Column: Dystopias are fantastic in fiction. But do you really want to live in one?
Just a few days until the election, and a writer’s thoughts naturally turn to dystopias.
Yes, dystopias — those stories where everything has gone to hell, hopefully in a compulsively readable way. Science fiction is the home genre of dystopian literature, and any knowledgeable student of the form can lay out dystopias for you like a car salesman can talk up his floor models:
Looking for classic dystopia? Here’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell! Want something newer? Take a gander at “The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi! One for the kids? Everyone loves Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”! Want zombies? Mira Grant’s “Feed” series is right up your alley! What? A religious dystopia? Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is calling to you! America on the rocks in a pseudo-historical dystopia? Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” is just the ticket! Classy dystopia? Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” won a Pulitzer, my friend!
All priced to move! All ready to drive off the lot! What will it take for me to get you in one of these imaginings of a world gone horrifyingly wrong?
Readers like dystopias for all sorts of reasons. Here are two: First, because dystopias inherently have drama in them: The world is either falling apart or has fallen apart and survival — or not — is the order of the day for our various protagonists. Which makes for fun and exciting reading.
Two, because dystopian literature lets us simulate our worst imaginings from the private security of our own homes, the better to avoid them in the real world. No need to actually live in a world where overpopulation has crashed the planet when Harry Harrison’s “Make Room! Make Room!” shows it’s not something we’d want. No need to live in a world of biological terror when Stephen King’s “The Stand” already lets you tour the carnage. Nuclear annihilation, the collapse of society, religious or political tyrannies — whatever you fear, science fiction gives you a chance to see it followed to its logical and horrible extreme, so you can say, “Well, now I know I don’t want that.”
Dystopias: A great place to be a tourist. Not a great place to be a permanent resident.
Which brings us to this presidential election.
Elections in the United States are always contentious events, but the 2016 presidential election is a humdinger of deplorable nastiness. It’s almost certain to go down in history as one of the most vicious, rivaled only by 1800’s joust between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and any presidential election featuring Andrew Jackson.
What makes this election different from those is that this is an election in which science fiction writers can look at the events on the ground and say, “Hold up, this looks a lot like the opening chapters of a dystopian novel.” Too many of the plot points are there.
Like what? Well:
A bigoted, ignorant would-be strongman as one of the main contenders for president? Check.
Light on policy specifics but heavy on cult of personality strategies? Check.
Who threatens his opponent with prison and expresses admiration for despots in other lands? Check.
Who lies constantly, including about the possibility of the election being rigged if he’s not elected? Check.
Whose followers are muttering publicly about a “revolution” if their man isn’t elected?
Which makes one wonder: Jeez, haven’t any of these followers ever read a dystopian novel? Don’t they get what they’re signing up for?
Actually, I suspect they have read one but didn’t realize it was a dystopian novel: “Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand, in which global civilization is actively destroyed by a sociopathic engineer and his chief executive friends because they feel underappreciated by the masses. The problem is Rand makes the sociopathic engineer the hero of her novel, and the readers root for the collapse of civilization and the inevitable death of billions. The way she writes it, it sounds like fun. I imagine the overlap of fans of that novel and the fans of a CEO candidate with “tear it all down” rhetoric and contempt for the actual democratic process of a civilized society is not insignificant.
(“But what about the other candidate?” I hear some of you cry. “She could lead us into a horrible dystopian future too!” OK, sure — one could posit a world where a leader’s secretive nature and hawkish tendencies lead us down a dark and regrettable path. But she’s not claiming the process is rigged, nor are her supporters talking about grabbing muskets if the election doesn’t go their way. Dystopias can happen regardless, but if you’re aiming for that scenario, you’re more likely to hit it.)
Dystopias are fun to read about but believing that it might be fine to burn down society in a fit of pique because you can’t have what you want — to cheer on a dystopia — is dangerous and sad. I mean, here’s a hot take: Life in the U.S. is pretty good right now. The economy is growing, wages are finally climbing, crime is at or near historic lows and we live in a new golden age of television. It’s not perfect, of course — it never is — but it’s not bad. Moreover, the presidential election of 2016 isn’t going to be rigged; such a thing is almost impossible to manage in our complicated and massively decentralized system.
A candidate lying about it all of this to salve his own ego, and his lieutenants and too many of his followers choosing to believe it, rather than simply accepting that the other candidate might get more votes — or just deciding that getting their way is more important than the legitimate process of democracy — is how fiction overtakes reality and how dystopia leaps off the page and onto the streets.
Pro tip from a science fiction writer: You don’t want to live in a dystopia. You’re not going to be the one of the ones living comfortably in the secret, high-tech gulch. You’re going to be the one in the cold and all the rest of us are going to be there with you. Leave the dystopias to the novelists and leave the fiction on the page.
Scalzi is the Hugo Award-winning author of “Redshirts” and “The Dispatcher.”
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