Too many of us just haven’t been paying attention
By Bryan Merchant
“Trump’s American dystopia has reached a new and ominous cliff,” warns a CNN opinion headline. “The last two and a half months in America have felt like the opening montage in a dystopian film about a nation come undone,” writes New York Times columnist Michele Goldberg, in describing the images of militarized police storming U.S. cities to put down protests in the days following George Floyd’s murder, which came on the heels of two months of pandemic, panic, and widespread economic collapse. A very popular post published elsewhere on Medium was titled, bluntly, “America is a Dystopia.”
There is a lot of dystopia talk getting tossed around right now, for reasons that probably seem obvious. Those images we’ve all spent hours staring at on Twitter and cable TV — the military vehicles patrolling suburban streets, the lines of tactical vested officers cordoned around the Lincoln Memorial, the scenes of tear gas blurring flames as masked protesters clash with armed police — match up reasonably well with the aesthetics and broad strokes of a genre that we’ve spent the last 10 years staring at on Netflix and the other channels on cable TV.
But this is not “Trump’s American dystopia.” It is the continued, if inflamed, dystopian state of play as it has laid for centuries. The montage of horrors did not begin only a few months ago or when a cohort of privileged observers suddenly became aghast at the SWAT howitzers and brutal policing tactics when they were seen on suburban streets.
Years of toothless and profitable pop culture dystopias have primed consumers to ignore race, helping to obscure the fact that the real dystopia arrived long ago.
Comparing America to a dystopia has become something of a national pastime.
If we wanted to get pithy about it, we might say that the 2010s were the dystopia decade, a period that saw both the rise of dystopia as a reliably profitable and uniform entertainment format in mass culture and what appeared to be the IRL manifestation of the images and tropes the genre broadcast by decade’s end. The Hunger Games rose to dominate box offices and spawned a follow-on flotilla of similarly shaped YA dystopian fare. Black Mirror mainstreamed a visual mode of bleak cynicism about technology, and critical darlings like Ex Machina, Her, and Mad Max: Fury Road made apocalypses brought about by artificial intelligence and climate change palatable for the intelligentsia. Meanwhile, Blade Runner, RoboCop, Starship Troopers, and Children of Men became frequent touchstones. Partly because they are good films that offered prescient cultural and political commentary, and partly because their visuals provide handy fodder for comparative screen-grabbing on social media while we’re watching high-tech police forces brutalize popular uprisings, climate change-fueled wildfires spread across cityscapes, and A.I. take on alarming new dimensions, like being racist.
As a result, comparing America to a dystopia has become something of a national pastime; a recurring op-ed framework, a subgenre of Twitter commentary — especially during crisis points and moments of mass upheaval.
But what are we actually talking about when we talk about “dystopia”? Gesturing towards a vague constellation of injustices set to the color palette of a “gritty” summer blockbuster and declaring it dystopian won’t cut it — for dystopia to be useful as a cautionary tool for avoiding bad futures, we need to understand exactly what the ingredients setting a society on the road to ruin are. As it stands, much of the modern dystopian discourse seems content to position dystopia as something that is bad, with an air of futurity. To quote Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s famous mocking of Black Mirror: “What if phones, but too much.” What if high-tech cops, what if sea level rise, etc.
“The adjective dystopian implies fearful futures where chaos and ruin prevail,” writes Gregory Claeys, a historian and professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of Dystopia: A Natural History. Though in a historical and literary sense, he says, dystopia most commonly describes “a regime defined by extreme coercion, inequality, imprisonment, and slavery.”
Because its most popular touchstones are science fiction, modern dystopia discourse tends to fixate on profit- or warfare-accelerating technologies — digital surveillance, facial recognition, automation software, drones, technologized weapons — and their capacity to serve the wealthy and powerful in a time of ecological collapse, health crises, and/or widening inequality. Our current moment fits the bill. The coronavirus, mass unemployment, and police brutality against a racial justice uprising are unfolding to the backdrop of SpaceX rocket launches and tech billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos rapidly expanding their wealth.
When I noted on Twitter that the SpaceX launch was sending astronauts on a for-profit trip into space as a surge of protests swept the country, it struck a chord. Many responded by comparing the events to Elysium, the 2013 Neill Blomkamp film about a future where the poor toil and swelter on Earth while the wealthy live in luxury in a space station that orbits above the Terran rabble.
Others pointed to the great Gil Scott Heron song, “Whitey’s On the Moon.” The musician and poet released it in 1970, one year after the NASA moon landing, which was itself one year after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination provoked a mass nationwide uprising, perhaps the last at a scale comparable to the one we’re seeing today.
