, are not drawn from a pastiche of current dystopian fantasies, but from today’s most discomfiting current events. People who grew up with a Jetsons’ vision of the future — all robot dogs and flying cars — are constantly trying to figure out why things didn’t turn out as promised. But people who grew up (as I did) with visions of a darker future — post-Blade Runner, let’s say, though we could date it back to 2001, or 1984, or, hell, Brave New World — are left to figure out why so many things have turned out just like we were warned that they would.
I mean, we saw this coming, right? The video billboards and full-body scanners and instructions given in a creepily cold computer voice and the whole 24/7 surveillance state?
We were warned, and yet we couldn’t be bothered to step out of the way?
Today’s fictive dystopias aren’t about cashing in on a hot trend, or even reflecting some new plague of pessimism. It’s about doing what fiction, at its best, has always done: Grappling with the here and now. Sometimes that comes in the form of a novel written 150 years ago, yet which still perfectly captures the heartbreak of being denied a life with the one you love most. And sometimes in comes in the form of a story about a society that’s awfully similar to our own, if perhaps maybe two degrees more dystopic. If we’ve learned anything over the past 30 years, it’s that today’s dystopia can quickly become tomorrow’s reality. Before you can bring yourself to believe it, it’s already here.