“The work is never finished. The work will never be finished. There will never be a nice, comfortable utopia where we can rest on our laurels and sip strawberry daiquiris by the pool and trust that now things are Fine and we can all relax. Utopia is not a stable system. It doesn’t last. The best we can hope for is five minutes, an hour.”
TCJ: I talked to a sci-fi editor at Tor in late 2016 about dystopias and their popularity in eras fraught with political disaster, and he said something that stuck out to me: “I think one of the underrated reasons that people read science fiction in particular is that it’s a great tool for figuring out what you think about how the world works.” Do you think that’s true? And if you do, what, after all these years, have you figured out?
WE: I do think that is largely true. Speculative fiction is an early warning station for heavy weather, that tests what might happen if lightning strikes at a certain place. In that operation, it exposes systems, from different angles, and asks you what you might think about them.
I could refer to [my] previous answer. I learned from fiction and from personal experience that systems are always more complex and more fragile than you think they are.
The thing about dystopias […] is that they also make more engaging stories than utopia. A utopia, by its nature, is absent conflict, and conflict, as everybody who ever wrote a book about screenwriting will tell you, generates drama. One thing about Transmetropolitan that I never got was that people called it a dystopia, whereas I just considered it the present day writ large, with joys and pains.
The important part of that quote of yours is that [speculative fiction is] a tool. Not the truth. Dystopias distort some central parts of the present condition so that we can see them better, and what they might swell into. But they’re still a distortion. You need to learn, for yourself, how to use the tool and avoid parallax error.
His comment re: Transmet is illuminating: I suspect that the ambivalence of that series is exactly what has made it such an enduring favourite, for me and for others. It’s neither threat nor promise — and that’s a difficult line to walk, in writing as in thinking.
I’m not making the facile if true observation that the contents of stories are lies, of one kind or another (that there is no such person as Oliver Twist, say; or that neither Hogwart’s School nor the subjects it teaches are real—you know: the obvious stuff). Nor am I presenting the equally facile observation that the morals or implications of stories are often mendacious (reality licenses us to disbelieve, to pick a few examples: that the course of true love never runs smooth; that guns are exciting and empowering or that the universe cares what choices we make) although as a matter of fact they generally are. My point is that the form of ‘the story’ as such is ontologically deceitful. The underlying logic of stories is conflict (no conflict, no drama; no drama, nothing interesting to storify) and this, by and large, is not the underlying logic of the universe. If I had to pick one word to describe the underlying logic of the universe it would be: indifference. Stories, though, are allergic to indifference.
Of course, the fact that human beings make stories can give stories utility—for humans. We may take inspiration from Frodo’s perseverance or Mr Polly’s courage, from Odysseus’s wiliness or Hermione’s cleverness when we face challenges of our own. We can console ourselves that our broken hearts can mend, that everything happens for a reason, because our stories tell us that these things come to pass. It’s probably not true, but it may be useful. Still: how much story to mix-in to our everyday common-sense engagement with the barely-tractable matter of existence is a ticklish question. Too little and we will grow disaffected with the indifference of the universe; too much and we lose touch with reality.
Adam Roberts muses upon the role of Story in human affairs, in the context of Christopher Priest’s new joint An American Story, which sounds like it needs adding to the ever-more-Jenga-like babel of my TBR pile.
If people don’t have the conceptual mechanisms in place to understand how narrative is created and employed to manipulate, then the better the fake, the more susceptible and increasingly large segment of the population becomes to this kind of attack. Maybe this kind of media literacy should be the domain of primary-school education not art-activism, but here we are. This is where I personally would focus. Not even deploying this as an attack strategy, in the first place simply as defence. Helping people to better understand how narrative is weaponized against them, and providing them with the critical tools to be able to spot a narrative being manipulated or manufactured against them, regardless of how deep the fake is. What is the plot? What is the motive, where are the incentives? People can’t be attacked in this way if they can see it coming.
Sjef Van Gaalen on strategies for resistance in the war of narratives. If you think we’re at some sort of peak regarding weaponised bullshit right now, you’re sorely mistaken. Get literate, quickly, and then help others learn.
Like nightmares, dystopias have a certain hermetically sealed quality. By their nature, they are inescapable—a dystopia you can escape from is not a dystopia, it is the third hour of Love, Actually. The circumstances that create any brave, new world simultaneously cauterize its edges and destroy memories of the world before. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, as near as Winston can recall, “He had first heard mention of Big Brother… at some time in the sixties, but it was impossible to be certain. In the Party histories, Big Brother figured as the leader and guardian of the Revolution since its very earliest days. His exploits had been gradually pushed backwards in time until already they extended into the fabulous world of the forties and the thirties, when the capitalists in their strange cylindrical hats still rode through the streets of London… ” To an extent, this is also how history works, as unlikely ephemera like Donald Trump fluke their way into awful existence and, in doing so, retroactively annihilate our former, lingering sense of other possibilities. For instance: remember when it seemed inevitable we’d have our first female president? Remember when public racism resulted in an exile from public life? Remember when we still had a functioning EPA? Disasters are amnesiac in nature.
… the best, maybe only, way of resisting dystopias, is to keep in mind that it was not always thus. What has happened is an aberration, and the world worked a different way for a very long time. Dystopias—fictional and real—are perhaps unavoidable, but not irreversible. The cliché goes that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Maybe it would be truer simply to say that those who forget the past are doomed.
Adam O’Fallon Price at The Paris Review. Not entirely sure he isn’t himself somehow relocating an uncritical liberal utopia to the past in this piece — in fact, I’m fairly sure he is doing so, though perhaps unwittingly, and that’s just as big a mistake as dytopianism — but the point about the amnesia of disasters is solid, and says something quietly profound (and profoundly disturbing) about our experience of temporality. Guy Debord might implicate the Spectacle in this phenomenon, and I’d be very willing to back him up on it.