Some of the lyrics:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)
That song was recorded a half-century ago, yet the plight remains the same. It was the same in 1993, when Octavia Butler, in her own magisterial dystopia, Parable of the Sower, set in a mostly Black community in Southern California in the apocalyptic 2020s, described the news of the death of a Mars explorer as eliciting the following reaction: “People here in the neighborhood are saying she had no business going to Mars, anyway. All that money wasted on another crazy space trip when so many people here on earth can’t afford water, food, or shelter.”
Billionaires can afford to send payloads into orbit, to explore space for science and for profit, but we cannot afford to provide health care to the poor or even basic racial equality. That’s what too many of us are missing when we talk about dystopia.
As comparatively radical as a dystopia like Elysium (or, say, Snowpiercer) is — in terms of summer blockbusters, anyway — its critique is limited to class. It glosses over race. It’s Matt Damon versus Sharlto Copley and Jodi Foster and the other white orbital techno-authoritarians. Take a scan through any of the most popular dystopian cinema products of the last decade or so, and you’ll find the same thing; matters of race are omitted almost entirely from the big screen eschatologies. Not only are the genre’s prime exports — Hunger Games, Divergent, Blade Runner, Elysium, RoboCop, the list goes on — written and directed by white people, the protagonists, actors, and even antagonists are nearly uniformly white. And despite many of these being imagined, written, and made in a nation whose founding arrangement was the most dystopian system conceivable, race is never even a component of the conversation in mainstream dystopian cinema, much less what the uprisings are predicated upon. Even the Handmaid’s Tale, which exploded in the wake of Trump’s misogyny-lined ascendency to the presidency, relegates any matter of racial politics deep into the background.
The most influential dystopia of the 21st century, I would argue, is not ‘1984,’ but ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ which alone is responsible for a generation of greed-is-good Republican policymaking.
Angelica Jade Bastién points all this out in “Why Don’t Dystopias Know How to Talk About Race?”, where she explains how this in effect allows white viewers to cosplay as the oppressed, without actually interrogating in any meaningful way what oppression might actually entail or who gets oppressed and why.
“Race is relegated to inspiration, coloring the towering cityscapes of these worlds, while the white characters toil under the hardships that Brown and Black people experience acutely in real life,” Bastién writes. “In this way, dystopias become less fascinating thought experiments or vital warnings than escapades in which white people can take on the constraints of what it means to be the other.”
And in so doing, these popular dystopias appropriate the other’s struggles while conveniently ignoring the actual roots of said struggle. I do still think there’s utility in dystopias and trying to heed their warnings, but only if we recognize what’s being warned against, and only, especially, if we manage to understand that many of the looming “dystopias” perceived by more affluent entertainment consumers have been the realities of plenty of communities who have faced deep inequalities, technologized surveillance, and state oppression for generations already.
There’s a tweet that’s gone viral a number of times over the dystopian decade, each time in slightly different variation. Its most recent iteration came just this January, before the pandemic and the uprising came to dominate dystopia discourse:
White dystopia fanboys like me, pundits, columnists, and social media users need to get this through our skulls. To invert a notorious quote attributed to William Gibson, the dystopia has always been here; it just hasn’t been evenly distributed.
The “dystopia” lens too often fixes conditions like those — heavily policed communities, invasive surveillance, state oppression — in the future, and it glosses over the realities of the present and the long histories of oppression of Black communities and bodies, plenty of which was technologically abetted. The writer Anthony Walton noted in a 1999 Atlantic piece, “Technology Versus African Americans,” that from “the caravel to the cotton gin, technological innovation has made things worse for Blacks.” Western technologies, he writes, formed the infrastructure that gave rise to Black slavery:
Arab and African slave traders exchanged their human chattels for textiles, metals, and firearms, all products of Western technological wizardry, and those same slavers used guns, vastly superior to African weapons of the time, in wars of conquest against those tribes whose members they wished to capture… The slave wars and trade were only the first of many encounters with Western technology to prove disastrous for people of African descent. In the United States, as in South America and the Caribbean, the slaves were themselves the technology that allowed Europeans to master the wilderness.
What better fits Claeys description of dystopia — “a regime defined by extreme coercion, inequality, imprisonment, and slavery” — than actual chattel slavery? America was founded as a dystopia.
Yet for white and affluent consumers, the constant generation of novel and fantastic apocalyptic scenarios serves to extend the horizon for the arrival of the hellish conditions contained in dystopia — if oppression is a nebulous but ever-approaching threat, it’s perpetually obscured, lifted away into a sub-fictional ether. It needs not be interrogated, not now, anyway. Which is how power prefers it.
That’s the other thing about dystopia: In many of its guises, it’s a plainly conservative enterprise. The most influential dystopia of the 21st century, I would argue, is not 1984, but Atlas Shrugged, which alone is responsible for a generation of greed-is-good Republican policymaking. The 600,000-page book, which I have (regrettably) read, positions a handful of great white men and women as the only thing keeping society together and inveighs against the millions of working-class “moochers” with a barely veiled racist subtext. (Its author was also openly racist.) Many dystopias are less flagrant but similarly conservative: They highlight the fear that we might all end up like the poor unwashed masses if we are not careful to uphold the social order, not the fear that the poor might never be liberated. And that, in fact, includes the ur-dystopia.
“Visions of the apocalypse are at least as old as 1000 B.C.,” according to the dystopian historian Claeys. “The triumph of chaos over order defined the Egyptian ‘Prophecies of Neferti’ foretold the complete breakdown of society.” In it, the “great no longer rule the land,’ the ‘slaves will be exalted.’” The first dystopia, in other words, was a cautionary tale for the haves against sliding into the world of the have-nots. It’s hard not to shake that vibe from a lot of the Twitter commentariat, pointing at the protests from afar, going “man it’s so dystopian” and moving on to whatever the central animating conflict is in their own personal heroic narratives.
There are still useful deployments of dystopian language — it can certainly be effective shorthand for “this is fucked in a new way, pay attention.” A good example is this series of viral tweets that chronicle a day of peaceful protest where demonstrators were in turn greeted with the creepy electrified visage of Gov. Andrew Cuomo on a towering billboard, beaming down the newly instated curfew. A couple hours later, many protesters would be beaten.
And dystopias can still jolt the politically uninvolved to wake up — this podcaster even pointed to Elysium as an entry point into radical politics. But the surfeit of commentary that amounts to “wow, this is like Blade Runner send tweet” needs an upgrade. White viewers like me need to rethink and reevaluate what it means to watch and read popular dystopian fiction, how those products are shaping our perspectives and critiques of the futures and what they’re missing. And many more Black voices clearly need to be added to the mainstream canon and the broader discussion — there’s tons of great Black dystopian fiction; Dhalgren by Samuel Delany, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, Zone One by Colson Whitehead, pretty much anything by Ishmael Reed. Who Fears Death is in development for a TV series, which is a start, but these voices need to be better foregrounded and made central to modern dystopia discourse.
A lack of diversity has been a problem in science fiction since the genre’s inception, and it persists. When I went to the Nebulas, a high-profile sci-fi awards conference last year, attendees were overwhelmingly white. The fact that Octavia Butler’s magisterial Parable of the Sower — a dystopia that actually and skillfully manages to interrogate climate change, total economic collapse, privatization, and racist oppression — is somehow not a film or a limited series yet is as scathing an indictment of Hollywood’s insistence on whitewashing dystopias as anything. The book absolutely rips.
This is not to disparage anyone who feels like they’re living in a certain kind of almost-future hell. The number of people who genuinely experience the world as an impending or current dystopia is almost certainly rising in tandem with trends of still-increasing inequality. A decade of jobless recovery ended in 2019 with the highest levels of income inequality in 50 years, and record numbers of people of all backgrounds, even whites, are sliding into poverty and despair, and our encounters with climate change, technological surveillance, conservatism’s hard drift toward authoritarianism, and all of the above being increasingly mediated through digital devices. Our current socioeconomic system is now ideally structured to be a dystopian protagonist generator. It is rewarding elites with unprecedented wealth and luxury, equipping the agents of the state with increasingly advanced weapons and technology, exacerbating ecological collapse, and positioning us all to experience the devastation alone, blinking into a screen, hoping for tiny units of validation from a pithy comment or two about the state of the morass on social media. It is us versus [gestures wildly] all of that, out there.
Which makes it all the more imperative that white fans, pundits, and observers stop ignoring what it has historically meant to experience actual dystopian conditions. It means acknowledging and working to improve the material conditions for those who are surviving the current iteration, and not glibly waving off dystopia as some always-approaching, faceless Empire without zeroing in on the nation’s institutional prejudices, its targets for violence, its specific hatreds. It means we have to stop LARPing in appropriated fictions. It means understanding that this has always been a dystopia — and that those who have always resisted it are at the center of the story.